Your lover is ugly and doesn’t exist

December 4th, 2006

Richard DawkinsYour lover is ugly; how could you fail to see these hideous scars? And what about this appalling history of violence? The early and recurrent madness? Of course, your family, friends and neighbours are all deluded too. Finally, and worst of all, your lover, the centre of your world, is really just a figment of your imagination.

Sound familiar? It’s the standard approach taken by books extolling atheism. And we wonder why the news doesn’t go down so well!

In Breaking The Spell, Dan Dennett speculates that religious devotion is a form of love. Certain religions may be happy with this view, after all, does not God reciprocate with his love for you too? But Dennett is looking to explain the tenacious pathology of sincere unfounded belief in the non-existent, not to inspire a warm fuzzy hug-in. To an evolutionary psychologist, love’s use is as the mental character encouraging long monogamous relationships so slow-growing and vulnerable human children may be looked after by a single pair of adults. Of course, even a psychologist knows that the experience of loving another may be wonderful, mysterious and rich; evolutionary explanations add knowledge to the experiential side without subtracting from it. The ubiquitous love of imaginary beings, some argue, is just a misdirected side effect of our ability to love real people.

Whether or not a religious person is in any meaningful way truly in love with God, faith certainly shares similar deeply held features with love such as partisanship, exclusivity and comforting blindness to logic (no, your lover isn’t the most beautiful or intelligent person in the world). So it is hardly surprising that when we atheists try to break the news to religious folk that they are misguided star-struck fools we get a prickly response. Not only are we telling people that the object of their love doesn’t exist and that everything that they think is important to them is absurd and dangerous, we are also explaining that they cannot or should not ever love in this way again.

View Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion at is the problem facing Dawkins in The God Delusion. He is passionate about his cause, and means so well, wanting to pull the wool from people’s eyes to help them see the truth, but his method is to use reason and logic to hammer home all the faults of faith. Just as some people cannot see a world outside their scripture, Dawkins never looks outside his monistic mechanistic metaphysic. As obvious and beautiful as it may seem to him, not everyone is persuaded by this view or holds it as their implicit ontology. On their own terms, scientific evidence, reason and logic do create an overwhelming case against religions, but their use is somewhat begging the question; if people were reasonable and logical to begin with they wouldn’t latch on so emotionally to those arbitrary stories from their childhood.

When pushed into a corner by one damned argument after another people either slam up their defensive armour or they blast out with their fists flailing. Thus the claims that Dawkins knows nothing about religion or that he is an arrogant fundamentalist. At the extreme end he is, of course, the spawn of Satan himself.

View Dan Dennett's Breaking The Spell at is aware of this problem but wastes so much time in his book trying to cautiously smooth the fears of any religious readers brave enough to peer inside it that he ends up being boring, before solidly whacking them with the cold steel of scientific logic in any case.

Guys, your books are great, but people just aren’t religious for logical reasons. They don’t sit down and look for a satisfactory explanation for the scientific laws of The Universe, weigh up the pros & cons of various scriptures, and then decide to become a Jain or a Zoroastrian (even if they were allowed to be). Unlike scientists they don’t often think or care about “The Universe” that much. From a scientific or philosophically naturalist viewpoint religions appear bizarre, arbitrary and irrational, but harping on about that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Few of us, if any, hold a fully coherent and non-contradictory set of beliefs, and this doesn’t worry us at all.

Tufyal Choudhury explored this area amusingly at the British Museum on Friday night. Looking for an explanation for why so many younger generation Bengalis in the UK are turning to more assertive forms of Islam he offered the suggestion that it was a way to get back at their parents. As first generation immigrants the parents were often economically marginalised (er.. poor) and so seen as weak, and for many their defining battle was for Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan in 1971, a separation that the commonality of religion between the two regions was too feeble or irrelevant to prevent. Becoming a pious Muslim gives you a power in the World, it taps into a structure of authority and purpose, it makes you someone. I found this funny, as I like the idea that becoming more Muslim is on a par with becoming a goth or a punk. If the rebel theory holds over time, then perhaps we need just wait a few years until the next generation of recalcitrant UK/Bengali kids start turning to atheism.

Whether or not he is correct in his claims, the point is that Choudhury is taking the right approach. Faith is a personal thing, with psychological, cultural, social, political and even economic reasons for existing. Certain clerics may build elaborate post-hoc logical filigree premised upon the foundational tenets of their faith, but that’s just their job; it adds to the perceived grandeur of their institutions just like using more gold leaf or commissioning another statue. Any logical constructions built by the larger religions are very much secondary to their psychological core services.

The real function of the pro-atheism books is not so much to persuade the religious to change sides but instead to strengthen and empower the existing atheists. In the UK, where religion isn’t as pervasive as in certain other countries many non-believers are simply atheist by default. These books may help turn mild “don’t care for or about religion” types into more passionate and informed defenders of the lack-of-faith.

Until 9.11 the most important political reason for countering religious power was the rise of the American Christian right. I still think this is the most dangerous religious force in the World, since the US is such an unhelpfully active military power. But the Christian encroachment on the White House was slow and steady, no single event jolted atheists into thinking that they couldn’t continue to coexist (though separately) with believers, after all, being nice may often trump being right. It was the spectacular and dramatic terrorist events committed in the name of Islam that awoke the proselytising side of atheists, and that made religion into a news item.

The irony of this is that this stupid, evil, terrorism may be a greater force for turning some people away from God (just as it convinces its supporters of the power of their faith) than all the patient, precise, and reasonable logical arguments laid down in books. I don’t know where the next force against faith will come from but I doubt that logic will be involved; a major celebrity reporting an atheist miracle, perhaps?

5 responses

  1. justforfun comments:

    Thortz – came here from PP., and its good to read an blog that is written for the ‘amature’ atheist as opposed to the philisophical ‘professional’ atheist 🙂

    The above is a thought provoking piece, and as you alude, the discussion between an aetheist and a deeply religious person are on differnt planes, which is what one can expect, however even discussions between aetheists and lapsed devotees can get difficult. Your identification of their ‘love’ of a religion is probably a factor is not something I had thought about before.

    I tend to avoid the religious discussions on Pickled Politics because they are really about cultures and not actual religions, although Jai always posts something on Sikhism which I read. Its difficult to have a conversation when people can’t seperate out the two.

    A small correction , if you forgive me. Zoroastrianism , as Zoroaster promulgated, is very simple philosophy that is open to all. It is Parsi Orthopraxy of Zoroastrianism that is not open to converts. If fact it is through Christianity and Parsi Orthopraxy, then finally Zoroatrianism that I came through to being an atheist. A strange way perhaps , but actually for me, quite a logical conclusion with out any angst about shedding ones faith but still retain ones spirituality. In fact it was a blessed relief. But thats another story.


  2. thortz comments:

    Thanks for the comment and the clarification on my somewhat arbitrary picking on the Zoroastrians, you’re right; I was thinking of a Parsi friend when I wrote that.

    Sounds like you had an interesting journey, I hope you’re happy with where you are now.

  3. Matt V comments:

    “Religion is a personal thing”
    If only that were so. Then maybe so many innocent people would not be killed and tortured in the name of whatever “personal” religion he or she professes to with only faith as their warcry – while at the same timing downing the other persons as evil.
    The ideas that richard Dawkins makes at the very beginning of this book should be enough for any intelligent religious person to think twice about their faith – namely:

    1) If a western christian were to be born in a muslim country they would hold an entirely different set of beliefs- think that through for yourself and try to deny it – your belief is a product of your parents belief coupled with your environment – nothing more, feel free to discuss this with yourself.

    2) If your religion is bible based then you owe it to yourself to take a look at the ridiculous number of flaws, contradictions, omittances and known falsifications that exist in and around it. Don’t take your rel;igion for granted blindly. If I hear the phrase ‘thats why it is called faith’ i immediately hear the phrase ‘but I love him’ given in response to the question of why a woman stays with her violent husband. Love isn’t enough, faith isn’t enough. You are not stupid people so have faith in all you want, but not blind faith that leads to blind violence, torture and death.

    You religious people have faith that god gave you a brain to think, but you make a mockery of your own beliefs by using it to become an unthinking slave and not using it to test your own beliefs. Slaves that have been the cause of millions of dead and still-suffering people – that involves everyone on earth.

  4. thortz comments:

    Hi Matt, I’m not sure whether you’re addressing me here; if so, you seem to have failed to notice that I’m also an atheist. Perhaps you’re talking past me to “you religious people” who may be visiting.

    My piece is a reflection on why bare science and logic don’t often persuade religious people to lose their faith. I’m saying that this is because emotions are in the driving seat. Your post demonstrates that emotions may be in the foreground for some atheists too.

    Violence and oppression in the name of religion are all too common and are to be condemned wholeheartedly. However, there are many acts of violence in which religion plays little part (from simple muggings to the horrific genocide in Rwanda), and most religious people (like the rest of us) are just trying to live their lives peacefully as best they can.

    I am well aware of the points that you mention (the lottery of birth, the contradictions in scripture) and of countless other arguments against religion. Our problem is that many religious people are also aware of these arguments but do not find them efficacious. My post was trying to offer an explanation for this.

  5. Chen comments:

    I came to this site following your post of the wordpress template 🙂

    As a chinese Christian, I always find it interesting to see you ‘westerners’ trying so hard to defend your ‘faith’ – believer or not. And so easily those arguments lead to anger and violence, when the very core of any main religion is to ‘Love’. Heh. people really don’t appreciate what they have.

    Wonder what Dawkin will say to my very athiest country. A better future if communist party conquer the world? 😛

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