Unbelief 90 years ago

Sometimes it’s good to get a little perspective.

The following link is Carl Van Doran’s take on ‘Why I am an unbeliever’, from 1926:



It is beautifully written.  The quote is 90 years old, and I think that some contemporary atheists could learn much from Carl about how to speak of those with whom you disagree.

[Aside: The new Atheos app seems (from what I’ve seen so far) basically to be teaching non-theists not to be a***holes when talking with theists. I suppose that’s got to be a good thing inasmuch as it’s (sadly) needed. I’m sure the app will go much further delving into application of the Socratic method, but I’ve only just started looking at it.]

Van Doran’s piece has a gentlemanly dignity to the writing which doesn’t water down his position in any way, yet also tries to avoid unnecessarily belittling his antagonist.carl-van-doren

Perhaps his context did not call for a belligerent response, I don’t know.  But it’s a good quote that raises significant points, and raises them well.

A few choice samples:

That some revealed doctrine has lasted for ages and has met the needs of many generations proves that it is the kind of doc­trine which endures and satisfies, but not that it is divine. Secular doc­trines which turned out to be perfectly false have also endured and sat­isfied.


And whoever argues, as men often do, that life would be meaningless without immortality because it alone brings justice into human fate, must first argue, as no man has ever quite convincingly done, that life has an unmistakable meaning and that it is just. I, at least, am convinced on neither of these two points. Though I am, I believe, familiar with all the arguments, I do not find any of them notably better than the others. All I see is that the wish for immortality is wide-spread, that certain schemes of immortality imagined from it have here or there proved more agreeable than rival schemes, and that they have been more generally accepted. The religions which provide these successful schemes I can credit with keener insight into human wishes than other religions have had, but I cannot credit them with greater authority as regards the truth.


Many believers, I am told, have the same doubts, and yet have the knack of putting their doubts to sleep and entering ardently into the communion of the faithful. The process is incomprehensible to me. So far as I understand it, such believers are moved by their desires to the extent of letting them rule not only their conduct but their thoughts. An unbeliever’s desires have, apparently, less power over his reason. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that his strongest desire is to be as reasonable as he can. How­ever the condition be interpreted, the consequence is the same. An honest unbeliever can no more make himself believe against his reason than he can make himself free of the pull of gravitation. For myself, I feel no obligation whatever to believe. I might once have felt it prudent to keep silence, for I perceive that the race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves for conformity; but just now, happily, in this breathing-spell of toleration, there are so many varieties of belief that even an unbeliever may speak out.

Good stuff!

I wonder what the global religious landscape will look like 90 years from now?

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