The Umbrella of Atheism

Sam Harris gave a speech at the Atheist Alliance conference, held in Washington D.C., on September 28. In it he threw out the radical suggestion that atheists should stop calling themselves atheists. What was radical about it was that his alternative self-nomenclature was to refrain from calling ourselves anything. He said, in part:

I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion…So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything.

Part of his reasoning is that the connotations of atheism are negative, to a large part, especially among theists. Metaphorically:

It’s as though, before the debate even begins, our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.

This has caused a lively discussion of the issue among atheists. I suspect, in fact Harris clearly says, that he wanted to propose a controversial suggestion in order to spark discussion.

In thinking about what I could say to you all tonight, it seemed to me that I have a choice between throwing red meat to the lions of atheism or moving the conversation into areas where we actually might not agree. I’ve decided, at some risk to your mood, to take the second approach and to say a few things that might prove controversial in this context.

He’s received much criticism to his second approach. Harris has responded to the criticism with a clarification. The critics criticize the clarification. The smoke is dissipating, but I’m not so sure it is any clearer, though his point that there are times or situations where an in-your-face reference to one’s atheism would have a deleterious effect does make some sense. However, at best, that means you should use good judgment when proclaiming your atheism, not that you shouldn’t label yourself so .

Ebonmuse has asked, over at Daylight Atheism, whether it is a wise course to take to disclaim the label. He concludes:

I don’t deny that there are negative stereotypes attached to the word “atheism”. What I do deny is that this constitutes reason to shrink from using it. Instead, we should work to reclaim it.

After mulling it over, I tend to agree with Ebonmuse, distancing myself a bit from the Harris approach. While ideally it makes sense that we should need no word for someone who has no beliefs in the divine or supernatural, nor should we go out of our way to alienate listeners by using a label they completely misperceive, as if the word itself was an argument in our favor, in reality, most people in the world do harbor theistic beliefs. As a matter of practicality, there must be a word to describe us, since we don’t share those beliefs. Atheism is not only as good as any other, it is, frankly, the best word to describe us, for a number of reasons.

  1. The word itself describes exactly what we are. A-theist comes from the Greek A, meaning without, and theos meaning gods. We have no belief in gods, and our lives are lived without them. That’s about the most efficient use of etymology as I can think of.
  2. The word is known by everyone who has any belief, and those who don’t – in effect, everybody. Why create a new word, or stop emphasizing the old, when everybody thinks atheist, when they think of people who don’t believe in god?
  3. Alternative words, like brights, are perceived as condescending.
  4. Finally, the word has the capacity to become a wonderful umbrella term, much like “gay” is used to describe homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual and even to a certain extent, the transgendered, along with not only a lifestyle and a sexual practice, but a culture. Atheism can include, despite its definitional limitation, a multi-faceted number of differing and complimentary world views and philosophies, if we allow it.

While we often find ourselves defending the definition (see my last post), it’s still true that atheism really doesn’t define what most atheists actually believe in, oftentimes because we defend ourselves from attacks by limiting the term to its strict definition. As a practical matter, atheists run the gamut from naturalism, through materialism, humanism, skepticism and many other isms that translate into affirmative beliefs, as opposed to the simple lack of belief in gods.

When I was a Catholic, I had a definite idea of what an atheist was. Atheists were amoral, unethical, unprincipled, dishonest, irresponsible, not to mention spineless for refusing to accept the obvious – the existence of god. Atheists didn’t take a stand, and affirm a belief in something the nuns thought was patently obvious, the truth of which was hammered into our formative brains. Later on I discovered the Evil Atheist Conspiracy to take over the world, purportedly meant to insure a steady supply of kittens for various atheistic rituals.

However, when I finally started reading and investigating exactly what atheism was, I found a wealth of positive attributes attributable to atheists. There was rationalism, which I define as the belief that most, if not all, knowledge can be obtained by the exercise of clear, critical thinking, logic and reason. There was secular humanism, which I found to be a wonderful, substantive alternative to religion, one that sets forth a concise and succinct philosophy placing a commitment to humanity at its center – not to worship, but to preserve. There was naturalism, which believes that the natural world is all we have, and that natural laws explain reality. Science, and the scientific method, works hand in hand with naturalism. Science assumes naturalism as its premise for discovering the workings of the universe. All of these various philosophies tend to dovetail and overlap.

None of these are atheism, by themselves, but all of them are natural extensions of atheism. Once you shed the stultifying, superstitious beliefs of supernaturalism, a/k/a theism or religion, the benefits of using rationalism, secular humanism, skepticism and naturalism to guide your view of reality become obvious. New vistas open up, allowing you to view your friends, family, neighbors and strangers, not as fellow sinners (talk about your negative connotations), but as common travelers on this road we call life. They are fellow humans who you rely on, and who rely on you. Neither relies on a non-existent supernatural entity.

So, back to Harris’s suggestion, why should we accede to theistic impositions of negative overtones to the term we label ourselves, a label which is most accurate, and which includes, if not definitionally, at least practically many other cohesive and complimentary world views? Why fall back from the progress we’ve made over the past 2000 years, (including the significant progress of the last year) in making religion more and more irrelevant? Atheism, in conjunction with science, has moved inexorably forward in explaining reality to humanity, with religion failing at every turn to keep up. Science, naturalism and rationalism has explained, time after time, those mysteries man previously attributed to god. Religion has yet to take back a scientific explanation wrested from religion.

When viewed this way, the umbrella of atheism has much of substance to offer to the world. Ebonmuse suggests we reclaim the word. I say not only reclaim the word, but redefine it to include everything it naturally leads to, in many cases all those things atheists are accused of anyway. Emphasize that atheists are not just anti-theists. We have a positive view of life, that includes visions of a better world than religion has given us. What better way to educate people to understand the practical ramifications of atheism, than to include explanations of secular humanism, and the other “positivisms” inherent in the rejection of all religion? Once people accept the fact that there is no supernatural world, there is no afterlife, there is no place where we are going to spend eternity (at least, not consciously), they’ll need to embrace some replacement. Perhaps secular humanism will work for some. Perhaps a life of science and materialism for others. Maybe a little of both for you.

Maybe a combination of all these possibilities can be synthesized into the framework of atheism, under its umbrella.

19 thoughts on “The Umbrella of Atheism

  1. I just wrote a lengthy response to this and lost the entire thing. Must have been an “act of god”!

    John, your writing improves post to post. I’m impressed.

    I think Harris was playing devils advocate and running an idea up the flag pole to see how many would salute.

    As you mentioned, there has been a profound movement in just the past year in the attack on the supernatural. It would not have been possible by avoiding the concept of atheism.

    I’m not out to anger anyone by calling myself an atheist and I honestly think that (for the most part) its an interesting way to begin a discussion of ideas. Sure there are failures in this regard and always will be. But many folks have just never really had the contact with atheists to be able to know the difference between the reality of it and what they have had indoctrinated in them since childhood.

    If people know that you are a decent human being and then find out you are an atheist – it has to make them ponder the inaccuracies of their teachings.

    I think you will see a small, but statistically significant, movement in the next census, in the part where people identify their beliefs.

  2. I have my doubts about any group of people sharing any label. I for one would never call myself something which I find to be impossible, (certain that no god exists). Agnostic would come the closest, but after that well was poisoned by bringing to mind fence sitting, I now see nothing wrong with the word skeptic. There would be no debate at all if one could either prove or disprove absolutely the deity controversy, but that’s not going to happen for everyone anytime soon. You might as well wish for everyone to prefer vanilla ice cream. I really don’t think mankind has come as far as we suppose we have anyway. We are barely above Chimpanzee’s in intelligence; you might call us tool making apes and be just as scientifically correct as you can be. Just because we have collectively learned a great deal about our environment we suppose we have some special gift to debunk those things we still do not understand. Sure we can easily see how crazy religion can be at times, but we also work and play with those that hold that belief, and rarely even know it. Being human has nothing to do with how correct or metaphysical outlook is, if it were, we’d all be in trouble. There is much still to learn about the universe, and even more to learn about ourselves before we can say that there is absolutely no God. I think atheists are more pissed about radical religiosity than they are excited about finding that God is dead. Ugh I need more coffee. Perhaps I can be more coherent later.

  3. I’m so out of the loop. I first heard this last week on the RRS site and didn’t think much of it, then I see Exterminator write on it and say it’s all over the atheiosphere and next stop I come here and see the issue again. I guess I’ll go read Ebonmuse’s post but from what you write above, it sounds like it’s exactly what I thought last week and mentioned at No More Hornets.

    It’s our word, so take it back. If it causes negative reactions from people, fuck them. That speaks more to them than us. In a perfect world, Harris is right, the word wouldn’t need to be used but this isn’t a perfect world is it? We’re surrounded by theists, so we have no choice. So to theism, I paraphrase Jessica Lang from Rob Roy, ‘I will think on you until you’re dead, and then I’ll think of you no more.” As long as it exists and is powerful, there will be resistance, and resistance requires a name. Split hairs over the title all you want, but it doesn’t change who we are or where we stand.

  4. I think Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins had a good message which was adequately expressed in their respective books. Now I think its time they got back to their respective fields of study. The message went out and will take root where it will.
    Atheism in my humble opinion is better expressed in the philosophical discipline called Skepticism, and skepticism is more a way of life than a belief. Skepticism implies thoughtful consideration, (to the point one has knowledge of the subject), whereas atheism seems to be more of a closed (made up my mind) type of word. We cannot convince anyone of the merit of thoughtful consideration if we are off-putting in the process. Wouldn’t you agree?

  5. DaVinci, I think it is up to each of us to properly explain to those we are having a dialogue with what we mean when we describe ourselves – whether its “atheist”, “agnostic”, “skeptic”, or whatever. I say I am an atheist. To you, this means that I think I have an absolute answer. But it’s not what it means to me. To me, it just means that I don’t think there is a god, nor do I live my life as if there is one. Once I’ve made that simple statement, it can remove some of the off-putting aspects of my atheism.

  6. When some one describes themselves as Catholic, or Christian, they are not just saying that they believe, they are saying many things about themselves in that statement. What are atheists saying – one thing, non-belief. I don’t think there is any comparison. It is up to the individual as John B. says, but it seems rather limiting to only say atheist.

    By its nature atheist is a negative word, it means not believing in God, that’s all, nothing else. Granted, I wish it weren’t necessary to define myself at all, but since I do have to express some kind of nutshell outlook on life in conversation, I see no reason to cause others to associate anything negative with what I consider to be a superior stance of my philosophical outlook. Saying I am a skeptic is a lot like saying I’m from Missouri; I like to be shown. It implies more thoughtfulness and some kind of plan that aids in understanding the metaphysical questions of existence.

    I think that if the [unholy trio] want to do more than just shock people, then they need to find a way to express all of our thoughts in a positive light, which isn’t done with the word atheist. Try telling a group of people you work with that your atheist, and then try it with another group only tell them you’re a skeptic and see what a difference it makes.

  7. I’ve heard people say not to use the term “skeptic” because it has a negative connotation and leads most people to think cynic (on a skeptical podcast no less). Really, if we have to keep throwing off labels because someone associates it to something negative then we’d have no labels.

    And there are going to be people that find something wrong with what you say no matter what you say. To me it seems like another small, unimportant thing to be worried about among the greater problems.

  8. So what if “atheist” is a negative word. I’d gladly say I’m an a-theist, an a-pedophile, an a-murderer, and so on. If it ruffles feathers, so be it. Using another word like “skeptic” is just pussy-footing around, and could just as well mean you’re an agnostic, which is another of those more palatable terms to theists.

    The need for “nutshell outlooks” is for lazy people who don’t have to really listen to you but rather categorize you so they can quickly pretend to know exactly who you are and what you think. No, I’m not going to indulge a lazy audience by either giving them such a thing or worrying what their lazy reaction will be when I say “atheist”. They’re just going to have to listen to what I say and ask questions or else move along and let’s be honest here, is it worth the time to talk to people who can’t be bothered to listen?

  9. Christians can be Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans or what have you. Jews can be Orthodox, Reform, or Hasidic. Why can’t an Atheist be a scientist, a humanist, a materialist a determinist or whatever other descriptive term fits the individual bill? If the term turns people off, I’m not so sure changing the term itself is the answer.

    Plenty of derogatory terms exist for all kinds of people. The question remains is the term derogatory, or can it be “reclaimed” the same way homosexuals reclaimed the term “gay.”

    Bottom line?

    “Atheist” may well be the best term to describe a variety of worldviews that share the common trait of not relying on belief in a god to explain the universe.

  10. I’d just like to point out that the term “agnostic” is more acceptable to theists for (at least) 2 reasons:

    1. It implies that you could be swayed to their position, with the right arguments, and gives them hope.

    2. Rightly or wrongly, they take it as a sign of weakness (we KNOW Christ – they don’t know WHAT they believe) and gives them an aura of superiority.

  11. Yes, for a lot of reasons everyone has mentioned here (both for and against), I’m still enamored of the term atheist.

    Sometimes, we need a very clear cut word when dealing with theists. We really don’t need a word for ourselves, but theists really have different, mostly skewed, often lied about, misunderstandings of what an atheist is. That’s why we need to have a common understanding of it ourselves, before we try to project it to the world, and correct their false impressions.

    I’ve never been clear as to what an agnostic was. Sometimes it seems to be the same as an atheist, other times not.

    A skeptic is something everyone is, even theists, so it doesn’t rally satisfy. The opposite of skeptic implies you are gullible, and no one, not even theists, like to think that applies to them.

    I’ve often called myself a rationalist, but again, I’ve never met a theist who didn’t think he was rational too.

    We need to have a term that differentiates us in a specific way.

    Atheist does that best.

  12. There is a dichotomy in atheist circles between a simple label and a name which actually means something.
    Skepticism as a philosophical term means; [from Wikipedia]-
    1. the limitations of knowledge,
    2. a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing,
    3. the arbitrariness, relativity, or subjectivity of moral values,
    4. a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment,
    5. a lack of confidence in positive motives for human conduct or positive outcomes for human enterprises, that is, cynicism and pessimism (Keeton, 1962).

    Isn’t this exactly what we are trying to tell people about ourselves? That we recognize limitations of what is knowable, that we try to follow a systematic path to what we do know, that objective morality (such as found in a holy book) needs some scientific reason to be followed, that sweeping generalizations and fear aren’t sufficient reason to believe anything, that we judge according to the utile function of an act before we arbitrarily assume it’s goodness.

    Atheists differentiate themselves from theist in many ways, but the most important is that we refrain from truth claims with only supernatural evidence, we refrain from truth claims that rely on circular reasoning, and we refrain from truth claims that adjust what is right or accept as right behavior something that clearly goes against philosophical empiricism. We are by necessity materialists. These are all parts of philosophical skepticism, which actually has meaning and depth. It’s those folks running around simply saying “there is no God” with just as much to back it up as those that say the opposite that make us look sophomoric.

    I do not think it’s trivial at all, and I certainly think it matters a great deal what we call ourselves and what reason we give for it. We are not postulating anything; we are instead trying to jam our finger in the cracked dam of reason.

    I feel rather strongly about this.

  13. I’ve seen christian moderates refer to themselves as skeptics because they don’t buy all that literal nonsense of the bible, don’t accept that there’s a hell, plus are willing to acknowledge we don’t know who wrote the books of the bible or how much they’ve been edited and mistranslated over time. These people pride themselves as being intelligent, rational and many of the things most atheists claim as defining attributes for ourselves.

    Like I said, no pussyfooting around. Whether it causes a negative reaction in someone or not, “atheist” is very clear and doesn’t require a trip to wikipedia or your nearest dictionary for a multi-layered definition. 😉

  14. @DaVinci

    I can tell. 🙂

    And I agree with you. I think that skepticism is a major underpinning of atheism, one of the solid bases upon which it rests. But what we’re talking about is what we call ourselves for the world, so they they know exactly what it is we believe and not believe.

    Skeptics also have problems with holocaust deniers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and astrologists. Atheists may too, but those issues are not what atheism is all about.

    And this is what I’m talking about in the post. Skepticism, along with naturalism, rationalism, agnosticism (to a certain degree) and a whole host of other isms, for most atheists, are subsumed into the term, atheism.

    I think we’d be better off sticking with the term that first says “no gods”, to emphasize the focal point. Once people are educated to the underlying philosophies, and understand them, they will know that the atheist they are speaking to is also a skeptic, a rationalist, a naturalist, etc.

  15. There is a benefit to using the term ‘atheist’ or anything else that gets the religionists upset. When they learn I’m an atheist they determine to go pray for me. I figure that as long as they’re off praying for me they’re not doing anything to screw up the legal system, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, my rights, or anybody’s life.

    What’s the opposite of ‘atheist’?

    How about irrationalist? Or crazy person? Or pain in the butt?

  16. John-
    What we see with Christians is a hodge-podge of differing names each with some subtle point, or anti point they emphasize in their theology. I really hate to see those who call themselves atheist start the same thing. I think most of those who call themselves atheist these days are really just anti Christian anyway, which isn’t really atheism at all. The atheist must also give reason for non-belief just as a believer needs to have a reason for their belief. Explaining atheism point by point is time consuming and rarely fruitful in helping a person understand why we do not believe in a/their deity. Most atheists I know are simply don’t have enough knowledge to make a metaphysical assumption that there is no God anyway.
    I recently read a portion of a book by Richard Muller, Physicist at U.C. Berkeley, called The Sins of Jesus, (a novel) where he gives some alternative reasoning behind the Old Testament miracles and the life of Jesus. I will (with your indulgence) post a portion of a chapter which illustrates an alternative to the parting of the Red Sea, so you can get an idea of how convoluted the theistic message has become. I think atheism is a good answer to what has been passed down through canon, but we tend to overlook the option that God may have had little to do with what we read in it. In fact God may find that the most utile way to deal with humanity is to stay out of its affairs completely especially if the message has been so grossly distorted that no one would ever believe the truth.
    This is from chapter 9; Jesus is told how Moses split the Red Sea.
    Please excuse the length.
    It was on this scorching day, as I stood stretching my back, that I glanced
    into the distant desert and saw a shimmering on the horizon. I adjusted my mask
    to see better. A wide blue lake glimmered in the otherwise dry landscape.
    “Simon!” I shouted. “Water! Look!” I rubbed my eyes in amazement. “That must
    be the Great Sea of the Setting Sun!”
    “That’s not the Great Sea, Jesus,” he said with a wry smile. “It’s the Red
    Simon was jesting, but I didn’t understand the joke. “The Red Sea is over a
    hundred miles away, Simon. It must be the Great Sea. But … how could we see it
    from here?”
    “Jesus, you told me that you traveled to Egypt as a child. Have you never
    seen Satan’s water?”
    “Oh. Yes, of course. Satan’s water.” To recover my dignity, I just recited
    what my father had taught: “Satan’s water is just an illusion, a reflection of
    the sky on the ground, made when heat makes it reflect like metal. It has
    nothing to do with Satan. People just call it that because you can never reach
    “Persians call it ‘desert silver.’ To me it is one of the great beauties and
    mysteries of the desert.” He stopped work for a moment to watch the shimmering.
    I worked for a while and pondered my confusion. “Why did you say that it was
    the Red Sea?” I finally asked.
    The magus turned his strange blue eyes towards me. “Jesus,” he said, “what do
    you think would happen if we walked right into that water?”
    “We’d never reach it. As we walked, it would get further and further away.”
    “But suppose that we were entering a large desert and we saw this large sea
    in front of us. What would we see as we crossed the desert? What would the water
    do? Where would it appear?”
    I looked at the shimmer and imagined us walking across the hot sand and rock.
    “I guess it would be on all sides of us,” I answered.
    “Exactly right! Think about that. Imagine it. As we enter the desert, the
    sea goes back as if driven by a wind, and the waters are divided, and you walk
    into the midst of what had been the sea but now is dry land. In the distance you
    see a wall of water beyond your right hand, and a wall of water beyond your
    I knew the book of Exodus by heart, and the magus was quoting it nearly
    verbatim. “Are you suggesting that Moses never split the Red Sea, but only split
    an illusion?” I said, incredulously.
    “Jesus, the Jews didn’t have to cross the Red Sea, or any other large body of
    water, to escape the Egyptians-only some marshes and the desert.”
    “But the Jews would have known about Satan’s water!” I countered. “They
    wouldn’t have been fooled so easily.” The idea was completely absurd. I was
    annoyed and a bit indignant at this attack on my religion.
    “You were fooled just now,” he said, “and yet you knew about it. Of course
    Moses knew about Satan’s water. He had crossed the desert many times. But few of
    the Jews had ever left Rameses. They lived along the lush Nile-with the desert
    two days’ journey away. Virtually all of them were in the desert for the very
    first time.”
    I was dumbfounded. This miracle of Moses was the greatest event in the
    history of Judaism. It was the most spectacular of God’s interventions to
    protect his chosen people. It was the most wonderful demonstration of his
    infinite power and his love for us. Even to suggest that it never happened, or
    that it was only an illusion, was an insult to all Jews.
    I looked out over the quivering horizon and thought, it doesn’t even look
    like a sea! Anyway, not if you look at it for a long time. Certainly a whole
    people wouldn’t be fooled. In the group there must have been other Jews familiar
    with the desert. Simon is just trying to make me angry. His contention doesn’t
    even make logical sense.
    I had been quiet for a few minutes and was annoyed with myself for not
    quickly countering Simon’s accusations. Finally I said, with an affected
    sarcasm, “If it really were an illusion, then why did Moses say it was the Red
    Sea? If he were caught in such a lie, he would have lost his leadership for
    “He probably never told the Jews any such thing. They just saw that they were
    heading towards a large body of water. The largest sea in the desert is the Red
    Sea, so they assumed that Moses was leading them into it. They were probably
    mystified, and they were certainly frightened. They believed that the Pharaoh’s
    army was in angry pursuit and that they were in danger of being slaughtered. It
    was going to take a miracle to save them. Just then the sea split right in front
    of them. A miracle had occurred! They assumed that Moses knew all along that the
    sea would split. And that’s the way the storytellers passed the story down.”
    “Well, then what caused the pursuing Egyptian soldiers to drown?” I asked
    “Who says that they drowned, Jesus? Only the storyteller. The Jews never went
    back. All they really knew was that the water closed behind them. The Egyptian
    papyri chronicle that same period with no mention of a drowned army. So why
    didn’t the soldiers pursue the Jews? — you are about to ask. I don’t know.
    Perhaps they thought that the Jews would eventually turn around and come back to
    Egypt. It’s not easy to survive on the desert, particularly for such a big
    group. Rulers have always underestimated the toughness of your people, Jesus.”
    I swung my pick with added energy, sending tiny chips of rock shooting out in
    all directions. But my mind was not on my work. I couldn’t accept the magus’s
    sacrilegious interpretation of Exodus. I recited to myself the relevant sections
    of the Scriptures, silently, trying to find the flaw. The magus worked quietly,
    sweeping up chips with a bush broom. Suddenly I turned to him and said, “You’re
    telling me that Moses used magic to keep the loyalty of the Jews?”
    “As I told you before, Jesus, there isn’t a religion in history that hasn’t
    used magic for that purpose, although most of them deny doing so. Your people
    are unusual-they’ve used magic less than most-but they used it when needed. Your
    Scriptures are full of examples.” He seemed to be thinking with his broom.
    “Here, how about this. When God first spoke to him, Moses was not sure that he
    could convince the Jews that he carried the divine word. Now, why was that?”
    “Because he wasn’t eloquent,” I replied. “He said ‘I am slow of speech and
    slow of tongue.'”
    “Then how did Moses convince the Jews that he had spoken directly to God?”
    “God gave him two miracles to perform, the diseased hand that could be cured
    by placing it under his cloak, and the walking stick that turned into a snake.”
    “Why didn’t God simply make Moses eloquent? Certainly it was within the power
    of the Almighty to do that.”
    I had no good answer.
    “Tell me,” he continued, “when Moses did these miracles, why didn’t Pharaoh
    believe he was a messenger from God?”
    “Because his own magicians could … perform the same magic,” I said.
    “Why didn’t God give Moses a better miracle? Like making him eloquent?”
    “Perhaps he wanted the Jews to be convinced, but not the Pharaoh.”
    “You’re too clever for your own good!” the magus remonstrated with a laugh.
    “You’re beginning to sound like a Pharisee. Try to be smart, not clever.”
    “All right, why do you think the Lord gave Moses such little miracles, then?”
    “Jesus, God didn’t give these tricks to Moses. Moses learned them from the
    Egyptians, perhaps in the Pharaoh’s court. Moses used them to keep his own
    people under control. Of course the tricks were useless in front of Pharaoh, for
    Pharaoh’s magicians were just as good, and probably better.”
    “Well, then, let me see you turn that broom into a snake,” I said ruefully.
    “I could do it, Jesus. But it would take a little preparation.”
    I stared off at the shimmering in the distance. It really does look like a
    sea, I thought. I walked over to a day tent and took a drink of tepid water from
    a goatskin. If it weren’t so oppressively hot, I thought, I would have the
    answers for the magus’s accusations. He was a smart man who had studied Judaism,
    but he didn’t really understand our religion. He was just trying to demolish my
    beliefs. What would my father say? How would he answer the magus? I pondered,
    and an image came to my mind, of my father nodding, agreeing with the magus
    about Moses. I pushed the image away. Not only was the magus toying with me, but
    so was my mind.

    For days I could think of nothing other than these accusations of the magus,
    and I am sure my work suffered. Darius probably thought I was sick. Indeed, my
    head did feel as if it were swimming, perhaps drowning, as I struggled to find
    good. As I worked, I pondered the other miracles of Moses. Obviously Pharaoh
    didn’t believe the plagues had been brought by Moses. Indeed, his own magicians
    said they could duplicate the deluge of frogs and the turning of water into
    blood. Aha! The killing of the first-born! Moses couldn’t have done that by
    deception. The Jews used the sprig of a hyssop to paint lambs’ blood on their
    thresholds, so the Angel of Death would recognize Jewish homes and pass over
    them. That midnight the first-born sons of all the Egyptians died. We still
    celebrate the “pass-over.” I’ll challenge the magus with that.
    No sooner had I imagined myself confronting Simon Magus with the slaughter of
    the first-born, than I imagined his answer: “The Jews left that night. How did
    they know that all the Egyptian first-born had died? They didn’t even have time
    to leaven their bread!”
    My imagination offered no reply, so I pondered other miracles. What about
    manna, the wondrous food that God supplied in the desert? What about that, Simon
    Magus? And in my mind he replied, “What do you think the Jews knew about the
    natural foods of the wilderness?” And I replied, nothing. Anything edible they
    found would be considered a miracle.
    Why was my mind tricking me so?
    The one, the great indisputable miracle of Moses had been the splitting of
    the sea. Everything else could be explained away, particularly if Moses had some
    skill in magic. The most spectacular thing he had done, the thing that proved
    his direct contact with the Lord, had been the parting of the Red Sea. It was
    the only miracle defying explanation that had been performed in the presence of
    all the Jews. And now Simon Magus had explained it.
    No! Moses was not a fraud.
    Over the next few days, we finished the digging of the channel on the plateau
    and then began lining cracks with mortar. Work often came to a complete halt
    when we ran out of water, and we waited in the day tent. I didn’t raise the
    issue of Moses with Simon during those times, and he didn’t mention it to me,
    but I grew more and more annoyed at my failure to confront him. One day I
    stepped outside into the hot, fresh air. Simon followed me out.
    “The desert is dead,” he said, “but beautiful. It’s a gift from God. We can
    show our appreciation by enjoying it.”
    I was annoyed by the similarity of his words to those my father once spoke. I
    blurted out, “Moses was not a liar or a fraud. He was our first prophet! He
    delivered the covenant from the Lord.”
    “I agree,” Simon said. “He was not a liar or fraud.”
    “But you said he lied to the Jews.”
    “No, not exactly. I said that Moses used magic to convince the Jews that he
    brought the word of God.”
    “Now you are just being clever,” I remonstrated. “What about the Law? Did it
    come from a burning bush? Or were the rules made up by Moses? Moses said they
    came from the Lord.”
    “Jesus, God speaks in many ways. Perhaps the Law had come to Moses from God,
    from a voice whispering quietly in his ear.”
    “Moses said that it was a thunderous voice, not a quiet whisper!”
    “Even a quiet whisper can carry a thunderous message.” Simon lowered his
    voice to a whisper. “Moses’s greatness is beyond dispute, regardless of whether
    or not he split the Red Sea. However, even with divinely inspired laws, you
    sometimes need a little more to convince your people that God has spoken to you.
    That’s why the Greeks use magic. That’s why the Egyptians use magic. That’s why
    we magi use magic.”
    “That’s deception.”
    “If done in a righteous cause, deception can be more honest than truth.”


    Richard is a well known skeptic, and his intelligence has helped him come up with naturalistic alternatives to these stories we hear so often that seem so incredulous to us. So in closing, I would say that to be an atheist regarding supernatural events is a good thing, however if a natural explanation exists we should always prefer it. This doesn’t mean that things happened this way at all, but it is a parsimonious alternative.

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