In Defense of Anger

A few weeks ago, I posted a guest blog written by Karla McLaren on how incorporating more dialectics will benefit the atheist movement, which at present is largely guided, shaped and moderated by polemical rhetoric. Her post stirred up a lot of disagreement here and at other blogs. Similarly, the next guest blog I posted, a reflection by Christopher Michael Luna, sparked additional disagreements and accusations that McLaren, Luna, I (and many who affiliate with us) don’t have the best interests of the atheist movement in mind.

This isn’t the first time that posts on NonProphet Status have inflamed such controversy, and I admire that McLaren and Luna initially attempted to engage every commenter — something I rarely have time for, though I long to do — but eventually the dialogue broke down.

Now, a few weeks later, I’ll take this opportunity to make some clarifications:

I’ve always assumed that people (especially folks from the atheist movement, which trumpets freethought and individual responsibility) would instinctually understand that I don’t agree with every single word composed by the guest bloggers I host on NonProphet Status. However, I think assuming that may have been unfair on my part. It is clear to me now that this explicit sidebar statement is necessary: “The views expressed by NonProphet Status guest bloggers may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Chris Stedman or any of the organizations he affiliates with.”

That said, even when I am not in full agreement with a guest blogger, I believe in lifting up diverse (non-polemical) perspectives around issues of atheism and interfaith engagement. If I think a post has something worthwhile to say, and that it might prompt an important conversation, I am keen to share it.

My ask? That commenters here strive to see posts for what they are; that they make every attempt to assume that the author has the best of intentions and go about raising their disagreements in a way that is civil and demonstrates a genuine desire to get at the heart of the truth. I will no longer permit comments that unreasonably attack anyone; this is not a forum for that. If you relish in tearing people down, there are plenty of other places on the internet for that (I can think of several off the top of my head). I won’t tolerate it here because that is not what this site is here for; if you engage in inappropriate personal attacks, you run the risk of having your comment removed. I don’t wish to silence different perspectives, but having a bottom line isn’t unreasonable.

In short: Work to be agreeable in your disagreements. (And yes, I’m from Minnesota, ha.)

[Note: I'm not going to go down the path of defending the more personal criticisms directed at me -- I have no interest in humoring the accusations that I might not actually be an atheist, or that I don't have the best of intentions concerning the atheist movement, for which I've sacrificed an incalculable amount of time, money, and energy. There's really no reasoning with such baseless criticism.]

With all of that said, I’d like to share a very engaging response by McLaren to her piece from a couple weeks ago and the reaction it elicited. I thought it only fair to give her the opportunity to elaborate on what she meant in the same forum her first piece was posted. Please read it — it’s well worth your time — and, if you feel so inclined, respond in a manner befitting her measured and thoughtful tone.

dogSo here’s the new situation, in case you missed it. I wrote a guest post for NonProphet Status about anger and incivility in New Atheism that, to put it mildly, blew up.

My ideas were unfortunately (perhaps inevitably) misconstrued, and it seemed as if I was saying that anger itself is neither appropriate nor acceptable. I wasn’t saying that, but that’s what some people heard. And from my reading of many of the responses, it would seem my request for civility was seen as not only unfair, but as toxic, stifling, and equivalent to censorship. This response seemed very strange to me, because civility doesn’t indicate the absence of anger, just as courage doesn’t indicate the absence of fear[i].

Stranger still was this demand (though I’ve seen it leveled at others): If I did not point out specific instances of uncivil, polemical behaviors, then my argument was deemed moot. At first, I thought, “They’re kidding, right? This behavior is everywhere in atheism.” It seemed to be a time-wasting diversionary ploy. But then I wondered, “Could this question be sincere?”

If it is sincere, let me explain: I deliberately chose to write about these uncivil behaviors as trends within the movement, rather than making examples of specific people[ii]. No one had directly offended against me, so why should I offend against anyone else? Instead, I used my own anger to write about attitudes, behaviors, and discourse styles … but not about specific people, because that’s not civil. There are ways to use anger that are non-polemical, non-directed, and most importantly, non-oppressive.

But the anger that was returned in many of the comments (and in retort posts on other sites) was none of these things. A subset of the anger I witnessed contained no respect, no boundaries, and no rules. It was an anger that involved direct slander against me, personal attacks against Chris Stedman (for daring to give me a public forum), and repetitive attempts to silence me, dehumanize me, and control my intellectual output and my voice. Though I was saddened to see this unwarranted behavior played out like a game, like a nightmare romp of the id, I had seen it before. It’s nothing new. In fact, it is the precise behavior I objected to in my post.

I thought about lifting snippets of the offending comments into this post so that we could all understand exactly what I mean by slander, by dehumanization, by abuse, and by silencing and control tactics, but there are three problems with this idea.

First: Making examples of offending individuals can only seem paternalistic or schoolmarmish – and though important learning may occur for onlookers, it is an offense against the enraged person. What I notice about continually enraged people is that they feel they are under attack; intentionally intensifying that feeling is inhumane.

Second: If people have become so destabilized by the mere words of another, it is probably best to let them cool down and reflect privately. Inflaming the further anger of people who have shown that they can’t manage the anger they already have … that’s just cruel and baiting. It’s a sick-fun way to score points at the expense of all humanity, but humanity has been through a lot recently; it’s preferable to use anger without abusing or humiliating people.

Third: Getting specific about a behavior that is generalized will take our eyes off the prize. We’ll waste time arguing about whether specific attacks are ad hominem, straw man, or poisoning the well; whether we’re making epistemological or rhetorical blunders; or whether Hegel ruined the entire concept of the dialectic. Those are interesting intellectual diversions, but it’s time to put mere intellectualism aside and talk seriously about the future of the movement and why this abusive behavior threatens it.

metaphorFor me as an agnostic atheist, the future of the movement is an eventual acceptance of secularism as a moral, ethical, and viable alternative (not necessarily a replacement; I’m a realist) to religion, to faith communities, and to faith-based community service and social justice initiatives. This is a five, ten, or twenty year plan that requires long-range strategizing. Here’s the trouble: the abusive and dehumanizing behaviors that are becoming commonplace in sectors of atheism threaten that plan – or any plan. These troubling behaviors are not long-range strategies; they’re not reasoned analyses of differing approaches; they’re reactionary shrapnel bombs, and they’re making our secular community look like a vitriolic mob.

But this is not our special disability. We see this same sort of abusive discourse in many areas of public (and especially political) life, and certainly throughout the internet, where trolls, flaming, and thread fights are a fact of life. However, there’s a noteworthy difference within the atheist (and skeptical) communities, because this abuse is quickly becoming a protected behavior.

Many approaches (except the compassionate ones)

In this past year, a sociologically fascinating “many approaches” meme[iii] has permeated the atheist and skeptical movements. Increasingly, anyone who questions the fiercely uncivil and polemical discourse style will be upbraided with some version of the “many approaches are necessary, so don’t muzzle the movement[iv]” meme.

In this meme, however, fierce approaches are actually the only approaches being protected. Moderating approaches such as mine, which are pejoratively dismissed as accommodationist, are explicitly not protected by this meme.

This “many approaches” meme isn’t just being used laterally to shame and stifle peers in comment threads; it is also being used from the top down by elders and authority figures to silence the moderating requests of fellow atheists and skeptics. Wow. That’s a powerful meme!

But it’s not that powerful. I’m now renaming it the “many approaches except yours” meme, and I’m opposing it resolutely. Abuse, slander, and dehumanization are not valid approaches to anything; they’re not even polemics. They’re abuse, and they should not be tolerated in any movement anywhere, ever – and especially not in a movement that trumpets its capacity for critical thinking.

We secularists are a vanishingly tiny, highly stigmatized minority attempting improbable feats against impossible odds. Tearing into moderating voices and creating false dichotomies about accommodationism[v] and confrontationalism – it’s preposterous. We need our anger, but we need to learn to use it in ways that work. We also need to learn that anger is just one of dozens of emotions, each with its own purpose and use.

sisyphusI am often angered, shocked, and aggrieved by the abuses that are endemic to religion and supernaturalism. However, I am also bemused, interested in, and often fascinated by the people who believe in them – and by the comforts they find there. Religion and supernaturalism are the only support structures that exist for a heartbreakingly large portion of humanity; therefore, I cannot condone the idea that the abuses within religion and supernaturalism make retaliatory counter-abuses compulsory.

Religion and supernaturalism are deeply problematic, yet it’s clear that a mere lack of religion doesn’t necessarily ennoble or improve people – because improvement requires sincere self-reflection, healthy community, ethical and moral guidelines, emotional and intellectual proficiency, meaningful communication, and plain old love.

If our movement is to improve and become viable, then we must undertake the serious work that improvement requires. We must also invite community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, intentional non-polemicists, interfaith visionaries, and courageous communicators to use their versions of anger – moderated by sadness, grief, hope, fear, and love – to build a welcoming and inclusive community for current and future refugees from religion and supernaturalism.

Just so we’re clear, these current refugees include you and me. I want to speak with you, my fellow seeker of justice and reason, no matter how angry you are; no matter how horrified you are; and no matter how much your grief threatens to crush you … but we can’t communicate, and we can’t get anywhere together if you let your necessary emotions erase your compassion, your reason, and your honor.

So go ahead and state your objections, your hopes, your fears, and your angers, and let’s build a movement that can replace religion and supernaturalism – not because we can shout louder than anyone else – but because our movement is civil, ethical, noble, intellectually gifted, and emotionally awesome.

karlaKarla McLaren ended her New Age healing career in 2003 to study the social sciences and the ways that social forces shape behavior. Her most recent titles are the book The Language of Emotions (2010), and the sociological study “Inside and Outcast” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2010), co-authored with cult expert Janja Lalich.

[i] Why do we require civility? Because it helps us moderate our anger so we don’t behave in abusive and destructive ways. Why do we require courage? Because it helps us face things that terrify us. Civility requires anger; courage requires fear.

[ii] Actually, I specifically chose to use the authors Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett (The Four Horsemen of Atheism) as exemplars, because they’re public polemicists (yes, I know that all four men have moved on in their work and in their approaches, but I am focusing upon very specific behaviors that their early polemics encouraged). I chose The Four because I knew they could take a punch and not be hurt (or even take any notice). I’m nothing to them, and I used them because I knew that my anger could not hurt them.

[iii] A meme is an often-repeated, fast-moving, and quickly adopted slogan or idea. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins as a way to conceptualize the transmission (and success) of ideas in much the same way successful genes are transmitted through evolution. Note that a successful gene (such as one that transmits hereditary hemophilia, for instance) or meme (“death panels” comes to mind) is not necessarily a beneficial one.

[iv] This meme has intensified exponentially since July 2010, when astronomer Phil Plait challenged uncivil skeptical outreach in his now-famous DBAD speech.

[v] Synonyms for accommodate: harmonize, assist, shelter, comfort, conciliate, correspond, oblige, moderate, have room for, hold without crowding…

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About Chris Stedman
  • DoctorAtlantis

    I think it is tone, in the end, that will dictate whether this generation of secularists are remembered as bombastic hooligans or intellectual activists. Perhaps if there were more measurable milestones of advancement and more actual leadership suggesting achievable goals, then the angst and frustration of those folks first coming into the realization of their new secular world view would have constructive outlets for their energies more useful than antagonizing those who seek to plant seeds in the forest of ideas without first burning down what’s already standing.

    That was a long sentence but hopefully it made sense.

  • Ramji

    Excellent comment, Doc.

    I understand some of the frustration that triggers the angry attitude. I’m guilty of it myself.

    As a former believer I strive to be more understanding. I really hate perpetuating the ‘angry atheist’ stereotype. It makes so many theists think we are “mad at God” for some reason or other.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Karla’s original post was GREAT! The “eventual acceptance of secularism” is PLENTY for me. I’m not an “atheist evangelist,” and a PZ Myers, who has explicitly said he wants to form “cadres,” does NOT speak for me.

    That said, if you look at PZ’s blog, it appears that with his Pharyngulacs, his version of “dittoheads,” he’s been too successful, IMO.

    Oh, and I reject the label “accommodationist,” too. If something needs to be confronted, I’ll do so.

    Per Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under heaven.”

  • Hitch

    I’m disappointed. The criticism I read is not the one that is responded to here. The problem is that so-called new atheists are not uncivil. They are civil but frank. But being frank is framed as uncivil so people can be dismissed rather than address their points.

    That is the problem. And by harping on about how uncivil people are, we actually reinforce the negative stereotype that is sought for outspoken atheism. And that is the problem and the source of the criticism.

    The idea that new atheists are against compassion is silly and offensive to be honest.

    But yes, that too isn’t new. People who actually do want atheists to be less outspoken keep using that meme that being honest is not compassionate, being critical is to try to offend, asserting ones world view, is to stereotype others.

    And the sad reality is that atheists are some of the best in stereotyping themselves. And that perhaps swings in many ways, but this article is not helping, it in fact makes it worse.

    The idea that what Chris Stedman does is non-polemical is of course silly. There is plenty of polemics to be had. Especially around DMD day trying to dissuade people by promoting shaming and blaming rhetoric and be elevating negative branding such as comparisons to nazis.

    But ultimately it is about image. And if one can paint those over there as uncivil and polemical, we can sit here, accuse them of stuff while pretending that one is non-polemical and civil.

    Yes controversy is indeed nothing new around here, but the reasons are quite simple. Don’t talk stereotypically about your fellow atheist. It’s that simple.

  • Karla McLaren

    Hi Hitch, if new atheists are totally for compassion, then we’ve got no arguments; it’s just paperwork from here on out. I want atheists to speak out, to be honest, and to utilize their critical faculties in order to reduce the toxic effects of religion and supernaturalism — for individuals and in our collective political lives — if they can.

    But what we’re focusing on here is the totally uncivil behavior we all witnessed when the comments to the last post went totally off the rails, and which I am frankly calling out. And speaking out about, and being critical about — all of which are behaviors you champion.

    Are you suggesting that I am forbidden to speak out and utilize my critical thinking skills when the behaviors of a subset of deeply abusive atheists threatens to turn the movement into a kind of online WWF theater of the absurd?

    I’m asking this honestly, and I want to hear your answer. You’re worth the time it takes to get this right. You’re worth the energy it takes to get to the heart of this deeply troubling situation.

  • Bose


    There is a difference between debate and personal attacks. There is a difference between educating with facts and preaching raw untamed emotion. There is a difference between earning respect and kicking and screaming until you get it (all you will get with this technique, by the way, is a headache). There is a difference between progressing a movement as a group of civilized adults and turning it into a large scale flame war. I feel it is worth repeating that the only argument for creation of life that uses rational thinking should be argued rationally.

    The majority of The United States is afraid of Atheists. I see Atheists ask the “why” question to that on a regular basis, but I see Atheist extremists add to the religious smear campaign on a daily basis. No wonder Atheists get a bad name, huh?

    Leave the Bill Maher style of campaigning for the cause to the professionals. If you didn’t see what happened when “The Situation” tried to roast Donald Trump on Comedy Central, I would suggest looking it up. It is a simple example, but I feel it illustrates the point effectively.

    Disrespect breeds disrespect, ignorance breeds ignorance, hate breeds hate, name calling and personal attacks just don’t work. You are taking an angle in replying to the above post which only goes to reinforce it’s validity. Never was not being outspoken mentioned. I would ask you to read through the poster’s words carefully, with any prejudices aside and more than once, before responding to additional replies.

    Not only does my opinion happen to agree with the poster’s, but I have felt it needs to be expressed much more often to spark debate. Maybe my opinion is wrong? Maybe there is a better way to move against the power organized religion holds over people? If so, I would ask to be educated in an adult fashion so I may change my view and won’t just stop listening to crazy people rant and rave. Sound familiar?

  • Hitch

    @Karla, let me try to address what you say step by step. (a) which “new atheists” in your view lack compassion and what is the evidence for it? If it is not founded on their actual position or some direct quote do you understand why I have an issue if people are claimed to have no compassion without so much as a proper representation of their position? (b) Can you quote how the most prominent new atheists, say Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett are uncivil? If you cannot or they are rare specific occurances and they are actually generally civil and courteous, how is it justified to claim they are not civil? (c) who is that ‘subgroup’ you are calling out? If you don’t specify who you mean you give those who want the whole group or just people they dislike to fall into the subgroup leverage, and you actually may implicate people who don’t deserve it. (d) Do you understand where people come from who criticize both your articles here? Do you understand how there is a constant campaign that tries to paint outspoken atheism as uncivil? Do you understand that this causes substantial trouble for those who do speak out, creates closeted atheism and so forth? (e) I nowhere suggested that you cannot speak, but I do suggest that you speak in a way that stigmatizes and stereotypes people and yes I do ask you to listen and reconsider your presentation given that these are major issues for atheists (40% distrust level in the US no less).(f) I don’t see internet trolls turning atheism into anything. Why do we accept that the nastiest elements define us when we wouldn’t accept that for other groups? That is what negative stereotyping means. All atheists are nasty because a rare few are. Same happens to people of color, women, LGBTA. We have to resist those trends not reinforce them.

    I appreciate that you do want to consider the criticism.

    @Bose: I for all approaches, I do oppose the stereotyping that goes on, and yes, I especially oppose it if atheists help reinforce the stereotype. We should know better. What is disrespect? Is it disrespectful to say that Muhammad was mortal? Or is it disrespectful to get a death sentence in response? I am all for calling people out who act in ways that are harmful, but I am against the attempt to brand people negatively to not speak about uncomfortable topics.

    Let me ask this: What do you do to counter the smear campaign you mention? Conceding to it will not work. So if you do not get smeared, how about speaking about it.

    Here is a challenge: Quote me all that you think is disrespectful in any of the new atheists books. We can weigh that against all the stuff that is respectful. Then I ask you, why you attack that little piece (if it even exists!) and not help promote the legitimate points that are being made?

    Why do we not help each other communicate? Rather than nit-picking and finger-pointing? So you know a better way to make a point? Make it. And if someone is mischaracterized, how about saying, “No, Dawkins actually never said this and that.” rather than telling theists that they are right in seeing atheists are extremists (when really, they are not).

  • timberwraith

    Karla, I think that both this article and the previous one were really great. Thanks for a breath of fresh air in a movement that’s beginning to grow stale and rank. I’ve grown really tired of the ever-present negativity that I’ve seen during my past year of exploring atheist blogs. It has been really disheartening. I say that as someone who has identified as an agnostic/atheist for going on twenty years.

    Ironically, I’ve been finding myself visiting liberal religious blogs far more regularly than atheist blogs, because I’ve found that I share far more values, ethics, and worldviews in common with progressive believers than I do with many atheists.

    Chris, thanks for providing a space for alternative atheist/agnostic voices to make themselves heard. I don’t always agree with you or your guests, but I find the general direction of this blog to be very humane and forward thinking.

    Kudos and keep up the great work!.

  • Heidi Anderson

    I find it is often not the famous writers of the New Atheists that are so bad, it is the people who THINK they are emulating them with asshole behavior who are the problem.

    They do not understand that the reason George Carlin could say things is because he is GEORGE FREAKING CARLIN! Same with Hitchens and Dawkins.

    It takes a long time to build the talent and balance that many famous atheist writers display. You can’t get it just by reading their books and watching youtube.

  • Hitch

    Heidi, I think it’d be nice to actually point at what is uncivil and debate it’s merit than create another new blanket. But the problem remains people understand by “new atheism” exactly the outspoken atheism that emerged the last decade.

    And there is an attempt to link it to uncivility, aggression, extremism, militancy, intolerance, totalitarianism and so forth.

    Now I think it’d be at least prudent to be clear about ones criticism and avoid tacitly supporting the intentionally smearing attempts of atheism that is part of this.

    And yes there are plenty of people who think Carlin is not civil. Who gets to be the judge?

  • Stephen Goeman

    “I find it is often not the famous writers of the New Atheists that are so bad, it is the people who THINK they are emulating them with asshole behavior who are the problem.”

    Heidi gets it exactly. When challenged to demonstrate how the Horsemen are uncivil, little to no convincing evidence is produced. However, I could fill a book with examples of individual atheists being uncivil bad atheists. This is a better target than the prominent figures, and a meaningful one– atheism isn’t owned by Dawkins, Harris, or Maher. It’s owned by all of us, and if our co-identifiers are sullying its name we should be quick to address it. Would doing so reinforce the stereotype of atheist indecency? Irrelevant. If it can be shown that this is a problem, it will logically follow that it needs to be addressed. If a blogger gets around to documenting evidence of atheist dickery, this concern will have to dissolve. Perhaps then there will be a driving force behind the recent articles here at NPS (wink wink hint hint! :) ).

    So– nice try for a follow-up, but this issue isn’t resolved yet (Darn! And I thought the problem of confrontation vs accommodation would be solved in a guest post on a hipster’s blog… :P )

  • timberwriath

    This quote by Dawkins illustrates the kind of attitude that I see in the current incarnation of atheism that really tries my patience:

    Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

    You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it.

    (Quote found via Gurdur’s blog, Stranger In An Even Stranger Land)

  • timberwriath

    I’ve been trying to post the previous comment for a couple of days now (shortly after I made my first comment, actually), but I think that the embedded links I had in the original comment has been causing it to be lost in either the moderation queue or the spam queue. I’ll try to put a link in the next comment.

  • timberwriath

    This is the link to the Dawkins quote:


    This is the link to Gurdur’s blog, if y’all are interested:


  • timberwriath

    OK, I was finally able to post those links after many failed attempts. Please remember to remove the parentheses and replace the exclamation points (!) with forward slashes (/).

    Chris, I’m not sure what is going on, but your blog is not allowing any comment with URLs or hyperlinks to post. Could you look into remedying this? It’s a bit of a hindrance when commenting.

  • Karla McLaren

    Sorry I haven’t responded; I was on a terrible laptop connection with 1970′s dial-up, and I didn’t want to piss anyone off! I mean, anymore than I do by requesting civility. Hah!

    Hitch, thanks for your response. I think that your focus is to show us how polemical atheist outreach is valid, and how my and others’ requests to tone down the attack language is seen as stifling. I see that.

    And I like what Heidi says about the Four Horsemen; I agree. These men did the work to earn their place as voices of outrage, while on the other side, religions have long done the work to earn their place as targets of that outrage. Oh yes they have!

    I have no problem with people, for instance, saying that the Catholic Church must answer for its sacred tradition of supporting and protecting child molesters. I have no problem with people questioning whether any denomination can be considered holy if it promotes homophobia, racism, or misogyny. Absolutely, we must oppose institutions that promote brutality and ignorance.

    My question, however, is how to best go about mounting that opposition. I assert that free-range atheists attacking religious people is not the best way, and that it actually backfires horribly.

    Timberwraith’s Dawkins quote (thanks for posting it even though the blog architecture thwarted you!) is but one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar quotes that essentially say this:

    “Believers are not right-thinking people. They can’t possibly be serious if they believe X. They can’t possibly be caring or worthy human beings, because clearly, their belief in X is incontrovertible proof of their unworthiness. They are irredeemable.”

    So before we move any further, I want to know this: Is this latter position, this Dawkins- supported position, one that you would champion? Is the right to attack these irredeemables a freedom you demand?

  • PZ Myers

    That is a perfect example of the typical mischaracterization of New Atheists. We despise bad ideas, and we do not hesitate to call people out on that, but then you play this dishonest game of claiming we say religious people “can’t possibly be caring or worthy human beings.” Total nonsense. And exactly why I find your approach worthless — you rely on vagueness and lies.

    You, too, favor the polemical approach…only you like to pretend you’re being nice. Which reminds me — look up the phrase “Minnesota nice”. It’s practiced as a high art here.

  • Bose

    While I may question the use of a few of Dawkins’ words, I completely agree with the statement in general. I feel there is no amount of irrefutable evidence that would change the way of thinking of certain intensely religious people. Now, if i didn’t agree with the statement, I would take more issue with the words. I always try to look at the big picture and in doing so, I see that there certainly is a part of the population who will have a “Light bulb in the thought bubble” moment when reading Dawkins for the first time. There is also a part, who in reading Dawkins, would be put off by him, but not enough to stop the search for answers and the truth. Lastly, I see a part of the nation who would be so threatened and angered by hearing his words (these people would never take the time to read one of his books) that they will retreat further into their shells, corrupt their children’s minds more, have more hateful speeches from their pulpits about non-believers, spread more fear about the idea of hell, work harder to ensure that our lawmakers have a religious agenda, etc, etc. These people do this anyway, but no sense in adding fuel to the fire.

    I personally feel that Dawkins (although he is one of the patient men I have ever seen), Hitchens, Maher, Carlin, and so on build such powerful weapons with their thoughts and words that many people are not capable of wielding them effectively. These “giants” have a well respected body of work witch legitimizes them and allows them to get away with more, but where is the limit? I agree with the idea that religion is treated with too much respect and should be handled more like we would debate a business or political practice, but we are not fully there yet.

    I feel that being respectful to individuals is almost always a better way to go (murderers, rapists, etc deserve no respect in my opinion). The “high road” is usually the better road to take. We shouldn’t be viewed as trying to throw the baby (the individual) out with the bathwater (the set of beliefs forced on him or her).

    Heresy and Blasphemy are ugly words created by religions to control their mindless flock of sheep. We need to be careful to not equate disagreeing with an Atheist’s behavior, set of morals, etc to one of these words. I feel that in disagreeing with anything one of The Horsemen says or does is seen as heresy to many. That is a scary thought.

    Having said that, I feel the real problem lies not with the celebrities, but with a large part of regular Atheists who make personal attacks instead of legitimate points, convey emotion over thought. I feel it is just as important to speak out over this type of behavior than to debate a person’s religious views. If all religions were gone tomorrow, we would still be left with a bunch of jackasses in this world. Just because someone shares my same view of religion does not put them “thoughtful thinker” category.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    I’m sorry, but the claim that the New Atheists tolerate “Many approaches (except the compassionate ones)” is just silly. I am a New Atheist who works directly with Chris Stedman, the king of the Faitheists, in our work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. We tolerate and welcome a diversity of opinions, including “The New Humanism” and “New Atheism.” I appreciate your desire to bring a positive light to bear on the problem, but your classification of the four horsemen’s very reasonable criticisms of religion as “polemical” is both uncharitable to their earlier works and just plain false about their current work. You even acknowledge as much in your endnotes, saying that you choose to focus on their earlier work where this problem was more prevalent. My suggestion? They’ve moved on, so should you. Stop erroneously beating a dead horse.

    Can you also say more about your previous career in faith healing? I’m curious if you’ve ever accepted money from people for performing “faith healings”?

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Also, there can be no Atheist heresies, since we don’t have Clerics to propose them.

  • Apteka Internetowa

    Thanks for a brilliant post.

  • Bose

    her·e·sy (hr-s)

    n. pl. her·e·sies

    a. An opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs, especially dissension from or denial of Roman Catholic dogma by a professed believer or baptized church member.

    b. Adherence to such dissenting opinion or doctrine.

    That definition is from Wikipedia. I was not implying that people would be charged and excommunicated. Similarities seem to fit with people speaking out about the church and people speaking out about Atheism, in my opinion. Could Atheism become the new religion? Wouldn’t that be ironic?

  • doctoratlantis

    Jonathan Figdor: Then you won’t mind if I say “Amen!” I assume?

  • doctoratlantis

    PZ (Really?) :

    You say:

    “That is a perfect example of the typical mischaracterization of New Atheists. … And exactly why I find your approach worthless — you rely on vagueness and lies.”

    Did you really say she’s mischaracterizing New Atheists and then call her a liar in the same paragraph? Just double checking.

  • Karla McLaren

    Oh heck! I’ve been busy and missed these replies. Sorry! The interwebs just doesn’t wait for me to do the rest of my life.

    Okay, where to start? PZ, you don’t agree with one aspect of the question I posed, and that has led you to state that everything I say is now worthless. Also, that I’m a polemicist in disguise. From Minnesota. Okay, that’s an interesting position, and since you’re not posing it as a question or as an inroad to dialogue, I’ll take it as a statement that you’ve written me off. Noted.

    Bose, I like what you say, but I’m gonna throw another curveball. I’ve worked as an arts instructor in maximum security men’s prisons with serial murderers and rapists, and I don’t write them off. I’m also not writing off angry atheists, in-your-face skeptics, or religious and spiritual true believers of any stripe. I think you can talk to people even when their beliefs and their behaviors are toxic.

    I mean, it’s the easiest thing in the world to respect people who think as you do, who follow all the rules you value, and who get your jokes. I like hanging out with people who get me (and who I get), but I also like connecting with people I cannot on first viewing understand at all.

    Hi John, I know a bit about your work at Harvard. Nice work if you can get it! I’m not sure what to say to you about the polemicists. I suppose I could link you all over hell and gone so that we could prove forevermore who gets to say what about whom. But I covered the issue clearly in both posts, so let’s move on.

    The issue about the “many approaches” meme is that I’ve only seen it used when we alleged accommodationists break the unwritten law about letting other skeptics and atheists be confrontational (and I know we could argue over this word until the cows come home, but let’s not) … because what? Because we’re a small group fighting against evil? It’s a fascinating discourse style, and a fascinating attempt to silence moderating voices.

    My continual question is, “Why is this issue framed as a fight, and why is the opposition framed as irredeemable?” Actually, why is there even an opposition? But see, I’m not much of a joiner of groups or ideologies, so I always stand on the outside and ask: You all agreed to do what because of what? It makes me a riot at corporate functions.

    As to your question at the end of your comment about me being a faith healer (I wasn’t) and charging money (I didn’t), it’s a long story. If you’re interested in the empathic healing work I did with survivors of extreme trauma and dissociation, I can share that with you. I called myself a “triage psychic.”

    As to the heresy comment, I don’t agree that heresy can only occur within a corporate religious structure. I was a heretic in my New Age career, about judgment, emotions, and many other central tenets. There are no clerics in the New Age, no bibles .. nothing concrete, but there are ideas that all New Age people must know and agree to. I openly challenged those ideas from within, and was eventually embraced (somewhat), but I was certainly a heretic.

    I’ve also seen a lot of forbidden topics in my adopted skeptical community. There are things you simply can’t say if you want to be seen as serious, or as a True Skeptic. An important part of social awareness is realizing those things that are acceptable but not stated outright, and forbidden but not stated outright in each different social group you inhabit.

    In this social group, I’m seeing that my approach about tone and intention is, to many, forbidden. So I’m acting as a heretic in continuing to state this case. It’s a necessary part of the coalescing of a social movement, or, possibly, of its further splintering. We’ll see….

  • Ophelia Benson

    I’m late to the party, probably too late to get a response, but I’ll give it a shot.

    Chris – you say you don’t agree with every word of every guest post, and that you thought people would know that. But you endorsed that post – you said it was a doozy, in a good way, and that it was a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement. I pretty much did take that as agreeing with all the words that mattered. I think your indignation at being misunderstood is misplaced.

    Karla – you complain about the angry replies you got – but (as you admit) your post itself was angry. It was full of hyperbole, not to say outright misrepresentation. Why is it ok for you to be angry but not the people you’re angry at?

    Because you’re doing it Right, I suppose is your thought, while we’re doing it Wrong. Well guess what: that’s not self-evident.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Another thing, actually…

    “It was an anger that involved direct slander against me, personal attacks against Chris Stedman (for daring to give me a public forum), and repetitive attempts to silence me, dehumanize me, and control my intellectual output and my voice.”

    I think you should be specific if you’re going to make accusations like that. Who are these people who directly slandered you and tried to silence you, dehumanize you, and control your intellectual output and voice? What exactly did they say and where did they say it?

    It’s nasty stuff making these nameless accusations, because (as you must be aware) they will be thought to apply to anyone who disagreed with you. You seem to be claiming that if you don’t name names the accusations won’t be thought to apply to anyone, but that’s exactly wrong: they will be thought to apply to everyone.

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  • Marta

    Oh, my word.

    No one has attempted to silence you, McLaren. For the second time, you’ve brought an argument for which you cite no evidence, and you got some righteous push back. You weren’t told to be quiet, you were told to back up your argument with something other than hand-waving.

    De-humanize you? Control your intellectual output? Jeepers. No one posted anything of the sort.

    What kind of scholarship is this?

  • Jonathan Figdor

    I’m very glad to hear that you didn’t charge money or offer the promise of healing. I’m a bit sensitive about this because a friend of mine from Vassar, who then studied with me at Harvard, is now a professional faith healer who does charge people money. I hope that you can do some outreach to these folks and show them the errors of their ways in the compassionate style that you advocate.

    Best wishes,


  • Jonathan Figdor

    “There are things you simply can’t say if you want to be seen as serious, or as a True Skeptic.”

    Well sure, I can think of a few. “I believe in the Loch Ness Monster,” “I believe that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected,” “I believe that vaccines cause autism.” All of these beliefs disqualify a person as a genuine skeptic, but it doesn’t mean we have to reject their humanity. I don’t see what the problem is with having a definition of skepticism?

  • Rieux

    There’s a notable contrast between the level of substance involved in the work of Gnubashers like Stedman, McLaren, and Luna, and Gnus’ responses to same.

    I posted lengthy rebuttals to both McLaren’s and Luna’s ugly late-April posts. Numerous other commenters posted similar critiques. These responses went into considerable concrete detail regarding the fallacies and dishonesties that suffused both posts.

    Since then, first Luna and now, here, Stedman and McLaren have responded to their critics not with concrete defenses of their challenged claims but rather with continual moaning and wailing about how mean their opponents are. McLaren’s insistence that dealing concretely with the problems her critics identified would amount to “tak[ing] our eyes off the prize” is comical; it’s a sorry excuse for a failure to address the reality of her own misconduct in April.

    McLaren’s April 26 post was a dishonest attack on innocent people. This needs to be opposed, not least because it plays directly into a similarly dishonest cultural narrative that marginalizes and dehumanizes atheists. To the extent that, as McLaren declares here, “fierce approaches are actually the only approaches being protected,” it’s because those approaches are the only ones being attacked with the kind of lies and mud that McLaren and Luna flung last month.

    As I pointed out on April 28, McLaren’s contentions that (1) the “Fractious Four”‘s work uniformly consists of “deeply emotional appeal[s] made not just with anger, but with rage”; (2) “atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as ‘accommodationists’”; and (3) Gnus, unlike the superior McLaren and Stedman, are incapable of community building… all these contentions are false to fact. They are meretricious lies, and it is not “dehumanizing” McLaren to call her to account for them.

    You can keep on pretending, Ms. McLaren, that it is your ballyhooed “[m]oderating approach[]” that earns you scorn here. No doubt that’s a comfortable way to construct the current exchange in your own head. Nevertheless, it’s just another untruth. You are not being scorned for “moderating,” but for lying. And several of us have documented and explained the nature of your dishonesty in some detail. You can go on ignoring all of those critiques and wishing them away, but they stand—regardless of your disinterest in responding to them in terms.

  • Ewan Macdonald

    Karla, let’s assume – wrongly, but for the sake of argument – that everything you say about the gnus is true.

    Can you please explain how the existence of gnus jeopardises your production of a long-range strategy to make secularism a “moral, ethical and viable alternative… to religion”? And how does it jeopardise its coming to fruition?

    I see an awful lot of vague accusations but no concrete evidence whatsoever that the actions you deplore – some of which even exist! – are counterproductive to a secular movement.


    I’d also like to add that Rieux has completely nailed your general dishonesty in his post above this one, but I’d like my questions, asked in good faith, to at least be considered.

  • Brian Lynchehaun

    “Okay, where to start? PZ, you don’t agree with one aspect of the question I posed, and that has led you to state that everything I say is now worthless. Also, that I’m a polemicist in disguise. From Minnesota. Okay, that’s an interesting position, and since you’re not posing it as a question or as an inroad to dialogue, I’ll take it as a statement that you’ve written me off. Noted.”

    This is (yet another) misrepresentation. I came to this blog expected an intelligent critique, and all I found was a combination of vagueness and lies.

    You are being vague when you don’t cite sources for the people who are ‘attacking’ you. “Dehumanisation” is a judgement of a particular behaviour, a judgement people may or may not share. A lack of citation actively prevents me from forming my own opinion about the situation. Instead, you require me to uncritically accept your opinion. And then you claim that you are being silenced when people ask (demand!) that you back up your assertions?

    So I have to accept your claims at face value *and* shut up with any questions that I may have *and* smile civily?

    The only response to this smothering post that I have is uncivil contempt: fuck you.

  • Random Bystander

    Karla, the absolute best thing you can do now, IMHO, is to write a follow-up post which analyzes a specific example of whatever you are railing against. Cross-reference that example to the points in your post here.

    Without something concrete in hand, you simply cause perplexity in the reader. While annoyance and dismissal aren’t the most constructive reactions to your post, I can certainly understand them. Fortunately you can counteract that by following up with a specific example.

  • JT

    You say that all approaches except compassionate ones are being considered, but compassion really has nothing to do with it. The “compassionate” sector receives criticism not for being nice, but for consistently and rudely reinforcing the “angry atheist” stereotype by telling people how wrong they are to mention they’re atheist without profusely apologizing first.

    Here’s a little exercise for the future. Whenever you’re talking about how angry/rude those new atheists are try mentally replacing it with an equivalently worded post on how greedy those Jews are. If you’re uncomfortable with the latter, you should be uncomfortable with the former. Reinforcing hurtful stereotypes is NOT compassionate, or accommodating, or nice, or anything you CLAIM you’re all about, so how about you stop doing it.

  • A. Noyd

    “I deliberately chose to write about these uncivil behaviors as trends within the movement, rather than making examples of specific people. No one had directly offended against me, so why should I offend against anyone else?”

    This is the most ridiculous excuse. Talking in generalities and not citing examples is what we Gnus find offensive. Citations of misbehavior are how we tell “time-wasting diversionary ploys” apart from legitimate criticisms. The incivility of making generalized accusations and then refusing to back them up with specific, genuine examples is brought up, oh, only every other freaking hour practically, in Gnu circles. I’m astonished you could miss that, given how you’re such an expert on our communication habits.

  • Please Reread What You Wrote

    “Many approaches (except the compassionate ones)”

  • edrowland


    (This blog apparently doesn’t allow direct posting of links. Please substitute forward slash for exclamation marks).

    The link provides useful context as to who Karla McLaren is, and what her path from New Age woo to agnostic atheism was, and may shed some light why Karla McLaren is qualified to be one of many voices.


    I can’t help wondering why we can’t just all agree that the “many approaches” meme actually means exactly what it says, rather than having some vaguely imputed sinister meaning, and leave it at that. If you have specific complaints, please make them specifically. The vagueness of the charges as made is divisive, and not helpful.

    I also think you also fail to understand the significance of the New Atheists (Dennet included), and the allegedly militant tone of the early works of the New Atheists. For those of us who have been non-agnostic atheists for as long as we have been able to form a sensible opinion, the importance of New Atheism is that it gives us permission to not be appologetic about our sincerly-held views (whether arrived at polemically, or dialectically) in the face of oppression by an increasingly militant Christian right. The real point of the eary New Atheist to those of us who are non-agnostic atheists is that atheists should not permit those who hold ridiculous views to opress us by exploiting our natural tendency to be polite to those who aren’t polite in return. That doesn’t mean that polite conversations can’t be had. Or that dialectic cannot take place. However, courtesy, if it exists, should be reciprocal; and it often is not.

  • Svlad Cjelli

    Climb off the cross, kids. You want to be nice? Show; don’t tell.

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  • julian

    Just echoing the call for more substance. Skeptic’s are supposed to be agnostic until we have evidence pointing us in this or that direction, right? So why not actually give examples of us misbehaving, be rude and uncivil and of course the context in which we were. Afterall how fair is it to post ‘John called Father Tomas a pedophile’ without mentioning Father Tomas is on trial for child rape? (Just an example. I’m not familiar with any Father Tomas.)

  • Aquaria

    I deliberately chose to write about these uncivil behaviors as trends within the movement, rather than making examples of specific people. No one had directly offended against me, so why should I offend against anyone else?

    You deliberately choose to lie and snivel, and think yourself above everyone else. You think you can dictate how others behave and react to things.

    That’s not civility, honey. That’s being a liar, a whiner and a passive-aggressive control freak, and guess what? The people you think you’re convincing of how wonderful you are? They still hate you, more than they hate the gnu atheists. The deeply religious can at least respect outspoken atheists for their honesty and willingness to stand up for what they believe (or don’t).

    You might as well be honest about what you think, rather than a craven little liar.

    And I have a mom to try to tell me how to live my life, thanks. I get enough of passive-aggressive manipulation from her. I don’t need it from some lying stranger who doesn’t know me or anyone here from Adam, too.

    Okay, where to start? PZ, you don’t agree with one aspect of the question I posed, and that has led you to state that everything I say is now worthless.

    Are you completely incapable of reading for comprehension, or are your poor little hurt feelings blinding you to reality? He says outright that you have the right to approach issues however makes you comfortable.

    What he is not advocating is your appalling tendency to exaggerate and lie about what gnu atheists do or say, and worse, trying to tell other people how to respond to things in this life. This is what you are extremely dishonest about, and willfully blind to.

    Since you’re so willfully obtuse, I’m going to spell out what your words have said about you:


    You have no evidence of your claims, and refuse to provide any. And you still expect others to do what you say–Because! That’s why!

    Why should anyone listen to you when you’re argue and behave so abominably?

    Here, let me give you an example of how your joke of an argument sounds to gnu atheist ears:

    You: Come buy my snake oil! It will cure anything.

    Gnus: Oh really? Show me!

    You: Oh, I can’t, but I know it works, because it works for me! It will work for anybody! And if you don’t believe me you’re a poopyhead, because I’m being so gosh-darn nice in dealing with you!

    That is what your argument amounts to, it is painfully and obviously dishonest, and you wonder why you get called dishonest by people who value truth and evidence the way most gnus do? And then you tell more lies to cover the lies you told before?

    What is wrong with you?

    Are you just pathologically mendacious?

  • Ms. Daisy Cutter

    Oh, heavens, Aquaria, be careful, or Karla might accuse you of being an unhappy and negative person! And we all know that it’s better to be stupid or dishonest, yet “at peace with oneself,” than to upset the stupid or dishonest!

    JT: “Whenever you’re talking about how angry/rude those new atheists are try mentally replacing it with an equivalently worded post on how greedy those Jews are.”

    Chris Stedman, who is gay, is a subservient kapo toward “progressive” religious homophobes. I rather doubt that asking him or Karla to give a damn about an oppressed group they don’t belong to is going to work.

  • Ben Fenton

    To the authors:

    One: I’ll say what I want to, and it’s none of your business. Stifling dissent will get you nowhere. Two: you are not the vanguard of the atheist movement. Three: quit feeling so sorry for yourself. If you talk about adult things, people will talk back to you like an adult. You might want to get used to it.

    Seriously, this type of “please coddle us with sensitivity” stuff is disgusting. No one is going to alter their tactics to follow you. I don’t care about your cult of personality.

  • KZN

    Hello… Anybody?

  • Josh

    I have deliberately not posted during the back-and-forth on the last article. I wanted a little time to get my bearings and make sure my response wasn’t knee-jerk.

    @Karla: I am disappointed in this, and the last piece. Mostly because they don’t seem to get us anywhere. That overwhelming call you keep seeing in the comments–”give us evidence!”–is a more than valid one. To make sweeping claims about the Gnus without citing anything specific makes it really, really tough to see your position as anything but a thinly-veiled polemic of its own.

    Now I have my own issues with some of the figures you cite, but they’re specific gripes. For instance, Harris and I have issues on the nature of religions and civilizations, especially when it comes to Islam. I’m not a fan of some of his arguments. But, to emphasize, those are specific issues that I try to parse out. To make any more sweeping generalization about these figures–for good or ill, I’d add–is disingenuous, and it does little to respect the very different approaches each of these public figures takes.

    I sympathize with your position. I really do. But until you can put your finger on what’s offending, and let us in on the thought process, I can’t help but be greatly underwhelmed. And no amount of “people want to stifle my speech” rhetoric will change that.

    I think the majority of people here are asking you to qualify it, not silence it.

  • StaticMotion

    Karla McLaren: “Stranger still was this demand (though I’ve seen it leveled at others): If I did not point out specific instances of uncivil, polemical behaviors, then my argument was deemed moot.”

    “I deliberately chose to write about these uncivil behaviors as trends within the movement, rather than making examples of specific people.”

    Fucking awesome. This time it’s not just accusations without evidence, basically it’s also active refusal to give evidence after having been asked for it.

    How do you find out that there are trends without having any data to back them up?

    And you’re surprised that you’re getting called out on that? Sheesh.

    E.g., I wonder why Pharyngula has such a large following when PZ’s approach is supposedly to be so detrimental to a community.

    Pfft, I’ll take substance over style any time.

    Sophisticated tone-trolling seems to be no better than sophisticated theology. Both seem to be based on unsubstantiated claims. (Yep, that’s polemic hyperbole, but it serves to illustrate my point.)

    Furthermore, in a reply to your last blog post on April 27th, 2011 at 12:27 am you wrote

    “Also, psychologically speaking, it’s not healthy to constantly rile oneself or other people up. Too much anger can be a sign of major depression in men, so I look at it with concern.”

    As I suffer from recurrent major depressive disorder I take issue with this misrepresentation. Anger itself has nothing to do with depression.

    You might want to refer to ICD-10 F32 & F33 [1] to see for yourself. Anger isn’t even hinted at.

    Also, why slip “men” in and loosely associate them with anger? There are no gender specific differences in diagnosing depression.


  • =8)-DX


    I think this post really misses the point. When did atheists become a group and when did they all get a “polite and civil discource” handbook? Yes, there is an atheist movement, there is secularism and there is a growing number of unbelievers willing to proclaim their views in places like the US where they have been expected to “shut up” for years. But these common goals (of religious and political freedom, freedom from religious oppression, ability to voice criticisms of pseudoscience and to point to and attempt to mitigate the damage done by religion) say as much about this non-group as the civil rights movement says about blacks and includes people from all walks of life, all social situations with many different habits of expression (Including telling someone they’re an idiot if you think so, including telling them to f**k off if they’re being absurd).

    You really come over as if you were tut-tutting a little naughty atheist boy for using rude words and kicking his sister. Well in the real world people don’t always use the lovely fluffy polite language some of their mothers thought good to instil in them. And not every atheist agrees with your idea that “civility” is good. There are many who have had enough of being preached at by Christians, at staying quiet about their beliefs to family and community. They want a good shout, and couldn’t care less for your sensibilities. Another point is that many of these people have no qualms about using words like f**k and c**t and d**k (which they use in their everyday life), just as they don’t mind saying God, Jesus, Muhammed or any other word which someone might find offensive – and I don’t see why you should get to dictate what language people use, just as I wouldn’t dream of expecting to control how you speak. Lastly, if this “abusive” atheism is doing harm to the movement, provide some evidence for that – to me it seems the contrary – vocal and public voices mean atheists are getting heard more and more and being viewed less as stereotypes than as real people.

  • Mike McCants


    “I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully.”

    So the question becomes – what is an appropriate interaction with a “fence sitter”? 1) Please consider the evidence. 2) Get off that fence and chose rationality. 1) is “civil” and 2) is not?

    “Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt”

    As if they don’t already? Bad publicity is better than being ignored?

  • Swej

    It seems to me that when you engage in community building, you need to have some common vision or beliefs in what that community should be like, so you are no longer in the realm of atheism, which has no dogma or shared belief system.

    Maybe you are wanting to promote humanism, or another rationally-derived system for leading the good life. If so, great, but this has little to do with the atheist movement. Atheism does not accept the existence of supernatural gods, and if atheists come off as “rude” in their denial of modern fairy tales, who can blame them? Oh right, you can.

    Why do you care what tone internet “commentors” use? The tone is a response to their frustration, and may be very well justified. I think even moderate religious can benefit from hearing such flatly-stated truths. I know I did.

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  • James Croft

    Hi there. I’m late to this but I think it’s worth responding to. I echo Ophelia’s sentiment when it comes to this section:

    “It was an anger that involved direct slander against me, personal attacks against Chris Stedman (for daring to give me a public forum), and repetitive attempts to silence me, dehumanize me, and control my intellectual output and my voice.”

    I took the time to reread all the comments from the last post (unless some have been removed) and I could only find one (referring to your past as a healer) which I thought might remotely fit in this category.

    I too question your decision to decline to provide evidence to substantiate your claims, either regarding New Atheism in general and the comments you are referring to in particular. I think it is an integral component of intellectual honesty to provide specific evidence of a claim, especially if you are criticizing the actions of others. I also reject your idea that citing such examples is necesarily uncivil to those you quote. You could anonymize the quotes or preface them with a statement which ensures that everyone understands that you are criticizing ideas and not people.

    I ask you to consider this and simply respond to e many requests to substantiate your claims. I too agree that there is some uncivil discourse and even some very unthinking responses sometimes in our movement in general. But if you want to make a compelling and entirely honest argument, you need to show us what you are talking about. Your responses here have failed to do that thus far.

  • Bryan Elliott

    I value honesty over sanctimony. I will not longer be visiting this blog.

  • articulett

    Do your posts here illustrate the calm, nice, community building, non-polemical methods you use on the religious? Are you an example of what you think those fractious gnu atheists should be more like? Can you do your community building without casting aspersions on others? Would you say the sorts of things you’ve said here about any other group? Would any of your defenders? Did you notice that when you assert your opinions you consider it “free speech” and that when others give their opinions of your opinions they are trying to “silence you”? Couldn’t the gnu atheists conclude the same thing about your admonishments of them? Didn’t you criticize them first? What was your goal? Did you accomplish it?

    Do you think it’s possible that you have a cultural prejudice about outspoken atheists –and that you may be inadvertently confirming your biases via the equivalent of Tom Johnson stories? Because that’s exactly what it looks like to me. You seem to have a “need” to believe that gnu atheists are hurting some cause by saying super bad things, but you have no evidence to confirm it –so you rely on polemics and the assumption that what is “obvious” in your opinionated mind, is obvious to all. How would you know if your notion that gnu atheists were harming some cause was a misperception? Isn’t it possible that the bigoted sorts of things you said might further prejudice against gnu atheists more than anything any of them actually said or did? That would be a bad thing, right? If your goal is community building, your method appears to be a failure– (unless maybe your goal was to build a common community with religious folks by sharing a common “enemy”?). I think the best method for achieving your goal might be to become aware that even YOU can have prejudices you are unaware of.

    I don’t want to be part of a community that exacerbates prejudices against people who think like Dawkins, Dennett, PZ or me. It’s not your accommodating that bugs me– it’s your Mooney-esque approach of putting others down to make your own method appear more appealing that I take issue with. Instead of telling others how they are doing it wrong (in your opinion)– why don’t you illustrate how to do it right. Surely you trust the evidence to accumulate– or to correct you if you are mistaken.

  • Mine’s A Newt

    I’ve come to this site twice, because of links from “Butterflies and Wheels”. I suggest you learn from Ophelia. She engages with the arguments of the people she disagrees with, and she links to them so you can check for yourself that what she says is true.

    The traffic you’ve got from me, therefore, is because of Ophelia’s intellectual honesty. I mention this because I doubt that I’m alone in that. But I won’t be back (I don’t think I’m alone in that either), and I will explain why.

    What I’ve found in this blog, when I follow Butterflies links, is a kind of dishonest passive-aggressiveness from Chris Stedman and Karla McLaren that I do find rather irritating and contemptible. Attacking and smearing others while preening yourself on your own niceness is … not impressive.

    You should have paid more attention to your education, at kindergarten level. Things you need to learn are:

    (1) attacking other people is not a proof of your superior niceness;

    (2) whining instead of responding substantively, when faults in your claims are pointed out, does not actually impress people;

    (3) in general, push people and they’ll push back at you;

    (4) when you make an attack based on vagueness and smears, against people whose stock in trade is argument and evidence, then both your own original attack and their response when or if it comes will diminish your reputation enormously, and you will cease to get web traffic.

    That last one probably isn’t a kindergarten rule, but you should learn it. The impression this site is currently giving off is of being a trainwreck on the scale of Mooney’s site and the legendary YNH. I won’t claim this feedback is “nice”; I would claim that you might find it helpful.

  • Svlad Cjelli

    “That last one probably isn’t a kindergarten rule, but you should learn it. The impression this site is currently giving off is of being a trainwreck on the scale of Mooney’s site and the legendary YNH. I won’t claim this feedback is “nice”; I would claim that you might find it helpful.”

    They’re also inching towards an image as “the people who are actively against the presentation of evidence.”

  • Karla McLaren

    Wow, this blew up, too, and it looks like it has done so in a way that isn’t really addressable, since I don’t seem to share a basic world view, I would surmise, with the people who are so offended.

    I see the repeated demands that I back up my posts with direct examples of rotten behavior, and it’s exactly what I don’t want to do, because it’s like those awful “chapter and verse” bible fights you see people get into. I’ll say, “Here is an ad hominem attack, here is motivated reasoning, here is the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.” And I know, because it’s what happens, that the answers will be, nope, nuh uh, and you can’t be serious!

    And we’ll waste our time arguing about arguments instead of actually figuring out what is going on here.

    I was at a skeptical conference this weekend, hence the radio silence, and really working to organize my thoughts about some notions I had. I met some really great people, but I also met a man who is very much of the mind that religion is an irredeemable evil that will inexorably bring about the end of humankind unless strident action is taken against it. So I got to see a very intense version of that ideology in vivo, instead of merely through online discourse behaviors.

    Being near him, talking with him, and watching this man really helped me understand why my approach can’t work in this situation, and why I was not only misheard here, but distrusted, mis-stated, and so forth. I became not a person in the minds of many, but an enemy, and a perfect example of whatever it was that I am a perfect example of.

    I think that the way we supposed combatants view the world is so different that we would actually need to strip back, underneath discourse styles, references, group identification, and all of that and ask if we want the same things? If we see the same world?

    I honestly don’t think we do. I don’t see enemies when I look at the world. I just see people. I don’t see corporate entities like churches and big businesses as evil; I just see people and the mindsets that have created it.

    And I know that people can be freed from their mindsets, because people are capable of surviving even the most awful abuse any of us could imagine.

    It seems to me that the central organizing principle of my world view does not translate to many of you who are offended. It has no value; it carries no weight. And that’s fine. You don’t need to think as I do. But we’ve reached an impasse, or perhaps, the impasse existed before we were born.

    I have no idea where to go from here. We have no relationship, no shared referents beyond secularism, and for those who have characterized me as the enemy, there is no way to hear me without crossed arms or raised fists.

    And honey, we’ve all been in fights like that; they don’t go anywhere unless the people in them care about each other. Sadly, they often don’t go anywhere even when people do.

    So I am actually prevented from entering into a conversation under these conditions, and I won’t enter into a brawl. We are at an impasse.

  • Tufty

    Here’s the thing. If you want to take the softly softly approach (I would use the term accomadationist, but several people have said that they dislike the term and I am unsure what term I should be using) then take that approach. A variety of approaches is needed. You will not encounter criticism for it.

    The problem is when you claim that the gnu atheist approach doesn’t work. Fact is, it does. Not with everybody, but it does work. I have seen hundreds of testimonials from people who became atheists because of the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and PZ. I can relate, because that is what converted me.

    When I considered myself a christian, it was purely because I hadn’t encountered many people who weren’t. I was still a teenager and I honestly didn’t know that not believing was an option. If I had encountered someone taking the softly softly approach, I would have easily dismissed and forgotten them. I needed someone to take a strong critical stance. I needed someone to mock my beliefs. When I encountered someone who did, it shook me to my core. I had been living in a bubble, and the mockery made me realise in an instant that what I had been told since childhood was absurd.

    So, I’m going to repeat. BOTH APPROACHES WORK. If you say they don’t, you are mistaken or lying. If someone can find a quote from a prominent gnu atheist saying that accomadationism doesn’t work that would be great, but I haven’t seen it before.

    What I am seeing is accomadationists trying to push the gnu atheist’s notebooks off the desk and whining about how rude we are for telling you to stop.

  • Karla McLaren

    Thanks Tufty, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate your carefulness around the term accommodationist. I don’t have a better word, because the dichotomy is false. How about long-range versus short-term? If you look at it that way, the two work together, and the fight is unnecessary.

    I didn’t say that polemics and the more confrontational, short term (give me a better word) atheist approach can never work. As I said, it can break through in areas where the social world is so closed and self-referential that you kind of need a mallet to get through.

    I did a study on the experiences of GLBT Jehovah’s Witnesses (spoiler, the experiences are awful), and the desperation these kids and adults expressed was gut-wrenching. During the months I worked on the study, I often wanted a noisy gay rights parade with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to be required in every JW enclave, sez me.

    But the ex-JWs who we interviewed said that that sort of in-your-face activism could actually strengthen the internal sense that gayness was an alien or untenable lifestyle. Sure, some poor GLBT youth or adult might respond and follow the parade out of town, but then what?

    What these moderating ex-JW activists were doing was not accommodationism toward the JW; rather, they were creating a social support network so that GLBT people trapped inside the JW might have somewhere to go if they did decide to come out (open homosexuality or bisexuality is unacceptable in the JW; if you’re out, you’re out).

    They also knew that in many cases, leaving behind a belief system means leaving everything you know (including your family in churches such as the JW, where disfellowshipping can be an extreme social excision).

    So what these activists are saying is, yes, let’s make this situation known and help people awaken from the nightmare of being a GLBT JW person, but let’s have a plan for the next day.

    I don’t see a plan amongst the confrontationalist, short-term atheists; I don’t see the next step. I don’t see the long range, except that it is the eventual end of religion as we know it.

    If there is a next step, or a plan, would you let me know what it is? Leaving a belief system behind, in cult sense, often requires exit counseling. If people don’t have some form of support, they can very easily enter into another form of intense group-identification.

    Just getting people out of a religion or a spiritual group isn’t enough. And the objection I have to the confrontational method is that it can very easily backfire and create stronger defenses and in-group-identification among the attacked. And also cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and an alphabetical list of mental and emotional defense mechanisms.

    I see the terrible backlash outspoken shame-based activism from the skeptical community has created within the New Age community (which isn’t a cult, but is becoming more militant in response to the shaming), and I cringe to see the selfsame tactics trumpeted as viable in the long run. They’re very specific tactics, and they aren’t valid everywhere.

    In fact, Id say that they can cause far more damage than they ameliorate if they are used indiscriminately. Social shaming can shut down all further communication, and that has terrible effects on the efforts of we who are actually in the trenches doing direct liberation and education work with people who are caught up in toxic belief systems.

  • Rieux

    Goodness, Ms. McLaren, but this latest response of yours is just full of diversion and self-indulgence.

    Several of your critics here, including yours truly, have responded to your NonProphet Status posts in extremely concrete terms—treating specific things you’ve asserted, specific positions you’ve taken, with specific rebuttals. My comment above points out your repeated mischaracterization of your opponents, which is not a matter of “world view” but of historical fact. You really, actually did say the things that you said in your April 26 post. Several of those things really, actually are demonstrably false, as you could not help but recognize if you had but taken the time and energy to pay attention to the people and works you attacked in that post. These are not subjective “world view” well-you-see-it-that-way-but-I-see-it-this-way matters; your April 26 post contains several falsehoods that serve to smear your opponents. For you to act as if the indignant response you have received—in the face of such hostile dishonesty—stems from a failure “to share a basic world view” is simply a refusal to face up to what you’ve done to earn that response.

    I don’t seem to share a basic world view, I would surmise, with the people who are so offended.

    That may well be. It certainly appears to me that you, Stedman, Luna, and other accommodationists have a considerably different perspective toward religious faith, religious authority, and (most consequentially) religious privilege than Gnu Atheists do. I have long believed that accommodationists either fail to recognize or fail to care about the awful consequences of religious privilege, given the extent to which their (your) cases are so thoroughly built on it. Can a person who is so disinterested in examining the double standard that religious ideas and people are favored with in our society seriously “have the best interests of the atheist movement in mind”? It’s an unnerving question.

    So there is a real possibility that you and Gnus have significantly different worldviews regarding the nature of religion, “the best interests of the atheist movement,” and similar matters. But so what? Why should that make this exchange impossible?

    Evidently we disagree about the fundamental value of religion. But do we disagree about the fundamental value of lying? You declared on April 26 that The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation, among other Gnu Atheist works, are “deeply emotional appeal[s] made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.” That is false. It is a demonstrable misrepresentation of your opponents’ advocacy. What possible “referent” that you and we could share would make it true?

    You asserted, in your April 26 post, that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are the “Fractious Four,” and I pointed out in response that that’s an insulting sobriquet. How exactly does your “world view” render it anything but insulting?

    Your April 26 post asserts that “atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as ‘accommodationists.’” This, again, is false. You have concretely misrepresented your opponents. What does “the central organizing principle of [your] world view,” and our lack of agreement of same, have to do with anything? Is “the central organizing principle” in question that it is acceptable to lie about Gnu Atheists and our positions?

    Finally, on April 26 you asserted that Gnu Atheism, as a polemics-only operation, is incapable of building community. Once again, that is false, and your particular “world view” has nothing to do with it. The lion’s share of your opponents here are members of communities built and maintained by Gnu Atheists stating and defending proudly Gnu-ish ideas. Which is why a link or two from Ophelia Benson and PZ Myers, among a handful of others, has inundated this blog with folks who don’t appreciate your attacks on us. You’re feeling the wrath of a community that doesn’t appreciate being other-ed and slimed. (That there are a whole bunch of us criticizing you doesn’t inherently make us right—but the way we got here sure calls that “Gnus are just polemicists, and polemicists can’t do community” argument of yours into overwhelming doubt.)

    We have no relationship, no shared referents beyond secularism, and for those who have characterized me as the enemy, there is no way to hear me without crossed arms or raised fists.

    I only wish you would spend the slightest attention on the (I think rather well substantiated) concern that you have earned the title “enemy” with your dishonest treatment of your opponents—of our ideas, our actions, and our communities.

    To throw dishonest bombs and then cry “impasse” when called on your misbehavior seems to me ignoble. I can’t believe that your “central organizing principle[s]” actually are as dismissive of the need for simple honesty toward your interlocutors as your behavior here implies.

    It seems to me that, whatever our “world view”s, we all have a right to expect to be dealt with truthfully and honorably. I for one do not demand that you denounce religious privilege to the extent that we Gnus would like you to. I do, however, demand that you (and Chris Stedman, and Chris Luna, and…) not post ugly, bigotry-fueling falsehoods about who Gnus are, what we believe, and what we do. If you and we can’t even see eye-to-eye on that basic principle regarding honesty, then I can agree that we’re at an impasse. Of course, in that case you’re beneath contempt.

    So, proudly exhibiting the heartfelt “attempt to assume that the author has the best of intentions” Stedman requests, I’ll dismiss for the sake of argument the notion that your principles include the notion that Gnus can be libeled and falsely smeared without conscience.

    But in that case, we are not at an “impasse,” because our differing outlooks does not change the nature of the attacks on Gnu Atheists that you have posted. Your unfortunate excuses for failing to explain yourself notwithstanding, several of us continue to await your first attempt to address the real subject here: why you saw fit to malign Gnus in the manner you did. According to my central organizing principles—ones that I think I share with billions of people, among them plenty of religious believers and atheist accommodationists—it would behoove you to dispense with these diversions about “world view” and deal with the facts-on-the-ground that you yourself have created.

  • Karla McLaren

    Hi Rieux, I don’t know you, and I did skim your previous comments because they use words like lying, attack, and so forth. Sorry, but I find it tiring.

    It seems that you also find it tiring to read what you propose are direct attacks against you and your community’s tactics. You seem to see in my posts the position of enmity. You also seem to want me to agree that it’s there, that you’ve caught me out, and that if I don’t agree with your view, I must either be a liar or some other thing that is bad.

    But see, I don’t see you as an enemy, and there’s nothing you could do to earn that title with me. That’s what I mean by a difference in world views. That’s what I mean by an impasse.

    I can certainly decide that, if you persist in abuse, you’re not going to be my friend, but enemies are just not in my parlance.

    So here’s a question I have for you directly. If mockery and shaming are such excellent tactics, why are you and your community so horrified by what you allege to be my mockery of your positions? Is mockery acceptable as a discourse method, or is it not?

    And if I did mock you with malign intent because I allegedly find your position irredeemable (which, of course, I don’t), can you tell me how the digging in, intensified group-cohesion around seemingly attacked positions, and orchestrated group-led attacks on me might rather support my position that mockery is a rotten tactic that backfires?

    If you want to create social change, that is?

    I have another question for you. I have honestly never seen any communication approach (about the dichotomous term confrontationalism, sorry, but we don’t have a better term yet) that works with people who self-identify as gnus — except total agreement. But I am not an in-group member, so I don’t know what in-group people know.

    The position of the false dichotomy is that gnus are forever saying that confrontation is always necessary — and that accommodationists are forever saying that civility always is.

    But since no one is saying that over on this side of the false chasm, I wonder if you can clarify the reality of the situation from your position?

  • Boko999

    She’s no fun she fell right over.

  • articulett


    Of course it blew up– you built two screeds around straw men… or it seems like straw men because you never provided examples– you just expected everybody to agree that there are these vitriolic fractious atheists causing harm to the community building you are trying to do and that we mustn’t be like them or we should try to “tone them down” or something vague like that. That was your main message right? If we don’t heed your warning… bad things will happen.

    The fact that the stuff you see as “dehumanizing and abusive behaviors” or “harming the cause” or “vitriolic” or “polemical” etc. might be products of your own biases never registers with you. Without examples, it seems that you are perceiving things that aren’t there and exaggerating what is– just as Wally Smith did. What’s the difference? How did you expect your audience to react? Moreover, you seem utterly blind to your own polemics and unaware of how your own passive-aggressive screeds might be harming the community you claim to want to be building. From my perspective, it makes you FEEL like you are being diplomatic when you are actually furthering prejudice against atheists who appear to be more successful at community building than you (from what I can see.) Your own methods aren’t drawing the crowds that you think they should be drawing, so you appear to be putting down others in an attempt to woo more to your brand of “niceness”? Do you think your screeds here are “nice”? Accommodating? Did anyone actually criticize your accommodating methods before you started railing against the “fractious four”? Is this how you build community with believers– by telling them they should be more like you? Or is this scolding reserved for outspoken atheists only and your (ha) attempts at building communities that include them? Do only the feelings and opinions of religionists and accommodationists matter to you? It sure seems that way. You want us to be respectful of your feelings and opinions, but you are not willing to do the same with those whom you imagine are harming your “community building” cause.

    You appear to be inadvertently protecting faith by exaggerating the “militancy” of the critics of such. You aren’t used to having faith criticized like other superstitions, pseudosciences, etc. and so it sounds worse to you than it is. Rather than examine your biases, you assume your feelings on the subject reflect the truth that “vitriolic atheists are harming the cause” and that it’s somehow good and moderating to tell them to act more like you! (Have you tried telling Fred Phelps to be more like moderate Christians? Maybe saying, “Hey theists– don’t be a dick!” will work? Do you think if I tell Chris Mooney not to be an asshole it will make him less likely to be an asshole? Are you seeing the problem with your “method” yet? Will our screeds telling you how you are doing it wrong make YOU any more likely to do it better?)

    All the Tom Johnson type arguments seem to boil down to– “Hey, everyone… be more like me- stop treating religion the way you treat other “woo”… if you don’t, we’re going to libel you and claim you are harming the cause and even censor you if we can.” These “don’t be a dick” speeches might make people like you feel “nice” or make believers feel justified in keeping their beliefs– but they don’t further any goals of mine. From my perspective they further anti-atheist bigotry. And I don’t think you are nicer or more moderate than PZ… just more passive aggressive– more deferential to “woo”. I don’t think you are furthering “community building” for any community I want to be a part of. I don’t want to be a part of community that appears to be vilifying or attempting to silence/tone down people like PZ, Hitchens, Harris, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Jerry Coyne, or their supporters/fans. That’s what religion does. You’ve repeatedly assumed you know the “gnu atheist” positions without showing any evidence that you do at all. I don’t see these people the way you see them. And I don’t see you as being better at “community building” amongst secularists than they are. You are the one being divisive while claiming they are.

    If you are so sure that you are right about gnu atheist, then examples of this vitriol that is hurting the cause should be simple to find, and– as rational people– we can discuss it. Your avoiding examples of your accusations makes your complaints look like a Tom Johnson story. What do Tom Johnson stories accomplish except to make the biased feel justified in the imagined superiority of their own approach? Do they ever tone down the conversation? How do you tone down conversations that are imaginary or exaggerated in the head of those who have faith in faith?

    And you ARE dishonest… you DO see enemies… anyone who doesn’t verbally flog “new atheists” and show respect for religion is an enemy to you, aren’t they? Aren’t the “fractious four” and PZ enemies to you? You imagine they are against secular community building. You think they are trying to silence you. You imagine them as doing and saying things they aren’t saying and that they have motives they don’t have. To you, they are full of rage and polemics and nothing will change your mind. You never stop to consider whether these might be illusions in your mind– whether the people you imagine are hurting “secular community building” actually are– whether the vitriol is more in your imagination than reality.

    You don’t listen to anyone, Karla– you have not responded to valid questions, complaints, and criticisms and your excuses for not doing so are poor. And then you whine that people aren’t hearing you. You claim to be a good listener to believers– but you are deaf to those who don’t find faith something that is worthy of deference or respect. The vitriol you perceive here, is a result of the vitriol towards gnu atheists that you dished out under the guise of trying to bring “moderation” to the secularist movement. We aren’t your enemy anywhere except in your own mind. We’re just asking you to do your “community building” without disparaging atheists you imagine are harming the cause. Is that so much to ask? Really?

    Rest assured we’ve heard you and the cadre of like-minded people who think that a bunch of outspoken atheists are hurting some cause and we all know that you imagine that if only these people were more like you guys, then people will be less prejudiced against atheists or be more scientific or be more drawn to skepticism or accept evolution more or (insert cause you are sure the “gnu atheists” are hurting with their “vitriol” that you refuse to cite.) We just don’t agree. We don’t like your attempts at building up hostilities towards other atheists. It’s ugly and doesn’t make you look like the “nice” atheists you imagine yourself to be. Nice to whom exactly? Respectful to whom?

    I think you won’t give examples because you can’t. I think that when you went to look for examples you realized you had exaggerated things in your head and heard vitriol that wasn’t there. I think that when you tried to plug in some other “woo” (say, Scientology) the criticism didn’t sound as awful as you had imagined it to sound. I also think you realized that it would be bigoted to say what you’ve said about gnu atheists about any other group and that you wouldn’t do so. You made allegations, you refused to support them, and you became offended when people called you on it. And rather than admit this, you are going to blame those bad “gnu atheists” for the brouhaha and walk away.

    You could have apologized and said, “Gee, maybe I did exaggerate this vitriol in my mind… maybe I had been influenced by others to see it as harming the cause even though the evidence is as absent for this belief of mine as it is for gods. It felt real to me, and so I assumed it was. I apologize to those who felt attacked by my writing. I was unfair. While I might believe it is good to tone down the conversation, my pedantic rants were probably not the best way to do it. Instead, I should be an example of what I think is best and praise those that I think are doing a good job. My critics were right– I was being polemical while accusing others of being polemical without providing evidence of such. I am going to rethink my position instead of just confirming my biases, and I hope my critics will do the same regarding my point of view.”

    I’m on your side when it comes to your skepticism of new age “woo”… I am on your side when it comes to wanting it to be safe to be secular and for the skeptic community to be strong– I am NOT on your side when it comes to vilifying other atheists or trying to get them to be more like you.

    You are asking a group of unnamed people to change something about themselves that exists more in your head than in reality. I think you need to see outspoken atheists as the bad guy so you can feel good about your less popular methods. You are pretending to be about community building when you are actually being more divisive than those “gnu atheists” you criticize.

    People haven’t characterized you as the enemy– YOU have characterized “gnu atheists” as the enemy. And then you pouted when gnu atheists shared their opinion of your opinion in defense of your claims about them. Go ahead and take your ball and go home; we suspect the real reasons you won’t provide evidence is that you don’t have any. It seems your way of building a community is by finding a common enemy that you can imagine yourself superior to rather than being the inclusive person without enemies that you imagine yourself to be.

    My negative feelings towards you and the accommodationist crowd come from this bizarre need to vilify atheists who they think are “doing it wrong”. Prior to these outbursts, I seldom know who is and isn’t a “faitheist”. If you want to include “gnu atheists” in your community building, it’s probably best not to talk smack about them, eh? If you don’t care about them and their feelings, then you shouldn’t be surprised when that lack of concern is returned.

    What I’d like to know is what did you IMAGINE you’d accomplish with your first post? Did you think about it? What did you hope would happen?

  • Sara

    If a student ever doubts that reason is the slave of the passions, I need only direct him to the comments here.

  • articulett


    Was your April post supposed to be a “mockery” of the “gnu atheist” position?

    Do you think the Tom Johnson story supposed to be a “mockery”?

    Was Chris Mooney’s allegations that about new atheism making America less scientific supposed to be a “mockery”?

    Perhaps we have different definitions when it comes to words like “polemics” and “mockery”. Perhaps we should stick to the preferred dictionary definition of words if we continue this discussion?

    I don’t care what you call the above– lies, “mockery”, exaggerations, libel, unsubstantiated opinions or whatever– but what do you think they accomplish? And what are the new atheists saying that are the equivalent? (Please provide actual quotes and not your interpretations of what was said. I will provide your quotes, “Tom Johnson” quotes, and “Mooney” quotes for comparison.)

    Calling dishonest allegations “mockery” doesn’t really make it mockery, you know.

    I believe that your posts, like the the Tom Johnson Story and Chris Mooney’s claim were meant to support the accommodationist shared belief that the “strident” ways of the new atheists are hurting some cause. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    However, we have NOT established the extent that the vitriol , militancy, or incivility is real versus exaggerated nor whether the complainants are more or similarly vitriolic or uncivil. In fact, we do not even seem to agree on the basic meanings of some words. We have also not established whether gnu atheists are causing any actual harm to any goal. The main anecdotes claiming to illustrate such have turned out to be lies or gross misrepresentations. In your case, when asked to support the allegations, you demurred (As did Phil in his DBAD) speech. So, so far, we have NOTHING to support the accommodationist claim that the gnu atheists are harming any cause.

    So maybe you guys can quit with your “mockery” or whatever it is you want to call it… until you have actual evidence to support your beliefs about gnu atheist stridency harming some goal. Until then, you just appear to be engaging in anti-atheist bigotry from my perspective… even if you imagine you are engaging in “mockery” that is somehow equal to something the “gnu atheists” are saying.

  • Karla McLaren

    Oh articulett, thanks so much for your second comment. I really couldn’t get through the first one.

    Communication is about relationships, and we can’t have one if we don’t even have a shared conceptualization of what we’re talking about.

    So thanks for asking for clarification.

    I have to say that I don’t know Chris Mooney or the Tim Johnson story. I don’t belong to any group or faction, and I’m not in the in-crowd. I didn’t know there would be a test!

    First, I wasn’t engaging in mockery or attack. What was fascinating to me is how deeply personally some people took the first post, and then how those people brought in others to share and intensify their feelings of anger and betrayal. Instead of asking me what was going on, they told me who I was, what I said, how I think, and every other thing. It was as if I didn’t even need to be there — I became a non-person and also a hated adversary within a few days.

    It was a fascinating thing to watch sociologically, even if it made me feel physically ill as an individual.

    In that way, I think the community that has coalesced around the self-identified gnus is successful, though it’s not a form of success that I would champion.

    But I don’t enjoy large groups, or a group mindset, or having followers. It just never seems to turn out well, in my estimation.

    So, are you seeking information that would contradict the hypothesis that confrontational attacks are always benign? I have plenty of it from the social sciences, but that’s one of the forbidden topics in many areas of the secular movement, so I hesitate to bring it in and then merely intensify hostilities.

    Or are you seeking examples of hostility, vitriol, and incivility, besides what we already have here? And then do you want to be the final arbiter of what, in your estimation, is uncivil and vitriolic? Or are you interested in having a dialogue about it?

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    Karla, a lot of the issues you talk about have been addressed by Paul W. in this article. I would strongly suggest you read it, as you seem to be unaware of a lot of basic issues that have been discussed repeatedly in the “accommodationist versus gnu” debates. (If you have not heard of the term “Overton window” before, please look it up when you come to the relevant passage in Paul’s article, because understanding this concept is essential.) I think after you read it you will have a much better understanding of the differences between the two points of view.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    Another article that does a good job addressing some of the crucial differences between these points of view is this one by Jason Rosenhouse. (It’s long, but well worth reading all the way through.)

  • articulett


    I was just curious about your goals. They were purportedly about secular community building. You attacked gnu atheists n 2 polemical pieces and used their responses as evidence to support your belief that gnu atheists are polemical and doing harm to some cause. Congratulations, you confirmed your biases with the equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophesy. What else can you do when you have no evidence to support what you feel superior for believing, eh? In your mind you were perfectly “moderate” and everyone else is vitriolic and mean and unfair. But that’s not how it reads to this outsider.

    You, apparently, expected people to respond differently to your opinion of them then you responded to their return opinion of you. As the kiddies say, “you can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” You want the freedom to tell others that their rhetoric is harming some cause, but you don’t want them telling you that your rhetoric might be equally or more harmful.

    I don’t have the hypothesis that confrontational attacks are always benign (that is your straw man)… I thought your confrontational unsupported attack of unnamed new atheists was NOT benign– in fact, I thought it was prejudice promoting which is why I responded. I don’t think you were any more civil than those you were accusing of vitriol, in fact. I think posts like yours do more harm to your stated goals than those you are criticizing.

    You claimed to want to be about building a secular community– your method appears to be vilification of certain atheists and telling people to do as you say and not as you demonstrated in these 2 blog pieces. I don’t think you have the expertise in secular community building that you imagine you have, but it’s a nice goal. I’m all for the goal.

    I suppose it doesn’t matter that you didn’t read what I wrote; I don’t think I’ll be reading much more of what you write either. I prefer those you criticize and find you a lot less “moderate” and civil than you imagine yourself to be.

    If you find yourself having problems building a secular community, it might be because you’ve vilified a group of people that could have been your allies. Nobody told you to be more like them– they just asked you to back up your allegations or quit with with the anti-atheist bigotry. You might want to familiarize yourself with the “Tom Johnson affair” to understand why people aren’t perceiving your goals to be what you say they are.

    If your goal is to raise the level of discourse, then I suggest you start by raising your own level of discourse. Allegations about “gnu atheists” without evidence are “Tom Johnson” stories in my book. Your criticism of others is more fitting of you.

    I don’t think you are capable of dialogue on the subject of how best to achieve harmony in the secular community because of your implicit bias against critics of faith.

  • articulett

    For those interested in why gnu atheists may be defensive regarding attacks upon their supposed incivility without appropriate links, I suggest you google: “On the incivility of atheists: “Tom Johnson” and Exhibit A” where Jerry Coyne recaps the majority of what happened.

    Apparently, you can say any horrid thing you want about unnamed atheists and people are supposed to nod in agreement because “everyone knows” they are out there “harming the cause”.

    How does this make a better world for atheists now and in the future?

  • Rieux


    I did skim your previous comments because they use words like lying, attack, and so forth. Sorry, but I find it tiring.

    I imagine that a large proportion of people “find it tiring” to be called out on their misbehavior, but that seems to me to be a poor excuse for failing to take responsibility for the advocacy that you have put out into the world.

    Certainly I used the words “lying” and “attack.” I also documented, at some length, the basis for my accusations regarding lying—that is, the specific falsehoods you told in your April 26 post. “I don’t like being accused of lying” is not, I hope it’s clear, a very good defense against a substantiated case that you lied.

    As for “attack,” I’m a little taken aback, this evening, that you seriously think your posts have not attacked Gnu Atheists. That implies a troubling level of self-serving denial about the things you actually wrote. You declared that The God Delusion, among other best-selling Gnu works, is “a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.” You accused Gnus of “pejoratively branding” people with the ugly epithet “accommodationist” merely because the people in question failed to be “offended by religion, or … actively work[ed] to understand and communicate with religious people.” How in the world can you pretend that those assertions are not “attack”s?

    You also declared that Gnu Atheism, as mere “bomb”-throwing polemicism, was incapable of building community—a position I’m somewhat encouraged to see you retreating from this evening (though notably you haven’t seen fit to explicitly retract it, which I’m afraid reflects poorly on you). Pretending that Gnus can’t be community builders is clearly an attack as well, and again I have a difficult time understanding how you’ve talked yourself into thinking it’s anything but.

    It seems that you also find it tiring to read what you propose are direct attacks against you and your community’s tactics.

    I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “tactics” on this blog. I am not particularly interested in discussing tactics with you. Instead, I am here to discuss the issues you raised with your misrepresentations about Gnu Atheists on April 26 and then reintroduced here. I am not going to participate in your attempt to shift the subject away from the actual things you wrote about Gnus.

    You seem to see in my posts the position of enmity.

    Yes. False and dishonest attacks frequently come off that way.

    But see, I don’t see you as an enemy….

    Like “tactics,” I haven’t used the word “enemy,” either (except for quoting one instance upthread from your use of it). To the contrary, I have referred to your treatment of your opponents and interlocutors, terms that have the benefit of being notably less emotively loaded than “enemies.”

    I’m not interested in your continuing attempts to divert, distract, and deflect this discussion away from the irresponsible points you raised on April 26. You substantively misrepresented Gnu Atheism and Gnu Atheists in that post. You were wrong to do so. The antipathy you have encountered since then has been a direct product of your misrepresentations. That, including whatever explanations you have for having written what you wrote, is relevant. Baseless notions about my supposed attitude toward “enemies” are not.

    I can certainly decide that, if you persist in abuse….

    It takes some serious gall for the woman who declared Daniel Dennett part of the “Fractious Four” and accused Richard Dawkins of writing The God Delusion “not just with anger, but with rage” to claim that criticism directed at her for saying such false and offensive things is “abuse.”

    My criticism of your work is not abuse, it is opprobrium. I have accused you of ethical misconduct, and I have substantiated my accusation. You are welcome to explain why you think I am mistaken to draw the conclusions I have, but complaining that it’s abusive to call you on the carpet for what you have demonstrably done mocks the very notion of abuse.

    So here’s a question I have for you directly. If mockery and shaming are such excellent tactics, why are you and your community so horrified by what you allege to be my mockery of your positions?

    Again: no. I have no interest in discussing tactics with you (though I see that Hamilton Jacobi, the honored coiner of the term “Gnu Atheism,” is giving it a quixotic shot. Go get ‘em, Good Cop).

    And I have no idea where you get the notion that I have “allege[d]” your work “to be [a] mockery of [Gnu] positions.” I haven’t. I have alleged that your April 26 post contains a number of offensive falsehoods, and that you have been regrettably avoiding addressing that problem ever since. Mockery is unconnected to anything I’ve posted here.

    And if I did mock you with malign intent because I allegedly find your position irredeemable…..

    Again: where in the world are you getting this stuff? Where have I said anything that bears the slightest resemblance to that? Is dealing with your opponents’ contentions accurately something you care about at all?

    What was fascinating to me is how deeply personally some people took the first post, and then how those people brought in others to share and intensify their feelings of anger and betrayal. Instead of asking me what was going on, they told me who I was, what I said, how I think, and every other thing.

    Wait—what you said? Do you seriously think that’s disputable?

    I’m not clear on how far down a postmodernist rabbit-hole you’re expecting us to follow you here. Are you asserting that you may or may not have “said” the things written under your byline on NonProphet Status on April 26? When I visit that web page, I see several hundred words in literal black-and-white that are credited to you—which is why, in my previous comment, I called “what you said” an example of a “historical fact.” It’s not objectionable for your critics to tell you what you said because you said it. You really did declare that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have written “deeply emotional appeal[s] made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.”

    How can you complain that we’re telling you “what you said”? That is what you said. Those are the precise words; you can read them for yourself. What kind of a complaint is that?

    But fine, maybe that’s the point we have to go to now:

    * The NonProphet Status blog page carrying your April 26 post shows you asserting that “Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion,” and that a polemic is “a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.” Is that not what you said?

    * The NonProphet Status blog page carrying your April 26 post shows you asserting that “the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas [i.e., skeptical analyses of 'the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism'] forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them.” Is that not what you said?

    * The NonProphet Status blog page carrying your April 26 post shows you asserting that “A number of atheists have taken the work of the Fractious Four to heart, and they’re fighting to utilize polemicism as the leading voice of the atheist movement (this is the New Atheism), such that atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as ‘accommodationists.’ The idea is that if you don’t continually and loudly protest all things religious, spiritual, and supernatural, then you are tacitly agreeing with and supporting them.” Is that not what you said?

    * The NonProphet Status blog page carrying your April 26 post shows you asserting that “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.” Is that not what you said?

    If those things are “what you said,” then let us not have any more complaining about people telling you that those things are what you said. They demonstrably are.

    With that point settled, I’m hoping we can move on to discussing why each of the above-quoted statements is an offensive misrepresentation of who Gnu Atheists are, what we have done, and what we are continuing to do. That, notwithstanding your attempts to change the subject by introducing distractions about “tactics,” “mockery,” and “enemies,” is the issue that you and your April assertions have brought up here. That’s what, it seems to me, you owe it to your opponents (and to any claim you make to integrity and honesty) to address.

  • designsoda

    Karla wrote:

    “Oh articulett, thanks so much for your second comment. I really couldn’t get through the first one.”

    So basically: tl;dr


    If you care about communication and community building as you claim you do, you probably want to at least pretend to care about the conversation at hand.

  • A. Noyd

    And I know, because it’s what happens, that the answers will be, nope, nuh uh, and you can’t be serious!

    Oh, well, that’s that, is it? You already know that our answers will be biased, thoughtless dismissals, so it’s just the same as if you’d presented us with proper examples to support your assertions. Not good enough.

    I have no idea where to go from here. We have no relationship, no shared referents beyond secularism, and for those who have characterized me as the enemy, there is no way to hear me without crossed arms or raised fists. … So I am actually prevented from entering into a conversation under these conditions, and I won’t enter into a brawl.

    You continue to lie about your critics, painting us as violent (??!?), and then you say it’s our fault you can’t respond to us (other than by more passive aggressive sniping, apparently) because you’re so much better than that. What’s especially absurd is that the style of argumentation on which you’re basing this idea we characterize you as “the enemy” is one that Gnus use between one another all the time. You don’t have to like our style, but you can’t use it to talk about how special you are.

    If mockery and shaming are such excellent tactics, why are you and your community so horrified by what you allege to be my mockery of your positions?

    Gnu atheists prize substance and candor above all. If you were mocking the Gnu atheist position, no one would be horrified. We’re not hypocrites; we can take what we dish out. People are upset with you because you’re making accusations without backing them up. In fact, you’re repeatedly excusing yourself from offering evidence and trying to interpret our feelings for us after ignoring whatever responses you find too harsh. You’re not doing your homework and learning the history of the interactions between accomodationists and new atheists, either. And then you’re blaming your failure to communicate on everyone else. It’s pathetic.

    [C]an you tell me how the digging in, intensified group-cohesion around seemingly attacked positions, and orchestrated group-led attacks on me might rather support my position that mockery is a rotten tactic that backfires?

    Can you tell me what method you use to tell “digging in, intensified group-cohesion” and “orchestrated group-led attacks” apart from “individuals independently telling you that you’re wrong” and “responses that look similar because you are, in fact, wrong”?

  • articulett

    @Hamilton Jacobi–

    Thanks for the link to Jason’s post. I had missed it before– ’twas awesome. The responses were great too.

  • designsoda

    Sorry, I just had to make a note of Ms. McLaren not being bothered to read some of the longer posts.

    Her April 26th post was 2000+ words long.

    Her May 23rd post is 1300+ words long.

    articulett writes an 1800+ word long post responding to her 3300+ words, but that’s too long for her to read.


  • Rieux

    My last effort was a little under 1,550 words, though almost 500 of them were quotations from McLaren. I wonder if I should feel good or bad about that.

  • articulett

    Her posts may not have been worth reading, but the responses were. (And I really liked the “stabbed in the back” metaphor cartoon.)

    Also, there was the opportunity to raise consciousness about the whole “Tom Johnson affair” so that there is more awareness of anti-atheist bigotry and, thus, fewer people engaging in it while claiming they are “incorporating more dialectics into the atheist movement” or “building an inclusive community” or whatever.

  • Paul W.

    I think a little clarification is in order about accusations that Karla is “lying.”

    I think a better term for what she’s doing is “defamatory bullshitting,” but it takes some explaining to say why it’s fair to call that lying.

    Here’s an analogy:

    Suppose that I honestly think that Dick Cheney is very probably a wife-beater, because I am sure he’s a sufficiently ruthless power-mad patriarchal asshole that it’s a very good bet he beats his wife, too.

    If I trust sufficiently in my ability to infer such things about his mental state and likely actions, I may more or less honestly say that “Dick Cheney is a wife-beater”—but not honestly enough.

    By asserting that Dick Cheney IS a wife beater, rather than hedging and saying something like “I’d bet big money he’s a wife beater,” I’m overstating my knowledge of Dick Cheney. I’m asserting something important for which I have no special evidence, and for which there is no demonstrable reason for other people to trust my peculiar inferences.

    That violates a basic rule of human communication. If you don’t have special knowledge or unassailable logic for an extreme claim, you’re supposed to hedge it in some way. (E.g. instead of saying just X, you’re supposed to say something like “it seems clear to me that X”—and probably be willing to explain why it seems clear to you, if it’s not clear to others.)

    If I say flatly that “Dick Cheney is a wife-beater,” I may honestly believe that it’s very probably true, but it’s still an outrageous lie—I’m violating the norms of honest communication by failing to acknowledge that I have no real, uncontroversial way of knowing that, and that you’d have to put extraordinary trust in my peculiar judgment to believe it on my say-so.

    I think that Karla has done something similar with her assertions about her “Fractious Four”—she is quite overconfident of her ability to infer things about the gnus’ mental states, e.g., that their “polemics” are

    “deeply emotional appeal[s] made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.”

    These inferences of hers are just ridiculous. Even the gnus’ staunchest critics generally do not quite infer such extreme things about the gnus. For example, the leading gnu-bashing accommodationist philosopher Michael Ruse says that the gnus are very moral people, which very much doubt he would say if his reading of their books jibed with Karla’s.

    Karla has made extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence, and made those claims flatly, with no hedging. For example, she doesn’t say “it seems quite clear to me, in my expert psychoanalytic and literary judgment” that the gnus doing what she says in the way she says, for the reasons she says, and with the implications she says.

    She just makes extreme flat claims, as though she could know, and as though almost everybody else who’s read the gnus—including most accommodationists—has misunderstood them, not detecting the extreme depth of the gnus’ alleged rage, contempt for compassion, and so on.

    She makes those despite clear evidence from all the books she mentions that the gnus are driven largely by compassionate concerns about the consequences of religious belief, and a belief that religious people in general are people worthy of honest, truthful communication.

    A good example of Karla’s outrageous misreading is her interpretation of Dawkins remarks about “irremediably religious people.” Dawkins is clearly explaining a triage choice of the sort everybody makes—including all accommodationists that I know of. He’s NOT saying that very committedly very religious people are morally unworthy, or irredeemabe in a general sense—just that sometimes it makes sense to try to reach reachable people even at the expense of alienating unreachable people.

    That is precisely the strategic triage rationale of accommodationists like Mooney with regard to selling evolution—fundamentalists are mostly unreachable, and if pimping liberal theology to sway the middle alienates them, that’s just too bad.

    By Karla’s logic, we could paint, say, Chris Mooney or Genie Scott as a horrible nasty person who doesn’t value fundamentalists as caring people with moral worth, because when faced with a choice, they choose to cater to less extreme or orthodox religious people instead, and risk alienating that segment of the population.

    That would be an outrageous accusation, and it’s similarly outrageous to paint Dawkins with that brush.

    Dawkins does not think that very religious people are morally unworthy, as individuals—he thinks they’ve victims of a socially sanctioned popular delusion. (Precisely NOT in the sense of being individually insane, like paranoid schizophrenics or florid bipolars, as Karla would have us believe, but in the sense of being led astray by “popular delusions” and the “madness of crowds.”)

    Anybody who reads major gnus with comprehension knows that Karla is wrong in her extreme and unhedged assertions about what and how they think, unless Karla has some magical mindreading ability that almost all of the rest of us lack—most leading gnu-bashing accommodationists included.

    She’s bullshitting, making extraordinary claims that demand extraordinary evidence, and refusing to provide that evidence. How exactly does she understand gnu beliefs and attitudes better than gnus themselves, and better than most of their ardent critics, to boot?

    Suppose that Rush Limbaugh, in his infinite wisdom, flatly contradicted Barak Obama’s stated beliefs and motivations, and accused Obama of intentionally and calculatedly trying to destroy America and institute an Islamic state in the US.

    If we think that’s not only false but quite implausible, should we hesitate to call that a “lie”? Does the possibility that Limbaugh actually believes his first-order claims get him off the hook, or is he still on the hook for “lying” because of the implicit, second-order claim that he knows such things?

    Perhaps we should avoid saying that Rush Limbaugh lies about such things, because that tends to derail the discussion into exactly when irresponsible, implausible, overzealous, defamatory bullshit becomes “lying,” and in what sense.

    Still, at the bottom line, it’s a lie of some sort—even if the claim is honestly believed, and even if by some freak of nature it’s true, it’s not a clearly justified true belief, and it’s being flatly stated as one.

    Karla may honestly believe that the gnus think and act in the heartless, vicious ways she says for the deeply depraved compassion-scorning, inhumane reasons she thinks they do. But perhaps she’s a bit deluded on that point. (Not just mistaken, but mildly deluded, because she’s quite resistant both to issues of actual evidence and the usual social sanity checks, e.g., noticing that her views of gnus are quite extreme even by the standards of gnu-bashing accommodationists. That should be a red flag.)

    Karla may honestly believe that she’s such an exquisite judge of both literature and character that she understands gnu “polemics” and their real motivations better than us gnus, AND better than almost all of the leading accommodationists, such that she can confidently and flatly make her quite extraordinary claims.

    Whether or not you want to call her unsupported and insupportably extreme claims “lies,” they’re clearly defamatory bullshit.

    Kooky, too.

  • StaticMotion

    I did skim your previous comments because they use words like lying, attack, and so forth.

    Oh articulett, thanks so much for your second comment. I really couldn’t get through the first one.

    Karla, if you can’t even be bothered to read other people’s posts, how do you figure out what they’re actually saying?

    If you just assume what other people are saying, it’s no wonder you misrepresent them. That’s intellectually lazy, if not willfully ignorant.

    From that I get the impression that you’re not as good at communication as you think you are.

    Just because you encounter words you don’t like, you can’t simply dismiss the actual arguments and criticisms.

    Also, I wonder why do you even care to write blog posts if you’re not willing to fully engage responding critics? If you want to convince others of the validity of your opinion, you should be able to defend it.

  • gillt

    If you’re talking about Accommodationism and Gnu Atheism on the internet, you’re familiar with Chris Mooney and if you’re familiar with both you should be familiar with the “Tom Johnson affair.”

    It isn’t about belonging to a “faction” or an “in-crowd.” It’s basic background information on those you’re trying to engage in conversation. Do your homework!

  • Charles


    She makes those despite clear evidence from all the books she mentions that the gnus are driven largely by compassionate concerns about the consequences of religious belief, and a belief that religious people in general are people worthy of honest, truthful communication.

    You said “books”, which makes this OK. If you included the blogosphere then the claim would be untenable. The books stand in stark contrast to the online behavior of the masses. When Karla mentions “community” I assume she is referring at least in part to the online community.

    I think Karla is just misattributing the cause. It’s not the books which are “making our secular community look like a vitriolic mob”, it’s the Internet.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Well, that’s just yet more generalized bashing. “The blogosphere”? The whole blogosphere is full of bad people? The whole atheist blogosphere (which, needless to say, is a tiny fraction of the blogosphere itself)? The nasty-atheist blogosphere? Some atheist bloggers some of the time? Some bloggers as opposed to commenters, or some commenters as opposed to bloggers? Or what?

  • Benjamin S Nelson

    Karla, I think you should ignore the melodramatic posturing of anonymous and pseudonymous users on the internet (who are, I think, the people you had in mind as the ‘tertiaries’). It’s not fair — for yourself, or others — to judge a movement according to commentators who cower behind anonymity. You’re bound to get a distorted picture, and to wrongfully disseminate that picture in other fora.

  • Karla McLaren

    Wow y’all. I’ve been working today, and I’m clearly not able to spend the kind of time online that seems necessary for this situation.

    But it almost seems as if my presence isn’t required. There’s a version here of this Karla person that you’ve all decided to engage with. I don’t know her, and I don’t know any of you either.

    So for this actual, living Karla to comment .. I honestly think it breaks the flow of the gig.

    I think, though I’m not certain of it, that if we met in person, we could iron this out in some form. But this online interaction, wow, it’s so gruelingly time consuming and really doesn’t offer anything tenable or engaging.

    At least it doesn’t for me. It just makes me exhausted. I know that this disapprobation is supposed to frighten or anger me, or silence me, or force me to explain myself in the exact way you’ve decided I must do, but honestly, it just makes me tired.

    So if you need to see this as a fight, then you win. You’ve completely worn me out. But if you saw this as communication, then this is a failure. I’ll take my portion of that failure, because people warned me that I should never attempt this.

    Okay, they were right. This situation is not addressable. Thanks to those of you who tried to engage. I’m sure we’ll see each other around the interwebs.

  • articulett

    Just because somebody hurts your feelings, Charles, doesn’t mean that there’s a vitriolic mob “out there” doing harm to some cause. It could be that the “vitriolic mob” you see is a result of your own biases akin to the religious right thinking that there are a league of gay folks trying to recruit their children. Without actual evidence, we don’t know what the hell you are talking about. We do know that when we go to investigate these claims they seem to be built more on exaggerations, self-righteousness and hurt feelings than anything else– a way of making the aspersion caster feel superior to those “evil others”. We also know that people find evidence for what they’ve come to believe and negate evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias) making it difficult to change their minds once a prejudice takes hold.

    Henceforth, when people make these sorts of aspersions without evidence to back them up, I will consider them “Tom Johnson” stories and the tellers of such tales on par with “Tom Johnson”. These are not people I consider to be on my side in any cause. They further prejudice against people like myself and some of the greatest people I have he privilege of knowing while imagining themselves being diplomatic. In my opinion, they deserve the shunning of those they malign despite their cries that everyone is being mean to them. What else is one to do with a person who tells “Tom Johnson” tales?

  • Paul W.

    Carla, we know you’re tired.

    We’re tired too. We’re tired of hearing unsubstantiated broad-brush accusations, with little to back them up.

    We’re tired of your copping out and failing to justify your rather extreme accusations.

    We’d like you to address the actual bones of contention, rather than repeatedly dodging them with vague—and to our minds, false—generalizations.

    It’s tiresome.

  • Paul W.

    Benjamin S Nelson,

    I’m curious what and who you mean by “melodramatic posturing” by people “cowering behind” anonymity and pseudonymity.

    Are you talking about anonymous and pseudonymous people here in this thread?

    Does that include, say, me, or Rieux?

    Please, be clear and specific enough that we can tell whether we’re the people being referred to.

  • gillt

    Just so I’m clear. Karla McClaren’s portion of the blame for failing to communicate with her intended audience was not in failing to communicate but in failing to take the advice of others who warned that her target audience cannot be talked to. The rest of the blame falls on her target audience. Wait, that isn’t clear at all.

  • Rieux


    But it almost seems as if my presence isn’t required. There’s a version here of this Karla person that you’ve all decided to engage with.

    No. I have “engaged” with the Karla McLaren who wrote an ugly article on this weblog on April 26. I have “engaged with” the specific declarations you made—at great length and in considerable detail. The “version here of this Karla person” I spoke to in my comment last evening is the version you presented of yourself, to the tune of nearly five hundred words’ worth of quotations.

    How disheartening. You see fit to cast severe and inaccurate aspersions on innocent people, and then when called on such behavior, you entirely refuse to stand behind what you have written. I’m sorry, but you simply lack integrity.

  • articulett

    Yes, Karla…

    You tell “Tom Johnson” tales, and you get treated like “Tom Johnson” did.

    What a surprise!

    I’m sure “Tom Johnson” considers it all horrifically unfair too.

    Your foresight (or psychic abilities) should have let you know that when you spread hateful prejudices against a group of people under the guise of trying to foster civil discourse and then refuse to provide evidence, cry “poor me”, when they respond with ire, and refuse to answer questions (or even read responses) –then people might feel insulted enough to demonstrate the vitriol you’ve already accused them of.

    Go cry on “Tom Johnson’s” shoulder– I hear he agrees with you about how horrible those gnu atheists are.

    Or grow up and apologize. This isn’t about your hurt feelings– it’s about your gross mischaracterization of an entire group of people, the anti-atheist bigotry it foments, and your refusal to take responsibility for having done such– just like “Tom Johnson”.

    How would you with all your “sociological” and accommodating expertise suggest that “gnu atheists” handle “Tom Johnson” stories? How could you with your “sociological fascination” have thought these sort of posts would foster civil discourse? Did you really think YOU were being civil? More civil than the unnamed atheists you were taking digs at? More civil than “Tom Johnson”? –Oh that’s right– you don’t have time to read up on the Tom Johnson story.

    I think many gnu atheists share your goals, but your throwing us under the bus seems a piss-poor way to achieve them.

  • designsoda

    **Looks like my port may have been swallowed in web disconnection accident.** :)

    Here it is again and I hope it’s not a double post:


    Karla wrote:

    ” But if you saw this as communication, then this is a failure. I’ll take my portion of that failure, because people warned me that I should never attempt this.”

    No, no, no. The failure is yours. Your points have been addressed thoroughly and explicitly. Your posts have been quoted and responded to very clearly. Yet, you keep demurring and you keep admitting you are not reading the responses to your posts.

    Enough with the passive aggressive blame game. “My portion of the blame” my foot!

    Karla wrote:

    “This situation is not addressable.”

    It’s addressable, you’ve just chosen to bow out because you are incapable of standing by your own article.

  • A. Noyd

    I know that this disapprobation is supposed to frighten or anger me, or silence me, or force me to explain myself in the exact way you’ve decided I must do, but honestly, it just makes me tired.

    No, you don’t know that, Karla. You admit you can’t even be bothered to read all of what we’re saying, so what would you even base that knowledge on? Psychic intuition, perhaps? You’ve accused us of making up a version of you to engage with, but that’s actually what you are doing to us. You’re telling us you know what our goal is in criticizing you. I don’t need to make up what you think because the real you has stated it quite plainly in what I quoted above.

    You don’t know our motivations (though you could if you would read our responses and ask us honest questions). And you don’t “know, because it’s what happens,” if you offer evidence for your assertions “that the answers will be, nope, nuh uh, and you can’t be serious.” Your words again, from above. You need to understand the limits of your knowledge and stop telling us what we think and feel.

  • Wonderist

    I agree with Polly O!

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    Karla, you seem to think that we are the many heads of the Hydra, but really we’re just ordinary people (most of whom don’t know each other, apart from occasionally commenting on the same blogs) who individually read your articles and independently came to the conclusion that they were severely flawed.

    In a couple of posts higher up, I suggested some articles you could read to get a better understanding of where your critics are coming from. It is disappointing to see that you have chosen to bury your head in the sand rather than take the opportunity to learn something new and engage in an honest dialog.

  • Wonderist


    You probably don’t realize this, but what you have done with these 2 articles and your responses in the comments, is very unethical behaviour. It is, quite literally, bigotry.

    I’ll repeat that to give it a chance to sink in. Your behaviour on this matter is bigotry. Yes. And I’m calm and serious when I state that. It is not hyperbole. I am not in a rage. I’m not in despair. I’m not shaking a fist, and I don’t consider you an ‘enemy’. But yes, I do consider your behaviour to be bigotry.

    Let me explain.

    First, from my own personal experience. For most of my life, I’ve attempted to be as non-discriminating as I could be, after having experienced some discrimination against myself when I was young. So, I tried as hard as I could to be a non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-racist, white guy. Well, I think I succeeded at being non-sexist, but for a long time I was unconsciously failing at being non-homophobic and non-racist.

    It took gaining a much deeper understanding of human evolution (e.g. our common ancestry from Africa, and the relatively very short interval of time modern humans have been around) to finally ‘get’ the idea that the concept of different human ‘races’ has absolutely zero scientific support. We are all the same race, the same species. I don’t even consider myself a ‘white’ guy anymore. I’m just a guy who happens to have relatively pale skin, just the same as I have brown eyes and hair. I absolutely do not deny the historical and continued persistence of the major problem of racism, and I support all efforts to eliminate racial prejudice. But finally understanding that ‘race’ itself is just a mistaken idea altogether changed my perspective subtly, and I see the problem of racism not as a problem of ‘races’ getting along, but of eliminating the belief in racism altogether. Gaining this understanding shifted my view of the world to be more in accordance with reality. Things made a lot more sense after that.

    Similarly, for a long time I was ‘uncomfortable’ with the idea of homosexuality, and unconsciously fearful of homosexual people. While I tried to be ‘non-homophobic’, my unconscious bias was (in hindsight) unmistakeable. It took becoming good friends with an openly gay man, and realizing that nothing weird was happening, to finally ‘get’ the idea that homosexuality is just a sexual preference. I don’t have a problem with hetero women being attracted to men, so why should I have a problem with homosexual men being attracted to men also?

    Coming to the latter realization changed my unconscious views about sexuality radically, and all the unconscious fears I had basically disappeared. I’m very glad those scales fell off my eyes, because I’m embarrassed to say that I was prejudiced against homosexuals and people with other sexualities before that, even though I tried not to be.

    Due to these personal biases, I engaged in occasional bigotry (such as jokes) without consciously realizing it (I thought it was harmless). After realizing my biases, I ‘get’ why my actions were bigoted, and why I wouldn’t want to do them again, and also why I should stand up and point out when others engage in similar bigotry.

    Second, in discussions and debates with many theists and pseudo-science believers, and in studying psychology, sociology, philosophy, logic, and science, one comes to understand a bit about how unconscious biases and beliefs can shape not only how a person perceives the world, but also how a person interacts with the world.

    There are a couple of major mechanisms I’d like to call to your attention. One goes by a few different names: A belief bubble, reality bubble, Jesus goggles, that kind of thing.

    This occurs when certain ungrounded beliefs so alter ones perceptions of a certain phenomenon (such as a creationist or a climate denialist examining the evidence of evolution or global warming) that the person tends to interpret the evidence in almost *exactly* the opposite way it should be, and so that it reinforces their ungrounded belief rather than disconfirming it.

    It appears to me that you are living in a reality bubble where you interpret the plainly reasonable responses of gnu atheists as violent, extreme, threatening, and generally wanting to silence you, when in fact this is almost the exact opposite of reality.

    Second, and closely related (perhaps so close as to be easily confused as the same) is the tendency for people to be subject to confirmation bias, when a person ‘remembers the hits and forgets the misses’, and essentially filters out evidence against an already held belief, and cherry picks evidence to support it. All of this occurring subconsciously, of course.

    I believe you are suffering from confirmation bias when you poke sticks at gnus and then use their inevitable reactions (at being poked at) as evidence for their *general* demeanor (when not being poked at).

    These (and a few other) psychological tendencies appear to me to be the root cause of your bigotry against gnus. It is my hope that eventually you come to an awareness of your own biases and realize your bigotry for what it truly is: bigotry.

    Consider this: You appeared to be extremely perplexed by the reaction you received, and apparently dumbfounded that gnus would respond so negatively to what you believe to be two entirely reasonable posts. You state that you find it very strange that we should ask you for specific examples of this terrible behaviour you claim gnus commit. And yet, I guarantee you that you will be unable to find any significant instances of the behaviour you believe is so obvious and commonplace. All you have to do is look for it, collect it, and prepare a response. You don’t even have to post the response. Just the act of looking for the evidence will magically cause it to disappear before your very eyes. And that is because it doesn’t exist. Just like the ‘evidence’ for all the claims of religion do not exist. The ‘evidence’ is all in the reality bubble in which such believers live their mental lives. It does not actually exist in reality. If it did, you would be able to show it to us. You cannot. I dare you to try. (This is a friendly dare, as in, “C’mon, just give it a try.”) It just might help you break out of your reality bubble if you do.

    Do you consider the possibility that you *might* be wrong? This is the definition of open-mindedness.

    Try considering that humble possibility, and try looking at it from the perspective of the people who have repeatedly told you they are deeply offended by your actions.

    Isn’t it a possibility that you could be operating under unconscious biases and prejudices? I was (and am) willing to publicly admit when I have been wrong in the past. It is actually a very liberating thing to do. Are you also willing?

    Good luck. Overcoming unconscious bias is a fairly difficult thing to do, but entirely worth it for its own sake.

  • Benjamin S Nelson

    Paul, I don’t want to be more specific about individuals, because I’m critiquing behavior, not people. But I do think I ought to be more specific about the behavior that I think is maudlin.

    Like you, I don’t think the claim about lying is warranted or appropriate. Also, I think that when people write these sorts of accusations in ALLCAPS it makes it seem like they’re the reincarnation of Owen Meaney.

    I don’t care about anonymity itself. Rather, I’m annoyed that people are proud to toss these sorts of allegations from an anonymous standpoint. It just adds to the impression (rightly or wrongly) that some commentators want to be treated more like feisty people on the internet than members of a community of lively critics. But maybe this is just me being peevish.

  • designsoda

    “But maybe this is just me being peevish.”

    There are 97 posts in this thread.

    4 of those 97 have ALL CAPS passages on them (not including yours or mine right now).

    2 of those 4 are defending or praising Ms Mclaren

    2 of those 4 are criticizing Ms. McLaren

    And 1 of THOSE 2 has the accusation of “LIAR” in ALL CAPS.

    So yeah, you might be being a little peevish. Not being more specific about an observation like yours makes it sound as if it’s more widespread than it really is. Hence the continued request for examples of any kind of the behavior described by critics of the gnu-atheists.

  • articulett

    As for anonymity, I look forward to a time when I can be out as an atheist using my real name and not have to worry about possible reprisal due to anti-atheist bigotry.

    I’ve experienced enough of that already which is why I work to fight against such bigotry.

  • Tufty

    Benjamin, critiquing behaviours is fine, but unless you can show that such behaviours are actually a prevalent problem, it’s like complaining about all the tigers holding up traffic on the motorway. Yes, we can all agree that tigers on the motorway would be quite a big problem, but I can generously says that it is somewhat rare.

    You also have to be aware that arseholes on the internet are a kind of white noise that should be filtered out, and they are not representative of any one group any more than the WBC is representative of christians, the BNP are representatives of England or Simon Cowell is a representative of parasitic leeches. You are going to get trolls settling down on every side of every fence.

    Wonderist’s post above about unconscious bigotry is fantastic. Everyone should read it. I want to put it in a book and hit people with it until the world is a better place. I am not ashamed to admit that reading it 5 minutes ago has set me on the path of attempting to rewire my brain, in the hopes that I can achieve a similar epiphany.

  • articulett

    Don’t be a dick, Karla.

  • Svlad Cjelli

    “Wow y’all. I’ve been working today, and I’m clearly not able to spend the kind of time online that seems necessary for this situation.

    But it almost seems as if my presence isn’t required. There’s a version here of this Karla person that you’ve all decided to engage with. I don’t know her, and I don’t know any of you either.

    So for this actual, living Karla to comment .. I honestly think it breaks the flow of the gig.

    I think, though I’m not certain of it, that if we met in person, we could iron this out in some form. But this online interaction, wow, it’s so gruelingly time consuming and really doesn’t offer anything tenable or engaging.”

    Oh, jiminy jillikers! Look at the time!

    You’re a fucking cartoon, McKlaren.

    I also think we are done here, actually.

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  • Benjamin S Nelson

    Design, I’m confused. Through the use of careful reading of the thread and proper inference with respect to its contents, you’ve successfully made my generic claim specific. So you now must have no doubt about what I had in mind. So what else were you asking for? I’m not going to point fingers, but you can’t possibly think that I don’t have specific behaviors (and accusations) in mind. I totally do. It’s not like I’m Dr. Moriarty, hiding secret clues and riddles.

    Tufty, it’s neither here nor there whether or not it’s widespread. I was just giving some prudential advice to McLaren for when it does happen, as I think it did here. To use your analogy, sure, tigers aren’t usually on the highway, but when they’re there, I get to talk about it.

    I agree that Wonderist’s post is quite good. However, I hesitate to use the word “bigotry” in association with mistakes in perceptions against those who possess a creed or ideology (as opposed to race, gender, etc.) If a bigot is someone who is “obstinate” about their beliefs and “intolerant” and holds “animosity” towards those who do not have those beliefs, then pretty much all ideologues are bigots. But that seems like a silly conclusion, for then much of academia would turn out to be bigots by trade.

    Also totally true, what you said about white noise — but that’s another way of phrasing my point to Karla.

  • articulett


    Maybe “bigotry” is too harsh a term and “implicit bias” is better.

    I suspect few prejudicial people think of themselves as being bigoted. Do you think Ted Haggard thinks he was bigoted towards homosexuals? Do you think homosexuals cannot be bigoted against homosexuals? Do you think bigotry is the wrong term when it comes to stories smearing homosexuals as a group? Or is it just the wrong term to use when trying to get people to become aware of their prejudices?

    Maybe the fact that this sort of smear is seen as “no big deal” when it is used to denigrate atheists but would be seen as “bigotry” if similar tactics were used to foment animosity towards homosexuals, Jews, or any other group has to do with your own implicit bias. How would you know if it did?

    Whatever you want to call it, I’m glad for the people who raise awareness on the topic so that there will be less of this “implicit bias” in the future. To me, people like Karla– whether they are aware of it or not– are furthering prejudice against atheists –making it harder for atheists to come out of the closet and harder for people to point out that faith is not virtue or a means of knowledge or something that needs protecting. This seems a more likely outcome of posts like hers than the purported “community building” she is claiming to be aiming for. Apparently, she wants to exclude people like the four horseman, PZ, and their supporters from her “community” and/or build a community by making them a common enemy.

  • designsoda

    @Benjamin S Nelson

    ” but you can’t possibly think that I don’t have specific behaviors (and accusations) in mind.”

    I can’t read your mind. Neither can anyone else which is why you were asked for specific examples of what you meant.

    There has been a pattern of vague accusations coming from gnu atheist critics that when probed more deeply turned out to be false (Chris Mooney -”The Tom Johnson affair”), misleading (Nick Matzke – “Richard Dawkins played the Nazi card”), or so vague as to cause confusion (Phil Plait – “DBAD speech”).

    In your case you had one post in mind. Great. Except, again, not providing specifics makes it sounds worse than it really is and more prevalent than it really is. Were you talking about Rieux? articullett? Ophelia? We didn’t know, because you wouldn’t say.

    Not pointing fingers sounds like a polite thing to do. Why put anybody on the spot and embarrass them right? Except that not pointing fingers has the unintended(?) consequence of causing confusion and making it sound (whether you intended it or not) as if the bad behavior is more prevalent or worse than it really is.

  • Benjamin S Nelson

    Art, I would certainly say that homophobia is a form of bigotry. Homosexuality isn’t a creed, it’s an orientation that a person is born with. But yes implicit bias sounds like the social psychological mechanism that bigotry and naive assumptions both have in common, and which Wonderist succeeded in elucidating (minus, I think, the language of bigotry).

    Design, you need not defend your initial question. It was perfectly legitimate to ask it. I understand why it might sound cagey on the basis of my first comment, because my first comment was phrased as a piece of generic advice, applicable to general contexts. And it makes sense to think that someone is making wider implications when they choose to speak in terms that are applicable to general contexts. But in my subsequent comments, I brought it back to this very narrow context by citing particular behaviors. So I hope that helped.

  • designsoda

    Fair enough.

  • Hitch

    Karla, I know it’s been a while but I wanted to just give a quick remark on your response:

    “Hitch, thanks for your response. I think that your focus is to show us how polemical atheist outreach is valid, and how my and others’ requests to tone down the attack language is seen as stifling. I see that.”

    I’m actually not saying that. I am saying that atheists are often presented as more polemical, aggressive, rude, etc as they really are. It is NOT about the validity of polemics, though I do think that polemics can have validity, but the motion that a group is painted to be this way, when that is actually not the reality.

    This painting of the group as polemical serve to actually shift the dialogue, from what is said to who they are.

    And as with any such attempts, it is usually easy. Take a case, an example, an association and it can be constructed that a whole group is supposedly that.

    And that is what I resist and ask you to consider.

    This is a serious problem not just for outspoken atheists but all atheists. The Minnesota study has shown that atheists have a distrust level of 40%, beating all canonically stigmatized groups in the US, and it’s been this bad before the new outspoken atheism. Now we have some atheists who actually help reinforce this false perception by agreeing that outspoken atheists are polemical when really a lot of it is just honesty that is so unusual to be spoken as to appear to be polemical.

    Many atheists are closeted and if anything we really need to help each other to speak.

    In that spirit I do appreciate the dialogue.

  • Bose

    HA! This sure did turn to a bunch of crap since the last time I looked here…

    To all those who got so offended by the original poster’s thoughts, I say if the show fits, wear it. Oh, and get some thicker skin in the process.

    To all those who decided to turn this into personal attacks, I say thanks for the trip down memory lane. High School was a long time ago. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that juvenile mentality.

    “This Internet age has given rise to the critical sniper – and snipers have always been the most despised of soldiers. The Internet critic is foulmouthed and illiterate – he hides behind a cloak of anonymity, he offers no products of his own making. The insults he issues have a playground quality. He says to others what was once said to him, believing that they will feel the same hurt as he did – and still does. And somehow this will compensate him. The abused has been sold on the benefit of becoming the abuser.”

    “The only criticism that is valuable to others reflects universal truth, it is not merely an expression of the inner conflict of the critic, and needs must be practised by those most qualified and most altruistic. Negative criticism is often nothing more than boasting in disguise and, like most boasting, is just an outward manifestation of inner feelings of inferiority.”–Roger Ebert

    …What a steaming pile of crap this post has become. It only goes to show how valid Karla’s points were to begin with.

    Let the flames begin!!

  • articulett

    Wow, Bose I bet Karla is proud to have fine folks like you (and Tom Johnson) on her side. I can feel the “community building” from here. You sure showed us how the to “incorporate more dialectics” into the atheist community!

  • Wonderist


    I stand by my usage of ‘bigotry’. Toward any other group, her behaviour would be unambiguously bigotry. If you consider homophobia bigotry, I cannot see why you think Karla’s behaviour does not fit in the same category. It is ultimately based on stubborn ignorance, and false negative stereotyping of a group of people. Had she said the same things about people who identify as Jews or Blacks, you would not be defending her behaviour as ‘not really bigotry’.

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  • Amos

    A long series of calm, clear, well-reasoned and well-supported posts in defense of GNUs is characterized by Bose as “personal attacks”, “foulmouthed and illiterate” and insults of “playground quality”.

    Around and around it goes, the anti-atheist polemic and response. It would be nice if things changed.

  • Bose


    “To all those who decided to turn this into personal attacks, I say thanks for the trip down memory lane. High School was a long time ago. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that juvenile mentality.”—My quote

    “A long series of calm, clear, well-reasoned and well-supported posts in defense of GNUs is characterized by Bose as “personal attacks”, “foulmouthed and illiterate” and insults of “playground quality”.”–Amos’ quote

    It is rather obvious that I was not referring to the long series of calm, clear, well-reasoned and well-supported posts. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your mind to reason and understanding. Your assessment isn’t even close.

    Debates are good things. Name calling is childish. Are you truly making the claim that this debate of ideas did not turn into direct childish name calling by some? Really?

    I am an Atheist. That does not mean I choose to lump myself into a group of people that are considered “like minded” based solely on that one idea. I still say to “foulmouthed” people who use a “playground” quality to employ a more intellectual approach to getting their points across. Read my comments near the beginning of the discussion for insight to my opinions if you are still confused.

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