The Selective Wall

Last December, I wrote about a controversy in Albemarle County, Virginia, where right-wing Christians who sued for and won the right to distribute literature through the public schools’ “backpack mail” program were shocked – shocked! – to find out that there were other religions which then wanted to use that program for the same thing. At the time, the example I cited was a local Unitarian church which invited students to a pagan-inspired celebration of the winter holidays.

Now there’s a new wrinkle in this case. An even better group has stepped in and is distributing literature through the backpack mail program: Camp Quest, a summer camp explicitly aimed at children of atheist, agnostic and humanist parents. Of course, the conservative Christians who fought this case fully recognize that opening the school to one religious viewpoint means equal access must be given to all religious viewpoints, and they’ve stated that while they don’t agree with the beliefs of Camp Quest, they’re more than willing to allow atheists to distribute literature to children as well, and let families decide for themselves who is right.

Just kidding.

In reality, the religious groups who shrieked about persecution when they were denied access to public schools are now shrieking just as loudly that the schools are “promoting atheism” by giving atheists the same access to a public forum as everyone else. Rick Scarborough called it “outrageous” that teachers have to hand out material with which they might personally disagree (a concern, I note, that was entirely absent when Christians like Scarborough were trying to force their way into the school). Some of the teachers are deeply concerned that handing out such material might imply that the school is officially endorsing or establishing atheism. Some are going even farther by refusing to hand out the flyers that they personally do not agree with.

As AU’s blog says so well:

If public schools allow private groups to use “backpack mail,” they must prohibit teachers from deciding which messages are and are not worthy. It is absolutely unacceptable for public school teachers to decide that one religious belief is “offensive” and “outrageous” but others are not and then promote that perspective in their official capacity.

I could not agree more. Teachers who use their official power to promote ideas that agree with their personal beliefs, and shut out ideas that do not agree with their personal beliefs, should immediately be disciplined or fired. Such an attitude is incompatible with the expectations placed upon every civil servant by the U.S. Constitution.

Judging by the facts of this case, one could be forgiven for thinking that the religious right simply lacks whatever part of the brain it is that allows the rest of us to comprehend basic notions of fairness and equality. When they are not allowed to use the coercive power of government to push their faith, they raise a hue and cry of discrimination, claiming they are being shut out; but when that power is extended to all religious groups, they scream that the government is officially endorsing beliefs that they do not agree with. It seems that nothing would satisfy them except special, preferential treatment for their own beliefs while all others are banned and shut out – which, of course, is exactly what they want.

This is yet another aspect of the selective wall, which I’ve written about many times before. The selective wall is what leads believers to conclude that special treatment for their beliefs is inherently fair and reasonable, while the same treatment for any beliefs different from their own is a gross injustice and a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Such people hold an attitude of arrogant, condescending entitlement, believing that they themselves have a special exemption from the rules everyone else must follow, and that any attempt to hold them to the same standard as everyone else is an offensive insult. Doubtless, it is the certainty that they know God’s will and that everyone who disagrees is wrong that causes them to act in this way, which is just another illustration of the pernicious effects of faith.

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://www.skepchick.com writerdd

    What gets me about the cries of discrimination from the religious right, is the blatant hypocrisy of it. Jesus did, after all, say, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” So even if these people are actually being persecuted, they should not be whining about it or trying to make it stop. They should be having a party.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com/ Chris Hallquist

    It would be worth building up a case file of these insane inconsistencies. I have too many other projects to do it myself. You think you could, Adam? You seem to put more effort into noticing them, and it would make a wonderful.

    Of course, to get a really clear picture of the problem, it would be worth doing a careful study, as I suggest on my blog. That would require enlisting the help of an experienced journalist, pollster or psychologist, though. I’ll try to keep it at the back of my memory, if I ever get to sit down with the right sort of person…

  • Jim Baerg

    Have you read this web-book?
    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    The author is a psychologist who has identified a psychological type he calls “Right Wing Authoritarian”. Note that he uses ‘right wing’ to mean one who supports the currently orthodox powers, so a Stalinist in the Soviet Union would fit the type.

    One of the traits of the RWA is just this sort of double standard.

  • Beth B

    Oh! You comedian you. You had me going, hook, line and ‘sinner’. I was on the edge of my seat thinking that we were on the brink of a huge break through. The whole time saying ‘No way! Can’t be possible! Could this BE the first sign of Anti-armageddon?!’

    I used to run into ‘backpack mail’ on occasion in the Palm Beach County, FL school we were in (just wanted to point out location to show we aren’t in the Bible belt) It wasn’t horribly obtrusive to me at the time but there non-the-less. Our family doesn’t run into ‘backpack mail’ anymore because we have taken the leap, into the realm of home schooling. Our reasons for leaving the public school system was not for religious reasons we weren’t trying to escape theist persecution but instead what I considered academic cloning. If your square peg doesn’t fit into the round hole then it most definitely needs the oblong pills until it becomes pliable enough to fit through the play-dough factory like everyone else. Elementary/Middle/High schools really don’t do much to promote let alone tolerate freethinking in spite of the lip service they may give it.

    Well talk about an eye opener! From the theist frying pan straight to the fire!!! Being an atheist in the land of home schoolers can be adventurous to say the least!

    I continue to be befuddled by the insane sense of entitlement. All I can think of when I read/hear another story such as this post is the Toddler’s Creed. For those of you unfamiliar here is a copy.

    The Toddlers Creed
    Author Unknown (But if anyone knows I am very interested!)
    If I want it,
    IT’S MINE!

    If I give it to you and change my mind later,
    IT’S MINE!

    If I can take it away from you,
    IT’S MINE!

    If it’s mine it will never belong to anybody else,
    No matter what.
    If we are building something together,
    All the pieces are mine!

    If it looks just like mine,
    IT’S MINE!

    If it breaks or needs putting away,
    IT’S YOURS!
    My addition…
    If it’s not my God I can’t hear you.
    NA NA NA NA BOO BOO!

  • anti-nonsense

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v694/Andygal/helphelp.gif

    That about sums up my response to that kind of bullshit from Christians.

  • Polly

    LMAO! You REALLY had me going!
    Too bad that wasn’t the reality. The hypocrisy is just sickening. Are these people really mentally deficient, or is it an “all means are justified by the end mentality”?
    I guess one’s sense of fairness would suffer under a justice system that orders Hellfire for dissent due to independent thinking.

  • Alex Weaver

    Damnit, anti-nonsense beat me to it.

    As for the “toddler’s creed” most of it reminds me more of DRM lemmings than Christian wingnuts, but you’re right on the last. :/

  • Freeyourmind

    You should have seen my face before I saw the “just kidding”. Haha

    Obviously this type of news comes as no surprise to any of us here.

  • James Bradbury

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v694/Andygal/helphelp.gif
    That about sums up my response to that kind of bullshit from Christians.

    That’s brilliant, but will I get beaten up if I put it on a t-shirt?

  • http://radicalindifference.blogspot.com/ John Pierre

    Should we even be surprised?

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Of course, the conservative Christians who fought this case fully recognize that opening the school to one religious viewpoint means equal access must be given to all religious viewpoints, and they’ve stated that while they don’t agree with the beliefs of Camp Quest, they’re more than willing to allow atheists to distribute literature to children as well, and let families decide for themselves who is right.

    I thought I was having a religious experience when I read this!

    Just kidding.

    Well, aren’t we the little prankster? Swine! I did laugh when I’d recovered though.

    In all seriousness, stories like this really get me down. You wonder just if there’s any hope when faced with hypocrisy of such unbelievable levels.

    @ Anti-nonsense

    Lol. I love that picture.

    @ James

    Can you do two tee-shirts and I’ll buy one? If I tried to do it myself I would end up in hospital (and then possibly jail). :P

  • Andreas

    Wow, just wow. Their hypocrisy disgusts me.

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

    I was feeling impish when I wrote that bit about the religious right, as many of you have discerned for yourselves. ;)

  • AJS

    All this demonstrates is just how weak and insecure these people are in their faith. If merely entertaining the concept of alternative beliefs is so damaging to theirs, maybe it’s their own ideas which are the problem?

    I heard of something similar happening at some US school where parents were trying to get equal time devoted to creation theory as evolution. So the school did start teaching creationism . . . . . . but the local Native American version, as opposed to either of the two mutually-incompatible versions from the bible.

    Surprisingly, this decision was not well-received, and the parents went back to preferring the teaching of evolution over (Native American) creation.

    Don’t know for certain where it was or even if it might just have been one of those urban legends that propagate on the Internet, but it’s a nice story anyway . . . . . . along the same lines as Darwin converting on his deathbed (except that this wouldn’t harm the validity of a scientific theory, which is orthogonal to belief).

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Oy.

    I think what we have to remember is that these kinds of hardcore Christian evangelicals DON’T care about the Constitution, or fair play. Literally. It’s not so much that they don’t understand the concepts — they’re just not a priority for them.

    What they care about is establishing a Christian nation. They don’t just believe in the sky-god and his magic book — they believe that the truth and value and importance of the sky-god and his magic book are greater than anything else, and that convincing others of this truth trumps all other considerations.

    It’s not like they think they should be able to distribute their literature but other religions shouldn’t because that’s somehow fair or Constitutional. They think they should be able to distribute their literature but other religions shouldn’t because they’re right, and everyone else is wrong.

    They’re not even hypocrites, really. They’re true believers. Which is even scarier.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    I’m going to be intentionally contrarian here and say that — there’s every chance that their blatant hypocrisy had nothing to do with their faith and everything to do with their conservatism. The very same scenario could play out if we just swap the names around:

    “Right-wing Hindus in India were shocked to find out Muslims wanted fair treatment!”

    “Right-wing Pagans were shocked to find out New-Age Crystal-Gazers wanted fair treatment!”

    And, I dare say:

    “Right-wing Atheists were shocked to find out Mormans wanted fair treatment!”

    The problem isn’t faith, belief or religious affiliation; it’s political conservatism and, as Jim Baerg pointed out above, psychological rigidity. These are not necessarily symptoms of religious intolerance. They are they causes of it.

    After all, the description of the selective wall:

    what leads believers to conclude that special treatment for their beliefs is inherently fair and reasonable, while the same treatment for any beliefs different from their own is a gross injustice and a blatant violation of the separation of church and state…

    …seems to me to describe the New Atheism of Dawkins and Harris. It doesn’t describe the good-natured liberal atheism I grew up with.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    Addendum: I of course meant to spell it “Mormons.”

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    After all, the description of the selective wall …seems to me to describe the New Atheism of Dawkins and Harris. It doesn’t describe the good-natured liberal atheism I grew up with.

    Can you give us an example? I was under the impression that Dawkins and Harris were guilty of little more than strongly-worded rhetoric explaining why they think atheism is the way to go. Do you know of a situation where one or the other has actually suggested that atheists deserve special treatment? Because, after all, the fact that both think that atheism itself is more reasonable than theism merely makes them guilty of having an opinion and expressing it. They aren’t protesting the right of others to have opinions, too.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    Do you know of a situation where one or the other has actually suggested that atheists deserve special treatment? Because, after all, the fact that both think that atheism itself is more reasonable than theism merely makes them guilty of having an opinion and expressing it. They aren’t protesting the right of others to have opinions, too.

    If you let me use an expansive notion of ‘special treatment’ then yes, I have some situations in mind.

    First is Dawkins’ notion of religion as child abuse. There was even a petition, if I remember correctly. This is explicitly prejudiced in favor of atheists — non-believing parents can raise their kids without any mention of god what-so-ever (this is how I was raised), while theist parents have to wait until the child hits a certain age before they can make their case for belief. Dawkins presents his case in nice liberal terms but the effect is a kind of structural prejudice.

    Second is the implicit notion — found all over the net but especially prevalent at Pharyngula, Sandwalk, and many other science blogs — that the default position is scientific atheism. It’s one thing to discuss the degree to which science is compatible with, for example, theistic or deistic evolution, and quite another to claim that anyone who holds a theistic evolution position is misguided and opposed to real science.

    I know that Larry Moran is careful to distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism (I’ve lost the link; if anyone wants the reference I can find it), but he and PZ Meyers certainly act as if science absolutely compels one to be a non-believer. Again, this is a kind of structural discrimination.

    I realize my second example didn’t involve Dawkins or Harris specifically. It may be sloppy, but I generally name-drop them as the public faces of the New Atheism.

  • plunge

    “First is Dawkins’ notion of religion as child abuse.”

    That’s not what he says. He was specifically talking about instilling the fear of hell into a child, and he wrote about this because of a young woman who was both sexually abused and taught that a deceased school friend would be going to hell in the same year: and hell was the more traumatic of the two.

    “There was even a petition, if I remember correctly.”

    You don’t. Dawkins signed it but then retracted his support when he found out that it could be interpreted as calling for legal actions against religious parents, which he does not support. His position is actually a little hard for Americans to understand, because its in part based on a objection to a system in the UK that officially classifies children (even those too young to believe anything) as members of specific religions.

    “his is explicitly prejudiced in favor of atheists — non-believing parents can raise their kids without any mention of god what-so-ever (this is how I was raised), while theist parents have to wait until the child hits a certain age before they can make their case for belief.”

    Not teaching kids TO believe a certain thing is not the same as teaching them not to believe in anything ever.

  • lpetrich

    And related to this is Double standards in the public schools? No, say it ain’t so!

    PZ blogged about a valedictorian who claimed that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you will be sent to Hell.

    Someone commented in comment #15 about how a fundie went absolutely nuts over a Buddhist invocation at a football game in a Hawaii high school. He became a born-again church/state separationist as a result.

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

    This is explicitly prejudiced in favor of atheists — non-believing parents can raise their kids without any mention of god what-so-ever (this is how I was raised), while theist parents have to wait until the child hits a certain age before they can make their case for belief.

    Dawkins has never said or advocated any such thing. (In fact, he thinks there should be more teaching of comparative religion to children.) What he opposes is labeling children as if they were members of a belief system they are much too young to have given their assent to.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    plunge;

    Thanks for the clarification on the petition. I’m glad that Dawkins retracted. And perhaps the term ‘abuse’ is a bit strong — after all, the chapter in The God Delusion is called “Childhood, Abuse and Religion” with a comma, and not “Childhood Abuse and Religion” without one.

    But even if I frame this point in terms of abuse or in terms of the “breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane… sacrific[e] of anyone, especially children, on the alter of ‘diversity’” (TDG, page 331), the essential point is the same. The atheist family has a structural advantage over the Amish family, since raising a child in the Amish tradition is, according to Dawkins, an ‘inhumane sacrifice’ of the child’s autonomy. According to this logic, raising a child in a godless environment is the natural state, privileging non-theists. This was my original point about the “selective wall” not being applicable only to theists.

    Not teaching kids TO believe a certain thing is not the same as teaching them not to believe in anything ever.

    Sure, but there’s a point at which the two begin to elide together. After all, there’s a difference between teaching kids to think critically and to accept blindly. Not teaching kids TO believe in, say, god, is not the same as teaching them to think critically.

    The whole point of the chapter mentioned above was — if I remember correctly — to make a case that children should be allowed to freely accept religion once they’ve developed to critical skills necessary to make an informed decision. Becoming religious is like reaching the drinking age; the state assumes that at some arbitrary age someone is mature enough to decide for themselves whether god exists or not.

    This, again, would be a structural advantage for the atheist position, which was my original point.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    Ebonmuse;

    I am apparently confused how “labeling” a child doesn’t affect how one “raises” a child. If one can’t “label” a child as Amish, this implies, it seems to me, that one can’t really “raise” a child as Amish.

    As plunge noted, Dawkins is writing from a UK perspective with different laws, etc. He still makes a fundamental mistake: he confuses religion with a simple belief system, reducible to just the tenets and creeds the followers espouse. But belonging to a faith is also belonging to a community, a family, a group. By denying membership in the group — all to preserve the child’s ability to ‘autonomously’ choose their beliefs later on — is to deny them the benefits that come from being a part of their larger community.

    It also seems to me that teaching comparative religion to children again gives the atheist, humanist and secularist an unfair advantage. We atheists gain lots of converts once people see how arbitrary religious choices are.

    Finally, I want to reiterate the point that — whether my reading of Dawkins is correct or not — that we atheists need to watch out for the “selective wall” ourselves. It’s very easy to say that, since we’re right and the theists are wrong, we deserve some form of special consideration. But this goes against the basic liberal values of our secular society, and I personally think it is more dangerous than teaching children a fib such as that Jesus was real.

    While its source is a book of fairy-tales, the whole thing about being aware of the “beam in your eye” before you complain about the “mote” in your neighbor’s eye is good advice.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    This, again, would be a structural advantage for the atheist position, which was my original point.

    It is quite possible that fewer people would be religious, if they were not indoctrinated at a young age to believe in a god. If a “structural advantage” exists for atheism, it is only in so much as critical thinking skills and the use of reason and evidence give atheism a structural advantage.

    I think a better way to put it is that religion has a “structural disadvantage” in terms of the use of critical thinking, reason and evidence. Seems to me that is something which needs to be taken up with the religious.

  • Vicki B.

    Just a word here about your example of the Amish: the Amish are part of the Anabaptist tradition, which means that believer’s baptism, as opposed to infant baptism into the faith, is very important to them. The Anabaptists were the radical wing of the Reformation; after one tragic experiment with state power in “the City of God of Muenster”, the Mennonites and Amish split off and formed the first “peace churches” which held that belief was a matter of personal conscience and should never be subject to force or coercion. It was an Anabaptist who first formulated the concept of separation of church and state in a petition to King James II of England.
    So, due to the emphasis on believers’ baptism, the Amish have a rite of passage where adolescents are free to explore other ways of life before committing to the church. There is a good documentary on it:
    http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Playground-Velda-Bontrager/dp/B00007GVM0

    My child’s school doesn’t let any non-school related stuff go home in the backpack. Teachers say it is hard enough to get parents to read what they’re supposed to read. There is a Parents Center where people can post flyers about community events.

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

    It also seems to me that teaching comparative religion to children again gives the atheist, humanist and secularist an unfair advantage. We atheists gain lots of converts once people see how arbitrary religious choices are.

    Yes, it’s so unfair that atheists have evidence on their side and religious people don’t! Clearly, reality has an atheist bias, and by demanding that children be taught about facts, Richard Dawkins is showing what an evil and biased person he is.

    dpoyesac, I think you’re grasping at straws now. Let’s not forget, the original point I raised in invoking the “selective wall” was that these theists want special, privileged access for themselves to teach children about their religion, but scream in protest when atheists and different religions are granted the same access for the same reason. Dawkins, Harris and the other so-called “new atheists” have not demanded anything even remotely similar to this. On the contrary, what they are suggesting is that atheists should have exactly the same access as everyone else, because we are confident that the facts are on our side and therefore we will prevail. They have not asked for any special treatment whatsoever, only an equal opportunity to participate in the battle of ideas.

    Also, I’d like to comment on this:

    the description of the selective wall …seems to me to describe the New Atheism of Dawkins and Harris. It doesn’t describe the good-natured liberal atheism I grew up with.

    That may well be true. And that “good-natured liberal atheism”, as you describe it, was remarkably ineffective at stemming the rise of the religious right and everything that came along with it. We atheists need to stop worrying so much about being good-natured and start being more outspoken. Should we be civil? Yes. Should we work together with theists where opportunity exists? Yes. But we should not be afraid to state what we believe and why, nor to take action based on those beliefs. It’s time for us to make some noise.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    RiddleOfSteel:

    The very fact that you use words like “indoctrination” and claim that “that religion has a ‘structural disadvantage’ in terms of the use of critical thinking, reason and evidence” — well, that kind of proves my overall point, doesn’t it? Prejudice by atheists against the religious is just as bad as prejudice by the religious against us nonbelievers.

    Vicki B.:

    My use of the Amish as an example was deliberate, for the exact points you mentioned. Thank you for helping me make them more explicit. I have tremendous respect for how the Amish treat their children in matters of faith. I wish more evangelicals would do the same. I think it would be a big loss if a desire to ‘preserve the autonomy’ of their children tore their society apart.

    When I read the chapter on children in Dawkins’ book the only thing I could think of was the injustice done, early in the 20th century, to traditional Native American families in the name of ‘modernization’ and ‘assimilation.’ I have images of ‘atheist missionaries’ trying to ‘de-superstition’ the natives, and I find that highly condescending on Dawkins’ part.

    Ebonmuse;

    You posit the “selective wall” as theists trying to keep an unfair advantage over theists. Absolutely on the money. My point was that some of the recommendations of the crop of New Atheists would amount to the same thing. If I haven’t convinced you that, that’s fine. What’s interesting is that all the criticism that’s come my way has been on my exegesis and use of Dawkins. No one has taken me to task over my claims about PZ Meyers and scientific atheism, for example, and no one has tried to convince me that some form of ‘structural prejudice’ against believers (say, in science departments) is impossible.

    My use of Dawkins as an example is only a small part of my overall argument.

    And that “good-natured liberal atheism”, as you describe it, was remarkably ineffective at stemming the rise of the religious right and everything that came along with it.

    This here is probably the heart of our disagreement. The religious right (let loose by the lax ‘good natured atheists!’) isn’t the cause of our current Culture Wars; they are a symptom of them. The sin of slimy Falwell and his ilk wasn’t being religiously conservative; it was their political authoritarianism and their willingness to sell their pastoral flocks for a seat at the political table.

    I don’t think we’re in the middle of a fight between Reason and Superstition. We’re in a fight between political Freedom and political Authoritarianism. What makes it seem like a fight against religion is the fact that most authoritarians are religious. But if we atheists spend all our time fighting the symptoms, who will ever try to fight the disease?

  • OMGF

    Dpoyesac,

    Prejudice by atheists against the religious is just as bad as prejudice by the religious against us nonbelievers.

    Huh? What prejudice?

    And yes, children are indoctrinated. If you claim otherwise (then I suppose you mean that children and adults freely choose their theistic position?) then you have to explain why most people grow up in the religion of their parents.

    I have images of ‘atheist missionaries’ trying to ‘de-superstition’ the natives, and I find that highly condescending on Dawkins’ part.

    Actually, Dawkins’ point was not that we should go in and disabuse them of their beliefs.

    No one has taken me to task over my claims about PZ Meyers and scientific atheism, for example, and no one has tried to convince me that some form of ‘structural prejudice’ against believers (say, in science departments) is impossible.

    Fine, I will. Science can not be done theistically. If you doubt that, then you need to look up the scientific method. If you can’t understand what PZ Myers means, then that’s simply too bad for you.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    Science can not be done theistically. If you doubt that, then you need to look up the scientific method.

    You are correct. But neither can science disprove theism (see my earlier comment about Larry Moran and the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism). Science can, at best, make theism a less likely option.

    If you can’t understand what PZ Myers means, then that’s simply too bad for you.

    I understand what PZ Meyers means just fine. I just disagree with it. It’s not that I think he’s wholly wrong, or that we atheists should play nicey-nice. It’s that he wants us to fight the wrong enemy.

  • OMGF

    But neither can science disprove theism (see my earlier comment about Larry Moran and the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism).

    That’s a red herring. What science proves or disproves is completely different from how science is done. Further, science can disprove empirical statements made by religions and has done so with alarming frequency for most theists.

    I understand what PZ Meyers means just fine.

    Here is what you originally said,

    Second is the implicit notion — found all over the net but especially prevalent at Pharyngula, Sandwalk, and many other science blogs — that the default position is scientific atheism. It’s one thing to discuss the degree to which science is compatible with, for example, theistic or deistic evolution, and quite another to claim that anyone who holds a theistic evolution position is misguided and opposed to real science.

    Feel free to ask PZ yourself, but I doubt that he thinks all theistic evolutionists are opposed to real science. So, no, I don’t think you understand what he means; not by a long shot.

    It’s that he wants us to fight the wrong enemy.

    Whatever do you mean? His fight is against irrationality and the effect it has on science (specifically evolution) and life in general. So, who is this “wrong enemy” of which you speak?

    What I’m getting from you is a whole lot of, “I don’t like how those guys do things, so they must be just as bad as the theists.” What utter rubbish. You’ve made claims of prejudice that you haven’t backed up, even when asked. You’ve made claims about what Dawkins’ arguments are making that you’ve been wrong about. And, you’ve made claims about Myers that don’t stand up. So, what are you really after?

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

    I have tremendous respect for how the Amish treat their children in matters of faith. I wish more evangelicals would do the same. I think it would be a big loss if a desire to ‘preserve the autonomy’ of their children tore their society apart.

    If anyone has an overly idealized view of the Amish, I suggest this story from last year.

    Despite the image of peaceful, close-knit community the Amish project to the world, shocking acts of sex abuse – often repeated, violent sex abuse, including incest and rape – happen among them with disturbing frequency. Since the Amish shun interaction with the outside world, including the police and the justice system, when these incidents come to light the rapist or abuser often gets off very lightly so long as he promises to repent. If the church elders decide that the rapist should be forgiven, his victim must forgive him as well, and if she instead decides to go to the police, she usually ends up facing the wrath of the community.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    I’m not going to deal with your point one by one; several (scientific method? Which one? The one we’re taught in grade school? The one described by Lakatos, Kuhn or Feyerabend?) seem like nit-picking. I’ll start with the last question first. What am I really after? I’m after the bad guys. Who do I see as the ‘wrong enemy’? I’ve already said, in my first comment:

    The problem isn’t faith, belief or religious affiliation; it’s political conservatism and, as Jim Baerg pointed out above, psychological rigidity. These are not necessarily symptoms of religious intolerance. They are they causes of it.

    To be clear: the ‘religious right’ is the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy because they are religious; they are the enemy because they want to tell what and how to think. They aren’t the enemy because they want to subvert science. They are the enemy because they think subverting science is a step towards political domination. Everyone and anyone who want to tell you what to think is the enemy.

    PZ Meyers? If asked he might say that not all theistic evolutionists are opposed to science, but he’s certainly not neutral on the subject:

    It’s all wrong. What is particularly troubling is how far we’ve sunk that so many on the side of science are willing to ignore the unscientific promotion of an unevidenced supernatural entity and pretend that this is good for us.

    In other places he accuses theistic evolutionists like Simon Conway Morris and Ken Miller of “trying to pretend they’re my friend”. Larry Moran makes similar points. These statements don’t sound like guys who thinks science is compatible with theism. They sound like guys who thinks — on some level — science compels one to be an atheist.

    If I sound rancorous, it’s because I am. Because I want to fight the long war and not just the current battle — because I want to fight the whole damn edifice of irrationality and authoritarianism, and not just the little corner that involves their particular discipline, Meyers, Moran and Dawkins call me and my compatriots “Neville Chamberlain” atheists and “do-nothing” atheists.

    Are they as bad as the theists? Depends on which theists you’re talking about. Do I think these guys are on the same side as me? Sometimes I wonder.

    As for prejudice. Let’s make sure we’re clear on the two kinds of prejudice I’m talking about. My point about Dawkins is simply that it seems possible his positive claims would lead to structural discrimination against theism, which runs counter to a liberal society. I never claimed that he was explicitly advocating official, institutionalized prejudice or forcible disabuse of religious belief. Perhaps I’m wrong in my forcast. But structural prejudice is a bad thing, and is itself worth guarding against.

    It’s past my bedtime and I don’t want to defend myself anymore, so I’ll turn things around. OMGF: looking back at the original post and my first comment, answer this question: did the parents fight to exclude literature aimed at “atheist, agnostic and humanist” children because they were religious or because they were conservative?

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    Ebonmuse;

    You’re right. You caught me. Sometime I do overly idealize the Amish. I use them as rhetorical devices all the time; when I hear that Christianity is responsible for all the environmental evils in the world I trot them out as my pet example of good Christian stewardship of the Earth.

  • lpetrich

    Richard Dawkins’s site has that article: Teachers Rebel over Atheism Promotion, complete with pictures of both the Camp Quest and the UU Holidays announcements.

  • The Vicar

    I dunno, dpoyesac, your Amish bear only a vague resemblance to the ones I’ve read about — what I’ve read says that they don’t really expect their children to rationally return to the sect; instead, that period is viewed as a point for adolescents to blow off steam (and antisocial behavior) out in the world where the Amish won’t have to deal with the repercussions. Amish youth on their sojourns are more often drug dealers than most other groups of children, for example, and the Amish response, basically, has been “well, you non-Amish are all wrong anyway, so who cares if our kids commit crimes that hurt some of you?”

    This thread suggests that an indirect description of an atheist is “someone who believes that all valid truths about the universe can be discovered by observation and experiment.” (The “all” is what separates an atheist from merely a scientist, who might or might not believe in the existence of valid truths which cannot be deduced.) Although theists often claim the universe as evidence of the existence of a god or gods, I have yet to hear one follow that up with “…so we can fire all the priests and stop reading our holy books, because our worldview is automatically vindicated by observation and experimentation.” There is, in fact, no god visible through the telescope, no devil under the microscope, no angels hovering in x-rays, no demons in the DNA, no soul in semiconductors, and no karma in a petri dish. These concepts must be taught to remain part of culture, because nobody would ever derive their existence via the scientific method.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    I think you are right on both points. I do sometimes willfully misinterpret the Amish because they play such a useful rhetorical role for me. Why don’t they understand that they should act in accordance with my argumentative needs and not their own petty personal interests? (Sarcasm, BTW.)

    And you are right about the implicit description of atheism. The belief that all “valid truths about the universe can be discovered by observation and experiment” is the exact mistake I criticize in others. If I ever make it myself make sure to take me to task for it.

    But if there are valid truths undiscoverable by observation and experiment — including the existence or non-existence of god — doesn’t that imply we should be careful to not make the same mistakes we rightfully criticize theists for?

  • The Vicar

    You misread it: I said (whether rightly or wrongly) that an atheist believes that all valid truths are discoverable by observation and experiment. The existence of god, if you take that as a truth, would still not be a valid truth — i.e. not something worthy of being taught, and not even a valuable topic of conversation — unless it can be traced to direct evidence in the real world, and (preferably) can be confirmed by experiment. (If, for example, the first microscopes had turned up, in tiny writing along the sides of LL bacteria, “© Jeb Hovah and Son, All rights ineffably reserved”, that would be convincing, yes?) Since theists invariably believe that their own undeducible “truths” are worthy of being taught (because, let’s face it, a specific theistic belief will not continue to exist unless it is taught — and more probably taught in isolation from all other such “truths”) this is an inevitable point of conflict.

    One thing to note, however: this definition is both tentative and functional — that is, it is a definition based on observation of the behavior of atheists, which is why it does not mention disbelief in god(s). It is possible that this definition could also describe some other group, although it neither describes theists (who believe that there are valid truths which cannot be deduced), weak agnostics (who feel that there is a valid truth, somewhere, which is not capable of being deduced), or strong agnostics (who feel that there may be a valid truth which is not capable of being deduced).

    It just struck me that you can go to the other extreme: a religious fundamentalist is one who believes that no valid truths about the universe can be deduced by observation and experimentation. (That is to say, observation and experimentation will either confirm what fundamentalists believe, in which case they are unnecessary, or will contradict it, in which case they are wrong.)

  • Vicki Baker

    I’m not even sure what this discussion is about anymore. Allowing one group to monopolize what the court had ruled to be a public mode of communication is surely “privileged access.”
    My solution would be to just stop schools distributing advertising for any outside entities. There could be a bulletin board for such announcements or an opt-in email list. The whole concept of school as marketing venue started in the ’90′s with Channel One TV and schools signing deals with Coke and Pepsi. Let’s just stop all the nonsense and let schools do their job. Every bit of time and mental energy that teachers and parents waste on conflicts like this detracts from the core mission of education.

    Perhaps some of the fine scientific brains out there might consider a research program on regrowing backbones in school administrators.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    Thanks for the clarification. I did misread what you said. Although now I’m not sure what you mean by ‘valid.’ Do you mean truths we are allowed to talk about? In that case I humbly reject your claim. There are plenty of things which are true that are not “discoverable by observation and experiment.” There are important truths which can be logically derived from observation and experiment. Science, for one, isn’t simply watching and observing. It is trying to adduce the ‘inference to the best explanation’ of what is observed — and that inference is a logical, rational step, not an observational one.

    That’s why scientists — and, I claim, atheists — must remain humble in their claims to know.

    Vicki;

    I’m not even sure what this discussion is about anymore.

    I’ll take the blame. I’ve always had a terrible tendency to divert (hijack?) threads off-topic, towards my own interests.

  • The Vicar

    dpoyesac:

    You know the cliché shtick about “what if I’m actually a brain in a jar and all perceptions are just being fed to me via electrodes and nobody really exists”? It is a form of mental masturbation — and no, Vicki, I’m not pulling your chain by using that term — because it leads nowhere. Whether it’s true or not makes no difference to the universe at large, because whether reality is just a big illusion or not, the universe still works the same way and the “truth” is just plain irrelevant. Most people figure that one out, along with “what if the entire solar system is just an atom in a much larger being”* and “what if you and I see blue and yellow in reverse from each other, and we’re just, you know, used to it”. It’s not so much that one shouldn’t talk about them as that talking about them is pointless — there’s no way to verify or disprove them, and they make no practical difference to the universe even if true.

    Unless you take the fundamentalist viewpoint (that when the universe differs from the received “truth” it is the universe that is wrong) then any god which actually exists is functionally identical to no god at all. If one professes that there are things of importance in the world, then to anyone who holds this view, discussion of, supplication to, worship of, taxes on behalf of, or any other such goings on are a waste of valuable time and money which could be spent on things of more importance. (For example: cities contain purpose-built structures called “churches” which cost money to build, take up land — often quite nice land — and are professionally occupied by people whose profession is the worship or and petition to this “truth”. It is true that some of these churches sometimes get used for more socially responsible purposes (for example, in my town there’s a single church which is also a homeless shelter and a food pantry; despite being an atheist, I volunteer there any time the pantry is shorthanded). But it is also true that these churches would be more effective at these purposes if, in the first place, they had been designed for such, and in the second they were run by people with training in doing it. Charities which feed the homeless can get very good prices on food if they’re favorably located. The pantry I mentioned recently bought repackaged bulk breakfast cereal for the equivalent of 10 cents per box, when the local groceries are selling it (in boxes) for about twenty times that price.

    Consider: every week (or, at least, some weeks!) Christians go and spend a couple of hours singing, listening to a moral homily, and hearing some readings from what is essentially a big book of fiction. They give a chunk of money every time, too. Yet most of them consider this to be something of a chore. What if, instead, they volunteered at and gave money to one of the gazillion volunteer programs available: homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, literacy programs, care for the lonely elderly, food pantries, free clinics… Can you imagine how different the world would be if just the Christians pursued “making other people’s lives easier” as hard as they do “going to church”? And then for them to turn around and blame atheists for moral shortfalls! You may consider that atheists have nothing with which to reproach theists, but I consider every church to be at least in part a monument to the continuance of human suffering, usually in the name of a “truth” that is supposed to love us! Atheists may or may not succeed in making the world a better place to the same extent that an equivalent number of Christians would if they started doing this — I have no figures — but on the other hand, at least atheists aren’t pitching money and time at something which is supposed to make the world a better place and doesn’t.

    *Incidentally, that one is a bad example in a way, because it has an answer: thanks to the slow rate of star-system-level interaction we have observed, which would be necessary to continue the “stars as atoms” idea, either the much larger being has such radically different physics that we wouldn’t even recognize it as alive, or else its world moves so slowly that by the time our universe passes into heat death it won’t have had enough time to frame a single thought. In other words: for all practical purposes, no it isn’t.

  • Alex Weaver

    It also seems to me that teaching comparative religion to children again gives the atheist, humanist and secularist an unfair advantage. We atheists gain lots of converts once people see how arbitrary religious choices are.

    In other words, facts have a well-known Atheist bias?

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    First, let me say that — for the most part — I agree with everything you say. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that theism and atheism are equally probable, or that we can’t criticism theism, or that we need to accept theistic beliefs as ‘equally valid.’

    I was making a much more boring point: limiting what we think is true to only things discoverable through ‘observation and experiment’ severely limits what we can possibly know. What you are describing is a kind of arch-skepticism that is even more limited than modern science, since science requires logical inference to claims and theories beyond what we can observe. I personally like science. I don’t think we need to constrain atheists to a set of things they can claim to know that is smaller than science.

    Two quick, unrelated points: there is a pretty big philosophical literature on the “brains in vats” problem, going back to the ’60s. Some of it is very interesting. Much of it comes to the same conclusion: the possibility that we’re brains in vats doesn’t justify a global skepticism.

    Second, from your general outlook, I think you would be very sympathetic to David Hume. Have you every tried reading “Dialogues on Natural Religion”? I think it would be up your alley.

  • OMGF

    To be clear: the ‘religious right’ is the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy because they are religious; they are the enemy because they want to tell what and how to think. They aren’t the enemy because they want to subvert science. They are the enemy because they think subverting science is a step towards political domination. Everyone and anyone who want to tell you what to think is the enemy.

    To be clear, their religion is one of the enablers of their delusions of grand authority. They want to tell us what to think because they know the Truth, as supplied to them through their religious revelation.

    Also, I’ve not heard a single atheist from the group that you are bemoaning ever say that they want to control what people think, if that is what you are getting at. If you are headed in that direction, then you better present evidence to back it up.

    These statements don’t sound like guys who thinks science is compatible with theism.

    Science isn’t compatible with theism in some very important ways. Theism requires one to reject the scientific method and rationality. (And, I don’t think we need to split hairs over the defintion of the scientific method.)

    Are they as bad as the theists? Depends on which theists you’re talking about.

    And, what pray-tell, makes them as bad as the theists (depending on which theists of course)? That they want to stand up for science and reason? Probably not, since you do too. That they are passionate? I surely hope not. That you seem to think they have some prejudicial arguments and are trying to force atheism down people’s throats? Well, they don’t, that’s your problem with comprehension.

    My point about Dawkins is simply that it seems possible his positive claims would lead to structural discrimination against theism, which runs counter to a liberal society.

    Why? Because he wants children to actually learn about the things that are currently forced down their throat? You don’t want to be told what to think, so why is it all right for children to be forced to think certain ways? Why is it all right for children to be labeled as Christian or Muslim? As Dawkins points out, that’s like labeling a child as Marxist or Communist. How does that even make sense?

    As to your “structural discrimination,” it’s like Alex said. If atheism is more valid due to the facts, then it has an advantage anyway. You aren’t fighting for the rights of kids to self-determination or education. You’re fighting for the rights of parents to outright lie to their kids and brainwash them.

    OMGF: looking back at the original post and my first comment, answer this question: did the parents fight to exclude literature aimed at “atheist, agnostic and humanist” children because they were religious or because they were conservative?

    Both.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    OMGF;

    We may just have to agree that we disagree. You have yet to convince me that I’m wrong, and from your tone I doubt I can convince you. So I’ll just lay out the points of contention as I see ‘em.

    1) When I label the enemy as the ‘authoritarian mindset’, I include people like Kim Jung Ill, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in addition to the Ted Haggards and Fred Phelps of the world. When you label the enemy as theists you include Haggard, Phelps and … Richard Swinburne. I boggles my mind to think Swinburne is more dangerous than Alexander Lukashenko. I’ve (briefly) met Swinburne. He’s sweet and smarter than either of us. He’s a Darwinist, too.

    2) I’ve heard lots of people say that theism is irrational. I’ve never heard an argument for it that wasn’t fallacious. If you’re going to claim that you know theists have to be irrational you had better give me a definition of irrationality.

    I think theists are wrong but not irrational. But there’s no definition of irrationality I’ve ever heard that includes all theists that doesn’t beg the question. If you have a better one, let me know. I’ve laid out my argument here. Show me where I’m wrong.

    3) I’ve know kids raised by hippies. They often turn out to be hippies. I’ve known kids raised by conservatives. They often turn out to be conservative. Science — statistical economics, mathematical political economy, etc. — shows that left-wing economic theories are wrong. By Dawkins’ logic we would have to disallow parents to pass along their left-wing values. But since science, the world and the facts have a well-known free-market bias, the conservative parents could teach their values to their kids.

    That really rankles me. That’s a form of “structural discrimintaion” that goes against basic American values — and probably American law. If I have to choose between parents lying to their kids and violating the freedom and autonomy of the parents — I’ll choose the lying.

    If Dawkins is worried about parents lying to kids, then his principle has to apply universally. If he’s just anti-religion, he’s prejudiced. Which horn of the dilemma should he grab?

    4) I’ve known liberal Christians who would be as outraged at the original story as we were. If the parents acted as they did because they were “both” religious and conservative, how do you justify lumping the religious yet secular parents in with the bad guys?

    It’s obvious that you disagree with me. But I’ve put lots of words up trying to explain my position, and I have lots of words in reserve. If you are going to summarily dismiss me by claiming I have a “problem with comprehension” then I am pretty much done with you. If you want to convince me that I’m wrong — and that is the point of a dialogue and discussion, right? To convince the other guy (or girl) to change their mind? — you’re going to have to start giving me reasons why I should think you’re right. Give me your arguments rather than just proclaiming your allegiance to Dawkins and Meyers.

  • The Vicar

    dpoyesac:

    Limiting what we think is true to only things discoverable through ‘observation and experiment’ severely limits what we can possibly know.

    I’m a little confused by this claim. Can you give me a piece of knowledge which is not discoverable through observation and experiment, which is not religious in some way?

    Oh, and by the way: I read the rebuttal you linked to above. I find that it more convincing that you find Harris emotionally unacceptable and have contrived an argument to support your rejection than that Harris is wrong. (It doesn’t help that the first commenter’s argument boils down to “well, if we ignore everything that an overwhelming majority of Christian churches have been teaching for 19 centuries and use a strictly recent reinterpretation of the Bible which ignores a lot of unpleasant things, then obviously Harris just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”)

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    Here’s an old philosophical chestnut: I believe there is a one star (barring ties) that is the largest star in the universe. That is, if we were to put every star that exists on a scale and weigh them, one star would weigh more than all the others. Obviously I don’t know which one it is. I just believe that it is out there somewhere, and I think it would be bizarre if anyone didn’t agree.

    But how could you ever discover that it is true using only observation and experimentation? We can’t observe all the stars in the universe, since a) there are so many, and b) some are too far away to see. We can’t do an experiment for the same reasons. If we were to measure only the stars we could see (assuming we could build a scale big enough), what would justify us in thinking the results of this experiment were valid across the entire universe?

    In order to believe that my claim is true we use observation, experimentation and some form of inference. In the case of the largest star in could be a form of deductive inference, since we can mathematically prove that any finite group of objects will (again, barring ties) have a biggest and a smallest member. But the kind of inference could also be an analogy: you can know that a carton of eggs has a biggest and smallest egg because you can measure them. Then ask yourself what kind of difference exists between a collection of eggs and a collection of stellar object that would mean your conclusion is true for eggs but not true for stars. Since there is none (at least, not one that is obvious) you can conclude that there will probably be a biggest star, just like there is a biggest egg in carton.

    My point was only this: if you limit yourself to only observation and experiment you cut out large parts of your everyday knowledge. We use some form of inference all the time, just to get from your house to the store. Most forms of inference can be double-checked through observation (by weighing the eggs in a carton, for example), but not all.

    If you disagree, try to convince me that there isn’t one star that is bigger than every other star.

    That goes for your second point, also. You think I am wrong. That’s great. But don’t just tell me that you think I’m wrong; convince me. If I’m wrong I want to know. You’re doing me a favor if you can convince me that I am wrong. And you are right — I built my argument because I do find Harris “emotionally unacceptable.” But I don’t find Harris unacceptable because I disagree with his conclusions; I find him unacceptable because I think his arguments are wrong.

    If you think my arguments are wrong, don’t just tell me. Convince me. If my arguments are wrong then I made a logical mistake somewhere. I hate logical mistakes — much more than I ever hated Jerry Falwell. And I hated Falwell.

    So, I’m asking you in all seriousness: if I’ve made a mistake somewhere, point it out to me.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    dpoyesac wrote: The very fact that you use words like “indoctrination” and claim that “that religion has a ‘structural disadvantage’ in terms of the use of critical thinking, reason and evidence” — well, that kind of proves my overall point, doesn’t it? Prejudice by atheists against the religious is just as bad as prejudice by the religious against us nonbelievers.

    It’s not clear that you kind of proved anything. And what is “kind of proves”? Is that some kind of cut-rate proof? Because you provide no supporting rationale. I think if you are going to kind of accuse someone of prejudice, you should kind of put forward a solid, well explained case.

  • The Vicar

    dpoyesac:

    Oh, come on. That’s the most childish splitting of hairs I’ve ever seen — you’re basically saying that a theory is not allowed to develop because one could not possibly observe all possible permutations governed by that theory. (That is, Newton isn’t allowed to come up with the gravity unless he sees all falling apples in the entire universe.) I never claimed that — you’re putting words in my mouth, and since they aren’t even true words, I object. Here’s how it works:

    1. Observation of natural world and experimentation leads to hypothesis/theory/law (by this time, it is a law, although I don’t think anyone has ever questioned its status enough to give it that name) that one can count discrete objects. (Set theory begins here.)

    2. Observation of natural world leads to h./t./l. (law status also not contested to my knowledge) that objects made from matter have mass and therefore weight (although weight is determined by context, so better to use mass)

    3. Experimentation with numbers (matching of numbers to natural law is tricky, but thanks to work by mathematicians ca. 1900 or so, there are constructionist proofs, derivable from integers which can be derived from observation of the real world, of the useful parts of finite set theory) leads to law (theorem?) that every finite set of numbers has a greatest member. (If the items in the set are not numbers, this is not necessarily true.)

    4. Observation and experimentation w/heating of elements leads to theory that spectral lines in light emitted from a hot object indicate makeup by particular types of matter. (This is eventually rooted in quantum theory, which is backed by a huge number of experiments and observations.)

    5. Stars are observed to have spectral lines in their light emissions, and are, by (4), made of matter.

    6. Stars are made of matter so by (2) they have mass.

    7. A finite list of masses is a finite well-ordered set, so by (8) and (1), in a finite list of the masses of stars, there will be one which is the largest.

    The only open question from this is: are there a finite number of stars or not? The last I heard, the answer was still supposed to be yes, so that means there is definitely a largest star somewhere (or some number of stars which tie for the title). If the universe is truly infinite, then it is possible that there is no star which is the largest one — any time you think you’ve got the largest one, there could be one that is larger by one electron, somewhere.

    Of course, this also ignores the fact that there is an upper limit on the mass of a star — if you clump enough matter together, even the process of fusion which powers a star (and which normally prevent collapse) will not be enough to keep it from turning into a black hole. Since stars create light by slowly converting matter into photons, though, any star near this critical mass (that didn’t immediately engulf something large enough to push it over the edge) would gradually back away from it.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    RiddleOfSteel;

    You know, I’m going to back down on this one. My point was only that “indoctrination” is a very loaded term. But it is a leap to move from that one word to proof of prejudicial intent. This is an instance where my rhetoric outran my evidence. I apologize for any offense.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    We need to slow down. I’m not saying anything stronger than we need observation, experimentation and a process of inference. I was objecting to your characterization of using only observation and experimentation — I never meant to imply that “a theory is not allowed to develop because one could not possibly observe all possible permutations governed by that theory.” Absolutely a theory is allowed to develop beyond the particular observations that lead to it. But they can only move past those observations through some form of inference.

    In step (1), moving from repeated discrete observations to a general law is a form of inductive inference. It’s a cogent inference and is perfectly acceptable. But it’s still an inference.

    In fact, moving from (1) to (7) is a set of discrete deductive inferences leading to a valid conclusion.

    I’m only making this minor (and, I would have thought, uncontroversial) claim: our knowledge, especially our true scientific knowledge, requires more than just observation and experimentation. It requires some process of inference. Good forms of inference lead to true knowledge. Bad forms of inference lead to false or unwarranted knowledge.

    I don’t really think we’re that far apart on this. After all, your steps from (1) to (7) is, essentially, the same as my claim:

    In the case of the largest star in could be a form of deductive inference, since we can mathematically prove that any finite group of objects will (again, barring ties) have a biggest and a smallest member.

  • OMGF

    dpyesac,
    I just had a long post to you eaten by the spam filter, but it’s just as well because I’m basically done with you. You’ve misrepresented the arguments of Dawkins and others a couple times, and when it has been pointed out to you, you ignore it. Then, you have the chutzpah to say that no one else is trying to support their arguments? You argue like a theist in that you have your conclusions already figured out, then you fit the facts to those preconceived conclusions.

    Two points:
    1. Inference is the process of using observation and experimentation. It does not come from a vaccuum. Just because we take those older observations for granted doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
    2. Theism is irrational. It depends on begging the question. In order to “reason” to god, one has to first assume that god is correct. Then all of one’s “reasons” make sense. Convenient and logically fallacious. It is not logical fallacy to point this out, as you asserted. Besides, if it is not fallacious to “reason” to god, then it is similarly not fallacious and certainly reasonable to believe in fairies, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, invisible pink unicorns, and the floating teapot that orbits the sun between Earth and Mars, as well as any other thing that I can imagine. Actually, the teapot is probably more reasonable, since we know that teapots exist, which gives it a leg up on god.

  • Vicki B.

    To get back to the original post, it could be an example of narrow-minded hypocrisy or it could be something more sinister, an example of the Dominionist strategy to basically close the open society:

    “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
    –Gary North, “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right” in Christianity and Civilization: The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), p. 25.

  • The Vicar

    dpoyesac:

    It’s tempting to let OMGF speak for me here, since I agree that your posts have been pretty contemptible. My original phrase was “discovered by observation and experiment”. Says nothing about ignoring inference, and only someone who was either deliberately obtuse or genuinely stupid would assume that.

    Your posts suggest to me that you are actually a theist — in fact, more specifically a Christian — who for some reason is posing as an atheist. You’re willing to twist anything, squeeze through any loophole, to try and turn this discussion into the age old fable of “evil atheists versus innocent Christians”. Possibly you’re still in the “how I was brought up makes no sense logically but I can’t bring myself to let go” stage, or maybe this is some sort of twisted attempt at subversion. (The latter sounds paranoid, but when you consider that Vicki’s quote, above, is from a public statement by a self-proclaimed Christian, and that torture is now repeatedly not just justified but actually demanded by the same groups, you have to realize that there is no infamy so great that Christians will not do it in the joyous belief that they are doing the will of god.)

    Yes, there are nice Christians. You probably live surrounded by them, if you are genuinely an atheist and not just an agitator, because otherwise you’d realize that atheists don’t need to defend Christianity; it already has its own defenders, and the force of numbers (in the west, at least) to boot. The fact of the matter is that the only resolution of this particular story (the one we’re commenting on at the moment) which doesn’t lead to either an admission of outright religious advocacy or blows is to stop using public schools to distribute this sort of stuff entirely. Stick, in fact, to those valid truths I defined. (Of course, it will still make religious fundamentalists angry — if you accept actual evidence from the universe, then you end up with evolution and an “old” earth, which they refuse to admit. But then, you can never actually satisfy a religious fundamentalist when it comes to this stuff — they always need an excuse to explain why the magic isn’t working — so you might as well choose to incur their anger by telling the truth instead of compromise yourself first and get them angry anyway.)

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    The Vicar;

    I’m sorry to hear that. I honestly thought we were having a spirited discussion. I had no idea I was “contemptible,” “obtuse,” and/or “genuinely stupid.” I’ve always thought there is room for rational disagreement on issues. I’ve always assumed that there is room for difference of opinion, even among allies.

    If I’ve harped on the observation/inference distinction it’s because I think it’s important. When people forget, downplay or ignore the importance of the inferences we make they fall into mistakes. Mistakes such as thinking ‘science’ and ‘reason’ are co-extensive. Here are some posts by atheists who agree with this general point: Deeply Blashphemous and Everyday Atheism.

    I’ve always felt it’s my duty to point out arguments that are fallacious, incorrect, or inconclusive — even when they are arguments made by fellow atheists. It’s beyond me how pointing out a mistake is the same as ‘defending Christianity.’

    I was — and am — serious when I said this:

    If you think my arguments are wrong, don’t just tell me. Convince me. If my arguments are wrong then I made a logical mistake somewhere. I hate logical mistakes — much more than I ever hated Jerry Falwell.

    When I get into a discussion with someone, I assume they feel the same way. If they don’t — well, that’s no reason to remain uncontroversial. After all, these words apply to me, also:

    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.

  • The Vicar

    dpoyesac:

    (Note: this post has been over-edited and is starting to lose coherence. So I’m posting it now, before I have a chance to make it even worse.)

    If this is what you consider this to be merely a spirited discussion, then what would you be like when actually defending Christianity? I’ve been reading your dialog with OMGF in this thread, and you started off by accusing Dawkins and Harris of requesting special treatment for atheism (which has been disproved by direct quotation of the statements in question), and made particular use of the Amish as an example of a group of “good” Christians (in context) from which you had to retreat when evidence was produced; you have failed to make a case for your central thesis (that conservatism, not religion, is the true root of problems) or your side claim (that atheists can be as narrow-minded as theists). You have, instead, grabbed a few out-of-context words and built objections on them. Hardly a spirited logical discussion. More a spirited arbitrary digression.

    You claim to be an atheist. Well, if there is no god, then the bible (as any other theist holy book) is just a book of occasionally pretty-sounding lies. Should lies be taught at any school which professes to teach science? Remember what one of C. P. Snow’s characters said about science (many scientists have echoed this sentiment, including at least one president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, but Snow’s formulation is probably best): “the only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time”. The book goes on to say something along the lines of “if we allow someone to tell a lie for a beneficial reason, then we open the door for lies to be told for reasons which may not be beneficial.” If we let theists pollute public education with their unverified and unverifiable claims, even “nice” theists, then we open the door to frauds, hucksters, and the inevitable shakedowns for money which somehow manage to accompany theism wherever it goes.

    Allowing revealed “truth” to be spread via the medium of publicly-funded schools is special treatment. It doesn’t happen otherwise: you don’t see biology teachers saying “well, there used to be unicorns, but they were never fossilized”, or music teachers saying “this composer’s works cure cancer” or a math teacher saying “you can actually count to infinity, but the government won’t let me tell you how.” (We used to let health teachers tell people that masturbation would make boys grow hairy palms, go blind, go insane, or become physically infirm, but that has been stopped precisely because it isn’t verifiable truth.) Asking to have religious training abolished from schools is not special treatment, nor is asking for the teaching of classes in world religions as objective cultural phenomena. These are what atheists have suggested, and which you have categorized as special treatment. Ridiculous! The former is asking for an end to special treatment, and the other is fair treatment.

    You deny that atheism is inherently morally superior to theism? No atheist has ever sold indulgences or claimed that people would suffer for failing to contribute money, both of which are practices which continue to this day around the world (the pope recently sold some indulgences to a bunch of rich Catholic kids, although mention of that word was studiously avoided — instead, they were merely allowed to pay for a session which would reduce their sin before god), and if there are atheists out there who pretend that convincing others of the truth of a set of unprovable statements is worthy of tax-free status, they are so rare as to be nonexistent for all practical purposes. If an atheist wants tax-free status, they are forced to at least be honest about what it is they’re doing and provide a charitable service. (Note: this morning, I actually had a door-to-door solicitation asking me to come to a traveling preacher who lives off his donations. I would love to think that he will have a net loss in my area, but unfortunately there are a lot of people who will go — dragging their unfortunate children and carrying their checkbooks — and who will donate money to “do the Lord’s Work”. Sadly, these will be the people who can afford such a waste of resources the least. I wish I were cynical enough to follow the sarcastic line and “think of it as evolution in action” but I see some of these people at the food pantry and I want to cry.)

    Honestly, arguing that because I didn’t spell out “inferred from” I was discounting the use of inference? It can only mean things have to spelled out for you, which means you failed to infer. (Cyclic!) But that means that either you normally do not infer from what you read — in which case I think I can be excused for saying you aren’t too bright — or else you are doing this deliberately, in which case you are being deliberately obtuse. Thus my comment, though perhaps tactless, still stands.

    Like you, I’m not ashamed of who I am — the difference between us is, perhaps, that one of the things I am is fed up with deliberate ignorance and those who defend it. Maybe it’s just the Republican debates last night, where every one of the candidates seemed to suffer from occasional halving of their IQs or an ingrown hatred of humanity or both, or it might be the “please ignore our previous eight years of utterly failing to differentiate ourselves from the Republican party” Democratic debates before that (all of them had that fault, but I’m looking specifically at you, Hillary and Barack), but I’m not in the mood to argue with someone who is unwilling to read intelligently right now.

  • bestonnet

    I’m going to be intentionally contrarian here and say that — there’s every chance that their blatant hypocrisy had nothing to do with their faith and everything to do with their conservatism.

    Those of strong religious belief tend to be more likely to be Right Wing Authoritarians (who also tend to be politically conservative) but either way, that hypocrisy had a lot to do with their faith (remember always that faith is very important to the typical high RWA).

    The problem isn’t faith, belief or religious affiliation; it’s political conservatism and, as Jim Baerg pointed out above, psychological rigidity. These are not necessarily symptoms of religious intolerance. They are they causes of it.

    It’s quite likely that excessive religious faith causes the psychological rigidity that is the problem.

    As plunge noted, Dawkins is writing from a UK perspective with different laws, etc. He still makes a fundamental mistake: he confuses religion with a simple belief system, reducible to just the tenets and creeds the followers espouse.

    Religion ultimately comes down to exactly that.

    But belonging to a faith is also belonging to a community, a family, a group.

    If there is anything about religion that is good then we can replicate it in a non-theistic manner although many of us doubt the necessity of that.

    By denying membership in the group — all to preserve the child’s ability to ‘autonomously’ choose their beliefs later on — is to deny them the benefits that come from being a part of their larger community.

    They have their family as well as the rest of the people in the country they are as well as their friends at school. I see no need to add a religion to it.

    Besides, atheists seem to get by just fine without membership in religious groups so there’s obviously no need for such groups.

    It also seems to me that teaching comparative religion to children again gives the atheist, humanist and secularist an unfair advantage. We atheists gain lots of converts once people see how arbitrary religious choices are.

    Wrong, it is giving religion an unfair advantage not to teach comparative religion to children. All we want is to have the same rights as the religions and then we’ll let the free market of ideas deal with everything (of course since we actually have some confidence that we’re right we can expect to have our beliefs do well on a level playing field).

    Finally, I want to reiterate the point that — whether my reading of Dawkins is correct or not — that we atheists need to watch out for the “selective wall” ourselves. It’s very easy to say that, since we’re right and the theists are wrong, we deserve some form of special consideration.

    But maybe we do.

    I think Nick Humphrey got it right when he suggested that a child should only be forcibly taught that which they would likely decide for themselves.

    But this goes against the basic liberal values of our secular society, and I personally think it is more dangerous than teaching children a fib such as that Jesus was real.

    It may actually be necessary to our basic liberal values.

    This here is probably the heart of our disagreement. The religious right (let loose by the lax ‘good natured atheists!’) isn’t the cause of our current Culture Wars; they are a symptom of them.

    If there were no religion in the religious right then what would they have to fight over?

    Without their religion they’d have no reason to hate gays, nor any reason to be annoyed about “Happy Holidays” nor any reason to take evolution out of school.

    The sin of slimy Falwell and his ilk wasn’t being religiously conservative; it was their political authoritarianism and their willingness to sell their pastoral flocks for a seat at the political table.

    Why did they even want a seat at the political table?

    It was because they thought their religion was threatened (fundamentalist Christianity used to stay out of politics).

    I don’t think we’re in the middle of a fight between Reason and Superstition.

    Oh yes we are and we probably will be for some time even after religion is gone.

    We’re in a fight between political Freedom and political Authoritarianism. What makes it seem like a fight against religion is the fact that most authoritarians are religious.

    Yes, because religion tends towards authoritarianism.

    But if we atheists spend all our time fighting the symptoms, who will ever try to fight the disease?

    The thing is that it’s you who wants to fight the symptoms (e.g. Political authoritarianism) instead of the disease.

    For too long we have been fighting symptoms such as Creationalism instead of going after religion which is where all that crap comes from.

    To be clear: the ‘religious right’ is the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy because they are religious; they are the enemy because they want to tell what and how to think.

    But why do you want to tell other what and how to think?

    Because they are religious, if they weren’t religious they wouldn’t be pulling most of the crap they do.

    The rest of the western world has political conservatives but they tend not to be anywhere near as scary as the ones in the US.

    They aren’t the enemy because they want to subvert science. They are the enemy because they think subverting science is a step towards political domination.

    But why would they possibly want to subvert science? Because it contradicts their religion.

    If I sound rancorous, it’s because I am. Because I want to fight the long war and not just the current battle

    Defeating this lot of political authoritarians won’t stop religion from breeding more.

    For us to win the long war we need to reduce the prevalence of religion in society.

    — because I want to fight the whole damn edifice of irrationality and authoritarianism,

    That’s a fight that will get easier with religion gone (and religion is the worst form of irrationality).

    Meyers, Moran and Dawkins call me and my compatriots “Neville Chamberlain” atheists and “do-nothing” atheists.

    You’re giving in to the theists so an accurate description.

    did the parents fight to exclude literature aimed at “atheist, agnostic and humanist” children because they were religious or because they were conservative?

    Ordinary not very religious conservatives wouldn’t care about such things so I’m going to answer that it was because they were religious.

    When I label the enemy as the ‘authoritarian mindset’, I include people like Kim Jung Ill, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in addition to the Ted Haggards and Fred Phelps of the world. When you label the enemy as theists you include Haggard, Phelps and … Richard Swinburne. I boggles my mind to think Swinburne is more dangerous than Alexander Lukashenko. I’ve (briefly) met Swinburne. He’s sweet and smarter than either of us. He’s a Darwinist, too.

    The problem with the more moderate theists is that they make theism acceptable enough to allow the Fred Phelps of the world to preach their crap (and the Osama Bin Ladens to put it into practice).

    Besides, where do you think the fundamentalist churches get their converts from? Mostly the more liberal (and much less dangerous) branches of their own religion.

  • Adam G

    The problem is, the religious rightists don’t want to have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They want a monopoly on it. The moment they have to compete, the utter banality and ridiculousness of their beliefs shows through, and people would no more buy them than they’d buy shoddy goods.

    The only way for them to compete is to eliminate the competition before it ever reaches the market stall. They can’t compete once we’re all at the marketplace.