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Honest Doubt: Essays on Atheism in a Believing Society

Honest Doubt: Essays on Atheism in a Believing Society

by James A. Haught

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Despite the prevalence of religious belief in the United States (nearly 200 million Americans belong to 350,000 congregations), a growing minority (14 percent) of U.S. adults identify with no religion whatsoever. Journalist James A. Haught addresses the secular segment of American society in this interesting collection of incisive essays that give voice to honest


Despite the prevalence of religious belief in the United States (nearly 200 million Americans belong to 350,000 congregations), a growing minority (14 percent) of U.S. adults identify with no religion whatsoever. Journalist James A. Haught addresses the secular segment of American society in this interesting collection of incisive essays that give voice to honest doubts about religious beliefs. Taken together, Haught’s essays endorse the idea that freedom of religion must include freedom to doubt as well as to believe. Individually, the articles present many different reasons to doubt:

• Intellectual integrity demands that we express doubts about beliefs for which there is no scientific evidence.
• The historical record, past and present, shows that religion is often the cause of evils, from the Inquisition and the burning of witches to current terrorist violence committed in the name of religion.
• Natural evils, such as the 2004 Asian tsunami and devastating diseases, should make any thoughtful person question whether an all-powerful and all-merciful God governs the universe.
• The sheer number and diversity of often-conflicting belief systems raise serious doubts about the philosophical coherence of religion as an approach to finding the truth.
• Scandals among the clergy undermine the credibility of religion as a sound basis for morality.

Written in a straightforward conversational style that makes clear the many scientific, philosophical, and ethical difficulties that plague religion, Haught’s thought-provoking essays will appeal to atheists, agnostics, and anyone with questions about religion.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

There have been journalists who, despite a lack of academic training, have addressed religious topics with wit and insight. One thinks of H.L. Mencken among the infidels or G.K. Chesterton among the faithful. Haught (editor, Charleston Gazette; 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage To Doubt) isn't one of them. In this collection of previously published editorials and magazine articles, he attempts to further the spread of secularism in American society. Haught has voiced his protests untold times before, and here, he doesn't give them any new formulation or defense that would warrant their being issued yet again. Another problem is that, for someone who praises the open-minded methodology of science, Haught seems uninterested in even considering how believers might respond to his arguments. Hence, one of his favorite rhetorical strategies is the litany—lists of evils perpetrated by religious believers, lists of famous atheists in history, lists of outré supernatural beliefs—a cloud of facts expelled like squid ink in order to camouflage the vulnerability of his position. Not recommended.
—Charles Seymour

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Prometheus Books
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

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Honest Doubt

Essays on Atheism in a Believing Society

Chapter One


The supernatural spectrum is immense.

Gods, goddesses, devils, demons, angels, heavens, hells, purgatories, limbos, miracles, prophecies, visions, auras, saviors, saints, virgin births, immaculate conceptions, resurrections, bodily ascensions, faith healings, salvation, redemption, messages from the dead, voices from Atlantis, omens, clairvoyance, spirit signals, spirit possession, exorcisms, divine visitations, incarnations, reincarnations, second comings, judgment days, astrology horoscopes, psychic phenomena, psychic surgery, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, second sight, voodoo, fairies, leprechauns, werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, ghosts, wraiths, poltergeists, doppelgangers, incubi, succubi, palmistry, tarot cards, Ouija boards, levitation, out-of-body travel, magical transport to UFOs, Elvis on a flying saucer, invisible Lemurians in Mount Shasta, Thetans from a dying planet, and so on, and so forth.

All these magical beliefs have a common denominator: They lack tangible evidence. You can't test supernatural claims; you're supposed to accept them on blind faith. Their only backup is that they were "revealed" by a prophet, a guru, an astrologer, a shaman,a mullah, a mystic, a swami, a psychic, a soothsayer, or a "channeler."

That's sufficient proof for billions of people. Most of humanity prays to invisible spirits and envisions mystical realms. Most politicians invoke the deities. Supernaturalism pervades our species, consuming billions of person-hours and trillions of dollars. Millions of prayers to unseen beings are uttered every hour and millions of rituals performed. This extravaganza requires a vast variety of priests and facilities. The cost is astronomical. Money given by Americans to churches and broadcast ministries yearly exceeds the gross domestic product of many nations. (Lebanon, $18 billion; North Korea, $23 billion; Latvia, $24 billion; US religion, $80 billion.) Other investment is enormous: Americans spend $300 million a year on calls to psychic hotlines. Angel books and end-of-the-world books sell by millions.

Amid this global mishmash, I want to offer a lonely minority view: I think it's all fairy tales. Every last shred of it. The whole mystical array, from Jehovah and Beelzebub to Ramthis and the Lemurians, lacks any type of proof-unless you count weeping statues. My hunch is that every invisible spirit is purely imaginary. Therefore, the planet-spanning worship is expended on nothing.

I think that most intelligent, educated, scientific-minded people suspect that the spirit world doesn't exist. But they stay silent because it's rude to question people's faith. However, what about honesty? Aren't conscientious thinkers obliged to speak the truth as they see it? Aren't logical people allowed to ask for evidence?

Some researchers recently concluded that the human species is "wired" for faith, that our DNA includes coding for mystery. Maybe -but what about exceptions like me and similar doubters? Why doesn't our wiring cause us to swallow the supernatural?

Moreover, even ardent believers see absurdity in rival religions. Consider these examples.

Millions of Hindus pray over statues of Shiva's phallus. Ask Presbyterians if they think there's an unseen Shiva who wants his anatomy utilized in worship.

Catholics say that the Virgin Mary makes periodic appearances to the faithful. Ask Muslims if it's true.

Mormons say that Jesus was transported to America after his resurrection. Ask Buddhists if they believe it-or if they even accept the resurrection.

Jehovah's Witnesses say that, any day now, Satan will come out of the earth with an army of demons, and Jesus will come out of the sky with an army of angels, and the Battle of Armageddon will kill everyone except Jehovah's Witnesses. Ask Jews if this is correct.

Florida's Santeria worshipers sacrifice dogs, goats, chickens, and the like, tossing the bodies into waterways. Ask Baptists if the Santeria gods want animals to be killed.

Unification Church members say that Jesus visited Master Moon and told him to convert all people as "Moonies." Ask Methodists if this really occurred.

Muslim suicide bombers who sacrifice themselves in dismaying numbers are taught that "martyrs" go instantly to a paradise full of lovely houri nymphs. Ask Lutherans if past bombers are now in heaven with houris.

Millions of American Pentecostals say that the Holy Ghost causes them to spout "the unknown tongue," a spontaneous outpouring of sounds. Ask Episcopalians if the third member of the Trinity causes this phenomenon.

Scientologists say that every human has a soul that is a "thetan" that came from another planet. Ask Seventh-day Adventists if this is true.

Aztecs sacrificed thousands of victims-cutting out hearts, killing children, skinning maidens-for various gods such as an invisible feathered serpent. Ask any current church if the invisible feathered serpent really existed.

During the witch hunts, inquisitor priests tortured thousands of women into confessing that they flew through the sky, changed into animals, blighted crops, copulated with Satan, and so on. Ask any current church if the execution of "witches" was based on reality.

You see, most believers realize that other religions are bogus. Why do they think their own theology is different? I'm calling for the final step to honesty. If some magical spirits obviously are imaginary, it's logical to assume that others are, too.

The Western world is turning more rational, more scientific. Education is dispelling superstition. Unlike Europe, America remains a bulwark of churchgoing-yet educated Americans don't really expect divine intervention. If their children get pneumonia, they trust penicillin over prayer.

As for the familiar contention that supernatural beliefs make people more moral and humane, do you really think that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are ethically superior to nonreligious Americans?

Polls find that the more education people have, the fewer their religious convictions. Therefore, the educated are the natural group to break away from magic. I'd like to see a revolt by the intelligent against myths.

Generally, the educated class laughs at quack-o miracle reports, but not at the prevailing majority religion. But there's no logical reason to consider one supernatural claim superior to another. No matter how much it's cloaked in poetry and allegory, religion consists of worshiping spooks-imaginary ones, in my view.

The time has come for thinking Americans to say, publicly and bluntly: There's no reliable evidence of invisible spirits. Worshiping them is a waste of time and money. Instead, let's use our minds to improve life for people here and now. Fairy tales came from the primitive past, and they have no place in the twenty-first century.


Excerpted from Honest Doubt by James A. Haught Copyright © 2007 by James A. Haught. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James A. Haught (Charleston, WV) is the editor of the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia’s largest newspaper. He is the author of 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt and four other books.

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