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And as I said in my last longer comment, it drives me crazy when people jump back and forth between accepting reality when it's practical in their every day lives, and then totally dismissing it when ever they feel like it, AND treating me like the bad person and the party pooper when I point it out.

Roy Sablosky

"It was being open to the universe that convinced me to let go of my spiritual beliefs."

Exactly! Thank you!

I'm getting a bit tired of this, Christina. You just cant go on praising a blogger for everything she or he writes, but again I can jus say that you are simply hitting the nail in the head, again.
Btw. in the way of positive atheism there is the "The Big Book of Humanity" -project that I hope will gather momentum someday, that is intended to bring together the best positive ideas of secular poets, writers, philosophers and scientists. More info at and

S. Duranjaya

I'm agnostic, to start, which I suppose is 'I don't much care either way, I've got more important things I want to be concerned with'.

The main issue with what you've described as being 'truth' is that not all, or even most truths are exclusive to each other. Cutting edge research constantly defies common sense and established 'reality'. That is the nature of science and new discovery-- what you believe to be true may be false in ten years-- you believe in something that is in constant immeasurable flux.

From an agnostic point of view, that prefers to deal -only- in presented and current truth and fact, you look about as silly as someone clinging desperately to the truths of thousands of years ago.

So, I'd say believe whatever you like, but why be so loud about it? It all sounds the same in the end-- a pointless war.

Timothy (TRiG)

Greta, you're brilliant.



Greta, do you mind if I respond to a comment?

"That is the nature of science and new discovery-- what you believe to be true may be false in ten years-- you believe in something that is in constant immeasurable flux.

From an agnostic point of view, that prefers to deal -only- in presented and current truth and fact, you look about as silly as someone clinging desperately to the truths of thousands of years ago.

So, I'd say believe whatever you like, but why be so loud about it? It all sounds the same in the end-- a pointless war."

But is it really all the same in the end, is everything really pointless? Do beliefs have no value at all?

Is believing that everything is now in the same form as it was at the beginning of time a pointless belief?

Is believing that prayer can heal your child's illness a pointless belief?

Is believing that prayer is a good substitute for accurate sex education a pointless belief?

Yes, science is continually in flux, but that doesn't mean that it's entirely pointless. The ideas and beliefs that people adopt or retain have consequences for all of us.

If the choice of parents to only use prayer for their sick kids instead of conventional medicine starts to actually heal illness instead of killing innocent children, then yes, that would be a change in the scientific paradigm and in that sense, you're correct that all science is provisional.

But it's sheer insanity to deny what we have learned up to this point from science - that using prayer alone instead of conventional medicine will in all likelihood harm your children.

It is our responsibility to use our knowledge of science as we understand it now and apply it to what we have learned by now. Yes, science can always change later, but if we don't use what we know now, that's just pure negligence.

Paul Crowley

You quite often hit the ball out of the park. This time I think it may be in orbit.

Why do atheist activists focus so much time and energy on what we don't believe?
Because theist activists focus so much time and energy on making other people believe nonsense.
"When I turn my mind toward the things I don't believe in, my world gets smaller."
Science is built on falsifying mistaken ideas. All the medicine, engineering, agriculture, and technology that keeps us alive and happy today relies on, or is explained by that same science. Falsifying mistaken ideas is the first and most important step in accomplishing anything great.


Your ability to eloquently and in concise language describe the reality of the universe, life and everything is just phenomenal. I’ve find that I’m quoting you more and more when I post comments to other blogs, since I just can’t seem to phrase these ideas any better.

Whatever you’re imbibing, I want some!!!

Brian York

Re: S. Duranjaya above:

Yes, science changes, but that doesn't mean that everything it discovers is likely to be overturned. Einstein didn't overturn Newton's theories of planetary motion (or even Galileo's, with the exception of Mercury). The neo-Darwinian synthesis of the mid-20th century certainly didn't overturn evolution by natural selection. The new theory *has to* be consistent with the data that already exists, so it's *guaranteed* to overlap in many places.

And yes, research often defies common sense, but where is that at all contradictory to Greta's point? She's written, at length, about common sense being a very *poor* guide to what's true. Science tends to be a much better guide, because to be accepted, a theory has to be consistent with the facts, and discovering new facts doesn't change the old ones (although it might change how they're interpreted).

And really, how much is the scientific picture changing on a day-to-day basis? Yes, the current theories are almost certainly wrong, but they're likely less wrong than they ever have been, and the fraction of wrong in amongst the right (and, most important, the effects of the wrong on our day-to-day experience) are decreasing all the time. If the LHC fails to find the Higgs boson, and the Standard Model ends up needing to be replaced, it's not going to affect how transistors work, or even how accurately quantum theory describes virtually everything it's applied to.

Penultimately, to the extent that scientific beliefs are in flux, that's part of Greta's point (or seems to be) -- caring about reality means admitting that what you think is true now may be wrong, and committing to change your beliefs if they *are* proven wrong. I have trouble seeing why that's a bad thing (if indeed you think it is).

And finally, I'll close with an Isaac Asimov paraphrase. "People used to think that the world was flat, and they were wrong. Then, people thought that it was a sphere, and they were wrong. But if you think that both of those beliefs are *equally* wrong, then you're more wrong than both put together."

J. J. Ramsey

Speaking of Issac Asimov, I'll continue the dogpile on S. Duranjaya by pointing to his article "The Relativity of Wrong," which expands on several of the points made in these comments.

Michael Keenan

I cannot agree more strongly with those above who say you are right on point. You say what I'm thinking better than I could myself. So glad I bumped into you and your site. It motivates me more to spread the logic and encourage those I know to come out of the atheist closet.

There is still a massive grey area between full blown myth and the narratives everyone lives by. It's no more true to say the universe is awe inspiring as to say it is created by god - they're both human-created narratives about essentially valueless facts. There is no beauty in reality unless we take that attitude towards it, the same mechanism that religious faith works on. I totally agree that atheists need to get a positive narrative going on, but fail to see how you can do this coherently without accepting that the scientific devide between truth and fiction just isn't what reality is like for us humans.

Greta Christina
It's no more true to say the universe is awe inspiring as to say it is created by god - they're both human-created narratives about essentially valueless facts.


There is a substantial difference between these two statements. One is a subjective statement of opinion, a statement about what is true for me and some other people personally. The other is an assertion of fact about the external, non-subjective world.

Those are two different realms. And while the line between them may not always be clear (as lines between two realms seldom are), they are nevertheless generally distinguishable. And it's a distinction that's important to make.

To say the universe was created by God is an assertion of fact about the external, non-subjective world. To say that the universe is awe-inspiring means nothing more than that the universe inspires the emotion of awe in some people contemplating it. Hard to argue with.


Another classic canard-killing, Greta. Another post bookmarked for the purposes of dealing an instant crushing riposte to religious people foolish enough to trot that canard out again...


I'm with Jack. My "Classic Nonbelief Cites" folder is getting full to bursting with terrific Greta posts.

David D.G.

Paul Crowley wrote:

You quite often hit the ball out of the park. This time I think it may be in orbit.

Greta, this is just the sort of thing that I wanted to say, so I'm providing an echo. This was an amazing blog entry! This post needs to be added to your list of must-read blogs; heck, it probably should go right to the top of that list.

Thank you for stating, in superb fashion, exactly what I try to convey to people of faith --- namely, that reality trumps the supernatural in every conceivable way, every time.

~David D.G.


Here's the money quote:
"We need to be very careful about distinguishing between our useful metaphors about the world, and our accurate descriptions of it."

This nails it. Religion has been a [sorta] useful metaphor. Science IS the process for coming up with the most accurate descriptions of it.

Rick R.

One line jumped out at me.

"I believe in reality."

That of course reminded me of the infamous quote from Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame.

"I reject your reality, and substitute my own."

And as much as I hate to associate something as cool as the Mythbusters with organized religion, it seems to me that second quote is what they seem to be preaching. No real point to this observation, just thought I'd share it with the class.


Speaking of uncomfortable reality....

It appears that the "people's veto" in Maine, the homophobes' attempt to repeal the newly minted statute legalizing gay marriage in the state, is going to succeed by a margin of approximately 5%.

How very depressing. To Greta and everyone else who's GLBT or cares about people who are, I'm sorry. We pick up and keep fighting, I guess....

Greta Christina

Don't count on the Bangor Daily News (linked to above). The word I'm getting is that their information isn't good: right now we're behind, but it's still too close to call, it probably won't be decided until morning, and there may be a runoff.


Well, okay, but Adam Bink at Open Left, who is speaking directly to the No on 1 campaign, is also sounding dire--and the New York Times has declared the race over.

Anyway, I hope you're right and the underlying data are inaccurate.

This is an epic article. Thank you for expressing this so clearly and elegantly!

"To say the universe was created by God is an assertion of fact about the external, non-subjective world." That's the heart of it. Why do atheists keep on saying stuff that only religious people have to say? We know these things are stories that people amalgamate into their world by having faith in them, we know they're stories, so why carry on treating them as crap factual claims? We know they're not and we know they can't say it. I'm also not sure the subtelty of our communal reality is captured by the terms subjective and objective. What are ideas, for example? They don't seem to naturally fall into either camp.

Greta Christina
We know these things are stories that people amalgamate into their world by having faith in them, we know they're stories, so why carry on treating them as crap factual claims?

Because believers themselves treat them as factual claims. Because that's what religion largely is: factual claims about how the universe works and why it is the way it is... claims with no basis whatsoever. Because even when believers say, "This doesn't have to be factually true, it's just a useful metaphor," in my opinion/ analysis/ experience they're being disingenuous: they're using the "useful metaphor" trope as a way of deflecting questions and criticism from skeptics, and they go right back to believing their stories as if they were factually true the moment the awkward questions disappear.

And because the factual claims religious believers make and believe have an affect on how they act: in their own lives, and towards other people. They are mistaken hypotheses about the world, and I think they do more harm than good... if for no other reason than that they are mistaken.


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Greta Christina

GeorgeRic's recent comment has been disemvowelled, and he now has the dubious honor of being the third commenter to be banned from commenting on this blog. Despite having been warned, he has continued to abuse the privilege of commenting in obvious attempts to plug his book, entirely unrelated to the subject being discussed.

I welcome comments in my blog, including ones that disagree with my opinion. But I expect comments to, at the bare minimum, be relevant to the subject being commented on. And I do not accept comments that are obvious attempts at self promotion -- especially ones that are copied and pasted in multiple blogs.


Great post.

I remember talking to another atheist at the AAI conference about how I love science fiction and fantasy books, and he was surprised by it. Frankly, I was surprised that he at least wasn't a science fiction fan. I've never met an atheist who isn't at least a little into sci-fi. But there's a first time for everything.

Anyway, he made a funny little comment about how wasting my time on that "make-believe stuff" is detrimental to my learning about what we know about the physical world. I was like, "Dude, are you seriously saying that to me, because I think that's a load of crap."

Imagination has its place, and it is a human trait. We all need to check out every once in a while, and stories help us do that. Checking out for a bit is a coping mechanism--like what you said about make-believe stories giving us fresh perspectives on reality. We check out for a bit, and then when we feel like we can handle the world again, we check back in and do what we do.

Anyway, the part of this post where you addressed "stories about imaginary realities" reminded me of this conversation.


When it comes to a willful disbelief in science in favor of religious stories, I'm definitely in agreement with you.

But, what about people who are religious in a more liberal sense? Not all religious people ignore science or reason in favor of faith.

For some, religion is one aspect of their lives that is fulfilling. But they also believe in evolution and generally understand science, as well as understand the importance of a secular government. And I do cringe a little to say "believe in evolution", like it's something to be debated these days, but I'm not sure how better to phrase it.

Basically, I don't feel that religion is the problem. The problem is when people try to assert the dominance of a religion over all other aspects of life, which I feel is a corruption of religion and spirituality.

You can probably tell by now that I am religious to a degree. Although I don't follow any particular religion, I align most closely with certain aspects of Christianity and Universal Unitarianism. But, at the same time, I understand how to separate religious aspects of my life from secular aspects.

And I know that religion isn't right for everyone either. Some people want hard evidence, and that's certainly an appropriate way to deal with life and it's challenges, as well as appreciate it's beauty. Just try to understand religious people aren't all nutjobs either. Though the vocal ones do seem bent on proving otherwise sometimes.

Greta Christina

Actually, floslib, it was conversations with progressive religious believers that sparked this post. It was progressive religious believers who told me that I and other atheists should "be a little more open to the universe"; that "a belief system based on what *isn't* seems reductive"; etc.

See, while progressive religion is certainly less hostile to science than extreme fundamentalist religion, it still is often in opposition to it. I've written a whole piece about three commonly- held progressive religious beliefs -- evolution guided by God, an immaterial soul, and a sentient universe -- that are utterly inconsistent with the current scientific evidence. Almost as inconsistent as creationism and other fundie extremism.

And progressive believers do not like to hear this.

I don't think all religious believers are nutjobs. But I do think they're all mistaken. And I think that the degree to which they reject evidence in favor of their religious beliefs is the degree to which they are shutting out reality and the universe.


Ah, you were dealing with the openness crowd. Yeah, I can see how they'd be irritating to an atheist.

And I'm perfectly happy to go with you thinking I'm mistaken to hold religious views of any kind. I can certainly understand why, and I know you might be right.

I did read your other piece after I saw the link from here. And I do find the relativism of "true for me" "true for you" gets old fast. I know what belief it comes from, but what ever happened to an understanding that reality defines truth in the end. And I mean that in a way that doesn't imply reality is conscious. We can study reality, and learn anything about it that isn't completely unobservable. If it's unobservable, then it probably isn't going to effect us, at least in this life. Or, if you're right, than ever.


I read your article on alternet. I'm an atheist myself, but I find your outlook a little more faithful than the faithful, if you understand my meaning.

I'm a philosophy student, and a good part of the basis of skepticism is the epistemological problem - we don't actually have any straightforward or totally reliable access to the world around us. It's perfectly conceivable that, if we assume that there is a reality around us, that we only see a very narrow range of it. Like 2d people in a 3d world, we might be fundamentally incapable of understanding reality or perceiving reality accurately.

I don't think there's anything immediately wrong with trying to understand things as they are, but to totally rule out possibilities that we don't have any understanding of is simple arrogance.

We create models that work in 99% of situations. It's possible that in that other 1%, many things happen that should be impossible via the rules of that model. The map isn't the territory - the reality of the universe is no doubt more complex than what we describe in physics. So physics can only tell us what is, not what is not.


And yet I bet you won't be the one to test jumping out the window from the fifth floor to see if you won't smack into the concrete the hundreth time.

Greta Christina
...but to totally rule out possibilities that we don't have any understanding of is simple arrogance.

I'm not talking about totally ruling out possibilities. I'm talking about provisionally ruling out possibilities that are currently unsupported by evidence. If new evidence appears to support the possibilities we've ruled out, then we reconsider them.

Let me put it this way. The number of possibilities that are hypothetically possible and that can't be ruled out with 100% certainty is pretty much endless. I could sit here all day making them up. But that doesn't mean we have to take them all seriously and treat them as equally likely. We have to have a way to sort out the plausible hypotheses from the implausible ones. If we don't, we'll be paralyzed.

You seem to be making what I call the 100% fallacy: the fallacy that because we can't know anything with 100% absolute certainty, we therefore can't know anything at all. I'm not talking about 100% certain knowledge that we have absolute truth. I'm talking about a reasonable degree of working confidence that we have a decent approximation of the truth... an approximation that's getting better all the time.

How do we know that our hypotheses are a good approximation of the truth? Because they enable us to make accurate predictions about the world. In some cases, astonishingly accurate.

And as for that 1% that doesn't fit our current model (I actually think it's a lot more than that)... it's far preferable to say "We don't know" than to say "That's the part that must be governed by God." When we say "We don't know," that gives us room to explore and to try to figure it out. When we say, "Oh, yeah, that's God," then we give up and stop looking.

I don't think there's anything immediately wrong with trying to understand things as they are, but to totally rule out possibilities that we don't have any understanding of is simple arrogance.

The problem is that there's no way for us to distinguish between a true fact that is impossible for us to know about, and... something that isn't true, or at least provisionally isn't true.

To put it another way, in order to figure anything out about the universe, we have to assume that the universe is consistent and visible enough that it's possible to figure stuff out about it. It's a sort of inverted Pascal's Wager: we may as well try to figure out the universe, because if it is possible to figure things out, then we win, and if it isn't possible to figure it out, then at least we managed to burn some time in a fun way.

Dale Ramsey

Terrific work on the top one reason religion is harmful. You are right. Just wanted to tell you, though, that "the proof is in the pudding" is gibberish. "The proof of the pudding is in the tasting" is the correct phrase, and it means exactly what you intended concerning a reality check --- but I hope you'll get it right next time. Cheers!

Wayne A. Schneider

Great blog, Greta. Thank you for expressing atheist views in a clear, coherent, intelligent manner. I am an atheist. I do not believe in supernatural beings of the type religious people believe in. I do believe there is life out there among the stars that is far more advanced evolutionarily than we. I base this on the idea that what is commonly thought of as "Space" (or it might be the classic Einsteinian Space-Time) is infinite in size. There is no end to it. I also believe that life has already evolved on other planets and that we are not alone. I base this on the simple improbability that we are alone. I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on atheism.

Richard S. Russell

Religion and science originated from the same root motive: a desire to understand how the world works — especially the dangerous parts — and to pass that accumulated wisdom on to our descendants.

The difference is that science is willing to constantly revisit that accumulated knowledge, and to endlessly test it against reality, whereas religion reaches a point of self-satisfaction where it fossilizes its then-current beliefs into dogma, like a fly trapped in amber, and thereafter insists on blind conformity to it, often at the price of suffering or death on the parts of those heretics who would challenge it.

Stephen Jay Gould thot that the inherent conflict between science and religion could be reconciled if both sides adopted the viewpoint of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA); that is, science could specialize in learning about reality, while religion could concentrate on what it does "best", namely matters of morals and ethics.

Science, for its part, has largely stayed on its side of Gould's NOMA barrier. Altho recently findings in social anthropology have touched on WHY people hold the moral beliefs they do, science still hasn't trodden on the ground of what people SHOULD believe.

Religion, however, refuses to cooperate. It continues to make pronouncements about reality without a shred of evidence to support its claims. To the extent that religious claims about reality have ever come into conflict with scientific claims about the same subjects, religion has invariably lost. You'd think they'd have learned by now.

But no. They still have fond recollections of the time when the Catholic Church ruled the western world and none dared say it nay. You may recall that time period — the millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance — by its most common name: the Dark Ages.

rob b

But if you're an absolute adherent to anything, the mind treats it all the same, so athiests, meet the christians, jews, muslims. You're all trapped in this little lifeboat together, and there's a storm a-commin! You'll all drown, but at least you'll all have the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

Greta Christina

rob b: Atheism is not an absolute adherence to anything. That is a common but inaccurate misunderstanding of what atheism is. Atheism does not mean absolute, 100% certainty that God exists. For most atheists, it simply means being certain enough. It means thinking that the overwhelming body of evidence and logic points to God and the supernatural not existing -- and it means provisionally concluding that that's true and moving on, unless we see better evidence. If we see better evidence, we'll change our mind.

The whole point of this piece is that we have to not absolutely adhere to any idea -- if we're going to understand the universe, we have to be willing to let go of ideas about it when the evidence doesn't support them. And belief in the supernatural is an idea that the evidence simply doesn't support. If strong new evidence appears to support the hypothesis of the supernatural, I'll change my mind. How is it "absolute adherence" to anything to say, "We're pretty sure this is true, and until we see different evidence we're going to move forward on that assumption"?


E.g. I could take a magic red pill tomorrow and wake up outside the Matrix and realize that my entire life has been a lie.

100% certain it's not going to happen? No, I'm not. Nor am I certain that Kali Ma is not angry with me for failing to respect her. My considered response to these suggestions is that they're quite implausible, so I don't waste a lot of time worrying about it.

"There's probably no god; now stop worrying and enjoy your life" is the core of atheism.


WE have been debating this for the PAST couple weeks on THE last ACTIVE group on MYSPACE about this same topic, we have Muslims, Christians, Jews, New Agers, Atheist, Agnostics, Scientist and others all ARGUING & CHOSING SIDES, so far the RELGIOUS OR Theist side is WINNING.



On one hand, I'm a staunch atheist and rationalist - I prefer knowing and believing truthful things.

On the other hand, sometimes I wish I could apply some good old fashioned denial to forget about some of those things. Example: If I could ignore globalization, and believe there was some future for me (and anyone else not currently filthy rich) other than inescapable desperate poverty, I'd be a lot better off.

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