Why calling theism “primitive superstition” shows primitive understanding.

Posted on January 19, 2013 By

“In the history of science, ever since the famous trial of Galileo, it has repeatedly been claimed that scientific truth cannot be reconciled with the religious interpretation of the world. Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on. Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”

Werner Heisenberg, the 1932 Nobel Prize winner in physics for the creation of quantum mechanics (which is absolutely crucial to modern science).


“This much I can say with definiteness – namely, that there is no scientific basis for the denial of religion – nor is there in my judgment any excuse for a conflict between science and religion, for their fields are entirely different. Men who know very little of science and men who know very little of religion do indeed get to quarreling, and the onlookers imagine that there is a conflict between science and religion, whereas the conflict is only between two different species of ignorance.”

Robert Andrews Millikan, the 1923 Nobel Prize winner in physics for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect.


An old joke tells of a shopkeeper who sold everything in his store below cost:
“How can you stay in business?” someone asked. “Aren’t you losing money on every sale?”
“Sure I am,” he replied, “but I make it up on volume!”

As inadvisable as this strategy sounds, it is very similar to that employed by the “new atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. When one surveys the writings of these “new atheists,” it soon becomes clear that such individuals think they can compensate for the logical inadequacy of their arguments by using a high volume of forceful and strident rhetoric. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his atheist diatribe titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion….”

Before one even begins to examine the logic of Hitchens’ views, one should take note of the red flag that exists in his frequent use of strident rhetorical terms such as “bawling”, “fearful infancy”, “babyish” and “infantile.” What do I mean by this? A logically coherent argument does not need to rely on rhetoric for support. Rather, such strident rhetoric is a crutch that one uses to compensate for the weakness of a viewpoint that cannot be supported by sheer logic.

For example, how often do you suppose Einstein found it necessary to insult his critics when he was discussing his Theory of Relativity? Answer:  Not very often…because Einstein was fully confident in the logical force of his theory. And when an atheist such as Hitchens finds it necessary to make no fewer than four references to belief in God as babyish—in the span of a single sentence—one can safely assume that he does so because he is (at least subconsciously) aware of the logical inadequacy of his views. Much as a nervous tick made by a poker player serves as a “tell” that he is holding a weak hand, the frequent use of strident rhetoric serves as a “tell” that an atheist is trying to prop up a weak argument because it can’t stand up on its own with the strength of its logic.

Hitchens’ logic commits what is sometimes referred to as “the Enlightenment Fallacy.” This logical fallacy holds that reason and science are the only means that humans have for accessing truth. Dinesh D’Souza does a superb job of dismantling this fallacy in his book What’s So Great About Christianity:

“The Enlightenment fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, gain access to and eventually comprehend the whole of reality.”

D’Souza cites the logic of Immanuel Kant, who is widely regarded to be the foremost philosopher of the modern era. Kant revolutionized our understanding of what it means to know when he distinguished between the world as it actually exists in its totality (the noumenal domain) and a the world as we experience it (the phenomenal domain). D’Souza writes:

“Consider a tape recorder. A tape recorder, being the kind of instrument it is, can capture only one mode or aspect of reality: sound. Tape recorders, in this sense, can ‘hear’ but they cannot see or touch or smell. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are beyond the reach of a tape recorder. The same, Kant says, is true of human beings. We can apprehend reality only through our five senses. If a tape recorder apprehends reality in a single mode, human beings can perceive reality in five different modes: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. There is no other way for us to experience reality. We cannot, for example, perceive reality through sonar in the way that a bat does. Our senses place absolute limits on what reality is available to us. Moreover, the reality we apprehend is not reality in itself. It is merely our experience or ‘take’ on reality.”

“…Kant points out, however, that we can never compare our experience of reality to reality itself. All we have is the experience, and that’s all we can ever have. We only have the copies, but we never have the originals. Moreover, the copies come to us through the medium of our senses, while the originals exist independently of our means of perceiving them. So we have no basis for inferring that the two are even comparable, and when we presume that our experience corresponds to reality, we are making an unjustified leap. We have absolutely no way to know this.”

“…The important thing is not to establish which is more real [the noumenal or phenomenal domain], but to recognize that human reason operates only in the phenomenal domain of experience. We can know that the noumenal realm exists, but beyond that we can know nothing about it. Human reason can never grasp reality itself.”

Indeed, the atheist reasoning which reflexively equates belief in the supernatural with superstition arises from a failure to recognize the distinction between reality as we are able to perceive it with our five senses (phenomenal) and reality in its totality (noumenal). Belief in the supernatural is no more “woo-woo” than the concept that our five senses only provide access to a thin slice of reality. Our ability to perceive only a thin slice of reality is well known to physicists. Physicist Lisa Randall writes: “We are in this three-dimensional flatland…Our world is stuck in this three-dimensional universe, although extra dimensions exist. So we live in a three-dimensional slice of a higher-dimensional world.”

D’Souza also points out that Kant was a recognized scientist and mathematician who did not in any way disparage science. Rather, Kant merely pointed out that science can only be applied to the world as we can experience it with our five senses (phenomenal domain) rather than to the world as it exists in its totality (noumenal domain).

The Enlightenment Fallacy is committed by atheists such as Hitchens anytime they assert that science provides direct access to the world as it exists in its totality (noumenal domain) and that there is no way to access truth other than through the senses.

The Enlightenment Fallacy is committed by atheists such as Hitchens anytime they assert that science provides direct access to the world as it exists in its totality (noumenal domain) and that there is no way to access truth other than through the senses.

Keith Ward is a retired Professor of Philosophy from Kings College in London, and a member of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He makes a point similar to that of D’Souza in his book Is Religion Irrational?

“In the fourth century BC, Plato made a distinction, fundamental to most philosophical systems, between appearance and reality. This distinction opens up the possibility that there is a deeper reality underlying the world as it appears to our senses. We know things as they appear to us. But those appearances depend upon the specific nature of our sense organs, the wavelengths that we are able to perceive, the cones of our eyes that are sensitive to specific wavelengths, the electrochemical impulses that convey information to our brains, and the visual areas of our brains that turn those wavelengths into the colours that we observe. The world of solid coloured three-dimensional objects that we perceive is in fact a construct of our perceptual equipment and of our minds.”

Examples of knowledge which science is unable to access (because our five senses are unable to access), but which most people nevertheless accept as true, are abundant. This sort of knowledge is known as revelatory knowledge or revelation. Following is one such example of revelatory knowledge gleaned from a recent news story: It is morally wrong to walk into a kindergarten class with an assault rifle and shoot children. All reasonable and sane people accept the truth of this premise, but the truth of this premise does not come to us from a measurement and analysis of the data that we are provided through our five senses (science). Quite plainly, science has no means whatsoever for evaluating the truth of this premise. How could science do so? With a chemistry or biology experiment? And if the truth of this premise did not come to us through science, then where did it come from? From revelation.  (Those wishing to argue that moral beliefs evolved are directed to my essay titled Why Atheism Is Self-Defeating, where this argument is refuted).

Ward continues with a discussion of revelation:

“Those who accept that the later prophetic teaching is an advance in thought and in religious understanding will see revelation as progressive. It does not come as one clear and definitive set of truths from God, which humans just have passively to accept. Just as human knowledge of the physical world develops, so does understanding of revelation. At first humans have a very defective understanding of the physical world, not realizing that there are laws of nature, not knowing anything at all about atoms and electrons, and no doubt positing many totally false theories about how things work. Yet there is a physical world there, and they obviously know something about it, even though they do not understand it very well. We can expect that the same is true of knowledge of God. Humans know something about a spiritual reality – that it exists, that it has causal power, that it is concerned with human welfare, and that it is not physical –but they begin with a very defective understanding of it. They have many false beliefs about it – that there are many gods at war with one another, and that the gods can be bribed with gifts. One way to view this is to say that the one true God is always present and active, but that God’s acts have to be interpreted by human minds, which begin from ignorance and misunderstanding, and only slowly learn more through painful experience.”

“God acts to reveal, and what God does cannot be incorrect. But human minds must receive revelation, and what human minds do is very often incorrect or inadequate. So my suggestion is this: all revelation is interpreted revelation, and human interpretations are very rarely completely adequate. God continually seeks to overcome such human inadequacies, but that process is gradual.”

And atheists such as Hitchens are fond of pointing to outmoded concepts of God as evidence that belief in God is a “primitive superstition.” For example, the ancient Greeks portrayed the god Zues as throwing lightning bolts with his hands. Since science has shown that lightning bolts are produced by electricity, and not thrown by a deity with his hands—argue atheists—there is no need for God in the explanation of what causes lightning. But does demonstrating that there is no need for a deity to throw lightning bolts also demonstrate that there is no need for a deity anywhere in the phenomenon of lightning? No, because the phenomenon of thunder and lightning is ultimately traceable back to physical/natural laws and science is not equipped to discern where physical/natural laws come from or who or what enforces these laws.

The above mentioned atheist reasoning further falls apart when one realizes that human understanding of both God and the natural world develops in a process that is both progressive and never complete. And, unfortunately for atheists who cite outmoded concepts of God as evidence that belief in God is a superstition, this reasoning would also necessarily imply that outmoded scientific concepts are evidence that science is a superstition.

Lynn Margulis (a recently deceased Professor of Biology from Oxford University and the University of Massachusetts, who won the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science) points out the progressive, yet never complete nature of scientific description in her book What Is Life?:

“…science is asymptotic. It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.”

“Asymptotic” is an adjective form of the noun “asymptote” which is defined as “a line that continually approaches a given curve, but does not meet it at any finite distance.” And to understand what Margulis is driving at when she states that science always approaches, but never arrives at truth, one only need review the history of science:

Margulis provides the examples of astrology providing the origins for astronomy, and alchemy (which involved trying to turn such metals as lead into gold) providing the origins for chemistry…but there are many more examples. Before Einstein, it was assumed by scientists that light waves needed a medium to travel through (much as sound waves travel through the medium of air). Belief in this medium (known as “luminiferous aether”) was virtually unanimous within the scientific community of the time. As another example, the scientific community used to embrace the “miasma theory of disease ” which said that diseases were transmitted by “bad air.” A more exhaustive list is available at a Wikipedia post titled Superseded Scientific Theories.

It must be emphasized that none of this is meant to disparage science. Rather, it is to demonstrate that (like revelatory knowledge) scientific knowledge is progressive, never complete, and subject to being described with inadequate human concepts. Further, scientific knowledge only applies to the phenomenal domain of our five senses, not to reality in its totality (the noumenal domain) and therefore can never render belief in God outmoded.

Atheistic reasoning which judges belief in God to be a “primitive superstition superseded by science” is a “species of ignorance” (in the words of Robert Andrews Millikan, cited above this essay) which fails to understand the nature and limitations of scientific knowledge. How can the “new atheists” compensate for this? In the same way they always have…by continually repeating the tired assertion that “science does away with the need for God,” and therefore using repetition to make up on volume for their logical failings.


In my post titled Which God Is Real?, I demonstrate that the Judeo-Christian concept of God is common to a vast number of cultures throughout history…and therefore should be deemed revelatory knowledge.

  1. RATIONAL DUDE says:

    You like to point out the red flag raised by strident rhetoric, but I have a question: if a person refuses to listen to the sheer logic, would trivial amounts of rhetoric, to get them to stop sitting on their brains so they will actually listen be okay? Here’s an example from my own experience:
    Rational Dude: “As C.S. Lewis before me has observed, humans naturally desire certain things. We experience hunger, and there is such a thing as food, which satisfies this hunger. We experience thirst, and there is water to satisfy this as well. In like manner, we experience a God-shaped hole in our heart. It really makes no sense for this hole to exist; if Nature cannot fill this void, It would not have created this void. Hence, there must be a God Who fills this void.”
    I Got Bored 44: “This argument commits the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking. ‘Oh, I want God to exist, therefore God exists.’ What kind of nonsense is this that you believers hold to as evidence?”

    The fact is that anybody with half a brain should be able to see what is wrong with the criticism: people have needs, these needs can be filled. We have a need for a God, therefore, there must be a God to fill that need. It has nothing to do with whether we WANT God to exist or not, and many people who want God NOT to exist still experience this need.
    If a person makes so poor a criticism as THAT, surely using a small amount of rhetoric to show how dishonest the person is being would be allowed?
    Rational Dude: “You really didn’t pay any attention to what I said, did you? Thou fool! This has naught to do with WANTING God to exist, even people who hope contrariwise have the need. This is abductive reasoning, and God is the best of all known explanations for what we observe.”

  2. Dan UK says:

    A truly excellent article Scott, very well written and researched and I enjoyed reading it.

    You touched upon an issue which as a Christian and a rational human being (not an Oxymoron!) I feel very strongly about which is the staggering level of ignorance and pure vitriol the New Atheists often demonstrate, which sadly goes largely unpunishedand. Men like Dawkins and Harris persistently claim to be the knights of reason and logic against the evils of faith, which is strong and effective rhetoric as who would want to be the one on the side of reason and science? However what saddens me is that many read the God Delusion for example and accept the words of Dawkins et al. as law, without a) exploring the vast array of apologetics books available that defend the Christian faith with great effect, and b) being aware of the sheer nonsense and at times sheer falseness of some of the things they write. Now I’m not saying that they dont make good arguments, they do and that deserves credit, however there are a few things that the New Atheists have said that have deeply angered me and need correcting.

    Firstly, I find their knowledge of history at times staggeringly poor, if not non-existent. Now as much as Religious people and indeed Christians have done bad things in the name of their faith, and I’m not going to sit here and deny this as its true. However the New Atheists I believe have created constructed a myth that the vast majority of the worlds bloodshed, war and suffering is the direct result of religion. Now it is a fallacy to blame Christian Doctrine on religious wars as anyone who knows their theology will know that in Matthew 26 Jesus specifically tells us not to take up arms in his name in the Garden of Gethsemane, not to mention ‘love your enemies’. So to tarnish in short those who take up arms to defend Christ is simply not abiding by Christ’s teaching (Although needless to say the New Atheists seem to ignore this). However Anyone with a basic knowledge of history will know that it is simply untrue to claim to make the aforementioned claim that Religion is at fault for the majority of the worlds bloodshed. They commit historical intellectual suicide by reducing events such as the Crusades and the troubles of Northern Ireland to having a purely religious motive. Now clearly all had religious undercurrents, however the New Atheists either unwittingly or deliberately ignore the complex Socio-Political factors that underpin such events, and in the case of Northern Ireland (in my humble opinion) actually represented the primary reason for the conflict.

    The New Atheists also love to ignore the fact that more people have been murdered by Atheistic regimes (The Soviet Union, North Korea, Mau’s China, Pol Pot, The German Democratic Republic, arguably Nazi Germany, the list goes on) than as a result of religious wars or regimes. This is a fact. Not to mention that the American Civil War (1,030,000 casualties) First World War (Around 40,000,000 dead or missing) The Second World War (73,000,000 casualties) had secular non-religious causes. Richard Dawkins stated that he knows of no atheist who would pull down a Church (or words to that effect) well Richard, I’m afraid you clearly dont know your history Son. New Atheists also accuse Religion as inhibiting the progress of modern society and of setting Western Society back hundreds of years. Considering Western Europe’s prominent rise as an economic and political superpower in the middle ages occured under a religio-political society dominated by the Catholic Church (And I’m no Catholic!) such a claim is clearly misplaced. I really could go on and on and on (if I have’nt already!) about the New Atheists lack of historical-political knowledge, it is that worryingly poor.

    You mention Science in your article, now Richard Dawkins makes the impassioned, and again, the largely false claim that Religion hinders scientific progress. This, again, is embarassing. Modern Science as we know it began with theists seeking to explore God’s universe, and many of the earliest Universities had Christian roots. Furthermore some of the most prominent scientists in early Science were theists including Sir Isaac Newton. There is available online a long long list of Christian/theistic Scientists from the enlghtenment to the 21st century, including Nobel Prize winners, these were no amateurs. I think what really sums up the ignorance of the New Atheists is the fact that the theory of the expanding universe that is so widely cited by atheists, and Dawkins and friends use it many times I’m sure in their books, was in fact first proposed (and controversially and wrongly attributed to Hubble) by Georges Lemaitres, a Belgian Physicist, who was also a devout Roman Catholic Priest. But of course Dawkins will ignore such facts as if it disagrees with his point of view then it is by definition false or not worthy of mention.

    On a more serious note, I find Dawkins comparison of bringing up children in a relgious home and teaching them about heaven and hell as being worse than physical, sexual abuse quite frankly disgusting and unbelievably insensitive. You ask anyone who was unfortunate enough to be subject to such trauma and I can guarentee you that they would trade being abused physically and sexually for being taught about Hell without hesitation. The fact that Dawkins feels it is acceptable to use such an issue to points score over religion is simply repulsive and shows just how out of touch he really is.

    Believe me when I say it is not just theists who highlight such ignorance, the atheistic agnostic biologist Michael Ruse has described New Atheism as ‘unscientific’ and Peter Higgs, discoverer of the Higgs Bosun particle and himself not a believer, has described Dawkins as an ’embarassment’.

    Apologies for such a long comment, but as a Christian with a passion for History and Politics its vital that the historical ignorance and fabrications of the New Atheists is exposed before those without such historical knowledge read their books and take as fact their distortions of the truth. For a group of people who proclaim to be the defenders of reason, logic and facts, they demonstrate very little.

    P.S. Keep up the good work on this website, its great to see the other side of the debate heard with such coherence and knowledge and I hope it is appreciated and respected by both theists and atheists alike who are interested in reasonable, good natured debate.

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