Edge 209—May 1 , 2007
(9,500 words)


A Talk with Elaine Pagels

by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman


Gloria Origgi, Charles Leadbeater
on "Who Says We Know" By Larry Sanger


Are You There, God? It's Me, Hitchens
By Boris Kachka

Brains!: A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture
Daniel Engber, Slate Science Editor
lison Gopnik, George Johnson, John Horgan, Steven Pinker, Daniel Gilbert, Joshua Gilbert, Marc Hauser, Jiseph LeDoux

The DNA of Religious Faith
By David P. Barash

In The beginning

The Discover Interview: Marc Hauser

Bill O'Reilly Interviews Richard Dawkins

Brian Eno

A Talk with Elaine Pagels

Edge Video

This text sees Judas dying as a martyr—because here the other disciples hate him so much that they kill him! But the Gospel of Judas challenges the idea that God wants people to  die as martyrs—just as it challenges the idea that God wanted Jesus to die. Whoever wrote this gospel—and the author is anonymous—is challenging church leaders who teach that. It's as if an imam were to challenge the radical imams who encourage "martyrdom operations" and accuse them of complicity in murder—the Gospel of Judas shows "the twelve disciples"—stand-ins for church leaders—offering human sacrifice on the altar—and doing this in the name of Jesus! Conservative Christians hate gospels like this—usually call them fakes and the people who publish them (like us) anti Christian.  There was a great deal of censorship in the early Christian movement—especially after the emperor became a Christian, and made it the religion of the empire—and voices like those of this author were silenced and denounced as "heretics" and "liars." The story of Jesus was simplified and cleaned up—made "orthodox."

ELAINE PAGELS is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and has published widely on Gnosticism and early Christianity. Her latest book, coauthored with Karen King, in Reading Judas.



[Elaine Pagels:] The first time I heard of the Gospel of Judas was about five years ago, when I got a call from someone who said, I have a book for you to edit—the Gospel of Judas. That astonished me, since I knew that the "church father" Irenaeus had mentioned such a gospel nearly 2000 years ago, denouncing it as terrible blasphemy: but no one had ever seen it, or known whether it actually existed.

But this dealer in Cleveland was telling me he had it there. Was he telling the truth? I called the Met, the Getty, and the Frist to ask about him, and they told me that he is a reputable dealer who has important material—but when I called back he suddenly stopped answering the phone. I realized then what already had seemed likely—that the book had been stolen from Egypt, and could not be legally sold.

I located a man who often bought rare books from this dealer, and who also has given many of them to Princeton, hoping that he might buy the Gospel of Judas, give it to Princeton, and then return it formally to Egypt, which would legalize the arrangement. Then we could photograph and publish it—that was the plan.

So I went to Madison Square Garden to meet the dealer, and confronted him: "I'm Elaine Pagels, why won't you talk to me?" Startled, he explained what we had suspected—that the owner of the text had told him not to talk about it, since it had been bought illegally. He then invited me out to Cleveland to see it, and I went, and looked at it. And there was the title—"The Gospel of Judas" in Coptic—and then he showed me the following five pages—which turned out to be five pages of rather uninteresting Coptic text. So I said, Okay, well, they've hyped it, they were hoping to get fifteen million dollars—it's not what they said.

But when suddenly it resurfaced last year, and I was asked to be on the advisory committee presenting it publicly, I learned what had happened: the dealer didn't realize that when you have a Greek or Coptic text, the title is often placed at the end of the text. It turns out that the previous 26 pages were the actual Gospel of Judas—a fascinating  dialogue between Jesus and Judas about what happened when Judas handed Jesus over for arrest—and why he did it. Startlingly, this gospel presents Judas Iscariot as Jesus' favorite disciple, the only one whom he trusts with his deepest mysteries. And all the other disciples appear as people who completely missed the message of Jesus, and entirely distorted it—and this is what has come down to us as "Christianity."

Many people see the main message of Jesus as "Jesus died for your sins"—and see Jesus' death as a sacrifice God requires to forgive human sins. This gospel asks, What does that make of God? Is he a bloodthirsty pagan god who demands human sacrifice? The God of Abraham prevented Abraham from offering his son as a sacrifice—does the God of Jesus then require it?

Second, we've all heard of Christian martyrs. This text sees Judas dying as a martyr—because here the other disciples hate him so much that they kill him! But the Gospel of Judas challenges the idea that God wants people to  die as martyrs—just as it challenges the idea that God wanted Jesus to die. Whoever wrote this gospel—and the author is anonymous—is challenging church leaders who teach that. It's as if an imam were to challenge the radical imams who encourage "martyrdom operations" and accuse them of complicity in murder—the Gospel of Judas shows "the twelve disciples"—stand-ins for church leaders—offering human sacrifice on the altar—and doing this in the name of Jesus! Conservative Christians hate gospels like this—usually call them fakes and the people who publish them (like us) anti Christian.  There was a great deal of censorship in the early Christian movement—especially after the emperor became a Christian, and made it the religion of the empire—and voices like those of this author were silenced and denounced as "heretics" and "liars." The story of Jesus was simplified and cleaned up—made "orthodox."

But what really happened in the early movement is far messier, more intriguing, and more human. These recently discovered sources show us what was censored—and what those who didn't become "orthodox" were saying.  For this is the only gospel we've ever seen that shows Jesus laughing at his disciples—because they have distorted his message and gotten it so wrong. What we have here is evidence of how some people in the early movement were struggling with the story of how Jesus died, betrayed by one of his own men.  We don't have any  stories of Jesus written down within 40 years of his death, but after that time many people wrote down accounts of what happened. One of the most puzzling  parts of the story is that people knew that Judas Iscariot, one of his closest followers, had handed him over to the people who arrested him, and to the Roman authorities who killed him. The question was,  Why? What was the motive? Why would Judas do that?

The earliest account that we have, Mark's account in the New Testament, gives no answer at all: it simply says that this is what happened. Judas handed him over—no motive given. The second account was by Luke who read the first, and apparently found it inadequate. Feeling that he had to suggest a motive, Luke retold the story saying  that Satan, the power of evil, entered into Judas Iscariot and made him do it. Satan embodied the evil power that opposed the divine spirit in Jesus—so Luke says—and that is why Jesus was overcome and killed.

A third account, that of the New Testament gospel of Matthew,  offers a different motive: he did it for money. The way Matthew tells the story is that Judas went to the chief priest and said, what will you give me if I hand him over to you? And having gotten a certain price he agreed to do it—so, according to Matthew, the motive was obviously greed.

This new account, the Gospel of Judas, says that Jesus not only anticipated that he would die and went into it with his eyes open, so to speak, aware that this somehow had to happen because there was a deep mystery in it, asked Judas to perform this act as a friend, and that Judas was the only one who could and would do it, and the others completely misunderstood it and took it as betrayal. Matthew's gospel says Judas was so remorseful he went out and hung himself. But this gospel says the others stoned him to death, out of rage. So it's a very different kind of account.

When the National Geographic first heard that there was such a Gospel of Judas, several experts interpreted it the way we have basically always have interpreted Gnostic text. When we first heard about Gnostic texts, we were told that they were "weird"—"Gnostic", that meant they were the wrong kind of gospel, not  like the "real" gospels.

But when (Harvard Professor) Karen King and I approach these texts, we treat each as another Christian gospel—another way that this powerful and strange and tangled story of betrayal was told by Jesus' followers in the decades after his death. We can't assume it tells us much about what happened between Jesus and Judas—it's probably guesswork, like all the other gospels—but it also offers a lot more than that: it places us right in the heart of the historical situation in the generations after his death.

Anyone who joined this movement was aware that he or she could be killed for it, as many had been—Jesus' closet disciple Peter was crucified by the Romans, Paul was beheaded, while other followers of Jesus, like his brother James and his follower Stephen, were lynched by public mobs and riots. It was very dangerous to be a part of this movement. And one of the most troubling problems with anybody associated with it was, what do you do if you're arrested? What do you do, knowing that this could happen? Do you run? Do you accept persecution as if this were something God wanted? There is a Jewish tradition about persecution and about martyrdom which sees dying for God, as they called it, as a way of witnessing God's power. The followers of Jesus argued intensely about that question. And the Gospel of Judas is one of the writings that comes out of these intense, painful arguments involving the threat of violence—arrest, threat of torture and public execution. This shows us what DIDN'T become Christianity—and casts very new light on what did.

For when Jesus' followers tried to make sense of how their messiah died, some suggested that Jesus died as a sacrifice—"he died for our sins." The idea that Jesus' death is an atonement for the sins of the world becomes the heart of the Christian message, for many. It's certainly the heart of the New Testament gospels. There Jesus, before he dies, tells his disciples, when you eat this bread you're eating my body, which I'm giving for you; you're drinking my blood when you drink this wine. Because I'm giving my body and my blood as a voluntary sacrifice for you. So the worship of Jesus' followers became a sacred meal in which people drank wine and ate bread, ceremonially reenacting the death of Jesus.

We call it the Eucharist, the Mass. We're so used to it we hardly see that it's a cannibalistic feast. But whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas has Jesus laughing at the disciples,  to say, what you're doing is ludicrous. Turning the death of Jesus into something like an animal sacrifice. Eating flesh and drinking blood ritually, even, is a kind of obscene gesture. This author, this follower of Jesus, sees the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a complete misunderstanding of the whole message of Jesus.

So, although the Gospel of Judas is an authentic early Christian document, it was early condemned as "blasphemy". We don't know whether this actually IS what Jesus taught—for although New Testament Gospels say that Jesus did teach secret teaching, they don't tell us what it was. But we do have many new texts that show us secret teaching, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Phillip. And probably Jesus, like other first-century rabbis, taught one kind of message in public, with thousands of people listening, and other kinds of teaching in private. We don't think the Gospel of Judas belongs in the canon—but we also don't think it belongs in the trash: instead it belongs in the history of Christianity—a history that now, in light of all these recent discoveries, we now have to rewrite completely.

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Hardcover — UK
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WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph

Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial

Paperback — UK
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Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never before has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when only one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive activity rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when no major faith is proving able to grow as they break out of their ancestral lands via mass conversion, and when securely prosperous democracies appear immune to mass devotion? The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman

Greogory Paul

Phil Zuckerman

GREGORY PAUL is an independent researcher on subjects dealing with paleontology, evolution, religion and society. Books include Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air.

PHIL ZUCKERMAN is a sociologist at Pitzer, and the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion, Du Bois on Religion, and Sex and Religion.

Greg Paul's 's Edge Bio Page
Phil Zuckerman's Edge Bio Page


A myth is gaining ground. The myth seems plausible enough. The proposition is that after God died in the secular 20th century, He is back in a big way as people around the world again find faith. In 2006 Foreign Policy ran two articles that made similar, yet distinctive claims. In the spring Phillip Longman's "The Return of the Patriarchy" contended that secular folk are reproducing themselves, or failing to reproduce themselves, out of existence as the believers swiftly reproduce via a "process similar to survival of the fittest." In the summer FP followed up with "Why God is Winning" by Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, who pronounced that the Big Three— Christianity, Islam and Hinduism—are back on the global march as secularism fades into irrelevance. In the fall  Foreign Affairs joined the chorus when Walter Russell Mead's God's Country? gave the impression that conservative theism continues to rise in a United States jolted back to the spiritual by 9/11. In American Fascists Chris Hedges warns that hard-core Dominionists are accumulating the power to convert the nation into a fundamentalist theocracy.

The actual situation, as is usual in human affairs, much more complex and nuanced, and therefore much more fascinating. Let's start by considering the analytical superficiality that mars the twin articles in Foreign Policy. While Longman proposes that rapid reproduction is the primary agent behind the resurgence of patriarchal faith, Shah and Toft think it is mainly a matter democratic choice in which younger generations reject their parent's secularism. In reality all these claims are well off base. Religion is in serious trouble. The status of faith is especially dire in the west, where the churches face an unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence of organized faith as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly little that can be done to change the circumstances.

Shah and Toft cite the World Christian Encyclopedia as supporting a planetary revival because its shows that "at the beginning of the 21st century, a greater portion of the world's population adhered to [Christianity, Islam and Hinduism] in 2000 than a century earlier." They point to a table in the WCE that shows that the largest Christian and largest nonChristian faiths, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Hinduism, rose from half to nearly two thirds of the world in the 1900s. But that it is a peculiar choice of sects. If every Mohammedan and Hindu sect large and small is tallied, shouldn't every Orthodox, Coptic and so on be too? Another look at the WCE table shows that all Christians, Muslims and Hindus combined edging up a much more modest 60 to 66% (but see below correction) since the reign of Queen Victoria.

What scheme of thought did soar in the 20th century? Although Shah and Toft cite the WCE when it appears to aid their thesis, they seem to have missed key passages near the beginning of the work. The evangelical authors of the WCE lament that no Christian "in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists….  throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians" (italics added). (The WCE probably understates today's nonreligious. They have Christians constituting 68-94% of nations where surveys indicate that a quarter to half or more are not religious, and they may overestimate Chinese Christians by a factor of two. In that case the nonreligious probably soared past the billion mark already, and the three great faiths total 64% at most.)

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

Yet Longman, and especially Shah and Toft, left readers with the impression that Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are each regaining the international initiative against secularism. Again we can turn to the WCE, whose results are presented in the pie charts (with the above adjustment, and with the proviso that the stats are inevitably approximations).

Since 1900 Christians have made up about a third of the global population, and are edging downwards. No growth there. Hindus are coasting at a seventh the total, no significant increase there either even though India adds more people each year than any other nation. The WCE predicts no proportional increase for these faiths by 2050. The flourishing revival of two megareligions whether by democracy, edification, or fecundity is therefore a mirage. Having shrunk by a quarter in the 20th century, Buddhism is predicted to shrink almost as much over the next half century. Once rivaling Christianity, paganism – whether it be ancient or modern as per New Ageism and Scientology — has over all contracted by well over half and is expected to continue to dwindle.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050. Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to Allah.  Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex. The absence of a grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated — the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a consistent, global basis.

It is well documented that Christianity has withered dramatically in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The failure of the faith in the west is regularly denounced by Popes and Protestant leaders. Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some.

In his paper "Christianity in Britain, R. I. P." Steve Bruce explains that the recent rise of pagans is not nearly sufficiently to make up for the implosion of the churches, which are in danger of dwindling past the demographic and organizational point of no return. A commission of the Church of England agreed, proposing that little attended Sabbath services be dropped, and concluding that the advent of modern lifestyles "coincides with the demise of Christendom." The church commissioned Making Sense of Generation Y study advised the clergy to "avoid panic." Perhaps that response would be appropriate considering the absence of quantitative evidence of a significant Christian revival in any secularized democracy. God belief is not dead in these nonreligious democracies, but it is on life support. The ardent hopes of C. S. Lewis and John Paul II to reChristianize Europe have abjectly failed.

EuroMuslims may become a theological plurality by outnumbering active Christians in a few decades, but that does not mean much in the context of a shrinking Christian minority. In most western nations Muslims are less than one percent to under three. The only exceptions are the Netherlands at five percent, and France at ten, and the native French have the highest birth rate in western Europe.

The mass loss of popular faith in the Eurocultures is often waved away as an isolated aberration in a world still infatuated with the gods. After all, who cares what the "old Europe" of France and Sweden is up to? This is a big mistake. Such a thing has never been seen before in history. And where it has happened is critical to the future of faith. Aside from constituting proof of principle that religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous directly falsifies the Shah and Toft thesis that these factors are the allies of religiosity.

But hasn't the loss of faith in old Europe been matched by a great revival in new Europe? In his account of his voyage along the Siberian Lena River, Jeffrey Taylor in River of No Reprieve observed that the locals remain atheistic, and the religious minority seems more nationalistic than devout. This premise is applicable to former KGV officer Putin's embrace of the Russian Orthodox church, which had tight connections with the Czarist secret police. Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism, just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives, and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out that the "new" Europe is not turning out particularly godly.

The Central Kingdom has never been especially religious, became atheistic under communism, and is striving for world dominance via materialistic consumerism. The finding by the Shanghai university poll that religious Chinese lifted from 100 million in the 1960s to 300 million resulted in headlines along the lines of "Poll Finds Surge of Religion Among Chinese." But the 300 million figure is far below the 600 million religious estimated by the World Christian Encyclopedia, and is less than a third of the adult population. Nor should monotheists be particularly comforted. The survey uncovered 40 million Christians, about half the inflated estimate in the WCE, and just 4% of the adult population. Most religious Chinese are Buddhists and Taoists, or worship the likes of the God of Fortune, the Black Dragon and the Dragon King. By the way, The Economist says women are using religion as a way to battle traditional Chinese patriarchy. If the survey is correct that over two thirds of Chinese are not religious then they may approach a billion in China alone, expanding the global total even further.  

Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs. In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don't believe in God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify themselves as strongly religious.

Doesn't America, the one western nation where two thirds absolutely believe in God, and nine in ten think there is some form of higher power, show that religion can thrive in an advanced democracy? Not necessarily.

A decade and a half of sampling finds conservative (thought to be about two thirds to four fifths of the total of) evangelicals and born-agains consistently stuck between a quarter and a third of the population. The majority that considers religion very important in their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare majority in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton era. But instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping again.

Those who feel the opposite about religion doubled between the 1960s and 1970s, have been fairly stable since then, but have been edging up in recent years. American opinion on the issue of human evolution from animals has been rock steady, about half agreeing, about half disagreeing, for a quarter century. What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for whom the old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon and sing some old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it.

From a high of three quarters of the population in the 1930s to 1960s, a gradual, persistent decline has set in, leaving some clerics distressed at the growing abandonment of small churches as the big ones gobble up what is left of the rest. Weekly religious service attendance rose only briefly in the months after 9/11—evidence that the event failed to stem national secularization – and then lost ground as the Catholic sex scandal damaged church credibility. As few as one in four or five Americans are actually in church on a typical Sunday, only a few percent of them in megachurches.

In his Foreign Affairs article Mead noted that conservative Southern Baptists constitute the largest church in the states, and they are among the most evangelical. Mead did not note that a Southern Baptist church release laments that "evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration." The greatest born again sect is baptizing members at the same absolute yearly rate as they did half a century ago, when the population was half as large, and in the last few years the overall trend has been downwards.

Rather than Amerofaith becoming deeply patriarchal as Longman thinks, it is increasingly feminine. Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation.

One group has experienced rapid growth. In the 1940s and 50s 1-2% usually responded no asked if they believe in God, up to 98% said yes. A Harris study specifically designed to arrive at the best current figure found that 9% do not believe in a creator, and 12% are not sure. The over tenfold expansion of Amerorationalism easily outpaces the Mormon and Pentecostal growth rates over the same half century.

America's disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the evangelicals.

The rise of American rationalism is based on adult choice—secularists certainly not growing via rapid reproduction. The results can be seen on the bookshelves, as aggressively atheistic books such as Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell, break the mainstream publishing barrier onto the best-sellers lists. Long disparaged as neither moral or American, the growing community is beginning to assert itself as a socio-political force.

What is actually happening here and abroad is a great polarization as increasingly anxious and often desperate hard-core believers mount a vigorous counterrevolution via extreme levels of activism to the first emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances, much less educated democracy. Disbelief in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion. Why?

It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where wealth is concentrated among an elite few and the masses are impoverished that the great majority cling to the reassurance of faith.

Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one's middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy; before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal existence.

The effect can be more direct. For instance, the absence of universal health care encourages the utilization of faith-based medical charities. The latter, as well intentioned as they are, cannot provide the comprehensive health services that best suppress mortality at all ages. But charities extend the reach of the churches into the secular community, enhancing their ability to influence society and politics, and retain and recruit members.

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity. The other factors widely thought to be driving forces behind mass faith—desire for the social links provided by churches, fear of societal amorality, fear of death, genetic predisposition towards religiosity, etc—are not critical simply because hundreds of millions have freely accepted being nonreligious mortals in a dozen and a half democracies. Such motives and factors can be operative only if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently poor to sustain mass creationism and religion.

So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition. What about the hypothesis that has gained wide currency, that competition between the plethora of churches spawned by the separation of church and state is responsible for America's highly religious population? Australia and New Zealand copied the American separation between church and state in their constitutions, yet they are much more irreligious. Meanwhile the most religious advanced democracies in Europe are those where the Catholic church is, or was, dominant.
To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

We can also explain why America is has become increasingly at odds with itself. On one hand the growing level of socio-economic disparity that is leaving an increasing portion of the population behind in the socially Darwinian rat-race is boosting levels of hard-line religiosity in the lower classes. On the other hand freedom from belief in the supernatural is rising among the growing segment that enjoys higher incomes and sophisticated education. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are typical upper crust disbelievers.

The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged.

Skepticism of the transcendent has not swept the planet with the completeness expected by some in the 20th century. Doing so would have required the conversion to atheism of an unattainable 50 million people a year in a world where the great majority chronically lack the high level of science-oriented education, secure prosperity, and democracy that spontaneous disbelief depends upon. The expectation of global atheism was correspondingly naïve, and will remain so as billions live in, or fear living in, substandard conditions. Which should not comfort theists. Even so, theists are equally naïve when they dream that faith can retake the entire world.

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never before has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when only one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive activity rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when no major faith is proving able to grow as they break out of their ancestral lands via mass conversion, and when securely prosperous democracies appear immune to mass devotion? The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

Even though liberal, pro-evolution religions are not at fault for unacceptable social policies, organized faith cannot reform itself by supporting successful secular social arrangements because these actions inadvertently suppress popular religiosity. They are caught in a classic Catch-22. And liberal churches are even less able to thrive in advanced democracies than are their more conservative counterparts, so if churches, temples and mosques become matriarchal by socio-politically liberalizing they risk secularizing themselves into further insignificance.

In Commonweal Peter Quinn contends that Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have sanitized the social philosophy of Charles Darwin, which was not sufficiently kindly and tolerant to produce "the sole and true foundation for a humanistic society, free of the primitive and dangerous irrationality of religious belief."

Aside from the above nontheists never having promoted Darwin's personal world-view as the sole fountain of societal goodness, Quinn is making the even bigger mistake—the same mistake nearly everyone is making—of believing that the contest between popular faith and secularism is an epic struggle of ideas that then determines the quality of societies. But the level and nature of popular faith is really set by economic conditions, and only secular egalitarian prosperous democracies that reject extreme social Darwinism can produce the best practical conditions.

Assuming America continues to secularize towards the 1st world norm then what can we expect? The decline in faith-based conservative ideology is predicted to allow the country to adopt the progressive policies that have been proven to work in the rest of the west, and vice-versa. Even Wal-Mart has come out in favor of universal medical coverage as bottom-line busting health care expenditures compel the corporations to turn towards the system that has done so much harm to the churches of Europe. If and when religion declines in the states Darwin's science will automatically benefit enormously as it has in ungodly Europe, but Darwinistic social policies will not fare as well as they have in Christian America.

In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern. 

Re: "Who Says We Know: On The New Politics of Knowledge" By Larry Sanger

Gloria Origgi, Charles Leadbeater


If social networking and Wiki media is the new religion, we need dissenters and atheists to challenge the new faith. Larry Sanger is making a macro argument about how society establishes "background knowledge" and a much more detailed critique of how Wikipedia works. I am not convinced by either argument but I am grateful to Sanger for making the challenge.

Take Sanger's macro argument first.

Society has "background" knowledge which is well established and provides the framework for how we understand the world. In the past background knowledge was established by an elite, from priests to publishers. We are entering a new era in which background knowledge will be created through a more open, egalitarian and democratic process enabled by Web 2.0 and its successors. One risk Sanger raises in passing—echoing Cass Sunstein in Infotopia is that Web 2.0 might fragment common platform of background knowledge. But his main focus is on the current best example of "democratic" background knowledge creation—Wikipedia—which he says is deeply flawed because it treats all contributors as equals and fails to accord a proper role to experts. So the risk is that as a society we may become dependent on a way of establishing background knowledge that is more egalitarian but less accurate.

I am not convinced by this argument. Leave aside whether this claim is true for all societies—India, China, Iran—or just the developed liberal democracies. And leave aside whether the account of history is correct: many would argue that elite control over society's background knowledge has been subject to growing contest for at least the last two centuries. That contest is now taking on new forms thanks to the Web.

For Sanger's apocalyptic scenario to be correct there would have to be a new way of establishing society's background knowledge that will displace competing methods, leaving us in the grip of a new, flawed, monopoly provider of background knowledge—Wikipedia—writ large.

But that is not what's happening. Instead of displacing other sources, Web 2.0 seems to be adding to them, complementing them. As readers and researchers we now have a wider array of sources to choose from and compare. And by comparing them we may become more discerning, critical and engaged readers, learning to distinguish what can be trusted from which source. Wider information sources could make us more critically engaged citizens, more used to thinking for ourselves, a point Yochai Benkler makes powerfully in The Wealth of Networks.

Let me give you a very trivial example. Every morning I scavenge for news about Arsenal football club (soccer to American readers) which has its home round the corner from mine in north London. Ten years ago my sources were confined to the two newspapers I got delivered at home which carried about one report on Arsenal every two days, written by an "expert" football reporter. When the web came along the official Arsenal.com site started to provide lots of useful additional information about upcoming fixtures accompanied by bland match reports and player interviews.

Then five years ago a slightly crazed, sometime drunk, often witty and very passionate Dublin based Arsenal fan started Arseblog which each day provides a daily round up of the news in all the newspapers, on and offline editions, including papers in France and Spain where many Arsenal players come from, as well as linking to all the other—fifteen plus—decent blogs about Arsenal.

In Sanger's nightmare scenario Arseblog would became a monopoly, displacing all other sources of news and comment about the club. That would clearly not be ideal. Sometimes the blogger in chief goes awol. Arseblog works only by drawing on and aggregating other sources from the expert to the amateur.

But Arseblog is not going to become a monopoly provider of news a bout Arsenal. Instead what we have is a much richer information ecology, in which there is a good deal of collaboration—Arseblog feeds on experts in the newspapers but also directs readers to them—as well as competition.

As Sanger puts it: "I think most us want mainstream expert opinion stated clearly and accurately; but we don't want to ignore minority and popular views, either, precisely because we know that experts are sometimes wrong, even systematically wrong. We want well-agree factors to be stated as such, but beyond that, we want to be able to consider the whole dialectical enchilada, so that we can make up our own minds for ourselves." Well that seems to be exactly what the emerging, richer media ecology provides.

So it Sanger's macro argument fails because Wikipedia is not displacing but diversifying our sources of information, that leave his much more detailed, micro critique of how Wikipedia functions.

I am no expert on Wikipedia but I did not find this convincing either. Sanger does not clearly establish that Wikipedia regularly makes serious mistakes that experts would have avoided.  He says Wikipedia would be better if experts had a special role but does not specify how this might work. At one point he seems to suggest the real problem with Wikipedia is not lack of expertise but a lack of independence and  diversity among contributors.

Even if Sanger is right that Wikipedia is flawed, reforming Wikipedia is not the only option. The richer information ecology created by Web 2.0 should allow a variety of alternatives to Wikipedia, such as Citizendium,  to emerge which mix experts and amateurs in different ways on different topics.

Wikipedia—and its current process—does not represent a new monopoly provider of society's background knowledge. Wikipedia part of the developing "dialectical enchilada" that Sanger says we all want.


Why reputation matters

I like the idea of epistemic egalitarianism that underlies the Wikipedia project. But, as an epistemologist interested in the impact of Internet on knowledge, I won't bet on epistemic egalitarianism as a stable outcome of Web 2.0. So I share Larry Sanger's scepticism about the equation between Equality=Truth. The Web is not only a powerful reservoir of all sort of labelled and unlabelled information, but it is also a powerful reputational tool that introduces ranks, rating systems, weights and biases in the landscape of knowledge. Systems as different as the PageRank algorithm in Google-based on the idea that a link from page A to page B is a vote from A to B and the weight of this vote depends on who A is—and the reputational system that underlies eBay, are powerful epistemic tools insofar as they not only provide information and connect people, but sort people and information according to scales of value. Even in this information-dense world, knowledge without evaluation would be a sad desert landscape in which people would be stunned in front of an enormous and mute mass of information, as Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two heroes of Flaubert's famous novel, who decided to retire and to go through every known discipline without, in the end, being able to learn anything.

Here is my modest epistemological prediction: The more knowledge grows on Wikipedia or other similar tools on the Web, the more crucial the mastery of reputational cues about the quality of information will become. An introduction of tools for measuring"credentials" seems thus the most natural development of such a system. But of course we may disagree on what counts as "credentials" for expertise. And here I would like to invoke a parallel notion to that of epistemic egalitarianism so cherished by the Wikipedia community, that is, the notion of epistemic responsibility. What counts as a credential, how credible is the reputation of an expert, is something we may be able to rationally measure by handling in an appropriate way the huge amount of indirect criteria, reputational mechanisms and recommendation tools available today inside and outside the Web. An epistemically responsible subject is someone who is able to navigate the immense corpus of knowledge made available by the Web by using the appropriate reputational tools, as a competent connoisseur of French wine is not one who has drunk the largest number of different bottles of wine, but someone who is able to make sense of labels, appellations, regions, names of grapes and also who is able to discriminate the advice of experts and charlatans. So, if credentials are academic titles, a responsible epistemic subject should check the institutions that have delivered these titles, or check whether the holder of 15 different degrees and awards has a citation rate higher than 5 in the ISI Web of Knowledge. I can also compare the past records with the credibility gained "on the spot": someone's holding three PhD in the best American universities who write inconsistencies tells me something on these three prestigious institutions.

An efficient knowledge system like Wikipedia inevitably will grow by generating a variety of evaluative tools: that its how culture grows, how traditions are created. What is a cultural tradition? A labelling systems of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. The good news is that in the Web era this inevitable evaluation is made through new, collective tools that challenge the received views and develop and improve an innovative and democratic way of selection of knowledge. But there's no escape from the creation of a "canonical"—even if tentative and rapidly evolving—corpus of knowledge.

New York
April 21, 2007

Are You There, God? It's Me, Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens on religion (no thanks), Iraq (not a mistake), and his own loud reputation.
By Boris Kachka

So what makes it different from recent atheist screeds by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins?
I don’t think Richard Dawkins would mind me saying that he looks at religious people with this sort of incredulity, as if, “How possibly can you be so stupid?” And though we all have moods like that, I think perhaps I don’t quite.


April 26, 2007

Brains!: A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.

Mind Reading
Slate's special issue on the brain.
Daniel Engber, Slate Science Editor

Cells That Read Minds?
What the myth of mirror neurons gets wrong about the human brain.
By Alison Gopnik


Can "neurotheology" bridge the gap between religion and science?
By George Johnson

Spirit Tech
How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.
By John Horgan

Brain Lessons
Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others [Daniel Gilbert, Alison Gopnik, Joshua Greene, Marc Hauser, Joseph LeDoux] on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.


The Chronicle Review
April 20, 2007

The DNA of Religious Faith
By David P. Barash

In his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris pointed out that alone of all human assertions, those qualifying as "religious," almost by definition, automatically demand and typically receive immense respect, even veneration. Claim that the earth is flat, or that the tooth fairy exists, and you will be deservedly laughed at. But maintain that according to your religion, a seventh-century desert tribal leader ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that a predecessor had done so, without such a conveyance, roughly 600 years earlier, and you are immediately entitled to deference. It has long been, let us say, an article of faith that at least in polite company, religious faith — belief without evidence — should go unchallenged.


The Economist
April 23, 2007

In the beginning
The debate over creation and evolution, once most conspicuous in America, is fast going global

... In his July 2005 article the cardinal seemed to challenge what most scientists would see as axiomatic—the idea that natural selection is an adequate explanation for the diversity and complexity of life in all its forms. Within days, the pope and his advisers found they had new interlocutors. Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist in the front-line of courtroom battles over education, fired off a letter to the Vatican urging a clarification. An agnostic Jew who insists that evolution neither disproves nor affirms any particular faith, Mr Krauss recruited as co-signatories two American biologists who were also devout Catholics. Around the same time, another Catholic voice was raised in support of evolution, that of Father George Coyne, a Jesuit astronomer who until last year was head of the Vatican observatory in Rome. Mr Krauss reckons his missive helped to nudge the Catholic authorities into clarifying their view and insisting that they did still accept natural selection as a scientific theory. ...


MAY 2007


Interview by Josie Glausiusz

His new theory says evolution hardwired us to know right from wrong. But here's the confusing part: It also gave us a lot of wiggle room

April 25, 2007

Brian Eno

Musician, producer and artist Brian Eno shows how simple things can give rise to complex things—in art and life. See how he uses Darwin’s ecological model of the world as a roadmap for human culture now and in the future. ...


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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