Atheist Noise Machine?

Matt Nisbet has been beating his favorite dead horse again. That’s the one where he excoriates people like Richard Dawkins for being just so darn mean in his discussions of religion. In this post he praises Carol Tavris for echoing his favorite talking points, and in this one he praises Michael Shermer for doing likewise.

This is a subject that comes up a lot around here. I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the arguments in Nisbet’s posts. I notice that James Hrynyshyn (here and here) and Larry Moran (here) have already taken care of business

Instead, in the interests of doing something constructive, let me to try to summarize the nature of the argument as fairly as I can.

Nisbet and his supporters believe that there is a large group of people out there who we might call religious moderates. These are folks who on the one hand view their religious beliefs as central to their identity, but on the other hand have no particular problem with a strong separation of church and state, or with teaching only science in science classes and so on. These beliefs notwithstanding, they also fear that excessive secularism can lead to a climate not simply of separation between church and state, but of outright hostility by the state towards the church. Consequently, under certain circumstances they can be moved to side with more extreme religious elements.

When people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, major spokesman for atheism and rationalism, attack religion so broadly and in such condemnatory terms, the moderates see evidence of precisely what they have always feared. Especially in the context of high school science education, they see evidence that excluding ID and teaching only evolution really is just a plot for fighting against religion. More generally, they see in Dawkins and Dennett a desire not merely to keep church and state separate, but instead to harm religion.

Consequently, by alienating these moderates and driving them to the more extreme side, people like Dawkins and Dennett hurt the cause. A better approach is not to criticize religion broadly, but instead to focus narrowly on specific, extreme religious views. In the context of evolution specifically, this means emphasizing the compatibility of evolution and religious faith.

People on the other side, me in particular, do not deny that there are moderates of the sort describe above. There are, indeed, people who will be driven away by the harsh rhetoric employed by people like Dawkins and Dennett. What we deny, however, is that such folks are a major force in shaping the culture. We argue instead that the number of people who really are driven to the forces of darkness in large part because of the strong rhetoric of certain atheists pales in comparison to the number of people languishing in parts of the country where it is impossible for atheism to get a fair hearing. The harm that is done in driving away that small subset of moderates is outweighed by the good that is done by making atheism a major topic of conversation in the news media. Polite, sedate approaches to the subject do not generate as much attention and are consequently ineffective.

Furthermore, while religious moderates are certainly vastly preferable to religious extremists, the fact remains that even the moderates cling to certain supernatural beliefs based on very little in the way of evidence. These beliefs are inherently dangerous, because they seem to lead inevitably to a desire to coopt the power of the state to promote them. Not because all religious people feel that way, but because enough of them do to sway the results of elections.

Consequently, it is not just religious extremism that is the problem. The combination of religious belief generally and the exalted status of religious faith in our culture is part of the problem as well. Treating church/state separation issues as a series of individual brush fires in which we must plead anew with moderates not to thrust their religion upon us is not a long-term solution to the problem. The long-term solution is to encourage atheists and agnostics to be more open about their beliefs, and to try to lower the status of religious faith in our culture.

That is difficult to accomplish, but Dawkins, Dennett and the others have gotten an important ball rolling. And considering that the evidence of history shows that bad ideas don’t go away when people refuse to criticize them vigorously, it is not clear what the alternative strategy should be.

That’s how I see it, anyway. If any Nisbett disciples thikn I am being unfair to their side, let me know in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Ahcuah
    August 23, 2007

    I mentioned this on Nisbet’s blog, but I’ll say it again here.

    Nisbet spends an awful amount of time trying to convince of how we all ought to use “framing” to advance the cause of science. Yet, many of us are somewhat suspicious, because most of our experience with “framing” is the sorts of lies that that the Bush administration, or even ad-men, put out, and we’d rather not be associated with such stuff.

    Yet, how does he “frame” his argument? By calling those he is disagreeing with a “Noise Machine”.

    That exactly illustrates why many of us feel such discomfort with “framing.” He is using the same tactics of distraction and poisoning the well that the Bush Framers use.

    So, again, why ought we think that “framing” is something that we should adopt?

  2. #2 James Hrynyshyn
    August 23, 2007

    Bang on, Jason. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. #3 tbell
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t see why there can’t be more than one ‘frame’ that is put out there. We might only have one policy: don’t teach ID in schools. However we can have multiple messages designed to reach multiple audiences, moderates included. Nothing precludes this, and I distrust people who are focused on message control.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    August 23, 2007

    Furthermore, while religious moderates are certainly vastly preferable to religious extremists, the fact remains that even the moderates cling to certain supernatural beliefs based on very little in the way of evidence. These beliefs are inherently dangerous, because they seem to lead inevitably to a desire to coopt the power of the state to promote them. Not because all religious people feel that way, but because enough of them do to sway the results of elections.

    I try to remain neutral on the question of whether religious “moderates” somehow enable religious “extremists”, because I think that’s a hard question to gather evidence for, and in such situations, it’s best to entertain alternate working hypotheses. However, there is one particular case in which I have recently become convinced that “moderates” are causing problems, and moderate intellectuals in particular. It’s a problem of betrayal, a trahison des clercs.

    Consider: why do people even consider the Bible relevant today? One reason, and most likely a big one, is that translations are produced which prop up its value by modernizing the content. Not only do we have scholars angling for a Templeton by finding spurious “parallels” between ancient myth and modern science, but we also see generated new translations of those myths, translations which abandon original meanings whenever necessary to maintain the scripture’s relevance and palatability to a modern audience.

    The bleakness of Ecclesiastes is neutralized, the misogyny of the Gospels is neutered, and the bitter pills of Jesus’ sayings are coated with aspartame. Inconsistencies are blurred and elided, as are unpleasant evidences of irksome details like ancient Israelite polytheism. We are solemnly told — by people like Alister McGrath, he of The Dawkins Delusion fame — that the variant texts and difficulties of translation do not affect key questions of doctrine, despite the fact that these issues cast into doubt the New Testament’s only explicit endorsement of Trinitarianism, not to mention the story about him who is without sin casting the first stone — and the verse in Mark which started snake-handling!

    And it’s the scholars we have to blame: the people who know Hebrew and Greek, the academics who produce translations and commentary. Moderates don’t adhere any better to empirical rationalism than the “fundamentalists” or “extremists” do; they just choose a different image in which to re-mold their sacred squiggles.

    Many scholars have told us that the Bible is the product of another age and culture, whose norms, practices, and conception of the world were very different from ours. Yet these very same scholars paradoxically keep the general public under the illusion that the Bible does matter or should matter. We have argued that whether they intend it or not, their validation of the Bible as a text for the modern world serves to validate their own employment and relevance in the modern world.

    We have seen how translations, rather than exposing the alien and more opprobrious concepts of biblical authors, instead conceal them with gender-neutral language and other devices. Some are more blatant in endorsing two versions: one for the ignorant masses and one for the scholarly hierocracy. Translations are big business, and publishers seek to sell a product. To be successful they have to make the translations attractive to consumers.

    We have seen how textual critics, even after knowing that the original text is probably irrecoverable, do not announce to most churches that their Bibles are at best constructs that cannot be traced earlier than the second century for the New Testament and the third century BCE for the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, Christians are still taught to believe that the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts behind their translations can be confidently restored to what God intended. Textual critics know that their audience will be greatly reduced if they shift their biblical study to the history of its constituent texts.

    — Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (2007)

  5. #5 Roger
    August 23, 2007

    Personally, I don’t think Dawkins & Dennett are doing quite enough to explain the horrible harm that religion causes. Hitchens does a good bit, but he’s also pretty offensive. Richard and Daniel come across much more reasonably. The greatest of these is the indoctrination of people into thinking that the Argument from Authority has any weight whatsoever.

  6. #6 vhutchison
    August 23, 2007

    Based on 10 years of fighting legislative attempts here in Oklahoma, I must agree with much (although not all) of what Nisbet writes. As political pragmatists we found that the help of religious moderates and moderate organizations such as the Interfaith Alliances provided invaluable assistance, especially in lobbying legislators for the past eight years. So far, attempts to introduce creationism into public schools in the state have failed – sometimes narrowly. Members of the clergy are among our best lobbyists. Perhaps this is like ‘any enemy of my enemies is my friend,’ but it does help us win the current battles. Both the Oklahoma Interfaith Alliance and the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, for example, have published strong statements supporting the evolution side, as well as affirming the position that religion in general should be kept out of public schools.

    A good example: An attempt to place religious displays in the Tulsa Zoo was stopped mainly by members of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance. Religious moderates are mostly firmly against attempts to breach the wall of separation of church and state and they see that the introduction of religion into public schools is just another attempt at a breach.

    When 80+ percent of the population claim to be religious, the odds are not favorable to our side. Moderates among that 80+ percent that support the teaching of evolution as opposed to creationism are often well educated and leading members of our communities. They often have influence.

    NCSE recognizes the value of faith-based allies and recently added a staff member to work with these groups. Anyone working at the grass roots level with voters, community leaders and legislators, as members of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE, http://www.biosurvey.ou.edyu/oese/) have, will likely conclude that moderate faith-based individuals and organizations are indeed valuable allies. Without their help, Oklahoma would likely have passed pro-creationist bills.

    The battle of some current outspoken advocates of atheism has a long way to go to reach any real measure of success in converting the 80+ percent. In the meantime, we must fight each local battle to prevent religious fundamentalists from increasing their influence on society.

    Political pragmatism is needed! Too much is at stake.

  7. #7 Pseudonym
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t really read Matt Nisbet’s blog, so I don’t know what he writes (I agree with Ahcuah that “atheist noise machine” is bad framing), but here’s my take on it.

    I don’t think that Dawkins, Dennett et al will hurt the cause science education. Thinking theists agree with this cause no matter who is the enemy of their enemy. The worst that they do is provide a rich source of quotes for the IDiots to mine. But, let’s face it, nothing’s going to stop that.

    I think the cause that they hurt is the cause of making atheism respectable, and for reasons that are pretty much the same as Shermer’s. This phrase, in particular, sums it up well: “If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.”

    Framing isn’t like quote mining, and its purpose is not to lie. Its purpose is to present your ideas in such a way that they resonate with the listener.

    I think that the most important framing lesson for atheism is to be positive, not negative. Show that freedom of disbelief is just as important as freedom of belief. Show that atheists are not amoral. And, most importantly, show that atheists are not out to get anyone.

  8. #8 Andrew Wade
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t think that Dawkins, Dennett et al will hurt the cause science education. Thinking theists agree with this cause no matter who is the enemy of their enemy.

    Aye, I can’t see religious moderates going unhinged over a couple of strident atheists. I think we can rely on religious moderates having the cognitive skills required to disagree with Dawkins on some points and agree on others; they operate on principles not group identity. And it’s not as if he has the colour of government authority. They’ll probably do what I do in such situations and say rude things right back.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    August 24, 2007

    My personal take on the “hurting the cause” angle with religious moderates is this: if the so-called “moderates” are really going to 180 to the side of religious “extremists” due solely to the rhetoric of atheists, then their “moderation” is, at the very least, severely overrated. But I don’t think that talking about “moderates” is very helpful in this context, as they’re no more a monolithic group than “atheists” or “theists”. Some self-styled “moderates” may very well be the intellectually spineless turncoats people like Nisbet seem to assume they are, but I doubt Ken Miller will be joining the Disco Inst. anytime soon.

    Pseudonym,

    I’ll have to read Shermer’s piece for myself, but a preliminary evaluation of that argument (based upon your exposition) certainly comes up negative. I don’t think that the current crop of atheists authors are “prejudging” theists as much as displaying a certain (and much deserved) impatience with the idea of religion. Or at least, that is certainly true of Dawkins and Dennett. You could make the case that Harris and Hitchens can get a bit shrill at times in impugning theists personally. But once again, I’ll have to read the article myself.

  10. #10 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    With the amount of spin Mathew Nisbet manages to inject into these ‘nasty atheist’ pieces I sometimes wonder if someone gave Karl Rove a science blog.
    If you actually take the time to listen to Carol Tavris’ interview on Point of Enquiry about cognitive dissonance and the religious you might notice two important points that Matthew failed to mention. First she said that some of these people are unreachable no matter what method you utilize. Second she suggested the best method to use to try to reach the rest is to point out how religion and scientific rationality does work for some people – although she neglected to mention that this approach simply points out the fact that you need to be part of a religious belief system that allows for metaphorical interpretations of scripture if you want to do this, a religion such as fundamentalist christianity that requires literal interpretation of the bible will not.
    As for moderates getting offended by ‘angry’ atheists I have noticed that an atheist mentioning that he or she doesn’t believe the bible is true, or that the miracles attributed to Jesus etc are about as realistic as those attributed to Thor or Hercules, is frequently interpreted as a direct attack on the moderates religion and the moderate themselves. It is interpreted as saying the moderate believes in myths and thus is somehow stupid (in much the same way that a moderate would think about a person who professed a genuine belief in Thor or Hercules or fairies at the bottom of the garden). I’m afraid we cannot walk on tiptoes around this matter if that is what we actually believe.
    On a related point I’d just like to point out that Matthew writes as if the whole world is based on the personal views of the Washington area electorate where he works. Many of us live in secular democracies in other parts of the world that should not have to and indeed refuse to keep quiet for fear of offending the sensibilities of religious people in other countries, not the Taliban nor the religious moderates of the US. If someone told you to stop mentioning equal rights or dress codes for women as this offends someones religious viewpoint in a foreign country what would your response be ?

  11. #11 Valhar2000
    August 24, 2007

    I kind of agree with MartinC. I find it surprising to read discussions like these, becuase to me they signify just how much religion has penetrated everyone and everything in the US. It would even be funny, if it weren’t so sad.

  12. #12 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    Its sad to see how things have ‘progressed’ over the past half a century. Can you imagine a current presedential candidate publicly stating saying the following?

    “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

    I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

    For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim—but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

    Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end—where all men and all churches are treated as equal—where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice—where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind—and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

    That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe—a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the Nation or imposed by the Nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

    ATTRIBUTION: Senator JOHN F. KENNEDY, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Houston, Texas, September 12, 1960.—Freedom of Communications, final report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, part 1, pp. 208–9 (1961). Senate Rept. 87–994.

  13. #13 matthew
    August 24, 2007

    I think it’s pretty telling of just how serious Dr. Nisbet is of his own posts by the fact that he rarely comments in them, no matter how many questions people ask.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    August 24, 2007

    matthew:

    I think it’s pretty telling of just how serious Dr. Nisbet is of his own posts by the fact that he rarely comments in them, no matter how many questions people ask.

    He’s only serious when he puts his titles in all caps.

  15. #15 matthew
    August 24, 2007

    zing!

  16. #16 quork
    August 24, 2007

    You should take a look at Shermer’s column in the September issue of Scientific American. It has things in it even more startling than those which Nisbet chose to paraphrase. Here’s the one I consider to be the topper:

    Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

    Michael Shermer, who writes a regular column for Scientific American, has declared that he considers scientific truth to be subservient to his ideology. It does not matter that the ideology is one that is generally considered to be good, nor that it is one I may agree with. The subservience of scientific truth to any ideology is not acceptable.

  17. #17 Amadeus
    August 24, 2007

    This is my first post on here.

    I don’t think Dawkins or Dennett hurt the cause in any way. They help the cause by giving it visible leadership. Think about this: the extreme religious right has their leadership, don’t they? They have Falwell, Robertson, and whoever else may be out there these days. Now, we atheists have Dawkins and Dennett. It’s a matter of perspective. To us, Dawkins and Dennett aren’t extremists, because we agree with what they say. To those belonging to the religious right, Pat Robertson, for example, is not an extremist. He makes perfect sense to those who believe what he says. The primary difference between “us and them” is that they have a strong political and social presence around the country. Atheists need the same. I’ve always believed that atheists need some type of organizational structure to be taken seriously. What’s preventing groups of atheists from coming together once a week for discussion and fellowship just like religious people do? I’m not suggesting that something called the “Church of Atheism” be established; however, having a building, functionally like a church, that is owned by a group of atheists would definitely make the atheist movement more visible, which would in turn give us more credibility, which could then lead to more political punch. Does anyone agree?

    Although I do agree that the activities of Dawkins and Dennett COULD alienate moderates, as far as I’m concerned, why should we atheists want to affiliate with moderates, unless it was in the conext of helping separating church and state? I think the amount of people who have actually researched, read, and thought about atheism are indeed slim; however, there are a lot of people who aren’t religious but would still profess belief in God. My question to them would be: Why believe in God if you’re not practicing a religion that he is said to be requiring of humans to practice? I’m not sure if these types of people care about the issues enough to be sought after. What do you think?

  18. #18 Blake Stacey
    August 24, 2007

    What in blazes is a “principle of freedom”, anyway?

    Shermer says, and I quote,

    A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

    So long as something happens which isn’t happening in the world today, we should be “respectful and tolerant.” Well, paint me with two coats of unimpressed.

    Cases in which religion threatens or has threatened freedom are too numerous to list. Avalos’ thesis in Fighting Words (2005) is that religion creates artificially scarce resources — not only is there just one Jerusalem, but there’s only one path to salvation, too — and the scarcity of these resources leads to violence. Furthermore, by any reasonable standard, such violence is more immoral than strife due to a non-religious cause, since the value of the scarce resources in question is empirically unverifiable. How immoral is it, to deprive a human of that “freedom” merely to secure a resource whose very existence cannot be tested by observation and logic?

    I think Shermer is equivocating between multiple definitions of science. As an endeavor currently pursued by a human community, the modern practice of science is roughly consistent with his notion of “freedom”. However, the facts of science would remain the same even if they were discovered by technicians in the employ of a totalitarian state. If one selectively cultures smallpox or bubonic plague in order to create a biological weapon, one is then doing science, even though one is working to deprive other human beings of their “freedom” (by depriving them of their lives). It’s repugnant, but if it uses observation, reason and experiment, it’s just as much science as is finding cures for these diseases.

    Shermer quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but he glides past King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which the inspiring leader expresses his frustration with “the white moderate.”

    I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    Growing up in Alabama, I had my Darwin fish ripped off my car more than once, and a scrappy little fellow in tenth grade wanted to descend to blows over the Jesus question, but my freethinker friends and I certainly weren’t forced to use our own, “separate but equal” water fountains. I could sit at whatever lunch counter I pleased, and get just about the best public-school education this country could offer. (That such an education could be improved is doubtless true, but beside my point.)

    However, scale back the revolutionary fervor so that it is proportionate to the obstacles faced, and the frustration still remains.

    The actions make the ally: devout religious believers and less-than-uppity atheists are welcome on my roster of science advocates, as long as they tackle the problem head-on and actually advocate science. And you know, there are plenty of ways to do that! It’s sort of a “many are called, few are chosen” situation: only a small number of us will appear on the witness stand, and not too many will find ourselves running for the local school board, but we can all create the resources to make the job easier for those who do.

  19. #19 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

    Nothing can be free from its own nature, and science attempts to discover the nature of things. Truth is the foundation of freedom – the one can exist without the other, but not vice versa.

  20. #20 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 24, 2007

    Jason, I think your characterization of the strategy of both sides is fair to a fault.

    My question to you is what sort of positive role can any believer play in the movement to defend science education, if that movement is widely perceived as an anti-religious movement? I mean, I’m going to stand up and be counted, that’s my way—-but my ability to influence those undecided in the pews may wither in such a climate.

  21. #21 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    My question to you is what sort of positive role can any believer play in the movement to defend science education, if that movement is widely perceived as an anti-religious movement?

    They can give up their religion and become a rationalist. That’s how.

  22. #22 386sx
    August 24, 2007

    I mean, I’m going to stand up and be counted, that’s my way—-but my ability to influence those undecided in the pews may wither in such a climate.

    While you’re telling them to ignore the wrong parts of the Bible, just tell them to ignore the climate too. Pick out a bunch of Bible verses that say that Jesus wants them to listen. Just tell them that it was a prophecy or somethin. :-)

  23. #23 Gerry L
    August 24, 2007

    Caledonian,
    It sounds like you advocate proselytizing for atheism.

  24. #24 Robert O'Brien
    August 24, 2007

    blah-blah-blah

    –Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (2007)

    B.S.,

    If you are going to try to prop up your nonsense, then at least cite a decent scholar. Avalos is the equivalent of a cheap, south-of-the-border plastic surgeon.

  25. #25 J Myers
    August 25, 2007

    Robert, calling informed commentary “nonsense” seems a peculiar tack. If you’d like another source to consider, try Bart Ehrman–or is he a hack as well?

    (No, I’m not related to PZ).

  26. #26 Tyler DiPietro
    August 25, 2007

    J Myers,

    No disrespect intended, but your attempt to reason with Robert O’Brien indicates that you are probably unfamiliar with this fellow. In short, Robert O’Brien is a perpetual troll who seems to get his kicks tossing around random (and generally sophomoric) insults at anyone he disagrees with. He’s best ignored and left to bray, its likely all he has in life.

  27. #27 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 25, 2007

    They can give up their religion and become a rationalist.

    Always a possibility, which is more than I can say about the likelihood of our having substantive dialogue . It’s a pity that you prefer to wrap yourself in aphorism, rather than share your insights. I’m sure that feeds something you find important.

    Still, that door is still there, waiting to be opened. I wish you would try it. I’m sure at least one of us would learn something…Scott

  28. #28 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 25, 2007

    Tyler Pietro:

    Robert O’Brien is a perpetual troll who seems to get his kicks tossing around random (and generally sophomoric) insults at anyone he disagrees with.

    I know the following is going to sound a bit Pollyanna-ish, but what can I say? As PZ says, I’m hyper-optimistic. Anyway, I’m not going to argue the above point with you, because I’ve seen how O’Brien acts when he feels provoked. I don’t know the guy personally, but the first time I encountered him we got off on the wrong foot and I got a little taste of his wrath.

    At the time, I didn’t realize that this was a pattern for him, and so I simply accepted responsibility for giving offense, apologized and asked him to clarify a point, and (would you believe it?) he responded rather civilly, offering some advice and references in e-mail on a technical matter that was related to his field, which I believe is mathematics.

    And, you know, I learned something. Would he be my first choice to have a conversation with? No. Would I give him the benefit of the doubt if he popped up on my blog? Sure. At least once. So, J Myers, if you’re reading this, I’m inclined to agree with Tyler: you may be wasting your time—unless you’re willing, as I was, to treat O’Brien with a certain amount of deference to keep the peace.

  29. #29 sailor
    August 25, 2007

    People tend to forge their ideas from the available information, finding a fit that suits them for lots of reasons, but the average will be somewhere towards the middle.
    We have seen this in recent years as the the right wing have become more aggressive and painted anyone slightly to the left of center as “extremists” The result – a drift to the right that led to a totally failed middle eastern war. (which may also correct the trend)
    If we have a world view that is all religious where atheism is reviled, by far he majority will be theistic. If we have a lot of loud (but not violent or otherwise antisocial) atheists out there, it will change the overall information available, make atheism more respectable and swing the average towards it.
    This is not to say everyone should be a Dawkins or a Harris. Nor is it to say our moderates should not work with religious moderates.

  30. #30 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    Always a possibility, which is more than I can say about the likelihood of our having substantive dialogue .

    Let’s just say that my showing up at your site and talking is about as likely as you finally giving us an explanation for how you reconcile your religious beliefs and rational skepticism.

  31. #31 Science Avenger
    August 25, 2007

    Scott Hatfield said: My question to you is what sort of positive role can any believer play in the movement to defend science education, if that movement is widely perceived as an anti-religious movement?

    Stand up loudly and proudly as a contradiction of that perception. Emphasize the role of religion as moral guide, not as dater of fossils. Clarify the difference between being nonreligious (as science is) and being anti-religious. Note that errors in a book do not necessarily imply nonexistence of gods (many Christians seem to worship the Bible rather than the gods).

    People who perceive science education as anti-religious are simply wrong, so it shouldn’t be too tough a case to make.

  32. #32 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    People who perceive science education as anti-religious are simply wrong

    Sadly, science and religion are inherently opposed. Scientific education and religious indoctrination simply aren’t compatible with each other.

  33. #33 Robert O'Brien
    August 25, 2007

    Robert, calling informed commentary “nonsense” seems a peculiar tack.

    I do not consider it informed commentary, obviously.

    If you’d like another source to consider, try Bart Ehrman–or is he a hack as well?

    No, Bart Ehrman is not a hack. I have several of Ehrman’s books, and my overall impression of him is favorable.

    (No, I’m not related to PZ).

    That is to your credit.

  34. #34 Pseudonym
    August 25, 2007

    Tyler:

    I’ll have to read Shermer’s piece for myself, but a preliminary evaluation of that argument (based upon your exposition) certainly comes up negative.

    Please do read it, if you haven’t already. I didn’t do it justice.

    I don’t think that the current crop of atheists authors are “prejudging” theists as much as displaying a certain (and much deserved) impatience with the idea of religion. Or at least, that is certainly true of Dawkins and Dennett.

    I agree that this is true of those authors. And to Dawkins’ credit (I don’t know about Dennett), he is very slow to judge anyone that he’s actually talking to at the time.

    I was particularly impressed, by the way, with the way that he dealt with Deepak Chopra in The Enemies of Reason. I thought he was extremely fair, and much “nicer” to him than he was with, say, Ted Haggard. (Mind you, Haggard deserved it; he copped an attitude first.)

    You could make the case that Harris and Hitchens can get a bit shrill at times in impugning theists personally. But once again, I’ll have to read the article myself.

    The central point is that atheists should be positive, not negative. One example that Shermer notes is to be in favour of freedom of disbelief as well as belief. (You have to be in favour of both or of neither. The religious right in the US is actually in favour of neither, as the recent incident with the Hindu prayer showed.)

  35. #35 Justin
    August 26, 2007

    I dunno, I always get the impression of Shermer and those like him is basically: “Give them the facts, show them a good theory/world view to work with, but don’t be a condescending jerk about it.” Telling someone that they won’t see Grandpa Joe or their best Buddy Pete in an afterlife is not good news, and telling them that they’re idiots and have wasted 60 years of their life (and probably tens of thousands of dollars) on a scam isn’t exactly good news either. Atheists should be very focused on being nice–because our message appears (at first) to be rather sour. We shouldn’t “use kid gloves,” but we also should be sympathetic enough when considering that we are problably talking about destroying someone’s entire world view–literally, their entire world.

    I personally don’t have much of a problem with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et al., because they are intelligent, well-spoken, well-read men. There’s nothing wrong with atheist “bad cops” to play opposite the atheist “good cops” (as Dawkins once put it). The problem, I think, is with the thousands of zealous followers, who try to emulate Dawkins and such, but just come off as being very angry–which not only fuels a silly stereotype, but actually makes the stereotype seem to be correct.

  36. #36 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 26, 2007

    Caledonian:

    Let’s just say that my showing up at your site and talking is about as likely as you finally giving us an explanation for how you reconcile your religious beliefs and rational skepticism.

    Ignoring the fact that there’s a difference between explanation and justification, I’ll bite.

    Does this mean that, if I did provide such an explanation, that you would consider sharing your views in depth? I would find the latter worthwhile, while the former is a reasonable request that if I’m acting in good faith I should be willing to address.

    So, if that was a serious offer, please respond.

    epigene13@hotmail.com

    http://www.monkeytrials.blogspot.com

  37. #37 Caledonian
    August 26, 2007

    Does this mean that, if I did provide such an explanation, that you would consider sharing your views in depth?

    No. It means that those who ignore the requests and demands of others have no cause to be surprised when they are ignored in turn.

  38. #38 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 26, 2007

    Emphasize the role of religion as moral guide,…

    Please do. Start with the Euthyphro dialogue, then move on the the slaughter of the Midianites and Biblical condonement of slavery.

  39. #39 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 27, 2007

    No. It means that those who ignore the requests and demands of others have no cause to be surprised when they are ignored in turn.

    How can you claim to ignore me when you periodically drop all these bon mots my way?

    Tell the truth, Cal: you would probably ignore me regardless of what I believed, or had previously failed to do in the past, right?

    Put it another way: is there anyone, anywhere you would be willing to have that dialogue with? Is there anyone, anywhere who has made any real commitment to understand your thought in depth, besides yours truly? Is there anyone, anywhere who really gives a damn about your ideas? If so, please direct me to a source that can reflect your thought with more detail than you appear willing to provide.

    BTW, evidence that I am capable of having an extended, nuanced and thoughtful conversation with someone whose views I might not share or fully appreciate can be found here.

  40. #40 gerald spezio
    August 30, 2007

    When I bought and read Shermer’s, “Why People Believe Weird Things,” and came across a positive reference to moronic Joe Campbell’s literary nonsense about mythology, I was surprised and alarmed enough to promptly telephone Shermer. I bought the book, didn’t I?

    I thought that Shermer was seriously mistaken to endorse Campbell’s preposterous anthropology and historical fraud. Shermer couldn’t believe that I wasn’t a “believer” in Campbell’s blockbuster bullshit. I was very low key.
    After a short discussion Shermer accused me of being another “hating atheist,” and hung up.

    When Shermer ascended to Sci Am I was more than surprised. As most us realize, Sci Am has gone yuppie, too.

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