Read This Book at Your Own Risk

no godOur biases tend to show in everything we write, and that’s probably okay. Whether journalist, reviewer, or academic, none of us/them could write truthfully if we tried too hard to “balance” points of view when our own view is very strong in one direction. It’s the purposely hidden biases we ought to worry about.

I’ve chosen as my first review on this site a book that I’m not especially urging you to read. Here’s why.

There Is No God: Atheists in America (Rowan & Littlefield, May 2013), is by David A. Williamson and George Yancey, associate professor and professor of sociology (respectively), at the University of North Texas. The book is based on studies conducted with self-identified atheists, ostensibly to determine why, when atheists are such a relatively small minority, they have such social and political influence.

That alone should have tipped me off, but I kept reading in order to determine how biased these authors actually were. I noticed that they teach in Texas, but my initial thought was that they’re among the limited number of non-believers in that state, perhaps freethinkers going against the tide.

But the tide is certainly not quite as described by Williamson and Yancey. Do atheists have an outsized political influence when compared to their numbers in this country? Consider how few atheists have reached national political office, and consider how likely it is that an atheist would be elected President. Studies have pretty much always said no, though Gallup polls lately have found that about half of Americans might now vote for one.

The book also discusses the polarization of the religious (especially Christian Right) and non-religious secular populations. True enough. Opposing world-views don’t make great bedfellows.

And then they wrote this: “The religious landscape in contemporary America is very, very complex, and finding atheists, who make up a very small percentage of the population, is difficult at best…”  What?!  Maybe atheists in their region are scarce, but that claim is disingenuous at best.

Williamson and Yancey discussed their theory that contact with other atheists via literature turns people into atheists. If it’s that easy to sway people away from irrational beliefs, then perhaps we need to get that “literature” into more hands.

To me, it felt odd to be examined, as an atheist, under a somewhat cloudy microscope by these academic authors. They did take pains to appear neutral in this 160-page volume. They listed questions that couldn’t be answered in their limited research, such as whether self-identified atheists differ in belief from those non-religious persons who do not claim the label. They also did an online survey on attitudes toward the Christian Right, as well as conducting in-person interviews, information detailed at the end of the book.

Perhaps my lack of deep familiarity with sociological writing makes this book seem less comprehensive than it might be, but it’s written as though by academics studying alien insects, trying to understand if not quite sympathize. Their efforts seemed focused on trying to pin down when and exactly how their interviewees turned atheist. They write that atheists are fine with there being no “mystery.”  They see more atheists coming out, and they particularly make note of their concern with those who would prefer to get rid of all religion.

Wrote the reviewer at Booklist: “The authors’ dispassionate and helpful analysis of extreme atheism also demonstrates that compassion and compromise come from the center.” Again I must say, “What?!” So-called “extreme atheists” never try to control other people’s bodies, never try to prevent anyone from going to church or believing whatever they like. A secular society is something about which there should never be compromise.

  • Yancey is a Patheos blogger and talks about the book here.
  • Friendly Atheist mentioned the book in this post.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    I was with you clear up until your last two sentences: “So-called “extreme atheists” never try to control other people’s bodies, never try to prevent anyone from going to church or believing whatever they like. A secular society is something about which there should never be compromise.”

    Those two statements are incompatible with each other.

    • SusanKPerry

      I don’t see the incompatibility that you perceive. No compromise on a secular society, to me, means neithers believers of any kind nor non-believers of any kind should have the right to legislate what to believe or how to find comfort or moral guidance. Any of us can espouse our philosophy freely but the state and its institutions must not take a stand and must not seem to promote one belief over another. Of course, I’m sure we will continue to dispute whether science should have pre-eminence over religiously inspired claims, and extreme atheists will continue to fight for laws that are rational rather than merely traditional.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        The conflict comes that legislating secularism is legislating a belief, in and of itself.

        • SusanKPerry

          Ah, I see. You don’t “believe” in separation of church and state. Not much to talk about then.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            More that I don’t believe separation of Church and State requires freedom from religion, as much as freedom to believe.

            It’s a small distinction I know, but one that secularists often cross. Believers do too, witness the current debate over marriage that could be solved very simply with *stricter* church/state/bedroom separation (just eliminate civil marriage entirely).

          • Carol Lynn

            Wha…? I do not understand how eliminating all civil marriage would solve anything. Are you advocating that ALL marriages must be religious ceremonies whether the couple is religious or not? Or are you saying that you do not understand how anyone who was not religious would ever want to be married so any civil definition of marriage is superfluous?

            If your grasp of these issues is so tenuous, please stay away from making laws, m’kay?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            No, I am advocating that the State no longer has any interest in promoting the thing that used to be marriage, and has no business in it whatsoever.

          • Carol Lynn

            I still am confused by this. You are going with my option 2 above, right? “Marriage” is reserved for a religious rite and so, in your mind, a secular, civil definition of it is unnecessary.

            So… outside of religion reasons you can see no reason to legally form families. None at all. Seriously? Not even for tax or inheritance issues? Your view of families and marriage seems rather weird and narrow to this 31 years married to the same person atheist.

            Don’t go around making laws for the rest of us, OK?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I am saying that I don’t want the government interfering in my church- or for those who don’t have a religion, internal to a house. At all.

            The government shouldn’t be taxing married people any different than single people. The government should have no say in who inherits what, at all- private contracts (wills) should provide that function alone. The government has no right to define what a family is, for anybody.

          • Carol Lynn

            I don’t want your church interfering in my life, either, which is why I prefer legal protections for both of us. To go back to your original point – what is your evidence for asserting there is ‘belief’ in secularism?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Legal protections should be non-discriminatory. There is no way to write a marriage law that is truly non-discriminatory, therefore it must be eliminated. There is no way to write protected class legislation without having unprotected classes, so that too needs to be eliminated.

            One great piece of evidence is the discrimination inherent in secularism that seems to be invisible to secularists.

          • Carol Lynn

            And again – you cannot simply assert that secularism is discriminatory or a “belief”. Care to cite some data?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Secularism excludes supernatural belief structures, and thus is exclusionary and discriminatory in and of itself.

          • Carol Lynn

            Secularism has NO OPINION on belief structures. It is the *null* position. Apparently your difficulty is that you do not understand what a null position is. “Null” is neither for nor against – neutral. You seem to insist it works as, “if they are not fer me, they hafta be agin me.” Sorry, no. That’s religion holding onto privilege (To me you sound like, “if I don’t get to say how everything has to be done, it’s because you are against me! That’s discrimination!”). That’s not how it works, or at least not how it is supposed to work under the Constitution. You still get to do everything your little religious heart desires – except impose your views on anyone who does not want them and anyone can think differently than you do. Secularism says that’s fine because it takes NO SIDES.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            “Secularism has NO OPINION on belief structures.”

            That is a lie.

            Being for anything is taking a side.

          • Carol Lynn

            The fault in understanding is still yours. You do not understand the null or neutral position. Secularism is NOT “for” anything. It is NEUTRAL as to “belief” and says that government should be conducted without reference to *any* religious system. Preferring to *not preference* any belief system over any other is not a “side” – it’s the LACK of a side.

            To go back to the old jibe – Is not collecting stamps a hobby? That someone asserts that Carol does not collect stamps says *nothing* about my stand on hobbies or stamp collecting.

            In your strange worldview, “Carol does not collect stamps” is a positive statement that means not only MUST I have another hobby, I surely despise and discriminate against anyone who collects stamps. Do you see how illogical that is? I am in the *neutral* position on stamp collecting.

            Secularism, in the same way, is *neutral* on “belief” issues. It is “for” only *not preferring* any belief system over any other.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Then secularists should stop making laws about religion at all.

          • Carol Lynn

            Again, please cite what laws you are objecting to as ‘secularists making laws about religion.” Perhaps laws that say ‘no religion can expect to be privileged nor their views be favored over other religious or non-religous views,” are the the ones you object to?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Marriage is the prime example right now. Originally codified as a Christian privilege, it’s become the opposite- with divorce it has become a curse.

            It needs to be done away with entirely. Civil marriage is not compatible with secularism as “nullity”, because marriage is primarily religious even when it never references God.

          • Carol Lynn

            Marriage was NEVER a “Christian privilege” except in the minds of some particularly privileged Christians. Some form of family building dynamic – why not call it marriage? – exists in EVERY SINGLE HUMAN CULTURE EVER. It’s quite arrogant and ignorant of you to co-opt something so universal and demand the whole world and everyone in it conform to your rather narrow definition of the concept. Secularism’s ‘nullity’ says that religious people of your beliefs get to create legal families by marriage, and religious people who follow other beliefs get to create legal families by marriage, and everyone else gets to create legal families by marriage, too. Secularism does not take a ‘side’. You want your religious beliefs to override everyone else’s definition of marriage? Sorry. No.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            So why don’t incestous couples get to form families? Why don’t polygamous groups get to form families? Why not allow *EVERYTHING*, including a single person with an inanimate object, to be a family?

            If you were truly secular, that’s what you’d be working for.

          • Carol Lynn

            One of these things is not like the others. Category fail! (I notice your misandry as well. I see you have no problem with omitting polyandrous groups forming marriages in your little litany of the horrors of non-christian marriage.)

            Your religious viewpoint has given you skewed views of basic concepts, hasn’t it? “Marriage is between consenting adults” kinda rules out incest, pedophilia, bestiality, and inanimate objects.

            And if your comeback to that is, “I wanted to grow up and marry my mother and my sisters … and have children with all my daughters just like Lot did in the Bible! Now even you evil secularists who let gays get married say I can’t!!! No fair!” that’s above my pay grade as a commenter. Go see a professional as to why that’s a bad idea.

            There is a difference between secularism and anarchy. Please try to not get them confused.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I’m saying that from a secular point of view, NONE of these are horrific enough for civil government involvement. If anything, I’m the one being secular, not you.

            Consent is a religious belief with no basis in fact, and I have no respect for any “secularist” who professes belief in it.

            Stop claiming to be either a secularist or an atheist, you have exactly the same hangups as the Christians, you’re just less honest about it.

          • Carol Lynn

            Consent is a *religious* belief? – scratches head in puzzlement – Care to explain how you arrived at that conclusion? (you really do have a fundamental problem with basic concepts…..)

          • TheodoreSeeber

            It is a non-material custom, made up entirely by the people involved, with no evidence in the real world. That’s why we have contracts instead.
            This idea that “consent makes a marriage” is as unprovable as “dragons live in Loch Ness”.

          • Carol Lynn

            Still doing the head scratch-thing. “Consent” is hardly non-material – the legal definition is, “Consent is an act of reason and deliberation. A person who possesses and exercises sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent decision demonstrates consent by performing an act recommended by another. Consent assumes a physical power to act and a reflective, determined, and unencumbered exertion of these powers.” Consent is an ACT – which is NOT non-material. Words have specific meaning (a concept you seem to have problems with). However, even if what you claim is true and consent is somehow magically always non-material, that makes it religious exactly how?

            (Ah – I suspect you don’t actually understand what the word “religious” means either, so here’s the definition I’m working with – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religious

            Definition of RELIGIOUS

            1

            : relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity (a religious person) (religious attitudes)

            2

            : of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances (joined a religious order)

            3

            a : scrupulously and conscientiously faithful

            b : fervent, zealous

            If you have some personal, quirky definition of that word, religious, that doesn’t match this, you are also going to have to explain why your definition is preferable to Merriam-Webster’s.)

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Reason and deliberation are non-material, and cannot be detected by current instrumentation, therefore they do not exist. This just proves to me that the law isn’t secular.

            And my definition fits under 3b. You are zealous about consent.

          • Carol Lynn

            Ted, Ted… may I call you Ted? – you are sounding increasing desperate. What part of “consent is an ACT” is unclear to you? Walking is an act guided by invisible brain impulses. Talking is an act produced by reason and deliberation in the brain. Walking or talking without guidance from the brain is just flailing and grunting without purpose or meaning. Neither of those acts is immaterial any more than consent is. Intelligence is an emergent property of the brain, which has no sensory apparatus. Just because we can’t sense ourselves thinking nor (yet) trace the exact process with instrumentation does not mean it isn’t happening or is non-existent.

            And you, again, totally misunderstood my request to think about the definitions. It does not matter if *I* am ‘zealous’ in my defense of reason but whether or not the concept of “consent” is a religious one as you asserted it is. Please do try to read for comprehension. Try again to explain why consent is a religious concept, using an accepted definition of “consent” and “religious” or explaining why those are not applicable and your definitions are better.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            There is a difference between hardware and software. Perhaps only a true scientist can see it, instead of fake scientists.

            And it is not reason, but consent that I’m talking about you being zealous about. You are zealous in your defense of consent.

            Limit yourself to the physical world if you want to be secular, and don’t mess around with fake sciences like psychology and law.

          • Carol Lynn

            I repeat, what I am about anything is totally off the point. Ok – look. You said, “consent is a non-material, religious concept”. I disagreed and cited the dictionary definitions of “consent” and “religious” to support my point. There is nothing in the definition of “consent” that has anything “religious” about it. Therefore, “consent” is not a religious concept.

            You keep harping on the the “zealousness” with which I approach the fact that you are mistaken about the definition of “consent.” That has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Consent itself is not religious in any sense, especially not in the 3b ‘zealous” sense. Consent is defined as a rational and considered act in every dictionary I can find.

            You can stamp your feet and insist you are right and I am wrong or insult me all you like; that does not change the fact that you define the concept of “consent” in a way that is not at all like the accepted dictionary definitions of the word. NO ONE BUT YOU (and possibly some friends of yours who are equally mistaken) asserts that “consent is a religious concept.” and, as I have already shown and cited my sources, YOU ARE FACTUALLY WRONG when you define it that way. Words have meaning and you cannot simply redefine them to suit your own peculiar notions of how the universe ought to work when the rest of the world defines them otherwise.

            If you want to convince me that consent is is a religious concept, you will have to present much better arguments than what you have given so far – your arguments so far amount to no more than repeating, “I (Ted) say so!” in a tone that is rapidly shifting from self-important authoritarian to self-important whiny. That really does not impress me at all. Care to try one more time to give a real argument for consent as a religious concept that I could engage with; or say, “Hmmmm. You’ve given me something to think about.” and I could respect that; or will you just man up admit that I am correct about the concept of consent? Given your track record in the last few replies, I am expecting you will do none of the three rational options to continue this discussion but will fail to read for comprehension, misunderstand what I said, and re-assert that you are right without giving any argument at all for your position. Care to surprise me?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Then why make laws enforcing consent, if it isn’t religious? If it is just a physical act, nobody could possibly betray it to begin with.

            I’m not about to take your word for it, given the zealous behavior for consent-based relationships, including the censorship against anybody who speaks out, the violence committed by gay activists, and now, the full force of supposedly “secular” political correctness nazis in our courts.

          • Carol Lynn

            Darn. You decided to not surprise me by offering an argument for your position but opted, as I guessed you would, to merely stamp your feet in frustration that I will not play to your script of how this should be going and got whinier. Ah well. No. You do not get out of supporting YOUR definition so easily.

            I do not expect you to “take my word for it,” I expect you to take the standard dictionary’s definitions as the usual and common usage of the words “consent” and “religious” and apply them correctly. While you have given no reasons but simply insisted that I must take your word that consent is a religious concept (and in the process have developed what I consider an unhealthy fixation on the word “zealous”) I have already given the definitions of the words “consent” and “religious” and cited the sources that show your understanding of the concept of “consent” is completely mistaken. Go back and read them again until you grasp the concepts properly, then defend your position with reasoned, cited arguments or admit you can’t defend your position and slink away.

            I’ll even give you a free clue on how it’s done in case you really are unfamiliar with the debate process. The way debate works is that It is now your job to give an actual argument on the reasons why you are correct when you state “consent is religious.” You can’t just say it again. You need to actually write out and post the process of how you decided that your non-standard definitions are the correct ones and spell out the reasons, in detail and cited if possible, how and why to your mind every English dictionary mis-defines the word “consent” in ways you do not accept. Another clue for you: saying the equivalent of, “I’m going to define it any way I want because I have built up a world view I like based on misunderstanding it and I don’t want the bother of rethinking anything” is not an argument anyone here will accept.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Given the way supposedly secular people have acted over the last 20 years, dictionaries are simply not good enough to cover up actual usage.

          • Carol Lynn

            Look! Oh dear! You really did say: “I’m going to define it any way I want because I have built up a world view I like based on misunderstanding it and I don’t want the bother of rethinking anything.”

            You are consistent. You NEVER give any supporting data at all.

            The ball is still in your court to show WHY consent is a religious idea. Just because you don’t like dictionaries is NOT SUFFICIENT to convince anyone you have any point at all.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            No, what I’ve said is that the actions of secularists have proven to me that they don’t use dictionaries either.

            If consent was not a religious idea, there would not be a reason to zealously use law to force it onto people who don’t believe in it.

          • Carol Lynn

            Hmmm…. Still no data for any of your ideas, just unsupported opinion. For the what, fifth time?, do you have any data besides your unsupported opinion to think that consent is a religious concept? Going completely against the usual and standard definitions of words needs more than your opinion to support your interpretation as correct..

            If you’d bother to read for comprehension, I’m even trying to show you how to argue your case. Saying, “secularists have proven to me” means nothing without cited, concrete examples and the reasoning process that led you to that conclusion. Without either side citing data and the reasoning behind the arguments, the only “debate” – and i use the word loosely – possible is a childish “nuh-uh!” to another’s “uh-huh!” If you magically know deep down that “consent is a religious idea” but can’t give any reasons or examples or data that supports that, restating “it’s a religious concept. It’s a religious concept. I know it’s a religious concept.” over and over does not make it any more correct. It just makes you look more and more clueless. I expect you to say nothing more than “nuh-uh, consent is religious” one more time in reply to this but I’m a fool and I will keep trying.

            Words do have specific meanings. “Religious” and “zealous” are not identically interchangeable words. I can floss my teeth “religiously” even though flossing is a very material action that has nothing to do with any conception of god. “Flossing religiously” can mean “without fail twice a day” or humorously as “once a week if it’s convenient.” Simply saying “religiously” does not necessarily imply “zealously”as the “zealous” definition is a subset of the tertiary meaning of the word “religious”. If I floss my teeth “zealously,” however, I make sure to get between every tooth and root out the plaque every time I floss as zealous’s primary meaning is “filled with or inspired by intense enthusiasm.” Notice that the primary definition of “zealous” implies no god-driven component to the concept.

            There can be reasons to “zealously” enforce a law, even onto people who may not like it, that have nothing to do with any purported non-material, god-driven reason for the concept itself. We can “zealously” enforce the laws against theft, for example. Since theft happens, there is a subset of people who wish we did not have the laws that deal with theft and are dismayed that they are enforced “zealously” against them even when they believe that theft should be allowed. We can do that without thinking that “theft” is a non-material, god-driven concept. Therefore, you can’t cite the “zealousness” of the enforcement of laws about it as the reason to call a concept religious, which is non-material and god-driven (and that is the primary meaning of the word “religious.”)

            Even with the example you gave of laws being enforced zealously, as I have just shown, you have cited no data, mis-defined the words, and misunderstood the concepts. Therefore your statement that “consent is a religious concept because some laws about it are zealously enforced” is invalid.

            Please, please notice the structure of the argument I am giving here. I state my position and give examples and show how I came to my conclusions. I could cite data on theft or the frequency of flossing, if you asked for it. I have serious doubts as to whether you can find any data to support your position.

            So far in this exchange you have insisted that words do not have meanings as the dictionary defines them – you arbitrarily give them “more true” meanings that you take out of thin air because you have already made up your mind on some concepts based on inaccurate or misunderstood definitions. You have also shown that you are too entrenched in your mistaken worldview to rethink your positions when better data is shoved in your face.

            Since, in your stated opinion, words do not have the specific meaning as defined in a dictionary and can be given any meaning TheodoreSeeber wants, I’m sure>/i> you will read this sentence as a compliment – - “TheodoreSeeber is an ignorant moron who needs to learn to argue like an intelligent adult before he is given access to a keyboard.”

            Try again to surprise me. Show me you can argue intelligently by actually giving a grown-up-style argument for your position rather than just asserting, “nuh-uh!” one more time.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            http://spectator.org/archives/2013/08/12/slutwalk-insanity

            Proves my point quite handedly. But hey, don’t mind the sluts out for a walk…

          • Carol Lynn

            Nah. You are not worth my time. You don’t learn. You don’t think. You are not worth talking to. Please do not reproduce. kthxbye

          • TheodoreSeeber

            In other words, you’re just another anti-humanist bigot and don’t deserve the term “secular”. Thank you for proving my point.

          • SusanKPerry

            I’m sorry this conversation ended up with name-calling. Let’s make a point of just letting go when it seems to be going that way, okay?

        • R Vogel

          That is just silly. Secularism is not a religious belief which she is clearly referring to in the sentence.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            The secular state has no interest in marriage and should not have any rules regarding it at all.

          • Carol Lynn

            Thanks. Ted obviously has this problem with words having specific definitions. I’m the secular humanist. He’s the person who, against all sense and meaning, thinks that including the concept of consent to being married makes it a religious statement but can’t defend that position with anything at all.

  • Nobeliefs Nonewhatsoever

    Theodore Seeber:

    I can never be sure wether the language breakdown with people like you is cognitive or just twisted intellectual deviousness, but there are no “beliefs” in secularism! There are no dogmas, and no irrational claims. If we believe any claim or idea, then it’s something that you can make a rational case for, which anyone (not just your god’s “chosen”) can observe for himself. If you could make a rational case for what YOU believe, then we would believe it too, but on this you consistently fail. You fail this because you are conditioned to fear rational argument, leaving nothing left for you to latch on to or hold on to but dogmas and irrational claims. You then take your irrational fears to the blogs, the school boards, the legislatures, and even waste White House time with your religious paranoia. You have effectively managed to waste enough of everyone’s time that you richly deserve the credit for causing America to trail so pathetically behind other nations intellectually and techologically, but it is not us who is your enemy – we don’t do “beliefs”!


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