Atheists at 25%

Atheist Revolution recently picked up on a stunning poll result described in The Nation:

…a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.

A more general issue affects American surveys on religious beliefs, namely, the “social desirability effect,” in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm. What happens when questions are framed to overcome this distortion? The FT/H poll tried to counteract it by allowing space not only for the customary “Not sure” but also for “Would prefer not to say”—and 6 percent of Americans chose this as their answer to the question of whether they believed in God or a supreme being. Add to this those who declared themselves as atheists or agnostics and, lo and behold, the possible sum of unbelievers is nearly one in four Americans.

One in four Americans! If this poll result is accurate, atheists and agnostics would be the largest single group by religious affiliation in America, equalled only by Roman Catholics. Although nonbelievers do not all have the same political aims or operate as a monolithic group, if we could harness even some of these numbers in the cause of church-state activism and freethought evangelism, we would be a force to be reckoned with. An enormous amount of good could be done if the freethought constituency could take a strong, public stand for nonbelief and rally behind principled politicians who would defend secularism in government. With such numbers, we could face down obnoxious religious leaders and compete with them directly on their own terms.

Granted, this result is probably something of an outlier. Most polls, including a Pew study from 2004, find that the percentage of Americans who are atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular or non-religious Americans is around 15%. This result has been reproduced by numerous studies, including the major 2001 ARIS study and a more recent survey from March of this year, so we can trust that it is mostly accurate.

However, if this poll is an outlier, it is one on the leading edge. Surveys have also shown that the number of secular and nonreligious Americans is increasing with each generation. And given that the Harris poll tried to compensate for the social desirability effect by explicitly listing “Would prefer not to say” as an answer, it may well show that other surveys have underestimated the number of secular Americans.

This fact further underscores why atheists need to speak out. Given the strong prejudice against atheism that still exists in many places, it is extremely probable that a significant number of nonbelievers are still in the closet, reluctant to declare themselves even to pollsters. By doing this, they give the impression that the religious are more numerous and influential than they actually are. But we who are already “out” can counteract this by speaking out strongly in favor of atheism, which will widen the realm of discourse and stake out a space in which others will feel more comfortable announcing their own convictions.

This result also highlights the irrelevancy of those who say that atheists should keep quiet and not criticize religion, lest we antagonize the believing majority. This claim is born of fear and contradicted by reality. If we act as if we’re afraid to offend the holders of irrational beliefs, we will only further embolden the virulent fundamentalists and send closeted atheists the message that they should stay hidden and keep their heads down.

Conversely, by taking a strong stand for atheism, we will send the message that we cannot be intimidated, which will encourage yet more hidden nonbelievers to step forward. In addition, it will expose people who are religious only by default to a different view, and may well sway them if the case we present is passionate and well reasoned. So therefore, let us voice our convictions, the more strongly the better. It is better to have too much criticism of religion than too little, and if we refuse to be silenced, that 25% figure may be a herald of things to come.

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://mog.com/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    The percentage of the US population that is black is only 12.8%.

    Think about the upcoming election. What candidate would dismiss the “black vote”?

    Have any presidential candidates met with any freethought/atheist/agnostic/secular organizations? Or even said anything nice about “atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular or non-religious Americans”?

  • http://mog.com/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    The percentage of the US population that is black is only 12.8%.

    Think about the upcoming election. What candidate would dismiss the “black vote”?

    Have any presidential candidates met with any freethought/atheist/agnostic/secular organizations? Or even said anything nice about “atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular or non-religious Americans”?

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    I always wondered why America seemed to be so divergent from Europe in the reporting of belief, when we are so similar in so many other ways, and inherit most of our culture and sensibilities from our European heritage. With belief being such a personal, relatively subconscious, involuntary thing, one would expect that our beliefs would be a lot closer. This poll actually makes more sense in that light. The strong influence of religious fundamentalism probably arbitrarily dampened a proper polling of beliefs here. Hopefully, this new resurgence in atheism will open things up.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    I always wondered why America seemed to be so divergent from Europe in the reporting of belief, when we are so similar in so many other ways, and inherit most of our culture and sensibilities from our European heritage. With belief being such a personal, relatively subconscious, involuntary thing, one would expect that our beliefs would be a lot closer. This poll actually makes more sense in that light. The strong influence of religious fundamentalism probably arbitrarily dampened a proper polling of beliefs here. Hopefully, this new resurgence in atheism will open things up.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Thanks for the link. The funny thing was that I started reading your post without even remembering mine! If I get any more forgetful, I’ll just post the same thing every week or so.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Thanks for the link. The funny thing was that I started reading your post without even remembering mine! If I get any more forgetful, I’ll just post the same thing every week or so.

  • Brock

    On the subject of the perceived desirability of not antagonizing the believers, I remember that for most of my life the public face of atheism in the USA was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and it was not until I became an atheist myself and actually read some of her writings, that I was able to get past the public persona of “intolerant arrogant butch” that the media presented her as, and which unfortunately she did little to counteract. In print she presented as reasonable and coherent, but nobody except other atheists knew this. It’s no wonder that many closet atheists may have preferred not to speak up, and no wonder that the believing ublic thinks of us uppity atheists as a bunch of Madalyn clones. For me, the way to counteract this unfortunate public image is one person at a time as I come out to more and more of my acquaintanceship. I can only admire those who, braver or perhaps just younger, take the public stage in defense of reason and secularism.

  • Brock

    On the subject of the perceived desirability of not antagonizing the believers, I remember that for most of my life the public face of atheism in the USA was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and it was not until I became an atheist myself and actually read some of her writings, that I was able to get past the public persona of “intolerant arrogant butch” that the media presented her as, and which unfortunately she did little to counteract. In print she presented as reasonable and coherent, but nobody except other atheists knew this. It’s no wonder that many closet atheists may have preferred not to speak up, and no wonder that the believing ublic thinks of us uppity atheists as a bunch of Madalyn clones. For me, the way to counteract this unfortunate public image is one person at a time as I come out to more and more of my acquaintanceship. I can only admire those who, braver or perhaps just younger, take the public stage in defense of reason and secularism.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Although nonbelievers do not all have the same political aims or operate as a monolithic group, if we could harness even some of these numbers in the cause of church-state activism and freethought evangelism, we would be a force to be reckoned with.

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”. That is, what ends would an “atheist/agnostic” group use political power to obtain? Would it be discernable from common liberal political agendas?

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Although nonbelievers do not all have the same political aims or operate as a monolithic group, if we could harness even some of these numbers in the cause of church-state activism and freethought evangelism, we would be a force to be reckoned with.

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”. That is, what ends would an “atheist/agnostic” group use political power to obtain? Would it be discernable from common liberal political agendas?

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • bassmanpete

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”.

    Two that immediately spring to mind are stopping once & for all any attempts to teach creationism in schools, and ending the tax-free status of churches.

  • bassmanpete

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”.

    Two that immediately spring to mind are stopping once & for all any attempts to teach creationism in schools, and ending the tax-free status of churches.

  • Baxter

    [irrelevant preaching deleted —Ebonmuse]

  • Baxter

    [irrelevant preaching deleted —Ebonmuse]

  • Ric

    Baxter said:

    There is a difference between…snip

    Uh, riiight.

    Baxter, you nailed us poor little atheists. I’ve seen the light.

    What creationist website did you copy and paste that from, by the way?

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

    Hi Matt,

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”. That is, what ends would an “atheist/agnostic” group use political power to obtain?

    What bassmanpete said. Also, I’d like to see an immediate halt to all government programs that give away taxpayer money to religious organizations; a strong, comprehensive program of science and sex education in public schools; full and equal rights for gay couples, including the right to marry; and the widest possible access to contraception and family planning services both here and abroad. There are other political goals I’d support, but I think those are the ones that could expect the broadest support from the non-religious community.

  • Josh

    Political goals?

    How about ensuring that every school teaches the how and why of empirical thought? With the amount of information people are bombarded with every day, having tools to sift out the shit is becoming as important as being able to read and write.

  • Josh

    Political goals?

    How about ensuring that every school teaches the how and why of empirical thought? With the amount of information people are bombarded with every day, having tools to sift out the shit is becoming as important as being able to read and write.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Also, I’d like to see an immediate halt to all government programs that give away taxpayer money to religious organizations;

    Would that be all organizations which are religiously affiliated or only organizations whose primary purpose was the practice and/or promotion of a religion. For example, there are some health care services which are affiliated with religious denominations, but their primary function is to provide health care. Would the religious affiliation disqualify them from assistance? Is there a “cutoff” level of affiliation?

    Cheers,

    Matt

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

    I’m not opposed to funding religious groups that provide social services, on three conditions:

    1. There should be a clear separation between religious and secular activities, with all government money being used only for items in the latter category – no taxpayer funds being spent to purchase Bibles.
    2. The organization providing the service should abide by the same non-discrimination rules as the government itself. All applicants should be treated equally and no one should be required to participate in religious activities to receive aid.
    3. The money should be disbursed through a competitive process that allows all groups, including secular ones, an equal chance to win it.

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

    I’m not opposed to funding religious groups that provide social services, on three conditions:

    1. There should be a clear separation between religious and secular activities, with all government money being used only for items in the latter category – no taxpayer funds being spent to purchase Bibles.
    2. The organization providing the service should abide by the same non-discrimination rules as the government itself. All applicants should be treated equally and no one should be required to participate in religious activities to receive aid.
    3. The money should be disbursed through a competitive process that allows all groups, including secular ones, an equal chance to win it.

  • KShep

    What political goals do you see as being specifically “atheist/agnostic”.

    I’ll second the movement to tax the churches. I’d also like to see an end to legal religious discrimination; such as laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions based on their beliefs.

    Most people get fired for refusing to do their jobs.

  • MJJP

    I’m not opposed to funding religious groups that provide social services, on three conditions:

    1. There should be a clear separation between religious and secular activities, with all government money being used only for items in the latter category – no taxpayer funds being spent to purchase Bibles.
    ================
    Allowing government money to buy everything except bibles only allows the organization to buy more bibles in the end.
    ====================
    2. The organization providing the service should abide by the same non-discrimination rules as the government itself. All applicants should be treated equally and no one should be required to participate in religious activities to receive aid.
    ==================
    Again this is the same dilemma as prayer in school. For the participants that are athiest they are exposed to ridicule if they choose not to participate in religious activities.
    =================
    3. The money should be disbursed through a competitive process that allows all groups, including secular ones, an equal chance to win it.
    ================
    Unfortunately the number of groups competing for money is lopsided to favor religious groups asking for money.Remember religious organizations are very good at picking your pocket and know all the angles. This only perpetuates the problem.

    Comment by: Ebonmuse

  • Ben

    It isn’t an outlier. The results match up almost exactly with a different Harris poll:

    http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=707

    But the dates and total respondents imply that it is a different poll. If it is a different poll, this actually gives 3 Harris polls (2003 and the two from 2006) with similar results – not an outlier. The difference between these Harris / FT polls and other polls is the methodology.

    Over the last few years, several different surveys have found that more people admit to potentially embarrassing beliefs or behaviors when answering online surveys (without interviewers) than admit to these behaviors when talking to interviewers in telephone surveys. They are also three times more likely to say that their sexual orientation is gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. Researchers call this unwillingness to give honest answers to some questions in telephone surveys a “social desirability bias.”

    It is therefore no surprise that in this online survey, more people say they are not absolutely certain there is a God than have given similar replies in other surveys conducted by telephone.

    Three years ago, in an identical survey, 79 percent of adults said they believed in God and 66 percent said they were absolutely certain that there is a God. In this new survey, those numbers have declined to 73 percent and 58 percent respectively.

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  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    “This result also highlights the irrelevancy of those who say that atheists should keep quiet and not criticize religion, lest we antagonize the believing majority.”

    And who are these people? The link behind the words “atheists should keep quiet and not criticize religion” just goes to a commentary by Pharyngula about Mooney’s recent blog post. The closest approximation to “atheists should keep quiet” is this,

    I agree with Nisbet that going head-on at people’s faith probably isn’t a very good strategy if you want to defend the teaching of evolution in the USA.

    and that approximation is pretty coarse. It is telling that you linked to the Pharyngula commentary, not the Mooney article itself.

    Anyway, the poll hardly indicates that “Theists are stupid or deluded” is a good message for lobbyists of Kansas school boards. (Yes, the “stupid or deluded” bit is a slight exaggeration, but not by much.)

    I’d also point out that while, as Ben quoted from Harris Interactive, “more people admit to potentially embarrassing beliefs or behaviors when answering online surveys,” picking people from a pool of Internet users also biases the sample as well, since it means that the sample has a certain level of means, level of comfort with technology, etc. Harris Interactive does say, “Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online,” but it is hard to say how effective that weighting is.

  • Sue True Blue

    We need to get over the fear of offending the superstitious. I know people don’t like it when the beliefs they’ve wasted their entire lives on are called into question, but really, if an otherwise sane seeming adult professed a deep belief in Santa Claus or fairies, would you be afraid to laugh? No, you’d either laugh it off, or if the person was really serious, suggest that they get psychiatric help, and no one would call you a militant,offensive atheist prick for doing so. Why should rational people be afraid to admit to being reasonable and intelligent? Instead of painting ourselves as “anti-religion” perhaps simply calling ourselves “rational”, “logical” and “reasonable” would be less offensive to the deeply superstitious.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Sue True Blue: “Instead of painting ourselves as ‘anti-religion’ perhaps simply calling ourselves ‘rational’, ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ would be less offensive to the deeply superstitious.”

    That assumes that “anti-religion” entails being rational and reasonable. Lurking on IIDB’s BC&H forum and watching the saner atheists duke it out with the less sane ones ought to disabuse one of that notion.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Sue True Blue: “Instead of painting ourselves as ‘anti-religion’ perhaps simply calling ourselves ‘rational’, ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ would be less offensive to the deeply superstitious.”

    That assumes that “anti-religion” entails being rational and reasonable. Lurking on IIDB’s BC&H forum and watching the saner atheists duke it out with the less sane ones ought to disabuse one of that notion.

  • JamesR

    I say we do one thing and do it well. We need to keep up and NOT shut up. The abusive outcry from the believers is getting to be all too common. Even to the point that we as non-believers have been gaining ground. Not because of our proseletyzing but because those who do not believe have come to recognize the simple fact that there are quite a few of us. We are not alone and the thuggery of the religious and their minions is being countermanded. We are, through reason, shutting them out and they don’t like it. Look for more blasphemy laws and more attempts at silencing us by way of legislated dimunition of our rights. Keep it up and talk with your friends about who you are. Let them know, because you just may be able to get them to admit that they do not believe and in doing so you will free them. Continue in every way to fight the theocrats that have been slowly slipping into gov’t positions.

  • JamesR

    I say we do one thing and do it well. We need to keep up and NOT shut up. The abusive outcry from the believers is getting to be all too common. Even to the point that we as non-believers have been gaining ground. Not because of our proseletyzing but because those who do not believe have come to recognize the simple fact that there are quite a few of us. We are not alone and the thuggery of the religious and their minions is being countermanded. We are, through reason, shutting them out and they don’t like it. Look for more blasphemy laws and more attempts at silencing us by way of legislated dimunition of our rights. Keep it up and talk with your friends about who you are. Let them know, because you just may be able to get them to admit that they do not believe and in doing so you will free them. Continue in every way to fight the theocrats that have been slowly slipping into gov’t positions.

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

    That assumes that “anti-religion” entails being rational and reasonable. Lurking on IIDB’s BC&H forum and watching the saner atheists duke it out with the less sane ones ought to disabuse one of that notion.

    I’ll put anything on IIDB up against the spittle-flecked hate and drooling bloodlust that atheists who speak out are so often subjected to. I’ve written about this before. I think this quote from Bob Norman, a reporter who covered Michael Newdow, says it all:

    I’ve written about mobsters, rogue cops, dirty politicians, and all manner of South Florida hustlers in the past, but I’ve never been threatened like this.

    Not even the harshest criticisms leveled by Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers come anywhere close to this. Our very worst crime is making some people upset with strong criticism of their beliefs. Our opponents, on the other hand, are saying things like this:

    I’d love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you.

    Or this:

    I hope all of you who had anything to do with removing the Ten Commandments die in a car accident with a fuel tanker along with the rest of your filthy, stinking, traitorous families!

    Or, for that matter, this:

    On the 13th anniversary of Paul Hill’s act of love and mercy, memorial events will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to honor him as God’s man and our hero. (Paul Hill murdered two people in cold blood because they worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic. —Ebonmuse)

    Compared to these deranged fanatics, the atheists that people like Matt Nisbet are getting so worked up about are models of decency and decorum. And we’re the ones who are going over the line and should censor ourselves?

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “Compared to these deranged fanatics, the atheists that people like Matt Nisbet are getting so worked up about are models of decency and decorum. And we’re the ones who are going over the line and should censor ourselves?”

    Loose translation: Other guys do stuff way worse than us, so overlook our faults.

    Sorry, not buying it. If you and Dawkins and Myers want to claim that you are on the side of rationalism, then you set a pretty high standard for yourselves. Defining “delusion” down and presenting theistic evolutionists as part of a vague Hitler-like menace fall short of that standard. Distorting Mooney’s words (e.g. the nonsense about being asked to censor yourselves) falls short of that standard. I’m not going to pat you on the back just because you don’t talk like a homicidal maniac or domestic terrorist.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “Compared to these deranged fanatics, the atheists that people like Matt Nisbet are getting so worked up about are models of decency and decorum. And we’re the ones who are going over the line and should censor ourselves?”

    Loose translation: Other guys do stuff way worse than us, so overlook our faults.

    Sorry, not buying it. If you and Dawkins and Myers want to claim that you are on the side of rationalism, then you set a pretty high standard for yourselves. Defining “delusion” down and presenting theistic evolutionists as part of a vague Hitler-like menace fall short of that standard. Distorting Mooney’s words (e.g. the nonsense about being asked to censor yourselves) falls short of that standard. I’m not going to pat you on the back just because you don’t talk like a homicidal maniac or domestic terrorist.

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

    Loose translation: Other guys do stuff way worse than us, so overlook our faults.

    No, that is not my position. My position is that theists, who regularly do attack atheists with genuine hatred and even with threats of violence, are the ones who are crossing the line. Richard Dawkins and other atheists, on the other hand, have done nothing wrong. They are, at worst, guilty of not tailoring their speeches to spare the feelings of the people whose beliefs they’re criticizing. Big deal. It’s not our job to water down our message so that it offends no one. We say what we believe, and we make no apologies for it. That is not, as you seem to think, the same thing as being irrational or unreasonable.

    Distorting Mooney’s words (e.g. the nonsense about being asked to censor yourselves)…

    If that’s a distortion of Mooney’s position, then he has only himself to blame for it. He’s made multiple statements which strongly imply that atheists should not speak out publicly in defense of atheism under any circumstances, and when asked (by me and by others) to disavow that this is his intent, he’s failed to answer.

    Here’s a conspicuous example from his original column with Matt Nisbet:

    And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along?

    This complaint fails to address an obvious point: what if we really do believe that science and religion are incompatible? Should we lie? Or should we just keep quiet and not say anything? It seems inescapable that he’s urging us to do at least one of the two. If, as you say, it’s “nonsense” to claim that Mooney is asking atheists to censor ourselves, then perhaps you could take a crack at explaining what he is asking us to do. He seems reluctant to explain himself further.

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

    Loose translation: Other guys do stuff way worse than us, so overlook our faults.

    No, that is not my position. My position is that theists, who regularly do attack atheists with genuine hatred and even with threats of violence, are the ones who are crossing the line. Richard Dawkins and other atheists, on the other hand, have done nothing wrong. They are, at worst, guilty of not tailoring their speeches to spare the feelings of the people whose beliefs they’re criticizing. Big deal. It’s not our job to water down our message so that it offends no one. We say what we believe, and we make no apologies for it. That is not, as you seem to think, the same thing as being irrational or unreasonable.

    Distorting Mooney’s words (e.g. the nonsense about being asked to censor yourselves)…

    If that’s a distortion of Mooney’s position, then he has only himself to blame for it. He’s made multiple statements which strongly imply that atheists should not speak out publicly in defense of atheism under any circumstances, and when asked (by me and by others) to disavow that this is his intent, he’s failed to answer.

    Here’s a conspicuous example from his original column with Matt Nisbet:

    And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along?

    This complaint fails to address an obvious point: what if we really do believe that science and religion are incompatible? Should we lie? Or should we just keep quiet and not say anything? It seems inescapable that he’s urging us to do at least one of the two. If, as you say, it’s “nonsense” to claim that Mooney is asking atheists to censor ourselves, then perhaps you could take a crack at explaining what he is asking us to do. He seems reluctant to explain himself further.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “Richard Dawkins and other atheists, on the other hand, have done nothing wrong.”

    Misquoting the Founding Fathers is doing nothing wrong? Overreaching with the Neville Chamberlain gambit is doing nothing wrong? Letting an anti-Semitic urban legend about Jews make it into print is doing nothing wrong? Letting an uneven, half-baked survey of responses to classical arguments against theism go into print, when there are ample resources available to do the job properly, is doing nothing wrong?

    Ebonmuse: “We say what we believe, and we make no apologies for it. That is not, as you seem to think, the same thing as being irrational or unreasonable.”

    Whether it is irrational depends on whether the beliefs in question are irrational, no?

    Nisbet: “Can’t science and religion just get along?”

    Ebonmuse: “what if we really do believe that science and religion are incompatible?”

    Well, that depends on the religion, now, doesn’t it? Considering that Nisbet is very much for getting creationism out of schools, he obviously expects the religious to yield on a literal interpretation of their creation myths. “Getting along” does not mean that the religious just stay as they are. It means acknowledging that religions can and do change to accommodate the times–and even the facts–and giving them both the impetus and the space to do so. Chris Mooney indicated as much when he wrote:

    It’s not about surrender. It’s about a politics of gradual gains and change on the margins. Let’s take this in steps. Let’s get the kids learning evolution first. I just don’t think the kind of change PZ wants can come over night, and in America you never succeed if you try to do too much too fast.

    And don’t be too quick to cite MLK as a counterexample. Relatively speaking, his goal of ending racism was far more modest than the goal of overturning America’s religiosity, and he reached out to his opposition.

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

    Misquoting the Founding Fathers is doing nothing wrong?

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll need to explain what you mean if you want me to respond.

    Overreaching with the Neville Chamberlain gambit is doing nothing wrong?

    No, it’s not. Astonishingly, an analogy does not become invalid just because you don’t like it, not even if you call it “overreaching”.

    Letting an anti-Semitic urban legend about Jews make it into print is doing nothing wrong?

    J.J., this is ridiculous. That wasn’t a sinister attempt to smear Judaism, it was a simple mistake, and even Christopher Hitchens admits as much. He also points out, quite correctly, that putting it in there actually weakened his case, because there are even more repulsive practices that actually exist in Judaism which he could have mentioned instead (like the way male Orthodox Jews pray in thankfulness to God every morning that they were not born as women).

    Letting an uneven, half-baked survey of responses to classical arguments against theism go into print, when there are ample resources available to do the job properly, is doing nothing wrong?

    This, too, is absurd. You’re trying to pass off your opinion on their writing as some kind of objective commentary on the merits of their position. Really, if these are your strongest reasons for not liking Dawkins and Hitchens, then I think we’re doing just fine. Especially when, as I’ve pointed out, our opposition is talking about the glee they’ll feel while disemboweling us or earnestly praying that we’ll be struck dead by God. (I like the way I put it in another post: “How many buses has Richard Dawkins bombed in the name of converting people to atheism?”)

    Has it ever occurred to you that you’re training your criticism on the wrong side? We wouldn’t feel the need to be so confrontational if there weren’t all those vengeful lunatics trying to terrorize the populace in the name of God. We speak out strongly precisely because the problem we face is such a serious one. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and griping that we’re doing things all wrong, you could help us.

    (Chris Mooney:) Let’s get the kids learning evolution first. I just don’t think the kind of change PZ wants can come over night, and in America you never succeed if you try to do too much too fast.

    Neither PZ nor any other atheist has ever said that they expect religion to die off “overnight”. This is just blatant straw-man thrashing. We all fully understand that religion’s not going to go away any time soon. That doesn’t change our basic position at all: the sooner it goes away, the better, and anything we can do to contribute to that goal is effort well spent.

    I think this paragraph perfectly outlines the flaw in Mooney and Nisbet’s position. Mooney thinks that we can teach evolution first and worry about religious fundamentalism later. He, like you, has it precisely backwards. Religious fundamentalism is the problem; resistance to evolution is merely the symptom. Trying to alleviate the latter without confronting the former is like bailing the boat without patching the hole. What we’re saying is that if we confront religion and weaken its stranglehold, resistance to evolution – along with a whole host of other problems – will work itself out on its own as part of the bargain.

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

    Misquoting the Founding Fathers is doing nothing wrong?

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll need to explain what you mean if you want me to respond.

    Overreaching with the Neville Chamberlain gambit is doing nothing wrong?

    No, it’s not. Astonishingly, an analogy does not become invalid just because you don’t like it, not even if you call it “overreaching”.

    Letting an anti-Semitic urban legend about Jews make it into print is doing nothing wrong?

    J.J., this is ridiculous. That wasn’t a sinister attempt to smear Judaism, it was a simple mistake, and even Christopher Hitchens admits as much. He also points out, quite correctly, that putting it in there actually weakened his case, because there are even more repulsive practices that actually exist in Judaism which he could have mentioned instead (like the way male Orthodox Jews pray in thankfulness to God every morning that they were not born as women).

    Letting an uneven, half-baked survey of responses to classical arguments against theism go into print, when there are ample resources available to do the job properly, is doing nothing wrong?

    This, too, is absurd. You’re trying to pass off your opinion on their writing as some kind of objective commentary on the merits of their position. Really, if these are your strongest reasons for not liking Dawkins and Hitchens, then I think we’re doing just fine. Especially when, as I’ve pointed out, our opposition is talking about the glee they’ll feel while disemboweling us or earnestly praying that we’ll be struck dead by God. (I like the way I put it in another post: “How many buses has Richard Dawkins bombed in the name of converting people to atheism?”)

    Has it ever occurred to you that you’re training your criticism on the wrong side? We wouldn’t feel the need to be so confrontational if there weren’t all those vengeful lunatics trying to terrorize the populace in the name of God. We speak out strongly precisely because the problem we face is such a serious one. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and griping that we’re doing things all wrong, you could help us.

    (Chris Mooney:) Let’s get the kids learning evolution first. I just don’t think the kind of change PZ wants can come over night, and in America you never succeed if you try to do too much too fast.

    Neither PZ nor any other atheist has ever said that they expect religion to die off “overnight”. This is just blatant straw-man thrashing. We all fully understand that religion’s not going to go away any time soon. That doesn’t change our basic position at all: the sooner it goes away, the better, and anything we can do to contribute to that goal is effort well spent.

    I think this paragraph perfectly outlines the flaw in Mooney and Nisbet’s position. Mooney thinks that we can teach evolution first and worry about religious fundamentalism later. He, like you, has it precisely backwards. Religious fundamentalism is the problem; resistance to evolution is merely the symptom. Trying to alleviate the latter without confronting the former is like bailing the boat without patching the hole. What we’re saying is that if we confront religion and weaken its stranglehold, resistance to evolution – along with a whole host of other problems – will work itself out on its own as part of the bargain.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “Misquoting the Founding Fathers is doing nothing wrong?”

    Here: http://scienceblogs.com/strangerfruit/2007/01/thomas_jefferson_and_richard_d.php

    See also here: http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/11/hitchens_jefferson_and_atheism.php

    Ebonmuse: “an analogy does not become invalid just because you don’t like it”

    So it is OK to lazily liken the likes of Ken Miller to mass murderers? There is a reason Godwin’s law was invented, you know.

    Ebonmuse: “That wasn’t a sinister attempt to smear Judaism, it was a simple mistake, and even Christopher Hitchens admits as much.”

    And I’m sure that Hitchens’ portrayal of the Founding Fathers wasn’t sinister, either. It was, however, lazy, and it is the sort of thing–especially when combined with his other mistakes–that casts serious doubt on his credibility. His apology isn’t that relevant. The problem is that his crap filter failed, and an apology doesn’t indicate that it has been repaired.

    Ebonmuse: “You’re trying to pass off your opinion on their writing as some kind of objective commentary on the merits of their position.”

    Dawkins fumbled the gimme that Thomas Aquinas gave him in his Fourth Way argument. He seemed to take a stab at describing what Kant meant by “existence is not a predicate” and quoted something from Norman Malcolm that wasn’t quite on point. He used as a source for The God Delusion a Free Inquiry article by Gillooly that would have set red flags to several IIDB regulars: It contradicted itself on Mithra’s birth myth, and Osiris is described as ascending into Heaven after being resurrected, rather than going to the underworld. Those are all pretty easily verifiable mistakes, especially the first and last that I mentioned.

    Ebonmuse: “Religious fundamentalism is the problem; resistance to evolution is merely the symptom. Trying to alleviate the latter without confronting the former is like bailing the boat without patching the hole.”

    Bad analogy. First, there is no way that you can fight the creation-evolution battle without fighting fundamentalism. Second, you aren’t just fighting religious fundamentalism, but rather religion, period. Dawkins et al. are not just going after the fundies. Indeed, if you were just going after the fundies, you’d have a much more focused and smaller problem. Third, the creation-evolution battle has to be tackled in a timely manner: in time for this generation’s students. The more kids indoctrinated into creationism, the more fundamentalism becomes more entrenched, making further battles for rationality that much harder. By contrast, weakening the influence of religion is almost inevitably a long-term affair, whether we like it or not.

  • stillwaters

    If the polls are a fairly accurate indication of the number of nonbelievers, then I would propose that we use that to gain some recognition. What I’m thinking is along the lines of what the Sojourners did recently. They showcased a debate between the top three Democratic candidates related entirely to religion and each candidate’s religious beliefs.

    Why don’t we call for a debate between the candidates related to atheism and church/state separation issues? This could be organized by one of the big atheist organizations, such as FFRF, Center for Inquiry, or Americans United, or possibly a joint effort from several organizations (I’m thinking of the Secular Coalition of America and their supporting organizations).

    I think I will email some of these organizations and suggest this idea to them. I would love to hear such a debate, and it would help make atheists a recognized political group.

  • stillwaters

    If the polls are a fairly accurate indication of the number of nonbelievers, then I would propose that we use that to gain some recognition. What I’m thinking is along the lines of what the Sojourners did recently. They showcased a debate between the top three Democratic candidates related entirely to religion and each candidate’s religious beliefs.

    Why don’t we call for a debate between the candidates related to atheism and church/state separation issues? This could be organized by one of the big atheist organizations, such as FFRF, Center for Inquiry, or Americans United, or possibly a joint effort from several organizations (I’m thinking of the Secular Coalition of America and their supporting organizations).

    I think I will email some of these organizations and suggest this idea to them. I would love to hear such a debate, and it would help make atheists a recognized political group.

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  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    stillwaters:

    Even if the poll isn’t a fairly accurate indication of the number of nonbelievers, your idea is still pretty good.

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

    Here: http://scienceblogs.com/strangerfruit/2007/01/thomas_jefferson_and_richard_d.php

    This is indeed a misquote, though a very slight one.

    See also here: http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/11/hitchens_jefferson_and_atheism.php

    This is not a misquotation, but rather Hitchens’ opinion of what Jefferson’s beliefs were. I don’t agree with him here, if only because I think we should generally accept a person’s own statement of their position without specific evidence to the contrary. But it is not an error; it is an opinion to which he is entitled.

    So it is OK to lazily liken the likes of Ken Miller to mass murderers?

    Oh, get over yourself. The purpose of the comparison was not to suggest that anyone is on a moral level with the Nazis, only that some people unwisely believe that making concessions to the adversary (in this case, granting the validity of Gould’s NOMA principle to placate creationists) will persuade them to go away. You can see that quite clearly if you read Dawkins for yourself – have you done that?

    And I’m sure that Hitchens’ portrayal of the Founding Fathers wasn’t sinister, either. It was, however, lazy, and it is the sort of thing–especially when combined with his other mistakes–that casts serious doubt on his credibility.

    Again, get over yourself. If we start disqualifying everyone who’s ever made a mistake about anything, pretty soon there’ll be no one left. (Frankly, if the Bible was as error-free as Dawkins and Hitchens, I’d have a much harder job.) I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned another mistake of Dawkins, which I myself pointed out in my review of The God Delusion: he incorrectly states that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech”. This is not true, but it would be ludicrous for me or for anyone else to try to claim that because of this error, his entire argument is fundamentally flawed. Their central point and their supporting arguments are absolutely correct and on target, and I think it speaks volumes that your best tactic for casting doubt on them is picking nits like this.

    First, there is no way that you can fight the creation-evolution battle without fighting fundamentalism.

    But you’re crippling your own argument by trying to attack fundamentalism while simultaneously conceding, as some would have us do, that belief without evidence is a positive character trait, and that faith is a valid way of knowing which should not be questioned. That’s conceding 90% of the battle to the fundamentalists at the outset.

    Third, the creation-evolution battle has to be tackled in a timely manner: in time for this generation’s students.

    And we are doing that, as huge wins like Dover show. That is not incompatible with simultaneously criticizing religion.

    The more kids indoctrinated into creationism, the more fundamentalism becomes more entrenched, making further battles for rationality that much harder.

    I have news for you: fundamentalism is already entrenched and creationism is already believed by a plurality, a majority in many places. This is not some sudden, new problem. We’ve been doing what you and Mooney and Nisbet suggest, more or less for decades, and it hasn’t worked. It’s long past time to try a fresh approach, and we’re just the ones to do it.

    And, to bring us back to the topic of this post: Religion in general and fundamentalism specifically are not becoming stronger. Rather, they are losing ground, and atheism and disbelief are gaining. There is excellent evidence that rationality is on the rise and that strong, forceful criticisms of religion are having an effect. This directly contradicts the fearful, cringing assertion that religion is so overwhelmingly powerful that we must placate it or else be crushed.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “This is indeed a misquote, though a very slight one.”

    The misquote of John Adams (scroll down and read the comments) is far less slight.

    Ebonmuse: “This is not a misquotation, but rather Hitchens’ opinion of what Jefferson’s beliefs were.”

    Fair point, though Hitchens’ “opinion” is a misportrayal that flies in the face of the facts, and when this was pointed out by Lenni Brenner, he resorted to insult.

    Ebonmuse: “Oh, get over yourself. The purpose of the comparison was not to suggest that anyone is on a moral level with the Nazis”

    Unfortunately, such an implication is hard to avoid when one’s comparisons involve Nazis.

    Ebonmuse: “If we start disqualifying everyone who’s ever made a mistake about anything, pretty soon there’ll be no one left.”

    True, but there is a vast difference between mistakes made off-the-cuff and not taking the time to polish and harden one’s work before it goes into a book. It’s not as if Dawkins was a reporter writing under a tight deadline. Also, it is the kind of mistakes made that are a problem. When misquotes of famous figures circulate so easily on the Internet, just trusting what one finds on Google is lazy and credulous. Dawkins’ other mistakes show a similar laziness that is not fit for a nonfiction print publication. With Hitchens, his other mistakes indicate poor judgment (e.g. Iraq) and possibly a willingness to distort facts (e.g. Jefferson). If his more recent mistake had been out of character, that would be one thing, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

    Ebonmuse: “Their central point and their supporting arguments are absolutely correct”

    Their supporting arguments are not “absolutely correct.”

    Ebonmuse: “But you’re crippling your own argument by trying to attack fundamentalism while simultaneously conceding, as some would have us do, that belief without evidence is a positive character trait”

    Who says I have to concede that? The only thing I need to “concede” is that it isn’t a straight shot from evolution to atheism, which is true.

    Ebonmuse: “We’ve been doing what you and Mooney and Nisbet suggest, more or less for decades, and it hasn’t worked.”

    Which is why the creationists haven’t tried to water down their message to get it past the courts. Oh wait …

    Ebonmuse: “And, to bring us back to the topic of this post: Religion in general and fundamentalism specifically are not becoming stronger. Rather, they are losing ground, and atheism and disbelief are gaining.”

    But not losing enough ground for the fundies to have poor leverage on school boards. I would not trust a poll too much whose makers admit “This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no theoretical sampling error can be calculated.” If we keep the other, less optimistic polls in mind, the gains are modest ones at best. We don’t yet have something that helps us much in Kansas.

    Ebonmuse: “There is excellent evidence that rationality is on the rise and that strong, forceful criticisms of religion are having an effect.”

    Excellent evidence would be a series of polls showing a sharp upward trend in atheism after the books by Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett came out. This you do not have. And you laughably reach when you write that rationality is on the rise. Irreligion is not rationality, as any IIDB regular should know.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “This is indeed a misquote, though a very slight one.”

    The misquote of John Adams (scroll down and read the comments) is far less slight.

    Ebonmuse: “This is not a misquotation, but rather Hitchens’ opinion of what Jefferson’s beliefs were.”

    Fair point, though Hitchens’ “opinion” is a misportrayal that flies in the face of the facts, and when this was pointed out by Lenni Brenner, he resorted to insult.

    Ebonmuse: “Oh, get over yourself. The purpose of the comparison was not to suggest that anyone is on a moral level with the Nazis”

    Unfortunately, such an implication is hard to avoid when one’s comparisons involve Nazis.

    Ebonmuse: “If we start disqualifying everyone who’s ever made a mistake about anything, pretty soon there’ll be no one left.”

    True, but there is a vast difference between mistakes made off-the-cuff and not taking the time to polish and harden one’s work before it goes into a book. It’s not as if Dawkins was a reporter writing under a tight deadline. Also, it is the kind of mistakes made that are a problem. When misquotes of famous figures circulate so easily on the Internet, just trusting what one finds on Google is lazy and credulous. Dawkins’ other mistakes show a similar laziness that is not fit for a nonfiction print publication. With Hitchens, his other mistakes indicate poor judgment (e.g. Iraq) and possibly a willingness to distort facts (e.g. Jefferson). If his more recent mistake had been out of character, that would be one thing, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

    Ebonmuse: “Their central point and their supporting arguments are absolutely correct”

    Their supporting arguments are not “absolutely correct.”

    Ebonmuse: “But you’re crippling your own argument by trying to attack fundamentalism while simultaneously conceding, as some would have us do, that belief without evidence is a positive character trait”

    Who says I have to concede that? The only thing I need to “concede” is that it isn’t a straight shot from evolution to atheism, which is true.

    Ebonmuse: “We’ve been doing what you and Mooney and Nisbet suggest, more or less for decades, and it hasn’t worked.”

    Which is why the creationists haven’t tried to water down their message to get it past the courts. Oh wait …

    Ebonmuse: “And, to bring us back to the topic of this post: Religion in general and fundamentalism specifically are not becoming stronger. Rather, they are losing ground, and atheism and disbelief are gaining.”

    But not losing enough ground for the fundies to have poor leverage on school boards. I would not trust a poll too much whose makers admit “This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no theoretical sampling error can be calculated.” If we keep the other, less optimistic polls in mind, the gains are modest ones at best. We don’t yet have something that helps us much in Kansas.

    Ebonmuse: “There is excellent evidence that rationality is on the rise and that strong, forceful criticisms of religion are having an effect.”

    Excellent evidence would be a series of polls showing a sharp upward trend in atheism after the books by Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett came out. This you do not have. And you laughably reach when you write that rationality is on the rise. Irreligion is not rationality, as any IIDB regular should know.

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

    Which is why the creationists haven’t tried to water down their message to get it past the courts. Oh wait …

    As you concede, the creationists have so far been thwarted not by public sentiment turning against them, but by the constitutional principles which protect the rights of the minority from the overreaching of the majority. It would be foolish to rely on this safeguard indefinitely, considering how many judges have been appointed by Republican presidents. What we need to truly defeat them is to stir up a strong popular sentiment of freethought and rationality, one which asserts that faith is not a virtue when it is contradicted by evidence. That is exactly what today’s prominent atheists are saying, and that appears to be the very tactic you reject.

    Excellent evidence would be a series of polls showing a sharp upward trend in atheism after the books by Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett came out. This you do not have.

    Nor claim to, because as I have argued in the past, these books are more an effect of the rise of atheism than they are a cause of it. Dawkins, Harris and others are not creating a movement ex nihilo, they are building on a shift in societal opinion that was already taking place. Nevertheless, atheism is growing generation by generation, and having forceful, passionate advocates for the cause speaking out in public can only accelerate that change. I’m glad to have them on my side, I stand by them, and I will continue to support them.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “It would be foolish to rely on this safeguard indefinitely, considering how many judges have been appointed by Republican presidents.”

    You mean like Judge Jones? :-)

    Ebonmuse: “What we need to truly defeat them is to stir up a strong popular sentiment of freethought and rationality”

    Emphasis on “popular.” To put it bluntly, the current “New Atheist” tactics depend on communicating contempt for religious people. Notice that I did not say contempt for religion. Epithets like “faith-head” are the kind of thing one aims at a person that one thinks of as a faceless other, not a person. Like a racial epithet, it is a nominal synonym for a more neutral descriptor, but carries a connotation of contempt and suggests a stereotype. (“Jap”, for comparison, is a nominal synonym for “Japanese”, but implies the sorts of ugly stereotypes seen on WWII posters.) Contempt is also expressed by laziness in investigation. It’s as if Dawkins didn’t think his opponents were worth more than a half-assed job. That sort of contempt is great for rallying the “troops” and doubters that are sympathetic to Dawkins’ message. It is not that good for reaching out to the opposition and showing them that we’re not all the bastards that they think we are. The current tactics are almost bound to have diminishing returns.

    Furthermore, the New Atheists’ tactics are terrible at promoting freethought or rationality. The “us vs. them” attitude tends to dismiss or stifle dissent, which is anathema to freethought, and the sloppiness that I described in previous posts is a poor exemplar of rationality.

    If anything, the worthwhile message that belief should be based on evidence gets buried in the contempt. The insightfulness of the comic strip Prickly City is usually inversely proportional to the amount of right-wing propanganda the author fell for, but it is a decent bellwether to show the message that believers have ended up receiving: http://www.gocomics.com/pricklycity/2007/09/05/

    Ebonmuse: “Nevertheless, atheism is growing generation by generation”

    And probably for the same reasons that acceptance of gays has grown. The straight majority has started to see gays as people rather than faceless others, and this is especially true for younger generations. We don’t have corresponding positive faces of atheism that have the prominence of the faces of New Atheism. Now if Julia Sweeney and Hemant Mehta became more public, that would really help.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “It would be foolish to rely on this safeguard indefinitely, considering how many judges have been appointed by Republican presidents.”

    You mean like Judge Jones? :-)

    Ebonmuse: “What we need to truly defeat them is to stir up a strong popular sentiment of freethought and rationality”

    Emphasis on “popular.” To put it bluntly, the current “New Atheist” tactics depend on communicating contempt for religious people. Notice that I did not say contempt for religion. Epithets like “faith-head” are the kind of thing one aims at a person that one thinks of as a faceless other, not a person. Like a racial epithet, it is a nominal synonym for a more neutral descriptor, but carries a connotation of contempt and suggests a stereotype. (“Jap”, for comparison, is a nominal synonym for “Japanese”, but implies the sorts of ugly stereotypes seen on WWII posters.) Contempt is also expressed by laziness in investigation. It’s as if Dawkins didn’t think his opponents were worth more than a half-assed job. That sort of contempt is great for rallying the “troops” and doubters that are sympathetic to Dawkins’ message. It is not that good for reaching out to the opposition and showing them that we’re not all the bastards that they think we are. The current tactics are almost bound to have diminishing returns.

    Furthermore, the New Atheists’ tactics are terrible at promoting freethought or rationality. The “us vs. them” attitude tends to dismiss or stifle dissent, which is anathema to freethought, and the sloppiness that I described in previous posts is a poor exemplar of rationality.

    If anything, the worthwhile message that belief should be based on evidence gets buried in the contempt. The insightfulness of the comic strip Prickly City is usually inversely proportional to the amount of right-wing propanganda the author fell for, but it is a decent bellwether to show the message that believers have ended up receiving: http://www.gocomics.com/pricklycity/2007/09/05/

    Ebonmuse: “Nevertheless, atheism is growing generation by generation”

    And probably for the same reasons that acceptance of gays has grown. The straight majority has started to see gays as people rather than faceless others, and this is especially true for younger generations. We don’t have corresponding positive faces of atheism that have the prominence of the faces of New Atheism. Now if Julia Sweeney and Hemant Mehta became more public, that would really help.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Boy, I mangled my last paragraph. Atheism probably has grown to some extent for the reasons that acceptance of gays has grown, in that successive generations of youth are inheriting less of the religious beliefs of their elders, much as successive generations of youth are inheriting less of the prejudices of their elders. With gays, what is causing that shift is an increasing presence of positive gay images, so gays are seen more as human beings. However, with atheism, it probably has more to do with increasing affluence and disillusionment with the Christian right. Gays seem to have had greater gains than atheists, though, probably because of the lack of public presence of positive faces like Julia Sweeney and Hemant Mehta.

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

    A somewhat delayed reply:

    You mean like Judge Jones? :-)

    We were very lucky that time in having a judge who, despite the best efforts of George W. Bush, turned out to be a perceptive, rational person not beholden to religious dogma. I sincerely hope it’s not your strategy to cross your fingers and hope we keep on getting lucky indefinitely.

    To put it bluntly, the current “New Atheist” tactics depend on communicating contempt for religious people. Notice that I did not say contempt for religion. Epithets like “faith-head” are the kind of thing one aims at a person that one thinks of as a faceless other, not a person. Like a racial epithet, it is a nominal synonym for a more neutral descriptor, but carries a connotation of contempt and suggests a stereotype.

    Oh, give me a break. I don’t normally use the word “shrill”, but I think here it’s completely appropriate. What word do you propose we use to describe those who think that blind allegiance to ancient texts and hate-spewing preachers is the highest virtue? Should we take extra care to pick a word that doesn’t hurt their feelings?

    It is a term of mild derision, and that’s the point. If believers feel upset and discomfited by criticism, good. We want to make them uncomfortable. We want them to realize that other people view their beliefs as ridiculous. We do not want to let them sit and stew comfortably in their own prejudices. But it is not a racial slur, nor is it on par with a racial slur. In fact, it’s a completely accurate description of the worldview these people actually hold, many of them proudly so. If it sounds a bit silly, well, then they should think about adopting less silly beliefs.

    The “us vs. them” attitude tends to dismiss or stifle dissent, which is anathema to freethought…

    This is, again, completely wrong. The “us vs. them” attitude, as you put it (I prefer to call it taking a clear position) is what makes dissent possible. Meaningful dissent cannot exist in the framework of a mushy, relativistic, let’s-just-agree-to-disagree strategy. Our positions are different, starkly so, and we should not be afraid to point that out. On the contrary, we should make it a point of pride. Being an atheist is a good, positive trait, and we should say that plainly.

    I’m amazed by your ridiculous insistence that taking up a contrary position somehow stifles debate. Has it occurred to you that the only person here telling anyone they shouldn’t say whatever they’re thinking is you?

    If anything, the worthwhile message that belief should be based on evidence gets buried in the contempt. The insightfulness of the comic strip Prickly City is usually inversely proportional to the amount of right-wing propanganda the author fell for, but it is a decent bellwether to show the message that believers have ended up receiving…

    Seriously, are you kidding? Right-wing distortions of the atheists’ position is your evidence that we’re being too harsh on them? Do you also read this comic strip to determine whether Democrats hate the troops in Iraq?

    Yes, Dawkins and Harris are perceived negatively among the religious right. And no, it’s not related to anything they’ve said. Even if they were models of politeness and restraint, they would be viciously attacked simply for being atheists, just as the religious right viciously attacks everyone who disagrees with them regardless of the accuracy or proportionality of their criticisms.

    Evidence: The most common attack I’ve seen on Dawkins is for a position he does not hold – that parents should be legally forbidden from teaching their children about religion. Dawkins explicitly repudiates this position in The God Delusion and elsewhere. Yet he’s still regularly accused of it by people who clearly haven’t bothered to read his book. Frankly, the vast majority of people who are trying to silence him probably have little or no knowledge of what he’s actually said, only the right-wing distortions of it – and those distortions would be bandied about with equal fervor even if he was the very soul of courtesy and tact. To the degree he’s viewed negatively in society at large, I can almost guarantee that it’s because of these distortions percolating through the media, not because of his actual position.

    They’re going to lie about us whatever we say. It’s about time we stopped being meek and mild in the face of these lies, and fighting back with the seriousness and passion our position deserves. That’s by far the best way to cut through the fog of distortion and make our voices heard. If a few people’s feelings get hurt along the way, so be it. We are far better off with too much criticism of religion than with too little.

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

    A somewhat delayed reply:

    You mean like Judge Jones? :-)

    We were very lucky that time in having a judge who, despite the best efforts of George W. Bush, turned out to be a perceptive, rational person not beholden to religious dogma. I sincerely hope it’s not your strategy to cross your fingers and hope we keep on getting lucky indefinitely.

    To put it bluntly, the current “New Atheist” tactics depend on communicating contempt for religious people. Notice that I did not say contempt for religion. Epithets like “faith-head” are the kind of thing one aims at a person that one thinks of as a faceless other, not a person. Like a racial epithet, it is a nominal synonym for a more neutral descriptor, but carries a connotation of contempt and suggests a stereotype.

    Oh, give me a break. I don’t normally use the word “shrill”, but I think here it’s completely appropriate. What word do you propose we use to describe those who think that blind allegiance to ancient texts and hate-spewing preachers is the highest virtue? Should we take extra care to pick a word that doesn’t hurt their feelings?

    It is a term of mild derision, and that’s the point. If believers feel upset and discomfited by criticism, good. We want to make them uncomfortable. We want them to realize that other people view their beliefs as ridiculous. We do not want to let them sit and stew comfortably in their own prejudices. But it is not a racial slur, nor is it on par with a racial slur. In fact, it’s a completely accurate description of the worldview these people actually hold, many of them proudly so. If it sounds a bit silly, well, then they should think about adopting less silly beliefs.

    The “us vs. them” attitude tends to dismiss or stifle dissent, which is anathema to freethought…

    This is, again, completely wrong. The “us vs. them” attitude, as you put it (I prefer to call it taking a clear position) is what makes dissent possible. Meaningful dissent cannot exist in the framework of a mushy, relativistic, let’s-just-agree-to-disagree strategy. Our positions are different, starkly so, and we should not be afraid to point that out. On the contrary, we should make it a point of pride. Being an atheist is a good, positive trait, and we should say that plainly.

    I’m amazed by your ridiculous insistence that taking up a contrary position somehow stifles debate. Has it occurred to you that the only person here telling anyone they shouldn’t say whatever they’re thinking is you?

    If anything, the worthwhile message that belief should be based on evidence gets buried in the contempt. The insightfulness of the comic strip Prickly City is usually inversely proportional to the amount of right-wing propanganda the author fell for, but it is a decent bellwether to show the message that believers have ended up receiving…

    Seriously, are you kidding? Right-wing distortions of the atheists’ position is your evidence that we’re being too harsh on them? Do you also read this comic strip to determine whether Democrats hate the troops in Iraq?

    Yes, Dawkins and Harris are perceived negatively among the religious right. And no, it’s not related to anything they’ve said. Even if they were models of politeness and restraint, they would be viciously attacked simply for being atheists, just as the religious right viciously attacks everyone who disagrees with them regardless of the accuracy or proportionality of their criticisms.

    Evidence: The most common attack I’ve seen on Dawkins is for a position he does not hold – that parents should be legally forbidden from teaching their children about religion. Dawkins explicitly repudiates this position in The God Delusion and elsewhere. Yet he’s still regularly accused of it by people who clearly haven’t bothered to read his book. Frankly, the vast majority of people who are trying to silence him probably have little or no knowledge of what he’s actually said, only the right-wing distortions of it – and those distortions would be bandied about with equal fervor even if he was the very soul of courtesy and tact. To the degree he’s viewed negatively in society at large, I can almost guarantee that it’s because of these distortions percolating through the media, not because of his actual position.

    They’re going to lie about us whatever we say. It’s about time we stopped being meek and mild in the face of these lies, and fighting back with the seriousness and passion our position deserves. That’s by far the best way to cut through the fog of distortion and make our voices heard. If a few people’s feelings get hurt along the way, so be it. We are far better off with too much criticism of religion than with too little.

  • KShep

    We are far better off with too much criticism of religion than with too little.

    Brilliant. Needs to made into a bumper sticker.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “We were very lucky that time in having a judge who, despite the best efforts of George W. Bush, turned out to be a perceptive, rational person not beholden to religious dogma.”

    We were also “lucky” to have both precedent and the Constitution on our side.

    Ebonmuse: “What word do you propose we use to describe those who think that blind allegiance to ancient texts and hate-spewing preachers is the highest virtue?”

    I don’t know. I suppose “faith-head” might have worked if Dawkins hadn’t used it as a synonym for religious people in general. He gave away that game when he read the new preface of the paperback of TGD: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1305,The-new-preface-to-The-God-Delusion-paperback-and-QampA,Richard-Dawkins

    Ebonmuse: “It is a term of mild derision, and that’s the point. If believers feel upset and discomfited by criticism, good.”

    Funny how you confuse insult with criticism. Not only that, but you ignore that insults can be taken as a sign that one is covering for a lack of substance. Ridicule is a very tricky tool.

    Ebonmuse: “The “us vs. them” attitude, as you put it … is what makes dissent possible.”

    Nonsense. You want to see the “us vs. them” attitude, look at the Bush administration. See how tolerant it is of dissent. Dissent becomes fruitful when the in-group tolerates and even welcomes it, when it can tolerate skewering of its own would-be sacred cows. The “us vs. them” attitude is when one can only express dissent on penalty of being socially shunned from the in-group or worse. Raising the cost of dissent tends to discourage it.

    Ebonmuse: “Do you also read this comic strip to determine whether Democrats hate the troops in Iraq?”

    If it did say that, I’d be a bit surprised, since Winslow the Democratic coyote is somewhat sympathetically portrayed. That said, it would be a sign that right-wingers thought that this is how the Democrats behaved, which is the point.

    Ebonmuse: “Even if they were the very soul of courtesy and tact, they would be viciously attacked simply for being atheists, just as the religious right viciously attacks everyone who disagrees with them regardless of the accuracy or proportionality of their criticisms.”

    If they were the very soul of courtesy and tact, there would be at least be a stark difference between the propaganda and the reality, which would get picked up at least by the readers of TGD, etc. As it stands, their behavior feeds the myths about them, as your next example shows …

    Ebonmuse: “The most common attack I’ve seen on Dawkins is for a position he does not hold — that parents should be legally forbidden from teaching their children about religion.”

    Yet he is in large part responsible for this misconception because he had compared raising a child in a religion to child abuse, and because he signed a petition in favor of the very position that you said he did not hold. Later he retracted once Brayton and others protested, but it is all too easy for his opponents to argue that he only retracted because of public pressure. He fed his own myth.

    Distortions of course are inevitable, but Dawkins has made them easier and more plausible.

    Ebonmuse: “They’re going to lie about us whatever we say.”

    And making their lies further resemble the truth is going to help?

  • Alex Weaver

    Ramsey: I think you’re misusing the term “us vs. them”, in addition to taking an unreasonably charitable and indulgent view of the hyperactive sense of injury that’s entirely too common among believers.

  • Alex Weaver

    Ramsey: I think you’re misusing the term “us vs. them”, in addition to taking an unreasonably charitable and indulgent view of the hyperactive sense of injury that’s entirely too common among believers.

  • OMGF

    If it did say that, I’d be a bit surprised, since Winslow the Democratic coyote is somewhat sympathetically portrayed.

    Stop reading it when you are drunk and you might realize that Winslow is portrayed sympathetically when he agrees with the right wing position.

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

    We were also “lucky” to have both precedent and the Constitution on our side.

    Yes, we were. Again: is it your strategy to hope that we keep on getting lucky indefinitely? If a case on creationism were to reach the Supreme Court, as it is currently assembled, are you completely sure of how they would rule? What if the next justice was appointed by a Republican? Let’s not forget that several of the Republican candidates are creationists by their own admission.

    I suppose “faith-head” might have worked if Dawkins hadn’t used it as a synonym for religious people in general.

    But what we are saying is that all religious people, to some extent or another, partake of and perpetuate these problems. After all this time, do you still not grasp the argument we’re making? Have you still not figured out that our quarrel is with religion in general and not just the more virulent fundamentalist sects?

    That said, it would be a sign that right-wingers thought that this is how the Democrats behaved, which is the point.

    Yes, and my point is that the only relevant fact is our actual position, not lies about that position. Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you arguing that if our opponents perceive our position as too extreme, then that is in fact evidence that we are too extreme? Our position must be chosen based on what our opponents will think about us for advocating it? If that is not what you’re saying, then please explain what you actually mean.

    Yet he is in large part responsible for this misconception because he had compared raising a child in a religion to child abuse…

    Wrong! You prove my point for me! Richard Dawkins does not say that raising a child in any religion is the equivalent of child abuse. What he actually says is that teaching children about Hell as a place of eternal torture, as well as other beliefs that cause great and lasting emotional suffering, should be viewed as the moral equivalent of abuse.

    Once again, this proves my point that Dawkins and other atheists are attacked primarily not for their actual position, but for distortions and misrepresentations of that position. Nevertheless, you seem to be saying that if people misinterpret Dawkins and then condemn him on the basis of that misinterpretation, that’s his fault. No, it isn’t. It is not our obligation to water down our stance to the point where no one could possibly misinterpret it.

    As I’ve been saying all along, and as I will continue to say, by far the best course of action is a strong, passionate defense of the opinions we actually hold. Every atheist should speak out boldly and say exactly what they feel, and if some believers are offended or upset by that, too bad. It is not our job to spare them all possibility of hurt feelings. It is also not our job to tailor our position so that it cannot possibly be misinterpreted, because that is impossible, and because the ignorant hatemongers of the religious right will lie about us with equal vigor regardless of what we do or do not say. Trying to foreclose all possibility of that would only result in watering down our argument until it is empty and meaningless, and it seems to me that this is exactly what you’re advocating. Fortunately, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other leading atheists have given every indication that they will ignore these irrelevant criticisms and continue speaking their minds. Good for them, I say.

    But perhaps you’ll say I’m being unfair, that I’m not portraying your argument honestly. Fine, then; let’s hear what you’re actually advocating. I have yet to hear you explicitly describe your position except in negative terms. What do you think Richard Dawkins should say? What should be our argument? I want to hear some specifics.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “But what we are saying is that all religious people, to some extent or another, partake of and perpetuate these problems.”

    But not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins, etc., and “faith-head” is used to imply those things. You may like to think that “faith-head” has a more nuanced meaning than that, but that is not what is being communicated. Epithets are blunt instruments, and a vague insult like “faith-head” is especially ham-fisted.

    Ebonmuse: “Richard Dawkins does not say that raising a child in any religion is the equivalent of child abuse. What he actually says is that teaching children about Hell as a place of eternal torture, as well as other beliefs that cause great and lasting emotional suffering, should be viewed as the moral equivalent of abuse.”

    Funny thing, then, that he mentions the issue in the chapter “Childhood, Abuse, and Religion,” and after priming the reader by discussing earlier in the chapter what he more explicitly labeled as examples of child abuse. The best that can be said is that he only accidentally implied that he was talking about abuse via the surrounding context, which gets us right back to the problem of Dawkins’ behavior feeding the myths.

    Ebonmuse: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you arguing that if our opponents perceive our position as too extreme, then that is in fact evidence that we are too extreme?”

    No, it is evidence that you are not getting through to your opponents. You are well aware that you are trying to get a message across through media that distorts it. Yet instead of trying to take this into account, you make it easy for you to be interpreted in a negative light, as if all your problems could be solved simply by shouting loud enough.

    Ebonmuse: “Nevertheless, you seem to be saying that if people misinterpret Dawkins and then condemn him on the basis of that misinterpretation, that’s his fault.”

    If he facilitates that misinterpretation, damn straight it is.

    Ebonmuse: “Trying to foreclose all possibility of that would only result in watering down our argument until it is empty and meaningless, and it seems to me that this is exactly what you’re advocating…. But perhaps you’ll say I’m being unfair, that I’m not portraying your argument honestly. Fine, then; let’s hear what you’re actually advocating.”

    Take a look at Hemant Mehta, Julia Sweeney, or Greta Christina. All of them are blunt about their disbelief and the incorrectness of believing in God, but they don’t act like they think believers are imbeciles or have horns on their heads or are generally lunatic. They also make an honest go at trying to understand what believers are saying. That’s the number #1 thing I want to see. Number #2 is to make your arguments as bullet-resistant as possible. Imagine having your arguments judged by a jury of the brighter IIDB regulars, like Chris Weimer and Amaleq13 for example, before being unleashed on a wider world. This is especially important for books, where expectations are higher and there is less opportunity for correction. Number #3 is to make clear that evolution doesn’t equal atheism. Yes, that is obvious to you, but not to most Christians. Yes, that is a narrow issue, but we’re stuck with dealing with it. Make it clear that there are other considerations besides just evolution that lead one to atheism.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “But what we are saying is that all religious people, to some extent or another, partake of and perpetuate these problems.”

    But not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins, etc., and “faith-head” is used to imply those things. You may like to think that “faith-head” has a more nuanced meaning than that, but that is not what is being communicated. Epithets are blunt instruments, and a vague insult like “faith-head” is especially ham-fisted.

    Ebonmuse: “Richard Dawkins does not say that raising a child in any religion is the equivalent of child abuse. What he actually says is that teaching children about Hell as a place of eternal torture, as well as other beliefs that cause great and lasting emotional suffering, should be viewed as the moral equivalent of abuse.”

    Funny thing, then, that he mentions the issue in the chapter “Childhood, Abuse, and Religion,” and after priming the reader by discussing earlier in the chapter what he more explicitly labeled as examples of child abuse. The best that can be said is that he only accidentally implied that he was talking about abuse via the surrounding context, which gets us right back to the problem of Dawkins’ behavior feeding the myths.

    Ebonmuse: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you arguing that if our opponents perceive our position as too extreme, then that is in fact evidence that we are too extreme?”

    No, it is evidence that you are not getting through to your opponents. You are well aware that you are trying to get a message across through media that distorts it. Yet instead of trying to take this into account, you make it easy for you to be interpreted in a negative light, as if all your problems could be solved simply by shouting loud enough.

    Ebonmuse: “Nevertheless, you seem to be saying that if people misinterpret Dawkins and then condemn him on the basis of that misinterpretation, that’s his fault.”

    If he facilitates that misinterpretation, damn straight it is.

    Ebonmuse: “Trying to foreclose all possibility of that would only result in watering down our argument until it is empty and meaningless, and it seems to me that this is exactly what you’re advocating…. But perhaps you’ll say I’m being unfair, that I’m not portraying your argument honestly. Fine, then; let’s hear what you’re actually advocating.”

    Take a look at Hemant Mehta, Julia Sweeney, or Greta Christina. All of them are blunt about their disbelief and the incorrectness of believing in God, but they don’t act like they think believers are imbeciles or have horns on their heads or are generally lunatic. They also make an honest go at trying to understand what believers are saying. That’s the number #1 thing I want to see. Number #2 is to make your arguments as bullet-resistant as possible. Imagine having your arguments judged by a jury of the brighter IIDB regulars, like Chris Weimer and Amaleq13 for example, before being unleashed on a wider world. This is especially important for books, where expectations are higher and there is less opportunity for correction. Number #3 is to make clear that evolution doesn’t equal atheism. Yes, that is obvious to you, but not to most Christians. Yes, that is a narrow issue, but we’re stuck with dealing with it. Make it clear that there are other considerations besides just evolution that lead one to atheism.

  • Harvard

    Dear JJ

    You said, “But not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins…”
    What should one call someone who believes superstitious nonsense? What does one call a person who talks to and kneels before a nonexistent specter?
    .
    .

  • Harvard

    Dear JJ

    You said, “But not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins…”
    What should one call someone who believes superstitious nonsense? What does one call a person who talks to and kneels before a nonexistent specter?
    .
    .

  • James Bradbury

    Harvard,

    Yes logically if our position is true you can call them that with some accuracy. But that’s not the point.

    While it may be tempting, insulting theists has a profoundly negative effect. If you actually want to convince theists to listen to the atheist position (and I do) then insults, whether intentional or perceived can only prevent that.

    How do you feel, for example when someone declares that “Atheism is a ridiculous idea, I can’t believe atheists are serious about it!”? I would certainly get me irked. This effect may be even more extreme with beliefs that have been cherished since childhood rather than reasoned and debated towards over some time.

    Simply challenging a person’s beliefs is going to get their back up straight away. That part, as Ebonmuse says, is just tough, but the insulting part we have some control over. If they also think you are laughing at them or deriding them then what you get is a negative emotional reaction, not careful consideration of your arguments.

    In my experience people make bad decisions when they are in an emotional state and some marketing campaigns (and religious conversion tactics) rely on this. I am consequently deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to get an emotional reaction out of me. Emotions might help you escape from danger or fight off a predator, but they are the enemy of rational thought.

    I believe that the arguments for atheism are convincing, that’s not the problem. The problem is getting theists to listen. I am happy to go to great lengths in the way I present my arguments if I think it will help a theist to consider it calmly and seriously.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Harvard: “What should one call someone who believes superstitious nonsense?”

    How about incorrect or mistaken? When even smart people can believe wrong things, calling someone a moron for an incorrect opinion is pretty ridiculous, especially when circumstances make falling into error so easy, such as the ubiquity of religion, our brains’ tendency to see false patterns, etc.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Harvard: “What should one call someone who believes superstitious nonsense?”

    How about incorrect or mistaken? When even smart people can believe wrong things, calling someone a moron for an incorrect opinion is pretty ridiculous, especially when circumstances make falling into error so easy, such as the ubiquity of religion, our brains’ tendency to see false patterns, etc.

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

    When even smart people can believe wrong things, calling someone a moron for an incorrect opinion is pretty ridiculous…

    I agree with that. And if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris went around calling theists morons or lunatics or imbeciles, then I’d certainly condemn them for it. But as far as I’m aware, they don’t. I’ve read both their books and I’ve never noticed any language like that. Note that I did suggest in my review that The God Delusion was an overly pejorative title; but even that falls far short of what you’ve accused them of. (It is still criticism of a belief, not of the character of the believer.) You say that “not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins” – as if any prominent atheist has ever suggested otherwise.

    What Dawkins and Harris do is speak their minds without apology and criticize irrational beliefs forthrightly where they have cause to, and they pull no punches for the sake of sparing believers’ feelings. This is often confused with personal attacks by thin-skinned people, but there is a clear line, and I do not think they have crossed it. What they have done is to strongly, and rightly, challenge the pernicious meme that religious opinions are above criticism. Such an effort is bound to provoke much sputtering indignation, especially in its initial stages, from people who aren’t used to having their sacred cows skewered. But it’s still a valuable thing that needs to be done, and we will all be better off for their having done it.

  • Harvard

    Dear James and JJ

    Thank you so much for your reasoned reply.
    Yes, I know many people who close their eyes, kneel, and pray to a – what? – I suppose it’s an idea. It makes no sense to me. It seems a waste of time. And, of course, they are not morons. Yes, they are incorrect and mistaken.
    And the many millions of pages of literature debating this miracle or that angel, or what-have-you … what a monumental waste of time, paper, and energy. It’s breathtaking, what fools these mortals be. Sorry, I mean mistaken.
    .
    .

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “You say that “not all religious people are stupid or mad or cretins” – as if any prominent atheist has ever suggested otherwise.”

    I disagree. They have suggested otherwise. It tends to be in subtle ways, such as the use of epithets like “faith-head” or the more explicit “Christard” used by Penn Jillette, or by thinly-veiled Nazi allusions, or by the sheer laziness of their investigations even when they could do much better, as if theists weren’t worth the trouble. It is as if they know in their heads that believers aren’t cretins, but they haven’t internalized it. They’ll pay the usual lip service that they don’t believe theists are stupid, etc., but they don’t act that way, and people pick up on that. Obviously, a big part of the reaction to Dawkins has to do with sacred cows as well, but that is far from the whole picture, especially when the criticism comes from more than just the usual suspects.

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

    …or the more explicit “Christard” used by Penn Jillette.

    Now all of a sudden, Penn Jillette is brought into this, despite him not having written any books on atheism or otherwise acting as a spokesperson for atheism? Why? I can only assume it’s because Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other atheists you’ve been attacking for the past few days haven’t actually used any of the insulting language you’ve repeatedly accused them of using, which is just what I said. Facts can be such inconvenient things. (For the record, “Christard” is indeed an example of an unjustifiable personal attack, and I think Jillette was completely in the wrong to say it.)

    They’ll pay the usual lip service that they don’t believe theists are stupid, etc., but they don’t act that way, and people pick up on that.

    In other words, “Don’t pay attention to what they say – I know what they really think!” That is the foundation your case is built on? The claim to be a mind-reader?

    I continue to be amazed by the lengths to which you’re straining to find something that paints Dawkins and Harris in a bad light. Now you’re arguing that you believe they didn’t make their case as strongly as they could have, and because of that you think they were deliberately being lazy, and because of that you assume that they hold theists in contempt and don’t care to spend the effort on them. That is an astonishing chain of thinly stretched assumptions and opinions to base your case on.

    It seems to me that you bear some personal animus against Richard Dawkins that is coloring all your views of him and leading you to always assume bad faith about everything he says or does. In this, I note, you are distinctly similar to the religious apologists who do the same thing.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: “Penn Jillette is brought into this, despite him not having written any books on atheism or otherwise acting as a spokesperson for atheism”

    It isn’t as if he hasn’t put in more than his two cents on atheism. He’s not the most visible advocate, but he is a contributor to Parenting Beyond Belief, and he complained that his gibe about Christards was edited. Not to mention his Bullsh!t episode on the Bible.

    Ebonmuse: “I can only assume it’s because Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other atheists you’ve been attacking for the past few days haven’t actually used any of the insulting language you’ve repeatedly accused them of using, which is just what I said.”

    Ahem, you forgot about “faith-head”. Oh, and the Nazi stuff. Heck, I could add the Peter Kay to-do to the list. Dawkins was very clear that someone tricked him into delivering a sound bite, and was clear that he didn’t know that he was responding to an excerpt from Peter Kay’s book, but he never denied actually saying “How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it ‘comforting’?” and admitted that he gave his “usual response” to the sentiment he was fed. Of course, the answer to his rhetorical question is obvious: You can take someone seriously in spite of having the flaw of credo consolans. If he wasn’t in the habit of being contemptuous of “faith-heads,” he wouldn’t have been tricked.

    Ebonmuse: “In other words, ‘Don’t pay attention to what they say – I know what they really think!’”

    Um, no. You know very well that people will disavow things that they really do believe and that they often let slip what they believe by actions and more indirect indications. I’m not going to take the claim “I’m no bigot” seriously when it comes from someone who casually refers to black men as “Boy.” I’m not going to take a guy seriously if he says he doesn’t hold theists in contempt when I see him casually refer to theists as “faith-heads” and make other gibes. It is certainly manifest that Dawkins did deliver a book that was well beneath what a man of his intelligence could offer. At some point, the case for contempt becomes cumulative, and that is not a matter of “personal animus.”

  • http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/ Russell Blackford

    I’ll buy out of yet another dispute with JJ for now. I do often wonder what is in JJ’s mind with all this quote-mining of Dawkins that I see from him on numerous sites, but that can be taken up later.

    Instead, I wonder how optimistic we should really be about the prospect of any sort of atheist/sceptical constituency in the US electorate. It would be interesting to see some finer-grained research that might give a clue as to how many of those non-believing Americans are just apathetic about religion – perhaps unimpressed by it, but not necessarily in any way that could drive them to support specific legislative reforms.

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

    It isn’t as if he hasn’t put in more than his two cents on atheism.

    On the other hand, he was never mentioned in this thread until I pointed out that Dawkins, Harris and others don’t use the kind of personal insults you were accusing them of, at which point you suddenly brought him up and then attempted to tar all prominent atheists with the same brush, despite none of them making or supporting such remarks themselves.

    Ahem, you forgot about “faith-head”. Oh, and the Nazi stuff.

    No, I didn’t forget about either of those things. They were both addressed at length earlier in this thread, wherein I showed that neither of them indicates anything at all like what you claim it does.

    Dawkins… never denied actually saying “How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it ‘comforting’?

    Good. He shouldn’t deny that; it’s a perfectly rational and defensible sentiment and I feel exactly the same way. We should not take beliefs seriously if they’re believed in purely because a person finds them comforting, and we should not take people seriously if they customarily form their beliefs on that basis. Again, this is not an ad hominem attack, but a valid criticism of the fallacious nature of much religious faith. Many believers can’t tell the difference, and apparently you can’t either, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

    You know very well that people will disavow things that they really do believe and that they often let slip what they believe by actions and more indirect indications.

    And you have supplied no examples of such “actions”, and your “indirect indications” consist of nothing but long chains of dubious assumptions about people’s secret motivations. Neither of these offer anything remotely like support for the sweeping accusations you’ve put forward.

    Since we’re now revisiting earlier topics, I think it’s safe to say this thread is played out.


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