Dancing On Pinheads

Many people have at some point heard, or are at least vaguely familiar with the question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” – a reference to the pointless theological debates that consumed much of European academia during the latter half of the Middle Ages.  Although it turns out this particular phrasing was most likely never actually discussed (not appearing in print until hundreds of years later as a retroactive jab at Thomas Aquinas and his “scholastic” brand of philosophy) it continues to serve as a handy metaphor for any dubious intellectual endeavor lacking in apparent practical value and without any foreseeable means of resolution.

Questions of this sort, while no longer at the forefront of serious scholarly inquiry, haven’t completely subsided in the modern age, especially in the United States where we have the unusual distinction of being by far the most religious of any advanced, industrial nation.  As the so-called “culture wars” rage on unabated in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election (with back and forth volleys ranging from Rick Santorum’s failed candidacy to President Obama’s recent declaration of support for gay marriage), the subject of religious belief and its role in American politics has been pushed to the forefront of national discourse, and with it has come a revival of interest in a wide range of formerly obscure ideas relating to God and his role in the universe.

Most visible and controversial among these various heretical doctrines to emerge, and standing in direct opposition to the mainstream Christian beliefs still held by a majority of the populace, is the moral and philosophical position that God is completely imaginary; that he is nothing but a vestige of primitive ignorance and confusion about the workings of nature, and that it is therefore up to humans alone to determine what is best for our species.  Rooted in science and fueled in large part by a perceived religious overreach in all manner of secular concerns, this passionate and vocal “new” atheism has burst onto the scene over the past decade – a rapid resurgence of a phenomenon that had gone virtually unnoticed in the U.S. since the days of Robert Green Ingersoll and the “Golden Age of Freethought” at the close of the nineteenth century.

As a direct result of its newfound popularity, there are now more resources available for atheists and other such heathens than ever before, and the ideas they promote can no longer be as easily suppressed or ignored as they once were.  By embracing the power of the Internet to share information with a global audience, modern atheists have been remarkably successful in disseminating their ideas and attracting new supporters.  A simple Google search or a quick perusal of sites such as Reddit or Twitter gives a good sense of just how ubiquitous atheist articles and treatises have become among the blogosphere and other alternative forms of media.

Of course, such success has also inspired an army of detractors, many of them enraged to the point of madness over what they view as a blasphemous assault against everything they hold dear.  When you stop to consider the relative novelty of seeing viewpoints that were long regarded as taboo suddenly being publicly and unapologetically expressed (significantly easier now that doing so won’t result in you being burned alive at the stake), along with the brutal history of bigotry and oppression that have been directed against atheists since ancient times, it’s not surprising that Christians, Muslims, and other devout believers would lash out vehemently against these outspoken infidels and the threat they pose to their faith.

What is surprising however, is that some of the harshest critiques of atheism often seem to come, not from the believers, but instead from individuals who for all intents and purposes should likewise fall into the non-religious category – people who have rejected most tenets of orthodox dogma and yet who, for various reasons, still cling to unsupported and untestable beliefs about an ultimate divine power.  I’m referring here in particular to those calling themselves deists or pantheists.  For anyone unfamiliar with these terms, a brief overview may be of some help.

A deist is someone who believes that the universe was created by an all-powerful, supernatural intelligence who has since retired from active involvement with his creation, content to let it evolve according to the laws of nature.  Deists therefore tend to reject the idea of miracles, of prophecy, and of divine revelation – in other words, many of the things most cherished by the traditional Abrahamic faiths.  Counted among their ranks are such famous Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Rousseau as well as several of America’s founding fathers, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.  It is to this deist “God of nature” that Jefferson was referring when he penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the universe, and that we, as well as everything else – all the stars and planets, all matter and energy, all thoughts and ideas, ants and worms, atoms and galaxies – everything – are all just various aspects of his divine being, or nodes in his cosmic consciousness.  Alternatively, for the less allegorically inclined, it’s the view that God, Nature, and the Universe are synonymous and interchangeable terms pointing to a single, grand unifying principle of existence – a stance Richard Dawkins has referred to as “sexed-up atheism.”  Notable adherents of pantheism include the Renaissance troublemakers Giordano Bruno and Baruch Spinoza as well as more modern thinkers such as Albert Einstein.

Now, there are myriad reasons why someone might choose to subscribe to either of these two positions.  Probably the most straightforward and respectable one is that they just truly feel that’s where the evidence leads; that in their opinion, Occam’s razor cuts most finely by positing the existence of some higher being to initiate the Big Bang, or to tweak the universe’s various physical constants in order to provide the necessary atomic stability that makes life as we know it possible.

For others, their basis of belief is not so much intellectual as it is the result of emotional attachment – a lingering nostalgia for one of humankind’s oldest ideas coupled with what is otherwise a scientific outlook – one that makes Creationism and other such forms of Biblical literalism untenable but still leaves room in their worldview for a deity of some sort.  Yet another possible route to such beliefs is that like Trekkies or die-hard Harry Potter fans, they simply find such speculative concepts mysterious and exciting to the point of infatuation, thus leading them to embrace these ideas as the ultimate truth about reality.  Regardless of the underlying psychological motivations, however, both of the positions outlined above share two major points in common.

The first is that despite whatever mental appeal they may hold for those who subscribe to them, both of these ideas are essentially pure speculation.  While they’re interesting to ponder as hypotheses or as thought experiments, by their very nature they seem doomed to remain forever trapped beyond any conceivable manner of investigation or refutation, thus placing them beyond the purview of science.

Think about it.  If you have a god who is the universe or who dwells fully outside of and out of contact with it – a god whose presence exerts no detectable, discernible influence over the physical interactions of matter and energy in space and time – then his existence would mesh so perfectly with the laws of physics as to make it indistinguishable from non-existence.  How is such a god in any meaningful sense “real”?  Faced with such fundamental limitations, it would therefore seem a bit presumptuous, or at least premature, to assert these ideas as gospel truth.  As the astronomer Edwin Hubble once said, “Not until the empirical resources are exhausted need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.”

Far more important than disputing these positions, however, is drawing attention to the second point they have in common; that is, to the utter irrelevance of any such intangible and distant god in relation to the specific factual claims made by the world’s major religions, and to the effects that such claims have on human life in the here and now.

To say that God exists but that he’s uninvolved with the day to day workings of the universe, or unconcerned with human affairs, or that he is the universe and we and everything else are merely cogs within the grand machine of his being begs the question:  How does that have anything to do with the myths, rituals, and dogmas championed by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.?  How is such a god in any way relevant to what we know as organized religion or to the misguided morality it tries to impose on everyone it encounters?

I think that atheists sometimes get so hung up on the matter of God’s non-existence that we tend to forget this crucial matter of relevance.  It’s quite simple.  Unless God thinks and acts somewhat like a human being – unless he is concerned with our thoughts and behaviors, and listens to prayers, and occasionally suspends the laws of physics to perform miraculous interventions on our behalf (as envisioned by most devout worshipers and as described in their holy books) – then who really cares whether some abstract shadow of such a divinity exists or not?  If he lies wholly outside the spheres in which mainstream religion inserts itself, then the potential existence of such a being has absolutely no bearing on why society should be anything but secular!

Neither the God of deists nor the God of pantheists would have even the slightest relevance as far as why one should follow the Ten Commandments of the Bible, or obey Sharia or the Five Pillars of Islam, or abide by the kosher restrictions of Jewish orthodoxy.  This God would have nothing to do with the wearing of burqas, or mandatory school prayer, or with religious opposition to contraception, gay marriage, and the teaching of science – in short, all the things that get atheists so riled up in the first place.

If to believe in him requires just as much of a leap of faith as believing in Yahweh, yet the repercussions of doing so are utterly irrelevant to human life and interaction, there just doesn’t seem to be much point in getting so passionately attached to the concept.  Looking at it from a purely pragmatic perspective, beyond its possible sci-fi value, what’s really the difference between saying he exists or saying he doesn’t?  And if that’s the case, why dispute so heartily with atheists?  (Granted, you could fairly ask the same question of us, but that’s the whole point – it’s doesn’t matter either way.)

Atheists only concern ourselves with religion – we only bother with carrying such a ridiculously unnecessary label as “atheist” (after all, no one feels the need to declare himself an a-vampirist, a-leprechaunist, etc.), which brings us nothing but derision and grief from the general public – because we see superstitious, dogmatic, faith-based religion as one of the most destructive, baseless, and useless pursuits ever dreamt up by human beings.

Do you as deists or pantheists support the underlying ideas driving wars of religious hatred?  Do you agree with the censorship and other restrictions on freedom imposed by religious interference with laws and politics?  If so, then fine, we’ll add you to the rolls of the opposition.  But if not, why work to disparage the one group most vocally and vehemently opposed to all religious bigotry; to all indoctrinating of nonsense in innocent youth; to all anti-science, anti-progress, anti-learning, anti-pleasure, guilt-reveling death worship; to all peddling of false hope in order to control credulous masses brainwashed since birth?

With over eighty percent of humanity holding religious beliefs of some kind; with forty-six percent of Americans believing the earth was created six thousand years ago over the course of seven days; with a large contingent of murderous, fanatical Islamists bent on world domination and the complete destruction of secular society and values, we have our work cut out for us as it is.

So why obstruct us?  Why tear down the body of awareness we’re striving to build?  Why stand in the way of our vision of a happier, healthier, more peaceful future?  We should be at worst, uneasy allies, sharing a mutual interest in pursuing the truth about reality, free from the confines of mental and physical oppression and punishment, and the stifling of open inquiry practiced by both church and mosque for centuries.

With science now pointing towards such incredible and exotic possibilities as an infinite multiverse, hyper-dimensional vibrating strings, dark energy, the Higgs boson, quantum tunneling, and so many other exciting and fascinating facets of existence awaiting discovery, we should stop arguing about dancing angels and instead focus our energies on standing united against the common enemy of freethought.  Even a sentient universe ought to appreciate that!

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.  He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.  Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess

Colby Hess

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.

18 Comments on "Dancing On Pinheads"

  1. Camron Wiltshire | Jun 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm |

    “The first is that despite whatever mental appeal they may hold for those who subscribe to them, both of these ideas are essentially pure speculation.  While they’re interesting to ponder as hypotheses or as thought experiments, by their very nature they seem doomed to remain forever trapped beyond any conceivable manner of investigation or refutation, thus placing them beyond the purview of science.”

    So when can we get “atheists” to go through a 1 year training program involving copious consumption of  entheogens and ascetic practices?  Then they may be able to can with authority, that they have have left no stone unturned in their pursuit of truth,  rigorously observed their own experiences through the various lenses afforded by nature and have then concluded there is truly nothing else which could conceivably be god like in self or otherwise there?

    I would then take these types of manifestos much more seriously as they would come from a place of experience rather than ignorance masquerading as logic.  

    “How many Angels can dance on the head of a pin.”  If you rotate the hebrew gods name within angel or EL you will find there are incalculable angles/geometries within the head of the pin and thus a grain of sand and time hold a dimensional truth of infinity in your hand.  

    This is the knowledge the supported deists such as Thomas Jefferson in his pursuit of human liberty which of course also supports tolerance of others beliefs, even atheists, who choose to ignore evidence and pathways which might destroy their desire to see the world through a disenchanted lens ,perhaps because the truth is overwhelming?  Again I refer to the above challenge as they only means to truly know.  

    Produce a Christopher Hitchens/Anton Wilson hybrid.  A scientific shaman and then profess until your hearts content.  

  2. Monkey See Monkey Do | Jun 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm |

    Major problem with atheists, they always feel like their being attacked. All because agnostics or pantheists or whatever non-religious people get labelled with these days don’t agree with materialistic fundamentalism, does not mean we are attacking you.

    Atheists seem to think religion is the root of all evil, religion is only one of many institutions that have suppressed and enslaved people, many systems of authority seem to symbiotically help eachother. Economic, political and religious authorities, for example: capitalism, fascism, religious fundamentalism all work together quite well to oppress people and seperate them from any understanding of the nature of their existence.

    • mannyfurious | Jun 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm |

      Yeah, the thing is, if it weren’t religion, human beings would just figure out some other way to do terrible shit to each other. As I’ve posted many times, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, geography, political leanings and general differences in power have led many in history to perform atrocities just as bad if not worse than things done in the name of religion…..

    •  We feel like we are being attacked? I can not speak for all but I can say I do not feel like I’m being attacked and none of the other atheists I know have said anything about ‘always being attacked’. Capitalism and fascism or political/economic systems do not attempt to explain how everything we know of was created. Sure they can be a source of ‘evil’ but we can deal with things that result from realistic causes much easier than problems that come from fictional stories and magic. You can sit down and make a plan to correct a corrupt political system based on knowledge and experience and have a chance of fixing the flaws. Religion is based on things that are not logical or even real. How can you form a plan to deal with problems arising from it and hope to have any success?The only reasonable solution is eliminating it all together. Religion is a force that results in countless negative effects on our progress and happiness and does so only to preserve itself. It also promotes ignorance. The way the term ‘fundamentalism’ is applied to atheism as if it can somehow be compared to religious fundamentalism is a joke. One  behavior is based on what we know to be real and  the other from made up stories and untestable claims.

      • Sorry your augment makes no sense and it sounds like you’ve copyed and pasted from 7 or 8 blogs. Also how the hell does believe in deity cause starvation and poverty for most of the world, which also leads to some of the worlds most destructive wars? And from your argument it sounds like only atheists and atheist 
        philosophies are the true paths and followers logic. If that’s true then explain Objectivism? 
        In fact, your putting religion as the more destructive force ahead of capitalism and fascism there? You been asleep in all modern history classes? You know what? Fuck you, fuck you and your little middle class life you jumped up self-righteous prick. I’ve had it with cunts like you acting like some fucking sage of logic in sea of idiots, you elitist prick. You’ve actual made me angry, something that rarely happens these days. You’ve made me angry to the point of fucking swearing at you. 
        Its people like you, running around going “OH if only there was no religion then the problems would go away!” that is helping to stop us from actual debating the real problems in the world; Neo-colonialism, capitalism, lack of democracy, Imperialism  exploitation, racism and bigotry. And the worst thing is? Your going to go “Oh well its religion that causes that!” 

  3. Integral theory has the 3-2-1 of God which states that all three ways of approaching deity are important at least psychologically.. God as object, subject and Self.

  4. Intellectual rigor is not origin of these beliefs, but that is not a bad thing. They are simply implications of faith that things like goodness, honor, justice, hope, wisdom, love, valor, honesty, compassion, sacrifice, spirituality, humility and faith itself are actually worth holding in high regard. This is despite the claims of simplistic versions of the materialist reductionist perspective hypothetically proving these to be “worthless”.

    It cannot however so easily be dismissed as nostalgia. You have nostalgia for an old story that you remember, or your favorite videogame from decades ago, not for fundamental principles of livelyhood. This is about fear of a world where nostalgia for virtue itself could exist, because once you have nostalgia for something, it is probably already gone.

    The value of these things can only seen in a perspective different than the simplistic version of materialism. The problem is, a more complicated version is so far from it that most rationalist materialists would not be willing to call it materialism.

    One odd thing you say here is that deists and pantheists somehow are against a secular society? No. They are for secular societies, but are also in favor of actually holding onto values as opposed to the new-atheist “nothing is sacred” viewpoint. Deists and Pantheists(and maybe even Gnostics Buddhists or Taoists) are not your enemy, you just assume they are because they are giving constructive criticism to your worldview and you take the reactionary approach and file them under “the other” and attack them as such.

  5. The only thing to get is money | Jun 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm |

    Man fuck all yall! God does not exist! It is a man-made mind-made invention. An invention of a fearful, isolated, deranged, and defective mind! Religion is the wellspring of evil! Atheism is not a fucking belief system! The atrocity, perversion, distortion, logical, intellectual and mental fallacy of religion is ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY DESPICABLE! So called “Atheist violence” fucking pales in comparison to the religious toxic dump and pollution of mankind! Fuck gods! Fuck religions! Fuck spiritualities and Fuck these useless discussions!


    • A well reasoned response indicative of the mature rationality of the philosophy that underpins it.

      Why I ever conflated atheists and theists and ascribed to them the same tragic absolutist perspective, I’ll never know.

      • The only thing to get is money | Jun 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |

        Please stop it with the word salad and be clear. Also, there is no middle ground there are only absolutes. As long as there are two or many positions conflict will remain and ensue. Besides, on principle alone, religion is wrong because it is morally, intellectually, and logically false and dishonest.

        • Maybe you’re late to the conversation.

          This is the 3rd or 4th Colby Hess “Atheism is great and everyone else sucks” article in recent months.

          I made my position clear in earlier posts. I’ll recap for you here to save you the unnecessary pain of wading through all that.

          The assertion that there is no god anywhere, at any time, ever, is an unprovable assertion by any well-established epistemology of which I am aware.

          Even highly skeptical agnosticism (having no knowledge of and no belief in any god) can be entirely logically justifiable, atheism (the belief there is no god) however, is not.

          Whatever it is that causes highly skeptical agnostics to take that last step to atheism, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just the human desire for certainty or the attraction of absolutes. Maybe it’s just an acquired belief, like unfounded theism. Perhaps there is some element of forging and maintaining a self-identity involved.

          I don’t know. But I do know that the step between agnosticism and atheism is a huge chasm, emotionally.

          Once there, atheists fall into the same emotional traps that any “true believer” falls into. (I would recommend Eric Hoffer for a survey of what this entails.) Ironically, atheism is absolutist thinking, just like theism.

          In practical terms, it produces a mindset of “If you’re not with us you’re against us”, though this article by Mr. Hess is far more conciliatory than his previous posts and I would like to commend him for his efforts in that regard.

          However, previous articles by Mr. Hess (and responses to) extravagantly demonstrate my point about the practical emotional result being absolutist and unnecessarily divisive.

          There’s one more thing I’d like to address, and that is an assertion you made in your original post.


          I’ll agree that religion _can_ be evil and frequently is. However, surely you must admit that it is not the birth place of all evil.

          I’ve done a whole lot of shit that people would consider “evil” which has nothing whatsoever to do with matters of gods, spirits, devils, demons, or any sort of belief in the supernatural.

          Humans are the source of “Good” and “Evil”, at least on this planet.  Atheists are fond of arguing that ethics/morality/right&wrong/etc exist outside religion and I agree.
          But that also means that “Good and Evil” are independent of religion too.

          • The only thing to get is money | Jun 27, 2012 at 11:37 pm |

            You present a good and clear intellectual argument. I see you want nuance. Preferring hard-line agnosticism (doubt of deities existence) over clear cut atheism (knowledge that no deity has ever existed or ever will exist) Sadly, we do not live in a world governed by the intellect. Men and women are governed by passion, culture norms, assumptions and dictates, and unfortunately these are all too often hard-line. Do you really think a theist can ever find common ground with an agnostic? Let alone an atheist? I am not so sure. Religion wields tremendous power over the minds of individuals and the mind of the culture. There is a sharp divide and it seems irreconcilable. So when I say religion is the birthplace of evil, I truly mean it. In the sense that the goal of religion being to unify mankind and bring peace to mankind through models of “human perfection” ie Jesus, Mohammed, etc has failed. It seems to me that agnosticism and atheism is a reactionary movement against the failed premise and promise of religious ideals and ideology.

            This is a fact of history and it is not my viewpoint. Religion has failed in it purpose and has become a perverted instrument of war, mental and physical torture and control. It is no surprise then that men who would otherwise have normal sexual drives and outlets are perverted into pedophilia and voyeurism in the catholic church. Islamic men and religious leaders are obsessed with sex to the point of fully covering women head to feet, and just recently Saudi Arabian women could not compete in the olympics because Muslim clerics thought strenuous exercise would tear their hymen and defile them of virginity. I swear to you. Look it up.

            I admit that today not all evil stems from a religious nature. But taking into account history and the earliest thoughts of mankind. Religion being the conception that would unify mankind and bring peace, has ironically and unfortunately turned into the wellspring of original “sin” or evil.

          • Only the Sith deal in absolutes… 

  6. Bodenhamersmith | Jun 28, 2012 at 2:09 am |

    Every angel want to make dance in the Pin heads.

  7. The respective problems of Deism and Pantheism are resolved through the reconciliation of their elements in Pandeism.

  8. Mave Smart | Jul 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |

    I think what get’s most pantheists excited is the potential implications of the possibilities of an infinite multiverse, hyper-dimensional vibrating strings, the the consequences of the observer paradox. If conscious perception is the factor determining the collapse of quantum wave function to one of it’s possible states, it would seem that the fabric of reality is consciousness itself, thus satisfying the “god is the universe” supposition. Things get even more interesting if you equate individual universes to individual strings, with each “string” simply being a particular quantum wave form. Consciousness in an emergent phenomenon governed by the physics of reality. The problem is, it would seem, that most atheists tend to lump such forms of spiritual and philosophical inquiry into the meaning of scientific discoveries into the same category as religious bigots who try to suppress scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe. Ironically, atheists more often then not are attempting to suppress the open minded inquiry into the reality we find ourselves in much the same way as the closed minded religious bigots themselves do.

  9. stillexist | Jul 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |

    This article makes a false binary distinction between a world which is absolutely controlled by a divinity and a world which is not controlled by divinity at all. It is my feeling that threads of divinity run through the cosmos, but they are in many ways subservient to a higher natural law. That is, “God” as a personal force can manifest itself in super natural ways, in a way that is, as you state, beyond the purview of science. But magic and divine power work in such a subtle way that the comic-book like myths propagated by mainstream religion detract from the reality.

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