On Being Uncontroversial

As the so-called “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens attract increasing media attention, they’ve come under fire for supposedly being too sweeping in their denunciations of religion, too “extreme” in their criticism. Defenders of the established order, many of whom are religious liberals, pour scorn on these outspoken nonbelievers for daring to express their opinions with passion and confidence. Consider the following entirely typical example, whose title says it all: The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it.

…one has to question whether all the aggression isn’t counterproductive. Robert Winston voiced increasing concern among scientists when he argued in a recent lecture in Dundee that Dawkins’s insulting and patronising approach did science a disservice. Meanwhile, critics in America argue that the polarisation of the debate in the US is setting the cause of non-deism back rather than advancing it.

For all that Madeleine Bunting bemoans atheists’ “vituperative polemic”, she shows little reluctance to denounce them in at least equally aggressive and insulting terms. But what is her alternative? If our criticism of religion is too harsh, what should we be talking about instead?

The danger is that the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate.

…Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed – the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits – the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?

There is much of importance that can be gleaned from this passage. First and foremost, it shows unintentionally that the denunciation of atheists has nothing to do with the language or tone of their criticism, and it especially has nothing to do with the accuracy of their criticism. On the contrary, atheists are called “shrill” and “hysterical” and “extremist” if they criticize religion in any way at all. (For purposes of calibration, Bunting writes for a Roman Catholic newspaper called the Tablet and is a fellow at the Templeton Foundation, which seeks to reconcile science with religion.) On the other hand, people who praise religion are not subject to similar criticism, as we can see from Bunting’s loaded question about “what gaps” would be left in society if theism declines.

There is a double standard being applied here. According to Bunting and others, the position that religion has done more good than harm is an entirely acceptable, moderate, mainstream position. However, the position that religion has done more harm than good is an outrageous, aggressive, provocative position. This is nothing less than hypocrisy employed in an attempt to stifle a legitimate and important debate. Apparently, we are free to find religion fascinating and complex, to call it the basis of morality and spirituality, and to suggest that it should be intensively and devotedly studied. But any suggestion that we might be better off without it is denounced as extremist and beyond the pale, despite the vast harm that has been done and is still being done by religious fanatics around the globe.

Bunting’s gushing about how wonderful religion is and how extensively it should be studied remind me of the famous Buddhist parable of the poison arrow:

It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name or family the man is — or whether he is tall, or short, or of middle height… Before knowing all this, that man would die.

The parallel is obvious. Right now, religion is causing vast harm around the world. Right now, it poses a grave and serious threat. Until this threat has been ended and the harm stopped, there is no excuse for saying that it is rude to criticize religion or that we should calmly study it instead. On the contrary, these criticisms need to be heard. We need more of them, and they should be made as often and as loudly as possible. If anything, today’s atheists are paragons of civility compared to human-rights movements of previous generations.

My conclusion? I am not, nor will I ever be, ashamed of who I am. I will not apologize for defending the positions I believe in, nor will I apologize for speaking out with energy and passion. I will entertain any fair criticism of my beliefs, but I will pay no regard to those who put on a pretense of high-mindedness and try to silence positions they find disturbing by calling them uncouth and radical. Every civil-rights movement, every great advance in human thought, was called thus at its inception. Being passionate is nothing to be embarrassed about, but rather is the only way to win people over and stir them to action. As Digby said:

Humans need to feel part of something, that they have a stake in the outcome. Emotion is what moves people… To get people engaged you have to give them something to care about, to feel connected with, to want to devote some of their precious time and resources to something for which there is no direct compensation except a feeling of doing the right thing or righting a great wrong. Change requires energy and energy is one thing that sophisticated intellectual salons and learned political journals, however important they may be, simply do not provide.

And so, let the so-called moderates wring their hands. Let religious liberals bemoan our incivility because we fail to concede the fight to them at the outset. Let the accommodationists study the problem to death and fiddle while Rome burns. If they will not take up arms and join battle against the fundamentalists who threaten us all, then we will. And if they want to call us uncompromising and controversial, they may do so to their heart’s content. None of these groups have any power to silence us, and so long as we know to disregard their unfounded criticisms, they will not succeed in doing so.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    There is a double standard being applied here. According to Bunting and others, the position that religion has done more good than harm is an entirely acceptable, moderate, mainstream position. However, the position that religion has done more harm than good is an outrageous, aggressive, provocative position.

    Brilliant point. I read this article when it was first published, but didn’t pick up on that. You always seem to see things I miss.

  • Adrian

    5,000 years of “engagement” have brought us the dark ages, the Inquisition, and banning condoms in Africa. I see no more reason to engage theists and try to welcome them into science than I see reason to engage astrologers into astronomy or homeopaths into medicine.

    Vociferous confrontation may not persuade theists to abandon their superstitions, but if it removes the unthinking respect that is granted for any faith-based blather, then we’ll have won a big victory.

    As long as our opponents say that we’re behaving in ways that they don’t like, then I think we’re doing something right.

  • Vicki B.

    Go ahead and be as critical of religion as you like, but please don’t play silly mind games to justify the use of torture. Don’t claim to have special insight into the mind of a suicide bomber, without consulting any of the research that has been done on the topic. Don’t make sweeping generalizations about the Islamic world when all your information is second or third hand. Don’t claim that the situation in the Middle East has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy.

  • Alex Weaver

    …who on earth are you talking to, Vicki?

  • The Vicar

    Huh? Who was doing any of that, Vicki? In my experience, the people claiming that torture is justified tend to be religious types. Christians spent the better part of the last two millennia torturing non-Christian minorities, Muslims and Jews are both instructed by their holy books not to worry about killing unbelievers, and they all believe that it will all come out in the wash anyway, so I can kind of understand why they’re so gung-ho about it, even if I don’t agree.

  • Vicki B.

    Sorry, I thought Sam Harris’ defense of torture (or the “suasion of bygone times” as he blithely calls it) was pretty well known. That he makes sweeping generalizations about a part of the world he knows very little about should have been fairly obvious. Yes, I know he’s not as bad as those nasty faithheads. But the fact that a “we’re not as bad as Them” type of justification needs to be employed at the beginning of what is supposed to be a brave new movement to save the world is not a good sign in my opinion.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    It seems a bit arrogant when people admit that God probably doesn’t exist but suggest that maybe we should keep religion around because people need it. They come off as putting themselves above the ignorant masses who need their delusions, would-be philosopher kings who know the truth but protect the supposedly weak from it.

  • The Vicar

    Vicki: okay, so there’s a prominent atheist who says that. So what? I’m pretty sure you don’t want to open the can of worms labeled “monolithic” — there are far heavier crimes on the side of theism than atheism at the present time. (I’m sure that in a few millennia atheists will catch up, human nature being what it is, but for now the balance is quite definitely skewed.) If you get to claim that all atheists have the same outlook on life, then it’s only fair that we do the same for theists, and, well… just taking the Catholic church by itself: vast internal coverups of child rape, centuries of fighting in Ireland, the massacre in Rwanda, the misery of the poor caused by the prohibition of birth control, the repeated belligerent statements by the current ex-Nazi Pope (on the subjects of the Crusades, Israel, the wiping out of native South American culture by the Spaniards, etc. etc. etc.), the church’s deal with the Nazi party in World War II (open approval and cessation of all anti-Nazi opinions in exchange for continued presence in Germany — for which they have never apologized in any meaningful way)… I could go on, but I think I can stop here with just the note that that’s just an incomplete list of the public crimes of the Catholics. If all the vicious opinions of all the currently-living Catholics alone were held by all theists, no decent person would want to be in the same room with one. So let’s admit that movements are not monolithic and stop the troll rhetoric, shall we?

    On another point, though, atheism as a public force for social change is now at least a century old. How is it that you think we’re at “the beginning”?

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki B said:

    Sorry, I thought Sam Harris’ defense of torture (or the “suasion of bygone times” as he blithely calls it) was pretty well known. That he makes sweeping generalizations about a part of the world he knows very little about should have been fairly obvious.

    I’m not saying I agree with it, I haven’t really looked into it enough to have made a decision, but I seem to remember Harris making a very intelligent, reasoned argument about justification of torture. But every time I see someone criticising it they seem to give the impression of him foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. Vicki, saying that he makes sweeping generalisations doesn’t actually refute his arguments. Could you refer me to any sources that actually deal with what Harris actually says?

    Either way, it doesn’t really having any bearing on Adam’s article. The point being discussed is the alleged “militancy” of atheistic arguments and writings. As I’ve said, Harris makes a composed, structured argument. He’s not taking matters into his own hands or doing anything dangerous or harmful, he is simply stating his opinion. What the hell is wrong with that?

  • konrad_arflane

    I know this probably isn’t how it was intended, but the close proximity of this statement:

    Emotion is what moves people (…) Change requires energy and energy is one thing that sophisticated intellectual salons and learned political journals, however important they may be, simply do not provide.

    to this one:

    Let the accommodationists study the problem to death and fiddle while Rome burns. If they will not take up arms and join battle against the fundamentalists who threaten us all, then we will.

    makes me uneasy. While I do wish for more people to be atheist, I’m not sure I’d want to achieve this end through a great public movement relying chiefly on emotional arguments and the metaphors of war. Human nature being what it is, such a movement would very likely have some very unfortunate consequences.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    The Madeline Bunting article particularly annoyed me when I first saw it, as it was just another Guardian attack against Atheists. Witness Cristina Odone in the sister newspaper the Observer. Her arguments particularly infuriated me, so I wrote a post, at least trying to deconstruct her arguments .

    It’s strange how those who attack atheists who criticise religion miss the point that atheists are using words. Some Muslims when they are offended take to protests, which more often than not become violent, with such placards as “Behead those who say that Islam is a violent religion”. To actually stop rational argument on a topic is to invite violence, as when people cannot argue with words they will argue with weapons.

    Also for those who think religion is only a source of good in the world, ask yourself, if given the chance would the Catholic Church try to regain the power it once had over Europe? I believe it would, in the same way its increased presence in Africa is merely to get a power base there. To have once had total power over people in so many countries and then to see that power slower disappear must sting. That is why we must argue against it, for that kind of powerful, institutionalised religion is one of the greatest dangers we face today.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As I recall, Sam Harris’ argument is that, if we accept as legitimate methods of warfare that are virtually guaranteed to cause great suffering among the innocent – for example, bombing a city where civilians are working in weapons factories – then perhaps we cannot so blithely rule out the use of torture (even though he takes pains to point out that he himself feels emotional revulsion at the idea). His suggestion is that there is not a great moral difference between inflicting suffering from far away versus inflicting it from close up.

    Personally, I don’t agree with this argument (and I have an upcoming post that will explain why). But neither do I think it’s such a reprehensible viewpoint that it should immediately be ruled out of bounds. Vicki’s rather hysterical overreaction is, ironically, a very good example of the kind of thing this post discusses: people who seize on even one statement made by an atheist, label it too “controversial”, and use that as an excuse to dismiss everything else he says.

  • Eddie Rios

    Well, let’s guys and gals. It seems to me that atheists, non-Christians, and other types of non-theistic religions have suffered much abuse over the ages. I can’t count the number times I’ve been asked, “So, you worship a Fat Man?” to which I usually reply, “No, I am a fat man! He, he, he.” Being a Buddhist has its amusements.

    Seriously, thought, do people really expect atheists(et al)will continue in their affability when they finally find their voice to speak out against being abused? That’s pretty naive!

    “When you remove your foot off the other guy’s neck, he’ll break your jaw.” (LBJ, circa 1964, paraphrased)

    ER

  • Freeyourmind

    As others have said in their own way, saying that people like Dawkins and Harris are being too extreme is rubbish.

    What has been acheived for the Athiest community and this country/world as a whole in the past 20 years from being more diplomatic? The country as a whole especially under this administration is mixing religion dangerously with politics, moreso than ever before. More intolerance has arisen into the mainstream such as homosexual intolerance and hate for abortion and stem cell research. We have “creationism” threatening to be TAUGHT IN OUR SCHOOLS AS IF IT WAS ACTUALLY SCIENCE!!! I don’t need to continue to prove my point and that is…

    Being aggressive and explaining the dire need for us to realize the dangers resulting from these beliefs is the ONLY way. I applaud Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their efforts and can only hope it makes more people really take a stand against these dogmatic, ludicrous beliefs. I know it has for me and several of my friends.
    Of COURSE it’s going to make the hair on the back of dogmatic theists stand up. But what’s the difference? They are already attacking non-believers from every angle and forcing religion down the throats of everyone they can. You think being passive is the approach to take?

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    I got into a discussion on this subject with some of my friends the other day. None of them are extremely religious (one was a relatively mainstream Jew and the others were weak Christians), but they seemed to buy into the arguments that Dawkins was being too extreme, even using the term “militant atheist.” I argued with them, pointing out that all Dawkins did was write some books, while militant religious people go on crusades, holy wars, suicide bombings, inquisitions, etc. (I did manage to get them to switch over to the term “activist atheist” at the least; if they weren’t moderately reasonable I wouldn’t still be friends with them after all.)

    One of them did make one point which I think deserves to be brought up here: That Dawkins plays the role of giving the ultra-religious more fuel for their attacks on atheists, and they feed off of each other. To support this, he pointed to some of Dawkins’ much more controversial stances, such as supporting a bill which would prohibit teaching religion to children under the age of 18 (I suspect that what the bill said was likely a bit different than this given how things tend to get distorted). My initial reaction to this was along the lines of, “Hmm, well I guess that’s consistent with his claims that religious indoctrination at a young age counts as brainwashing. Maybe I’d lower the age a bit, though.”

    There are a few ways you can look at something like this: First, the way my friends did; that doing something like this just gives religious extremists more fuel for the attacks. Now they have a specific incident they can point to when they say atheists want to ban religion.

    On the other hand, we could look at this as a form of negotiation. When haggling for something, you never start out at the highest price you’re willing to pay. You always start below and work up to a compromise. Similarly, if you’re on a campaign for civil rights, you start off by asking for more than you expect to get so that you’ll end up compromising on what you actually want. Perhaps Dawkins intended this from the offset; perhaps not. Another similar interpretation would be that doing this makes a point to theists: You don’t like it when your beliefs are limited by law, why should we like it when ours are?

    But in the end, I suspect that Dawkins simply supported this measure because he believed in it. If you accept the premise that indoctrinating children into a religion is brainwashing (which is another debate), then you’d want to ban this brainwashing, wouldn’t you? Sure, it seems extreme at first, but it’s simply what you’d logically expect based on some of his other beliefs, and those other beliefs aren’t necessarily so unreasonable (but they are debatable).

  • rob

    Probably if atheists politely ask for a completely secular government and the right to express our opinions openly, the religious will cheerfully deign to allow it. We should really be thankful for their tolerance and openness.

  • Archi Medez

    “…atheists are called “shrill” and “hysterical” and “extremist” if they criticize religion in any way at all.” -Ebonmuse

    Yes, that’s a very popular technique used by theists. When they say this, one option is to respond with certain points, such as that atheists do not believe that religious people should be tortured and burned for all eternity in hell-fire. Atheists are also not calling for harsh penalties (or death!) of those who criticize atheism or who convert from atheism to a religion.

    A useful question to ask of theists is ‘What would you consider to be a legitimate form (or forms) of criticism of your religion?’

    I asked a Muslim that question. He claimed that it would be legitimate to criticize Muslims for not doing enough to promote a positive image of Islam, not following the Koran properly, and not doing enough to communicate the message of Islam throughout the world. For him though, the words of Allah (i.e., the core of the religion) should not be criticized.

    For most Muslims, the Koran is the word of God as reported by Muhammad (through Gabriel) and cannot be criticized. Muslims may differ as to whether certain Hadith and aspects of Islamic law can be criticized, but most believe that the Koran should not be criticized. Thus far, I have only encountered (i.e., in direct communication)* one Muslim who says there might be flaws in the Koran (only because Muhammad was a human messenger and might have made some errors here and there). He is a leader of a moderate Muslim group, which advocates freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and opposes violent jihad. He claims he has received death threats, as is common for outspoken progressives/moderates.

    *There are of course historical examples of Muslim thinkers who criticized the Koran.

    Some recent sources on Muslims’ opinions:
    http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/libimages/246.pdf
    http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf
    http://pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf

  • Vicki B.

    Vicki’s rather hysterical overreaction

    Ah, the old argument ad feminem

    Perhaps my statement was rather forceful, perhaps even aggressive?

    I do see a danger when one of the prominent spokesmen of the neo-atheists talks glibly about dusting off implements of torture and offers essentially no other practical policy suggestions. I think it would be great if a bunch of smart, ethical people (which atheists mostly are) would get involved in public life. If you’re concerned about science education, go to school board meetings, canvass for school bond measures, become volunteer tutors, hold endorsement forums for political candidates. Challenge people’s belief systems with passionate well-reasoned arguments. Raise the level of public discourse! That would be great!

    I’m just pointing out a few warning signs I see.

    It’s not just Harris’ vague, theoretical, yet somehow gleeful defense of torture I object to, but the way his portrayal of Islam contributes to mimimizing the diversity of culture and opinion in the Islamic world. He presents himself as a serious scholar, but he’s not. And that’s not even getting into Hitchens’ overt apologetics for the war on terror…

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki B said:

    Ah, the old argument ad feminem.

    I’m sorry, can’t men be hysterical? Ah, the old argument ad masculum.

    It’s not just Harris’ vague, theoretical, yet somehow gleeful defense of torture I object to…

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. Where, for the love of all that is unholy, have you got ‘gleeful’ from, in Harris’ arguments?

  • Vicki Baker

    tobe38:

    hystera=uterus in Greek. Source of irrationality in females, according to Freud and others. Also impairs sense of humor, according to Christopher Hitchens. Don’t they teach etymology anymore?

    Harris talks about “dusting off” instruments of torture and subjecting “unpleasant fellows” to “a suasion of bygone times.” If not gleeful, definitely glib. Again this would not be so disturbing if wasn’t practically the only suggestion about what to do about the problem of terrorism.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki B,

    Look up the definition of hysteria. Whatever the etymology of the word, the current meaning has nothing to do with gender. Anyway, the point was made in jest.

    I’ve already had to dig out my copy of The End of Faith for Madeleine Bunting, and I’m not doing it again for you. It’s been a while since I read the passage, but I certainly didn’t get glee or glib from it. I don’t see how the snipets you’ve quoted imply it either.

    We’ve covered all this about Harris before. I’m not repeating myself.

  • Vicki Baker

    Anyway, the point was made in jest.

    hystera means I can’t have a sense of humor.

    Don’t you think good writers should be aware of connotation as well as denotation in their word choices?

    My main point is that I would feel rather more comfortable if these heralds of a new era of enlightenment weren’t so eager to justify war and torture (Hitchens and Harris, not Dawkins and most others – but those 2 are getting the most air time right now.)

    Meanwhile, EO Wilson with his appeal to join hands to save our planet, gets ignored.

    Just my $.02.

    Anyone up for running for school board?

  • Vicki Baker

    That should be “Having a hystera, means I can’t have a sense of humor. Read Hitchens’ article if you want a good laugh at a formerly serious social critic trotting out a load of recycled garbage.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Don’t you think good writers should be aware of connotation as well as denotation in their word choices?

    Good writers? Probably. Random guy commenting on a blog? Eh, maybe not.

    Besides, you have to face it; words evolve, and ancient meanings are lost. If I described someone as “sinister,” would you accuse me of poking fun at them for being left-handed? What about if I used the word “lunatic,” would I be admitting that I believed the moon caused insanity? Not everyone utilizes every ancient root meaning of a word to load in more connotation than the word should rightly handle. Some people just use “hysterical” to mean “uncontrollably emotional.”

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki B

    Don’t you think good writers should be aware of connotation as well as denotation in their word choices?

    To be fair, I do indeed (although I don’t remotely think that was what Ebonmuse meant when he used the word). I am fascinated by etymology, and I am glad to have learned the history of that word. So, thanks :)

  • Vicki Baker

    Some people just use “hysterical” to mean “uncontrollably emotional.”

    And women are never unfairly accused of being “uncontrollably emotional,” I suppose. Tobe38, I don’t think many people besides old feminists like me are aware of the connotation of hysteria, but it does point up an age-old bias, don’t you think?

    But we wander from the point.

    No one wants to run for school board?

    Ebonmuse, many so-called moderates are not wringing their hands, but are active in their local communities working to support education, social justice, etc. Meanwhile, the neo-atheist movement seems long on talk, short on action. I’d love to be proved wrong.

  • Freeyourmind

    Rob,

    Haha man, my point exactly in one simple sarcastic comment.

  • The Vicar

    Ick, that article is awful. Christopher Hitchens should be ashamed. I recently read God Is Not Great, and was very impressed — the moreso because I knew from previous reading on the subject that his presentation of the various cases against religion are, if anything, understated. With the exception of a few pages which could have been written more clearly, I found it a very good book indeed. It is a blow to discover his responsibility for this piece of rubbish. (And even moreso to read his biography on Wikipedia and discover that politically, he has spent the last ten years being fairly stupid… Just goes to show, once again, that faith without evidence is a dangerous trap to fall into.)

    I mean, his article is about a study done with ten men and ten women. Without going any further than that, I doubt any credible statistician in the world would feel comfortable drawing a real conclusion about the population in general based on the reaction of 20 people from one geographic area. Further, we are told that the study drew conclusions on people’s senses of humor by showing them 70 cartoons. Quite aside from the additional relatively small sample size, and the very good chance that the subjects had already seen some or all of the cartoons, most cartoonists in mainstream print are male. (There’s no point in even trying to survey the authorship of comics on the Internet, but the same might be true there as well.) This, in turn, means that most of the cartoons were probably written by men. Consider how this influences the study: ignoring the statistical problems, if there truly is a difference in sense of humor based on gender, then the women were at a disadvantage from the start, since the majority of the jokes were presumably target at the male sense of humor. The conclusions are, therefore, invalid in many ways at once. Tsk.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Tobe38, I don’t think many people besides old feminists like me are aware of the connotation of hysteria, but it does point up an age-old bias, don’t you think?

    Ah, so it was used like that within your lifetime I take it? Well, in that case I can understand your disgust with the term. I hope that you can in turn understand that many of us were brought up never having the slightest clue to its feminist connotations, and as such wouldn’t mean to use it that way.

    As for the age-old bias, you could make exactly the same point with “sinister” and how it related to an age-old bias against left-handed people. In modern American society, that bias has pretty much faded to nothingness, and people think nothing of using it to imply “evil” or using “right” to imply “correct.”

    Yes, there was a bias in the past, but language changes and evolves, and words that used to be harmful become harmless. Ever heard the phrase, “Call a spade a spade”? The phrase itself is now perfectly safe to say, but if you actually were to call an African-American (being safe here) a “spade,” you’d be in deep trouble. Somehow, this doesn’t stop the entire phrase from being safe.

    On the subject of Sam Hitchens, all I really have to say is that he doesn’t represent me, and he doesn’t represent most atheists for that matter. Unlike religious people, most atheists are solitary, and the only person who’ll represent them is themself. Yes, he’s an atheist. No, I don’t agree with him on a number of issues. No, this doesn’t mean we’re different types of atheists or that there’s infighting. We’re just people who disagree.

  • Vicki Baker

    Rob says:

    Probably if atheists politely ask for a completely secular government and the right to express our opinions openly, the religious will cheerfully deign to allow it. We should really be thankful for their tolerance and openness.

    Since when did 2 planks of the Bill of Rights become atheist special-interest issues? Ya think maybe some non-atheists might be interested in protecting the constitution?

  • The Vicar

    Ya think maybe some non-atheists might be interested in protecting the constitution?

    No, I don’t. Or at least not enough to actually do anything to protect it. If they did, to steal from Dave Barry, just about everyone in the Bush administration would be sitting in a federal prison so lonely that the inmates pay spiders for sex.

  • Alex Weaver

    Ah, the old argument ad feminem

    Perhaps my statement was rather forceful, perhaps even aggressive?

    You know, I’ve been thinking for a while that we need to establish a Godwin’s Law-like principle dealing with spurious and contrived accusations of misogyny…

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    Re: Hysteria. I was reading in another magazine this morning (OK, it was Cosmo. Don’t ask.) That women were treated for hysteria back in the 1880s with a new invention called an electronic vibrator (Just what did you expect from Cosmo?).

    But back on topic, I see that Sam Harris has responded to his criticism concerning his claimed endorsement of torture, here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’d like to point out that Vicki did with my argument exactly what I pointed out she did with Sam Harris’ argument: seize on a single word or statement in your opponent’s position, decide that it means something unforgivably odious, and then use this perceived outrage as an excuse to avoid dealing with the facts at hand. As I argued, and as John P’s superb link shows, Harris’ position on torture is far more measured and reasonable than his opponents would like to portray it. Unfortunately, Vicki has chosen to continue attacking him personally rather than address this argument.

    As far as the charge that my choice of words was intended as a sexist insult, rather than a simple statement of denotative meaning (hysterical, n: “marked by excessive or uncontrollable emotion”), I do not intend to dignify that with a response. Since Madeline Bunting and others have frequently used that term against us outspoken atheists, I find a certain ironic satisfaction in turning it back on the people who make such accusations.

    I’d also like to make a remark on Infophile’s comment: If you hear anyone say that Dawkins advocates banning the religious education of children, please, please correct them firmly. This is a slanderous meme and should be quashed. He has never stated any such thing. In fact, in The God Delusion, he advocates teaching comparative religion in elementary schools (citations on request). What he’s stated clearly that he wants is to serve as a consciousness-raiser: he objects morally to children being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents, and labeled as if they belong to a particular religion which they are far too young to have meaningfully chosen for themselves. He says that it would sound absurd for parents who subscribe to a particular economic theory to introduce their four-year-old son as a “Marxist child” or a “Keynesian child”, and he wants people to have the same reaction whenever they hear an infant or a toddler described as a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child” (or, yes, a “secular humanist child”).

  • OMGF

    …feminists like me…

    How a feminist can be a Xian (you are one IIRC) is beyond me. I consider myself a feminist too (even though I am male) and I cringe at the religious treatment of women, even now. A good author who writes on these subjects is Tom Robbins. My gf loves his books.

  • Alex Weaver

    ow a feminist can be a Xian

    The same way an atheist can be opposed to women’s rights, I suppose. *shrug*

  • OMGF

    Alex,
    Atheism isn’t mysogynistic, Xianity is.

  • Vicki B.

    Vicki did with my argument exactly what I pointed out she did with Sam Harris’ argument: seize on a single word or statement in your opponent’s position

    If you read what I wrote about Harris, the point I made was that his defense of terrorism was merely the icing on the cake of his sweeping generalizations about a religion that encompasses a number of distinct cultures, none of whose languages Harris knows at all. I’m not criticizing him for being rude or outspoken, but for shallow scholarship and fear-mongering and for not offering any insights to his public about how they might actually DO something in the real world to accomplish their goals. (School board, anyone?) As for Hitchens… I won’t go there again.

    In the 80′s I worked for an agency that sometimes served former torture victims. There stories are not something I can forget. In spite of all I know about US history, I never thought I’d live to see the day when we were the torturers. It makes me sadder and angrier than I can say. Sam Harris does not know what he is talking about when he talks about torture. Not in my name, never again.

  • OMGF

    Vicki,
    1) Harris can not criticize Islam unless he knows Arabic?
    2) Harris doesn’t give any solutions (like give up your superstitions and face empirical facts?)
    3) Did you miss the part where Harris stresses his personal revulsion at torture?
    4) Do Hitchens’ political opinions invalidate anything he says that is apolitical?

    You’re just making Ebon’s point more clear with each post.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Bravo, Ebonmuse, for a great post.

  • Alex Weaver

    Alex,
    Atheism isn’t mysogynistic, Xianity is.

    Yes; however, Atheism as generally understood implies the nonexistence of a soul and thus annihilates any rational (used loosely) basis for a general opposition to the right of women to control their own bodies, and as such is not conducive to anti-choice positions, much like traditional Christian doctrine is hostile to the belief that women are people. Nevertheless, some atheists, through what appear to be astronomical acts of cognitive dissonance, hold such positions (why yes, I HAVE been arguing with Ian Spedding again; how did you know? x.x). Perhaps I should have specified it as “women’s reproductive rights” for clarity.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    No one I’m aware of is defending torture, Vicki, especially not me. If you read the article linked by John P, you’ll see that Harris’ own position is that he can imagine rare cases (the famous ticking time bomb scenario) where torture might be necessary, but regardless, he argues that it should be kept illegal to ensure that no one would do such a thing except in the most desperate necessity. This is a far cry from being “gleeful” or “glib” about the matter, and regardless of whether one agrees with Harris’ position or not, I’d hope we can all discuss it without resorting to inaccurate caricatures. He’s not rooting for us to dust off the thumbscrews.

    As far as the sweeping generalizations you allege, I’m afraid you haven’t given us enough detail to consider them for ourselves. If you think you see an inaccuracy in his arguments or a place where he paints with too broad a brush, then please cite it and let’s discuss it.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    Let me suggest that it is a mistake — both as a matter of strategy and as a matter of fact — to paint all religions with the same brush. Some religions are dangerous and harmful while others are benign (as examples of the latter, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism come to mind).

    By isolating the aspects of religion which make it harmful, we can provide a more useful criticism of religion. This would also enable us to respond more effectively to critics like those above. Not all religion is bad, we can explain to them. Religion is only dangerous to the extent that it adopts the following pernicious propositions:

    that faith is a useful method of determining matters of fact

    that afterlife is more important than life

    that out-of-date moral codes found in ancient texts should be followed today

    that some human beings (preachers, priests, popes, etc) speak for God

    that God tortures people in hell

    Other propositions could be added to the list, of course. We should also strongly contest the claim that Christianity is a source of morality. Not when the available evidence is just the opposite, such as the Pew Research 2005 survey of American acceptance of torture summarized here. In this particular survey, 56% of Catholics, 49% of white Protestants and 49% of Evangelical Protestants said torture is “sometimes” or “often” justified when interrogating suspected terrorists — but only 35% of “seculars” felt the same way.

    Why are Americans who don’t go to church or aren’t religious significantly more in line with the sermon on the mount than are Americans who attend church regularly?

    If anything, this implies that Christianity — at least in the U.S. — is generally harmful to morality. And we should be quick to point out that the willingness to torture people (rather than, say, the willingness to engage in premarital sex or adultery) is one of the key things which separates civilized society from barbarism. It matters.

    I absolutely agree that we need to be loud and unwavering in our criticism of religion. But we should not paint all religions with the same brush. By being more discriminating in our criticism, we stand a better chance of opening some eyes.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    Let me suggest that it is a mistake — both as a matter of strategy and as a matter of fact — to paint all religions with the same brush. Some religions are dangerous and harmful while others are benign (as examples of the latter, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism come to mind).

    I generally agree with your sentiment that sometimes we are too zealous in denouncing all religions as if they were the same, but Buddhism is not the most appropriate example of a benign religion. Buddhism was used in the service of nationalism and militarism during World War II. And the idea of reincarnation and karma can be just as dysfunctional as the idea of hell. While there is much that I find very valuable in Buddhism, I wouldn’t call it benign.

  • The Vicar

    To say nothing of the fact that the meditation exercises followed in most forms of Buddhism alter one’s brain’s behavior noticeably, sometimes even causing parts to temporarily cease functioning. (In point of fact, Christopher Hitchens points out that the feeling of being “one with the universe” has been linked by brain activity studies on meditating monks with improper functioning of a part of the brain, which can be brought on by regular practice. Scary!) Somewhere out there, I read a forum post about how Buddhist monks would continue to register regular sounds (such as ticking clocks) when a normal person would tune them out after a few minutes. At the time, I was envious of their superior awareness, which was the intention of the person who made the post. Then I read some books on neurology and now when I remember the post, I shudder.

  • Vicki B.

    And we should be quick to point out that the willingness to torture people (rather than, say, the willingness to engage in premarital sex or adultery) is one of the key things which separates civilized society from barbarism. It matters.

    Rastaban, I totally agree. Finding a legitimate criticism of Christianity as practiced in America is about as difficult as hitting the side of a barn with a handful of beans. But I think if neo-atheist leaders continue to project all human evil and irrationality onto religion, we’ll get the same kind of scapegoating.

    Ebonmuse: The article John P. links to is basically back-pedaling after Abu Ghraib. Personally I found the original “thought-experiment” Harris describes in such coy language (suasion of bygone times, give me a break) to be quite chilling. I’ve explained why. You and others weren’t bothered. Fair enough, but I won’t agree that my objection is mere nitpicking. It would certainly be more reassuring if the heralds of an Enlightenment revival didn’t begin by trashing some of its most important values.

    As for generalizations – it’s more a matter of emphasis than anything else. He constantly downplays political and cultural factors contributing to Islamofascism, when obviously they are very important. He presents himself as an expert on terrorism and the motivations of suicide terrorists, when he’s not. Scott Atran makes these points better than I with the relevant data here:

    http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html#atran2

    As for “Science Must Destroy Religion,” – yeah right. You don’t think it would have by now if it was going to? Is Europe largely secular because they’re a bunch of science geeks, or because of socio-political conditions there? A good social safety net combined with a preference for cultural continuity and traditions over rampant capitalism have helped ameloriate religious belief in Europe, not “science.” For example, Europeans are way more susupicious of the benefits of genetic engineering and have mostly voted to keep GMO’s out of their food supply.

    But perhaps I should stop my carping criticisms and let you get on with saving the world. After all, according to “The Vicar,” only atheists really care about defending the Constitution. I’ll let you get on with it, then.

    Meanwhile how many of you know the names of even 3 of your local school board members?

  • Vicki B.

    Rastaban, I totally agree that the “willingness to torture people… is one of the key things which separates civilized society from barbarism.”
    Fundamentalist Christian leaders have been trying to convince American Christians that there is an evil seculari humanist (now Islamist too) conspiracy to destroy their way of life for years. I think if neo-atheist leaders continue to project all human evil and irrationality onto religion, we’ll get the same kind of scapegoating.

    Ebonmuse: The article John P. links to is basically back-pedaling after Abu Ghraib. Personally I found the original “thought-experiment” Harris describes in such coy language (suasion of bygone times, give me a break) to be quite chilling. I’ve explained why. You and others weren’t bothered. Fair enough, but I won’t agree that my objection is mere nitpicking. It would certainly be more reassuring if the heralds of an Enlightenment revival didn’t begin by trashing some of its most important values.

    As for generalizations – it’s more a matter of emphasis than anything else. He constantly downplays political and cultural factors contributing to Islamofascism, when obviously they are very important. He presents himself as an expert on terrorism and the motivations of suicide terrorists, when he’s not. Scott Atran makes these points better than I with the relevant data here:

    http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html#atran2

    As for “Science Must Destroy Religion,” – yeah right. You don’t think it would have by now if it was going to? Is Europe largely secular because they’re a bunch of science geeks, or because of socio-political conditions there? A good social safety net combined with a preference for cultural continuity and traditions over rampant capitalism have helped ameloriate religious belief in Europe, not “science.” For example, Europeans are way more susupicious of the benefits of genetic engineering and have mostly voted to keep GMO’s out of their food supply.

    But perhaps I should stop my carping criticisms and let you get on with saving the world. After all, according to “The Vicar,” only atheists really care about defending the Constitution. I’ll let you get on with it, then.

    Meanwhile how many of you know the names of even 3 of your local school board members?

  • Vicki B.

    This thread doesn’t seem to be accepting my comments.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    Buddhism is not the most appropriate example of a benign religion. Buddhism was used in the service of nationalism and militarism during World War II. And the idea of reincarnation and karma can be just as dysfunctional as the idea of hell.

    Point taken. I admit to not knowing much about Buddhism, and to making an assumption from general impressions I’ve gotten from Buddhists I’ve met and read about. Do you think the Quakers or Baha’i would be a better example?

    (In point of fact, Christopher Hitchens points out that the feeling of being “one with the universe” has been linked by brain activity studies on meditating monks with improper functioning of a part of the brain, which can be brought on by regular practice. Scary!) Somewhere out there, I read a forum post about how Buddhist monks would continue to register regular sounds (such as ticking clocks) when a normal person would tune them out after a few minutes.

    I admit to being skeptical of Hitchens’ claim here. Perhaps meditation could be detrimental to the developing brains of infants, but even for that I’d like to see convincing evidence. As for the ability to focus awareness on the sound of a ticking clock, I see no use in it but can’t imagine much harm in it either. (Now if Buddhists were forcing prisoners to hear ticking clocks against their will that would be torture, right?)

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    If you want an example of a peaceful religion, Jainism is a good one. It was praised by Sam Harris in The End of Faith, and was the religion that The Friendly Atheist was brought up with.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    If you hear anyone say that Dawkins advocates banning the religious education of children, please, please correct them firmly. This is a slanderous meme and should be quashed. He has never stated any such thing.

    Thanks for the info, and I’ll be sure to correct my friend on it. I can see how his stance on “Christian children” and such could lead to this after enough distortions, though the odd part is that my friend was specific on supporting a bill saying such. Well, maybe you have to add in one flat-out lie to the distortions somewhere. Any chance anyone here knows where this particular meme started so I can show how it got distorted?

  • Vicki B.

    Ebonmuse, I read Harris’ defense that John P. linked to, and it seems to me basically damage control. Read his original “thought-experiment” on p. 193 and tell me the language seems perfectly natural and suited to the gravity of the topic. Some things are just warning signals for me, but call it “picking out one isolated example” if you wish.

    Actually, as I pointed out in my original comment, for me the passages about torture are merely the most egregious element of his general premise that “We are at war with Islam.” It’s clear that he means a literal war, with collateral damage and all the rest of it. We must “continue to shed blood in a war of ideas.” Do you really think killing people gets rid of ideas? Even one of the top generals in Iraq admitted there’s no military solution to the current mess.

    I would be a lot more reassured if 2 of the hottest neo-atheist celebs – Hitchens and Harris – weren’t such enthusiasts for religiously motivated war.

    Vicar – do you really think only atheists can possibly care about human rights and the Constitution?

    Maybe I should cease my carping criticism and let you get on with saving the world.

    Meanwhile, how many of you who are so worried about creationism in public schools can name even 2 or 3 members of your local school board?

  • The Vicar

    @Rastaban:

    I think I must have misattributed the mention of the study to Hitchens, because I can’t find it right now. Which begs the question: what other book on the subject was I reading this last week? (Although I admit to not re-reading Hitchens’ book in its entirety, so perhaps I’m just missing it now.) The Internet, however, has come to my rescue, at least in part: the initial study was by Andrew Newberg, and a very brief summary can be found on his website at http://www.andrewnewberg.com/research.asp. The thing is, though, the source I was reading said that the study had been repeated with another group of meditators (non-Buddhists) who had reported the same feeling of oneness with the universe, and had found the same results. That study is not mentioned on Mr. Newberg’s site, so I’ll keep looking.

    By the way: I was not saying, above, that meditation leads to brain damage. However, I was — and am — saying that this is a possibility. At the very least, continued meditation of the type mentioned is known to effect perception: Buddhist renunciates who have spent a lot of time meditating report, after a while, losing feelings of reality and urgency, as well as an increasing inability to tell fantasy from reality. For example, one of the interviewees in Haruki Murakami’s nonfiction book Underground (interviews with victims of the Tokyo subway sarin attacks in 1995, followed by interviews with members — not all ex-members — of Aum Shinrikyo, which released the sarin) talks about how, while preparing to become a Buddhist renunciate, he had difficulty with his job because of these problems. This, however, went away when he stopped meditating, so any truly long-term effects are presumably minor. Nevertheless, no studies have been done on the subject, so we can’t be dogmatic about it one way or another.

    My point is that the human brain has evolved (and is still evolving! Someone I read this last week — I’d say Hitchens again except that I just did and couldn’t prove it — pointed to a study which suggests that although our bodies have stayed basically the same, our brains seems to have been undergoing physical changes over the last 10000 years or so) to deal with the world as it is. Deliberately trying to alter your own brain’s functions is irresponsible. Encouraging others to do so, without evidence that it is beneficial or even harmless, is wrong, and most forms of Buddhism do exactly that.

  • Entomologista

    You don’t have to be a Christian to enforce patriarchy. However, I do think that it is nearly impossible to be both Christian and feminist. And for the record, it IS offensive to be called an hysterical woman. It may not be offensive to call a man or a group of both men and women hysterical, but the term is offensive when applied to a female person. It has the effect of silencing and dismissing a woman simply because she is a woman.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    You win, Vicki – I’ve got my copy out again (even though I said I wouldn’t). The passage you’re reffering to is this:

    Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a large bomb in the heart of a nearby city. This man now sits in your custody. As to the bomb’s location, he will say nothing except that the site was chosen to produce the maximum loss of life. Given this state of affairs – in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity – it seems there would be no harm in dusting off the strappado and exposing this unpleasant fellow to a suasion of bygone times.

    Let’s see what other commenters think, but personally, I can’t believe you’re pinning your whole ‘glib’ theory on the language in this passage.

    You said:

    Read his original “thought-experiment” on p. 193 and tell me the language seems perfectly natural and suited to the gravity of the topic.

    The language seems perfectly natural and suited to the gravity of the topic. We are talking about a known terrorist who has the location of a bomb he placed in a position to maximise loss of life. I think there is a touch of irony in his use of “unpleasant fellow”, but I don’t think that works in favour of your argument.

    Even if I agreed with you about the language, so what? I’m not interested, I evaluate Harris’ arguments, not his choice of words. Perhaps you should do the same.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Entomologista

    And for the record, it IS offensive to be called an hysterical woman. It may not be offensive to call a man or a group of both men and women hysterical, but the term is offensive when applied to a female person. It has the effect of silencing and dismissing a woman simply because she is a woman.

    Not if it’s not used in that context, which I think we’ve established the vast majority of people don’t in this day and age. A term can’t be made offensive just because of who it refers to – it either means something or it doesn’t. Are you really suggesting that it’s not offensive to refer to atheists as hysterical, but for Ebonmuse to call Vicki’s reaction hysterical is offensive, just because she’s female?!

    I think we call that a double standard.

  • Vicki Baker

    We are talking about a known terrorist who has the location of a bomb he placed in a position to maximise loss of life

    We are talking about a hypothetical situation that has never been known to occur outside of a TV script We are playing around with the idea of unlearning one of the most painful lessons Western civilization has learned and helping to create the climate that made Abu Ghraib possible.

    Entomologista – what a coincidence. Yesterday I had a drink with a friend who is also an entomologist and the chair of her university dept. She had just come out of a 3-hour meeting with a colleague who was in denial about repeated student complaints about his sexist remarks. The name Larry Summers came up halfway into the 2nd margarita if I remember.

    To be fair though, I don’t think Ebonmuse meant to make any sort of sexist comment like that consciously. I didn’t give a lot of context in my first comment either so I can see how it might have seemed an overreaction – but I don’t think objecting to Harris’ defense of torture in the context of his overall support for “war on Islam” is picking at nits.

  • The Vicar

    @Vicki B: (and then I’ll shut up for a while — a classic symptom of turning into a troll, whether you want to or not, is trying to respond to every post on a forum you don’t run yourself!)

    I know the names of a majority of the members of both my local school boards (there are two school districts around here), and have actually worked with a couple of them on projects in the past. (And I don’t even have kids, or plan to do so!) I could have named two members of the state board, although now the test is spoiled because I went and looked them up to check and have seen all the names.

    No, I’m not saying that theists don’t care, just that they don’t care very much. I suspect that most U.S. theists would be more upset if the price of gas went up by 50% (all else being the same, at least as much as possible) than if the Constitution were suspended entirely but things were otherwise unchanged. Not all, but a substantial majority. Enough that politicians can ignore those who buck the trend and still get elected.

    It’s hardly surprising: theists almost all believe that Everything Will Come Out In The Wash, and We Will All Get Our Just Desserts. A little earthly injustice, a little chaos, a little suffering and death? Doesn’t matter. Can’t fix it all, ’cause we’re lowly unworthy humans, so don’t stress out about what you can’t fix yourself. And as a little becomes a lot, each step is justified the same way — god will fix this later, it’s only a little worse than it was before, there will be justice someday, nobody else would take a stand with me and this problem requires mass action, let’s not make waves and cause ourselves trouble.

    As other atheists do, I have more respect for the intellectual honesty of the fundamentalist Christian position than for that of more liberal Christians, however much I may feel the reverse with respect to morality, intelligence, or sanity; the fundamentalists saw a threat to their way of thinking and stood up for themselves. Liberal Christians? Well, um… er… maybe if things get worse… next year… next election… when there’s a really serious outrage… when the kids are grown… when I retire… it really isn’t so bad yet… nobody’s targeting me… let’s just take some soma and relax. It’ll all come out in the wash. Better yet, let’s just stand here and chew the sweet, sweet grass. Baaa.

    The lord is my shepherd; I shall not think. He maketh me to lie down when others need help: He leadeth me into conflict. His prophets contradict each other: He createth me a sinner and condemneth me to hell, in his name’s sake, for reasons he telleth not. Yea, though I walk through a world full of suffering and death, I will admit no error: for critical thinking is not with me; Thine aura of authority, it stills my reason. Thou promisest me pie in the sky, and preacheth to me of lilies of the field — Thy priests still get paychecks; thy coffers runneth over. Surely credulity and cruelty shall be with us while faith lasts, And we shall dwell in the ways of fatuity forever.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki,

    We are talking about a hypothetical situation that has never been known to occur outside of a TV script.

    You said you’d read Harris’ defence of the torture argument from John P’s comment. Do you remember this bit?

    Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture even in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture. As nuclear and biological terrorism become increasingly possible, it is in everyone’s interest for men and women of goodwill to determine what should be done if a prisoner appears to have operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity (and may even claim to possess such knowledge), but won’t otherwise talk about it.

    Harris is right, we need to think about what we would actually do, not just say “oh, it’ll never actually happen.” Agree with him or not, Harris has made an honest, intelligent attempt to do that. You have still not engaged with his arguments. The more this discussion goes on, the more I find myself eagerly looking forward to Ebonmuse’s promised post on Harris arguments. It will be nice to see someone actually deal with it fairly.

  • Vicki Baker

    Vicar: I applaud you for knowing your school board members. I find that actually getting out and meeting your neighbors and working together on projects can be very grounding and energizing (though also sometimes exhausting!) Around here “neighbors” are a pretty diverse bunch representing pretty much all the world’s faiths and non-faiths too. I find “us and them” thinking to be unhelpful in most areas of my life though I see that I also often fall into it. I will shut up for a while now too!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Entomologista:

    It may not be offensive to call a man or a group of both men and women hysterical, but the term is offensive when applied to a female person. It has the effect of silencing and dismissing a woman simply because she is a woman.

    I reject the idea that a word that is used to label one group (namely atheists) cannot be used by that same group as a retort against the people who criticized them.

    Being hysterical means showing an excess of emotion disproportionate to the actual situation, which is something that either men or women can do. Whatever the origins of the word, it is not inextricably bound for all time by its original connotation, any more than the origins of the word “Sunday” imply that anyone who uses that word today must be a pagan solar worshipper.

    If you are still determined to read sexist connotations into this, that’s up to you. However, I maintain that the word was appropriate in the context in which I used it, I do not regret using it, and I will not refrain from using that word in the future. On the contrary, I will use it in any future circumstance in which I find its meaning to be applicable. Take it or leave it. And that is the last I’ll say about this.

  • Vicki Baker

    If you are still determined to read sexist connotations into this, that’s up to you

    Uh, did you read my comment above? “I don’t think Ebonmuse meant to make any sort of sexist comment like that consciously”

    I’m not criticizing Harris and Hitchens for not being nice. I’m criticizing them for being apologists for religious wars (a war against Islam is a religious war)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    My comment was for Entomologista, Vicki, not for you.

  • OMGF

    Alex Weaver,

    Yes; however, Atheism as generally understood implies the nonexistence of a soul and thus annihilates any rational (used loosely) basis for a general opposition to the right of women to control their own bodies, and as such is not conducive to anti-choice positions, much like traditional Christian doctrine is hostile to the belief that women are people. Nevertheless, some atheists, through what appear to be astronomical acts of cognitive dissonance, hold such positions (why yes, I HAVE been arguing with Ian Spedding again; how did you know? x.x). Perhaps I should have specified it as “women’s reproductive rights” for clarity.

    Xianity teaches mysogyny. For a feminist to submit to that and agree with it is cognitive dissonance. Atheism makes no teachings on the equality of women. Atheists are generally accepting of equal rights for many reasons, among which are that they know what it is like to be deemed as lower beings and throwing off the shackles of the mysogynistic teachings of Yahweh and realizing that one does not have to treat women as inferior just to name a couple. There is nothing intrinsic, however, about atheism that demands sexual equality. Xianity, however, does demand sexual inequality.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m aware of this. However, for atheists to believe that human consciousness is dependent solely on the operation of the physical brain and yet that a human embyro that has not yet formed a functioning brain containing the neural structures known to be necessary for consciousness is equivalent to a born human being, and is therefore of greater moral worth than the welfare or rights of the person obligated to carry it inside her body, also requires cognitive dissonance, so far as I can see.

    As for the claims that atheists are “disrespectful” of the religious, here, perhaps, is a nice catchy way of putting it: “Being ‘respectful’ means not wandering into a church and referring to Mary as ‘Our Lady of the Splash Conception.’ It does NOT mean feeling obligated to treat every ridiculous proposal floated by the religious as a hypothesis worthy of serious consideration.” Thoughts on this formulation?

  • http://www.mindsmeaningmorals.wordpress.com Jeff G

    I appreciate the fact that Hitchens is included within the camp of New Atheism while Dennett is left out. It always bugs me when people list the new atheists as Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, for Dennett position on religion is VERY different from that of Dawkins and Harris. Hitchens’, however, is very much in line with their views.

  • http://www.alisonblogs.com Alison

    Without controversy, there won’t be any change. Vickie can call herself a feminist with fewer repercussions than the original feminists did because those activists were “shrill”, “hysterical”, and “uncompromising”. If she were an active suffragette, she would be angry that her perfectly reasonable view was called by so many emotionally negative words, just as many atheists are angry that we are experiencing such public vituperation. And just as early feminists who were more quiet about their views needed the suffragettes (and, later, the bra-burners) and minorities needed the civil rights activists to march while they tried to live without harassment or deprivation of livelihood, atheists and secularists need the loud voices and the public protests. When the issue has been brought to the forefront, the idea has been planted in people’s heads, change actually begins in a much more subtle (and yet substantial) way.

    BTW, one of the changes some of us are happy with is the evolution of American English, which has allowed a number of words that began with sexist overtones to become gender neutral. It’s so much better than making up an entire vocabulary of new words to accomplish the same thing. If the comment about Harris had been made by a man, Ebonmuse would have been equally justified and correct to call it hysterical.

    Oh, and another point of information – Entomologists don’t study word origins.

  • Vicki Baker

    Alison, I know that entomologists study insects. My husband has a degree in entomolgy. I assumed that Entomlogista was another kid that never outgrew her “bug phase” but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she will clear this up.

    A way to test whether “hysterical” has become a completely gender neutral word would be to look at a random sample of occurrences and compare the frequency of its use to describe males or females.

    Google is accepted by many linguists as a good source of rough and ready word frequency counts. The following results were obtained in Google searches for the phrases:

    “hysterical atheists” – 45 results
    “hysterical females” – 2250 results
    “hysterical males” – 98 results
    “hysterical women” – 30,500 results
    “hysterical people” 15,100 results
    “hysterical men” – 11,800 results

    So, it would seem that “hysterical” has not been completely freed of its sexist associations.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki,

    Google will not just record current documents with current usage. The internet is an archive of material written write through history – not just since we’ve had the internet. Many of the results it has thrown up will be from documents written at a time when the old connotation of the word was still current. Unless you can account for the time of writing from each occasion where the word appears, this is flawed.

  • Vicki Baker

    Tobe: that’s why it’s a rough estimate. A search of Google News reveals 3 results for “hyterical women”, 2 for “hysterical females”, and 0 for the other phrases.

  • Vicki Baker

    Google blog search:

    hysterical atheists -1
    hysterical women – 582
    hysterical people – 500
    hysterical men – 53

    getting better but note the disparity in gender-specific references.

  • Alex Weaver

    Sarcastically speaking:

    Since self-stimulation is still thought of as a primarily or predominantly male activity in most circles, can we cancel out the alleged connotations of “hysterical” by pointing out the rather masturbatory nature of this sort of exercise?

    Seriously speaking:

    What possible bearing does this have on what was meant by the word or what can reasonably be inferred from the use of the word? The overwhelming majority of people attach a positive connotation to “faith”, too. Does this mean that every time we refer to it our comments necessarily become approving? Think this through.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki said:

    Tobe: that’s why it’s a rough estimate.

    No, if all the search results were from roughly the same time period, it would be a rough estimate. As it is, it’s just rough. With such a wildly unknown variable unaccounted for, it is not even useful as a guide.

  • Vicki Baker

    Google news and google blog searches are from roughly the same (recent) time period. I’m pretty confident that a frequency count in a more defined corpus would yield similar results.

    Of course, all this is beside the point because we live in a world where college presidents never claim that men are innately better at science, and where spurious research on sex differences is never treated as “gospel.”

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki,

    Google news and google blog searches are from roughly the same (recent) time period.

    Fair enough, see where you’re coming from on that one. But there’s another problem.

    Your results all rely on the word “hysterical” being used with one of the other key words, e.g. “atheist”. However, it doesn’t account for the occasions where none of those other words are used, and the context just has to be taken from what is said (e.g. Ebonmuse’s orginal comment).

    I’ve just typed “hysterical” on its own into Google and got 6,700,000 results. The sum of your results from Google with other words attached is around 60,000. Your experiment doesn’t even account for 1% of the usage for the word “hysterical” on the internet.

  • Vicki Baker

    Alex sez:

    can we cancel out the alleged connotations of “hysterical” by pointing out the rather masturbatory nature of this sort of exercise?

    Now you be dissin’ my peeps, da linguists.

    tobe: OK so hysterical atheists w/o quotes gets 229,000, hysterical women w/o quotes gets 1.3 mil. I still stand by my basic premise that “hysterical” is not a gender-neutral term.

    I don’t think it’s a good descriptor of Harris or Hitchens either, more accurate IMO would be “c/overt neo-cons and apologists for the war on terror.”

    And that’s the last I’ll say on word frequency on this topic, because I have used up absolutely all the time allotted to procrastination today.

  • OMGF

    Alex:

    I’m aware of this. However, for atheists to believe that human consciousness is dependent solely on the operation of the physical brain and yet that a human embyro that has not yet formed a functioning brain containing the neural structures known to be necessary for consciousness is equivalent to a born human being, and is therefore of greater moral worth than the welfare or rights of the person obligated to carry it inside her body, also requires cognitive dissonance, so far as I can see.

    Well then, that’s a different argument, eh? So, I stand by my comments and I stand by my defense of why the two are different. So, how can a feminist find Xianity in concert with his/her views? They can’t. I find this statement to be deserving of not being countered with a non sequitor about abortion and atheists.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Vicki said:

    tobe: OK so hysterical atheists w/o quotes gets 229,000, hysterical women w/o quotes gets 1.3 mil. I still stand by my basic premise that “hysterical” is not a gender-neutral term.

    This is the last I’ll say on the matter: All you’re examining is how often people use the word “hysterical” to describe men, women or atheists. This says absolutely nothing about the connotations of the word “hysterical” per se.

    I got 1,300,000 results for “hysterical children” but only 269,000 resulsts for “hysterical banana”. So what? That just means that people use the word “hysterical” to describe children more often than they use it to describe bananas. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of the word itself.

  • Vicki B.

    tobe38: My argument pertains to pragmatics, not semantics.

    Pragmatics=”in linguistics, the study of the choices of language persons make in social interaction and of the effects of these choices on others (Crystal, 1987).”

    On googling: if you search for a phrase w/o quotes, you will get all results where the two words appear together on the page, regardless of their proximity. (Though I believe the results are weighted for proximity) If you search for the phrase w. quotes, you get the results for that exact string, which is a better guarantee that the adjective is actually modifying the noun in question.

    OMGF, et. al.: Why have you assumed I am a Christian? Because I am critical of a few atheist celebrities? Because I may have mentioned in another thread my experiences participating in non-violent direct action with people of faith? I’m not, for the record. But it certainly was a convenient way to dismiss my feminist credentials.

  • OMGF

    Vicki,
    1) I admitted that I was not sure in my first comment. I said that I thought you were and mentioned “IIRC” meaning that my recall may not be correct. I thought I had remembered you in another thread saying you were, but it seems I was wrong.
    2) How was I trying to dismiss your feminist credentials? Why do you assume that all comments are direct attacks on your feminist position?
    3) I have run into quite a few so-called feminists who are Xian and I ask them the same question. I am actually interested in the cognitive dissonance that is involved in holding those contradictory positions.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I only read the first dozen comments or so, so I apologize in advance if my comments echo something that has already been written here.

    I think liberal religious people, such as Chris Hedges for example, bristle at the outspoken atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris because they feel rightly or wrongly that outspoken atheists give the radical religious right a target to outrage the masses.

    People like Hedges believe that the Radical Religious Right is taking advantage of working class and lower income Christian Americans by distracting them with issues like school prayer, evolution and gay marriage while allowing them to get screwed financially by Republican Party economic policies. While I did not read the book, I believe this is also the point made by Thomas Frank in “What’s The Matter With Kansas.”

    Moderate religious people and moderate atheists want to roll back the Religious Right as much as the more ardent atheists and secularists, and see atheist and secular activists as providing convenient bogeymen for the fundies, who can then rile the hoi polloi with cries of “You see how they’re trying to take your religion away from you!”

  • Alex Weaver

    This post while on a slightly different topic, has an obvious relevance, particularly this line:

    “If you over generalize in your attacks, you offend people who agree with you on the issues but may hold different beliefs, and if you do it enough, you may drive them away.”

    Then what were their convictions worth, if they can be changed by spite on an unrelated dispute?

    -”Numad”

  • Alex Weaver

    A bit late, but I just thought of something relevant: a new formal classification of fallacy which I call “Argumentum ad nocens mos” or “Vos vilis caput capitis!” “Argumentum ad nocens mos” is an attempt at copying the form of other “argumentum” fallacies into “appeal to bad manners,” while “Vos vilis caput capitis” is what one Latin-to-English translation page produced for the input line “You meany head!” I assume the intended object of these classifications is fairly obvious… ^.^

    (As is the fact that this fallacy is about two steps up the hierarchy of fallacies from “Argumentum ad tu mater”).

  • Alex

    Bunting’s argument reminds me of a George Bernard Shaw quote: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

    I think theists are really missing out on the possibility of going further with scientific inquiry. At one point or another, every theist closes their eyes to evidence and attributes a natural phenomenon to divine intervention. If they were simply curious and patient enough to search for a naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon, they would be more thoroughly satisfied than they are with their cop-out.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Tommykey hit the nail on the head a couple comments back.

    Either way, I understand and respect why people both atheist and faithful have a distaste for Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists. People react with scorn to Dawkins quite frankly because he often writes like a condescending jerk, while even hypocritically committing the very errors he accuses his opponents of.

    Ebonmuse, I disagree when you say,

    ..religion is causing vast harm around the world.

    Blah blah blah must we hear this recycled argument again?!

    If you say this, then you must also admit that atheism has caused vast harm around the world. Now you and others in this thread might feel degree matters, and I don’t know whose philosophy has the most victims, but the point is this: Religion, atheism or Islam are not the cause of the vast harm in the world; misguided people are.

    “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is of course cheesy but employs the same reasoning. For every suicide bomber you have who knows how many regular, sane, civilized people that believe in God and would never even consider taking a human life. For every atheist school shooter or demagogue you have who knows how many sane, fulfilled, moral atheists. In fact, by stating what you do, you only further isolate reasonable believers who are beyond wearisome of weathering such charges. I don’t blame atheism for school shootings, genocide or America’s drug problem; why should an atheist be allowed to blame religion for atrocity X, Y or Z?

    The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it

    The title of Bunting’s piece is fitting save for one word – I would omit ‘plausible’ in favor of ‘objective.’ The New Atheists are very capable of plausibly challenging religion – problem is their intense bent gets in the way and befuddles their arguments.

    Now, that I perceive Dawkins as a rude and ranting crank doesn’t mean I’ll turn a deaf ear. I’ve read his work critically and I think TGD is by far his worst book, and the worst atheist book I’ve read save for David Mills’ Atheist Universe. In general, as people react negatively to abrasive preachers, I probably won’t learn much from hostile, self-confessed proselytes like Dawkins who stoop intellectually low and use hoodwinkery to prove their point.

    A few things some random atheists are saying about Dawkins’ TGD:

    “Reading it from a now neutral point of view, I think the main problem is that his good arguments (admittedly there are strong arguments) are hidden beneath the irrational, childish, hypocritical insults towards the religion, the incredibly weak arguments he also offers at other points, and the huge misportrayal of religion which litters the book, decreasing it’s validity infinitely..” (student from Calumcalum, London)

    “…that he comes across as slightly condascending doesn’t help.” (reader, Cardiff)

    “I have difficulty with Dawkins’ confrontational style. I absolutely share Dawkins’ concern regarding religious fundamentalism, but I think his abrasive approach to religious belief in general not only polarises religious debate, but also hinders constructive dialogue between those on opposite sides of the fence who are willing to speak to each other.” (reader, South Africa)

    I’m all for being who you are and never backing down intellectually. I’m all for being passionate about beliefs. But not to an extent that isolates people and creates categories of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

    Dawkins clearly fancies himself and those who think like him ‘us,’ while labeling anyone who thinks otherwise as ‘them.’ As for me, I see people.

    Although I’m appalled by most of what’s done in the name of God, and although I’m down to join my atheist brothers and sisters in the fight against religious absurdity, until one group or ideology can successfully kill all adherents of opposing ideologies, we’d better learn quickly to be one people. Dawkins’ divisiveness is not a characteristic I think we need in the new paradigm.

  • Bruce Gorton

    cl

    Utter twaddle. The equivelant claim would be that the KKK’s ideology didn’t lead to KKK members lynching black people, or that the Nazi ideology wasn’t responsible for individual Nazis carrying out the holocaust.

    Take your same reasoning, apply it to racism, and you end up looking like a complete moron because it is a downright spectacularly stupid line of reasoning.

    Atheism, is an absence of belief, and thus cannot be utilised to motivate anything. To say “Atheism motivates XYZ” is the same as saying “Not collecting stamps motivates XYZ.” Though there have been bad atheists in history – guys like Stalin, they were motivated by other factors.

    Much like a lot of bad theists were motivated by other factors.

    However, with theists their religion has in fact been directly responsible for bad things. The Catholic Pope, motivated by his religious belief, recently claimed that condoms increased the risk of contracting AIDS, the Church later ammended his speech by adding “may” to that but either way, thanks to the Pope’s words in Africa, to a bunch of people who actually think he is infallible, thousands of people will die.

    Salmon Rushdie had a fatwa placed on his head, which means people motivated by their religious belief set out to kill him and anybody who published “The Satanic Diaries.”

    And you have Hindus who, motivated by their religious belief, go around attacking couples for public displays of affection. Funny how the religious all seem deathly afraid of sex, no matter what religion they are a part of.

    And of course you have animists who harvest organs from living children in the religious belief that that makes the “muti” stronger.

    While religion is not the root cause of all the evil in the world, it is the root cause of a lot of it – and that is enough to say that it is harmful.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Tommykey

    Actually, they object because the “new atheists” point out that the religious left are no better than the religious right when you get right down to the meat of it.

    The religious left like to think of themselves as being “reasonable” and “intelligent” and the thing about the “new atheist” attacks on religion, is that they highlight things which the religious left actually do believe, and point out how stupid they are.

    The religious left find a lot of their cherished mythology getting caught in the crossfire, with uncomfortable questions being raised on both sides, one pointing out how they abandon faith, the other how they abandon reason, while they try to hold on to both.

    So you get these “Shut up” articles from the religious left, these desperate pleas for the vocal atheist genie to go back into the bottle that the religious right smashed – and the “new atheist” movement isn’t about to cooperate.