Familiar Cliches Dumped on Maher

Damon Linker reviews Religulous for The New Republic.

Let’s see, TNR is a left-leaning publication, so they will tend to be sympathetic to Maher’s message. But they also fancy themselves very high-brow, which means they have to be turned off by Maher’s in-your-face tactics.

The review practically writes itself. Let’s start at the end:

Not only is this approach to religion intellectually fraudulent and morally sloppy–equating as it does scientifically literate believers with God-intoxicated scriptural literalists–but it is also asinine as a practical strategy. In the early 18th century, with the Enlightenment just getting underway, it might have been sensible to dream that religion would eventually wither away, its roots strangled by the spread of scientific education, economic dynamism, and social pluralism. But hundreds of years later, with religion still thriving around the globe, such hopes seem rather quaint.

Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief–the kind of belief that lives in productive tension with modern science and cultural pluralism. In doing so, they would be following the example of Thomas Jefferson and several of the American constitutional framers, who advocated a liberal, skeptical form of piety as the kind of religion best suited to a free society.

Yawn.

Just once I’d like to see a purveyor of this attitude back it up with even a shred of evidence. How does Linker know it would be more productive to encourage a more “open-minded belief ” than to attack the validity of religious faith in general? The trend in American religion over the last few decades has been away from more liberal faiths and towards more conservative ones. Where is the evidence that Maher (and Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris) could help reverse this trend by encouraging people to believe a higher-grade of fairy-tale, as opposed to attacking fairy-tale belief in its entirety?

Regarding the dream of religion withering away, that is precisely what has happened in most of Western Europe. Why is it so unreasonable to hope for it to happen here as well? But it certainly will not happen if we insist on walling off religion from serious criticism. Or if we constantly wring our hands trying to distinguish good faith from bad faith.

As for intellectual fraud, spare me. In terms of intellectual respectibility there is little to distinguish between the Bible thumping fundamentalist and the more scientifically literate believer. Grafting an evidence-free network of supernatural beliefs onto a body of scientific knowledge having no need of those hypotheses is scarcely an improvement over regarding the Bible as the holy word of God, inerrant and perspicuous, and using that as a yardstick by which all other hypotheses are measured.

Linker also writes this:

Yet Maher has loftier ambitions than laughs. He wants to save the world from the idiocy he unearths in the American heartland, and he believes the best way to fulfill this aim is to mercilessly attack religion and all those who adhere to it. And that’s why the film, like so much written by critics of religion in recent years, must ultimately be judged a failure.

Judged a failure by what standard?

Religulous had a very successful opening weekend, especially considering the relatively small number of screens on which it was shown. I will focus instead on the “new atheist” books, since Linker brings them up as well.

The books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have all become major bestsellers. Harris, a complete unknown, sold over 500,000 copies of his book and recieved a PEN award. Dawkins has sold well over a million. I don’t have figures for Hitchens, but would guess they are of the same order of magnitude. Granted, Dawkins and Hitchens were known figures before their books were published, but the fact remains that none of their previous books put up anywhere close to these kinds of numbers.

As a result of all this publicity virtually every major media outlet has done major stories about atheism and religion. All three gentlemen have travelled the country debating and speaking, and nearly always attracting huge crowds. Becuase of them atheism is now out of the closet and in the air. It is now a mainstream topic of conversation, and not a view that can be marginalized. Not as easily as previously, at any rate. To a greater extent than before the younger generation will grow up in an environment in which atheism is unavoidable. It will be part of their zeitgeist.

I call that major progress. If there is evidence of a major backlash against atheists, or that even more Americans are being pushed to an extreme religious faith as a result of this work, I have not seen it.

While all this was going on Oxford University Press published a book called Philosophers Without Gods. It was an anthology of twenty essays addressing various aspects of religion and life without it. It was precisely the sort of high-minded, respectful, impressively erudite writing people like Linker are always encouraging atheists to adopt.

(Short Review: Well worth reading, though with twenty contributors it is unsurprising that some of the essays are better than others. Many of the essays, especially in the first half of the book, are brisk and engaging. Many others were — how shall I put this? — obviously written by philosophers. (Why did so many of the contributors feel compelled to instruct me as to Aristotle’s view of the matter?))

What’s that you say? Never heard of this book? Didn’t see any big stories in Time or Newsweek about it? Haven’t seen its contributors on C-Span presenting their views to standing-room only crowds? I wonder why that is.

It sure looks to me like the way you call attention to your ideas is by screaming and yelling a bit, and by not worrying too much about bits of theological esoterica rotting away in university libraries, almost totally irrelevant to modern religion as it is typically practiced. This bizarre idea that there is a rich and fruitful body of theological literature that must be imbibed before criticizing America’s infatuation with magical thinking really ought to be put to rest.

Linker does also have some praise for Maher, so why not go on over and read the whole thing. Just be warned it will be familiar and tedious fare to people who follow this issue.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    October 15, 2008

    The books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have all become major bestsellers. Harris, a complete unknown, sold over 500,000 copies of his book and recieved a PEN award. Dawkins has sold well over a million.

    Makes me wish I had spent college writing a diatribe against religion instead of a science-fiction novel. Harrumph.

  2. #2 Reginald Selkirk
    October 15, 2008

    Not only is this approach to religion intellectually fraudulent and morally sloppy–equating as it does scientifically literate believers with God-intoxicated scriptural literalists…

    Equate them? No, Maher plays them off against each other.

    Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief-…

    Why would an atheist encourage belief of any kind?

    Linker aside, Religulous is not particularly intellectually sound. Notice for example, that when discussing homosexualitywith an “ex-gay” minister and counselor, Maher flashes to a snippet of interview with Dean Hamer, purported discoverer of the “gay gene.” While homosexuality may have a biological (not necessarily genetic) basis, Hamer’s claim to have discovered a single gene for this trait is not generally accepted in the field.

    Religulous is entertaining, mostly for the freak show variety of believers Maher found and interviewed.

  3. #3 Scott
    October 15, 2008

    Would Western Europe suffice as an example of religion withering away in the face of a liberal education?

  4. #4 AL
    October 15, 2008

    equating as it does scientifically literate believers with God-intoxicated scriptural literalists…

    Did this reviewer fall asleep during the movie? Francis Collins was in the movie and given a chance to defend his beliefs. Maher didn’t make any equivocation between Collins’ beliefs and those of, say, that Arkansas Senator, or the truck driver who was rambling about blood DNA evidence for Jesus. In fact, Maher was actually quite generous and charitable to Collins, though I personally think Collins was a) thrown softball questions, and b) even then, didn’t seize that opportunity to really put forth some kind of compelling argument for religion’s truth.

  5. #5 Coriolis
    October 15, 2008

    “But hundreds of years later, with religion still thriving around the globe, such hopes seem rather quaint. ”

    Around the globe eh? I guess Europe, Japan, Korea and such don’t actually exist?

    Pretend high-brow worldly sophistication ain’t what it used to be, doggonit.

  6. #6 Greg Esres
    October 15, 2008

    In terms of intellectual respectability there is little to distinguish between the Bible thumping fundamentalist and the more scientifically literate believer.

    True, a difference of degree, rather than kind; however, the theologically liberal is far less of an obstacle to sensible public policies than the fundamentalist, and so is much preferred.

    If a person wants to map his religious beliefs into a scientific framework, in theory I’m willing to keep quiet on that, although in practice I can’t stand listening to the nonsensical rationalizations.

  7. #7 mk
    October 15, 2008

    I am very much looking forward to the movie. But I swear to god (heh!) if Maher says one more time he’s not an atheist because “they” are no different in their certitude than fundamentalist Christians… I’m gonna scream!

    Bill, atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods. It is not a certitude that there is no god. So please stop saying that!

  8. #8 Simba
    October 15, 2008

    A scientifically literate believer will respect an atheist and will be more amenable to discussion and persuasion, whereas relious fundamentalists will strengthen their viewpoint when presented with a differing viewpoint. Similarly, more moderate fundamentalists (slightly oxymoronic) will be amenable to discussion with the literate believer rather than the atheist.
    Speaking from western Europe, I think it’s the rise of the literate believer and agnosticism that’s contributed to the increased acceptance of atheism and to ‘the dream of religion withering away’.

  9. #9 Greg Esres
    October 15, 2008

    atheism…is not a certitude that there is no god.

    It certainly can be.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 15, 2008

    Reginald Sekirk –

    I have not seen the movie yet, so I have no particular opinion of it. My expectation is that it gets the big things right, but will frequently be off in the details, such as in the example you gave. Maher, after all, is an entertainer and not a scholar. Of course, I would give largely the same review to Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. I simply think the cultural importance of this work outweighs the relatively minor factual issues that have been raised against them.

    Greg Esres –

    You’re right, of course, that theological liberals (for lack of a better term) are easier to live with than fundamentalists. If we must have religious believers all over the place, I would much prefer they all thought like Ken Miller, than like Ken Ham, and better yet like John Shelby Spong. And if Linker or anyone else could suggest a practical method for turning fundamentalists into liberals, I would take the proposal very seriously.

    The fact remains that I think traditional religious belief is not a good thing even in its more liberal forms, so I will continue to cheer on people like Maher and Dawkins.

    Simba –

    I think the reason “literate belief” tends to be a stepping stone to the diminishment of religion is that once you allow science and rationalism to do too much of the heavy lifting in your world view, faith and revelation just seem to become increasingly irrelevant and futile. I suspect that’s also why more conservative churches here in the US have been finding it easier to attract members than more liberal churches. If religion is to fill the emotional needs it is expected to fill, it is going to need some teeth.

  11. #11 Greg Esres
    October 15, 2008

    I think the reason “literate belief” tends to be a stepping stone to the diminishment of religion

    Do we really know that it is? Yes, I know that most atheists go through this phase, but that doesn’t mean that most people who reach this phase go on to become atheists. I don’t think that most people really think about it all that much. They reduce their religious beliefs to the level where there isn’t a strong dissonance with the facts they run into every day, but generally don’t go further.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 15, 2008

    Greg Esres -

    Our comments crossed in the ether. People use the word “atheist” in different ways, but I don’t think most atheists use it as an expression of certitude. For example, Richard Dawkins would not accept that. So I second mk on this one.

  13. #13 amar
    October 15, 2008

    Jason,
    I think it was Hitler, that master of propaganda who said that ‘the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it’. The theory being that the bigger the lie, the more likely a person is to doubt that one could possibly stand behind a lie that big. This to me is the reason why conservative religion will continue to attract hoards of followers away from reason. As you said, ‘if religion is to fill the emotional needs it is expected to fill, it is going to need some teeth.’ I would say that the conservative religions are a set of gold and diamond encrusted ‘grills’.

  14. #14 mk
    October 15, 2008

    Certitude? I am certain I do not believe in god. ;^}

  15. #15 Greg Esres
    October 15, 2008

    I don’t think most atheists use it as an expression of certitude. For example, Richard Dawkins would not accept that. So I second mk on this one.

    Well, yes, but Dawkins is a bit more intellectual than average, I suspect, and so are all prominent atheists…that’s why they’re prominent. I certainly do know people who say “there is no god.” My point is that you generally cannot say “atheists believe X”, because atheist beliefs are all over the map, just like those of theists. Some atheists, according to Pew, even believe in God. :-)

  16. #16 abb3w
    October 15, 2008

    How does Linker know it would be more productive to encourage a more “open-minded belief” than to attack the validity of religious faith in general?

    Depends what you want to produce, I suppose.

    Those who are able to work with both religion and science worldviews are more easily swayed by presentation of evidence than those who insist on religion alone. (Helps if they have more brains, too, but I see little to do about that.) The real problem is the baseline of those who insist on Scriptural Inerrancy. (Compare electoral map projections at 538.com of late to the map for Scriptural Inerrancy at the Pew Religious Survey results.) Confronting a rejected viewpoint and “demonizing” it seems to strengthen the worldview allowing this to be possible. (See this year’s Literature Ig winner.)

    If you want to facilitate the religious zealot worldview to quietly become extinct so to increase the opportunities for science and rationality, frontal assault may be less effective than– hm, would “temptation” be the right word?

    If instead you want to polarize the atheist community to action, Mayer’s tactics might be of benefit. The risk, however, is setting off a religious-based civil war of extirpation. There are usually better approaches than that. (Additionally, the whackos in Islam are also a significant threat; if it comes to war of extirpation, I’d prefer to sucker the Christian Zealots into being cannon fodder against Islam.)

    Also, religion is the main method humans have evolved for socialization. Getting rid of it without a replacement at hand seems a quick recipe for disaster.

  17. #17 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 15, 2008

    What is most interesting here is that TNR could have taken serious shots at Maher where he was just wrong or at best very sloppy. In particular his comparisons about Horus and Mithra to Jesus relied on some highly disputed and partially debunked claims. TNR doesn’t even bother discussing that. They could have maybe had some real data here and not just a series of cliches. But apparently that would have taken too much effort.

  18. #18 mk
    October 15, 2008

    @Greg Esres…

    Do note, Greg, in my comment above I said ‘atheism.’ Not ‘atheists.’

  19. #19 Robert O'Brien
    October 15, 2008

    A scientifically literate believer will respect an atheist…

    It depends on the atheist.

  20. #20 Robert O'Brien
    October 15, 2008

    What is most interesting here is that TNR could have taken serious shots at Maher where he was just wrong or at best very sloppy. In particular his comparisons about Horus and Mithra to Jesus relied on some highly disputed and partially debunked claims.

    I have not seen the movie, but I watched a clip of Maher claiming that Jesus raising Lazarus was really an Egyptian story that existed long before Christ, which is false. The only thing worse than an f’ing moron is a pretentious f’ing moron like Maher (and the liberal secularists he represents).

  21. #21 Paul Murray
    October 16, 2008

    Religion does well in places that have poor public health.

    Oh, yes.

    The central promise of christianity is not just a happy afterlife, but that Jesus will protect you and your family from the works of the evil one here on earth. In a prescientific culture, disease is precisely the work of the devil, attacking people physically, making them sick and killing them. A powerful promise, particularly to a parent, in a culture where your kids sicken and die and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing that anyone can do about it.

    The really ignorant parts of developed nations dont know any better. They may *say* that they know disease is caysed by germs, but they *belive* it’s caused by malign influences of one kind or another – whether mercury, bad feng shui, or evil spirits from hell.

    That’s why all the crackpottery and religious belief. Bad public health.

  22. #22 Badger3k
    October 16, 2008

    Have to look into the Lazarus-Egyptian connection, but from a quick scan of the internet, most of what I saw looks tenuous (basing it upon names?). But I wouldn’t be surprised at that – for all of Maher’s good ideas on religion (except the atheist/agnostic confusion), and some on politics, he is full of woo (anti-vax, probably anti-germ theory from what I hear).

    You have to expect the “he isn’t talking about the God I believe in!” response. It’s automatic when their beliefs are threatened and they are made to look foolish. I had a woman tell me that I was close-minded for not listening to the theology of philosophy/religion professors (she didn’t know me well enough) and I told her that all the arguments in the world were foolish if there was no evidence for the core belief itself. I can talk all about Dungeons and Dragons, or the X-men, and make intricate analyses and all that, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are fake.

    I still like the quote – was it Jefferson – which (paraphrasing) said that sometimes the best response is ridicule.

  23. #23 mk
    October 16, 2008

    The virgin myth, the salvation myth, the died and was reborn myth, the mortal man but really also a god myth, son of god myth…

    Meh! Been there, done that, bought the commemorative cross.

    The only thing worse than silly, ancient superstitions are tired, unoriginal rip-offs like Christianity!

  24. #24 Robert O'Brien
    October 16, 2008

    The only thing worse than silly, ancient superstitions are tired, unoriginal rip-offs like Christianity!

    You’ve already proved that you’re a moron, mk. There is no need to beat a dead horse.

  25. #25 Robert Hole Brien
    October 16, 2008

    mk,
    Please think twice before feeding the troll.

  26. #26 mk
    October 16, 2008

    @Robert Hole Brien…

    I’ll admit… there’s something less than nobel about poking fun at such a deeply insecure, ignorant individual, but c’mon, you have to admit he’s well deserving of the occasional ridicule… no? ;^}

  27. #27 mk
    October 16, 2008

    Ahem… “noble.”

  28. #28 Robert O'Brien
    October 16, 2008

    The noxious mediocrity that goes by the name ‘mk’ must make recourse to the horse laugh and must retreat into the mob because the facts are not on his/her/its side. He/she/it claims John McCain was an inept pilot but the ones really in a position to know, the Navy brass, commended his skills as a pilot. And the claim that Jesus is a copy of Horus, Osiris, Mithra(s), etc. has been thoroughly discredited; only the most credulous of rubes still cling to it.

  29. #29 mk
    October 16, 2008

    “noxious mediocrity”… minus 10 points for repetition and lack of originality!

    Heh-heh-heh.

  30. #30 mk
    October 16, 2008

    Oh and Bobby… I believe I said McCain was a “crappy pilot” and a “shitty human being.” Let’s get it right.

  31. #31 JimC
    October 16, 2008

    And the claim that Jesus is a copy of Horus, Osiris, Mithra(s), etc. has been thoroughly discredited; only the most credulous of rubes still cling to it.

    I think discredited is far to strong in the wording. There are many similarities and of course differences. That being said what does it matter if the story is original or not? There are many original stories people have based religions on and it doesn’t prove their truthfulness in any event.

    The evidence for it simply isn’t there and hence the word ‘faith’.

    mk-
    Please remember you are dealing with someone who has an internet award named after him for mind numbingly stupid arguments over at Dispatches. Be merciful.

  32. #32 Robert O'Brien
    October 16, 2008

    I think discredited is far to strong in the wording. There are many similarities and of course differences.

    No, ‘discredited’ is precisely descriptive.

    That being said what does it matter if the story is original or not? There are many original stories people have based religions on and it doesn’t prove their truthfulness in any event.

    No **** Sherlock. Did you learn your investigative technique from CSI: Miami?

    mk-
    Please remember you are dealing with someone who has an internet award named after him for mind numbingly stupid arguments over at Dispatches. Be merciful.

    I do not accept awards from college drop outs and/or failed comedians and/or failed business owners. I also do not accept awards from men that are so big they’d make Jabba the Hutt say “Dayum!”

  33. #33 mk
    October 16, 2008

    No, no Bobby… nobody gave you an award. They named one after you. Pay attention.

    @JimC…

    Roger that!

  34. #34 Robert O'Brien
    October 16, 2008

    No, no Bobby… nobody gave you an award. They named one after you. Pay attention.

    Robert O’Brien Trophy Winner: Robert O’Brien

    mk,

    You might want to consider hiring a tow-truck to dislodge your head from your arse.

    In any event, I do not accept awards or awards being named after me from college drop outs and/or failed comedians and/or failed business owners. I also do not accept awards from men that are so big they’d make Jabba the Hutt say “Dayum!”

  35. #35 mk
    October 16, 2008
    I also do not accept awards from men that are so big they’d make Jabba the Hutt say “Dayum!”

    Once again, repetition and lack of originality… minus 10 points.

    Oh and my bad… congrats on the award. It is clearly well deserved!

  36. #36 Reginald Selkirk
    October 16, 2008

    Halle Berry once accepted a Razzie award. I give her credit for that. I have no knowledge of the weight of the award presenter, but she had enough class to not even mention that.

  37. #37 J. J. Ramsey
    October 16, 2008

    Badger3k: “Have to look into the Lazarus-Egyptian connection, but from a quick scan of the internet, most of what I saw looks tenuous (basing it upon names?).”

    It’s been a while since I’ve looked at that, but IIRC, the connection is made up, just like Mithras having twelve disciples. It looked like stuff that many IIDB veterans know better than to believe.

  38. #38 Leni
    October 16, 2008

    Paul Murray wrote:

    That’s why all the crackpottery and religious belief. Bad public health.

    I’ve wondered about that before, too. And not just with the public health issue, but with public services in general (including education). Churches often pick up the slack, and people understandably turn to them in times of need because they can’t go anywhere else.

    (I’m not criticizing churches for doing this, or insinuating that it’s all nefarious, but it does seem like a natural connection to make.)

    And O’Brien, I’ve seen a picture of you. You aren’t exactly a beauty queen either. So if you want to keep dogging Ed for carrying some extra baggage, I’ll be happy to post a link to the photo so we can all share the fun.

  39. #39 JimCH
    October 16, 2008

    lenigrab (or whatever name you choose to go by)…
    Whatever desired result that you think this is having, it’s not working. Leni bothers you, we get it. You annoy everyone else.

  40. #40 Leni
    October 16, 2008

    The sad thing is, now that I’ve *discovered* the magic of Killfile, he’s only bothering everyone else. I can kill them faster than I can read them, so it’s all working out pretty well for me. I encourage you all to get it at once.

    And sadly, I know I saw that O’Brien pic somewhere around here, but ~2.5 minutes of searching didn’t turn it up and I’m not quite vindictive enough to keep looking.

    Alas, we are spared the terrible visage of O’Brien for another day. (I remember that he looked an awful lot like the slacker son from Dr. Katz, though. Or a little like a pasty Ray Romano.)

  41. #41 Pseudonym
    October 16, 2008

    Just once I’d like to see a purveyor of this attitude back it up with even a shred of evidence.

    Well, there was this, which did the rounds about 18 months ago.

    What’s that you say? Never heard of this book? Didn’t see any big stories in Time or Newsweek about it? Haven’t seen its contributors on C-Span presenting their views to standing-room only crowds? I wonder why that is.

    That is a question that has no good answer. Why do the media trot out Pat Robertson on every religious issue instead of Katharine Schori? Why is everything that Paris Hilton does “news”? Why do people still make reality TV shows?

    When the mainstream media is dumbed down, you have to play dumb (whether consciously or not) to get attention. If the acquisition of ratings is your highest goal, I guess that’s what you should do.

    I’m going to give Religulous a pass. Borat-style cringe humour isn’t funny and isn’t serious, which results in it being pretty much content-free.

  42. #42 Pseudonym
    October 16, 2008

    One more thing. Probably the most eloquent arguments for promoting Enlightenment-compatible religion came from Scienceblogs itself, but since it came from a notorious religious sympathiser, I’m not surpised few people noticed it at the time.

  43. #43 Science Avenger
    October 17, 2008

    FWIW, I had O’Brien pegged as an angry old bastard from his posts, and then I went and looked at his photos: he’s a fucking kid! He’s way too young to have this pompous angry shtick going. Draw your own conclusions. Larry Fafarman he ain’t, but its the same ball park. Personally I’ll never be able to see another smug contentless post from him without feeling sorry for him.

  44. #44 Leni
    October 17, 2008

    I have a pic on my blog for all to see, dimbulb.

    And I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t think of sending people there! I’m not your god, O’Brien. I don’t think torturing people needlessly is a good thing.

    Pseudonym wrote:

    I’m going to give Religulous a pass. Borat-style cringe humour isn’t funny and isn’t serious, which results in it being pretty much content-free.

    I’m probably going to give it a pass too, at least for now. But I have to say- I think you are dead wrong about “Borat-style humor”. The Bruno/Spring break fiasco with the frat boys was hilarious. Yes, I cringed. But I also laughed. And pointed, a little.

    As was the star spangled banner/rodeo debacle. Not only did I fear for Baron-Cohen’s life, but I feared for all of humanity. He did a brilliant job of making them all look like the nationalistic, war mongering idiots they are.

    “I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards,” he said, according to Brett Sharp of Star Country WSLC, who was also on stage that night as a media sponsor of the rodeo.

    An uneasy murmur ran through the crowd.

    “And may George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq,” he continued, according to Robynn Jaymes, who co-hosts a morning radio show with Sharp and was also among the stunned observers.

    The “serious” thing is, they turned into the very pitchfork waving, nationalistic thugs he was mocking them for being in the first place.

  45. #45 Loren Petrich
    October 17, 2008

    There are lots of similarities between Jesus Christ and various pagan gods and heroes, though the similarities are more in the overall picture than in details. I agree that Bill Maher ought to be careful; he could try working through Lord Raglan’s Mythic-Hero profile.

    Lord Raglan had prepared a 22-point average biography of legendary heroes, and Alan Dundes found that Jesus Christ scored about 19, way up there along Moses and Romulus and Hercules and Oedipus and Zeus. And as I’ve found out, Krishna and the Buddha.

    By comparison, well-documented heroes in modern times seldom go above 6 or 7 or so. You have to look back a long way to find ones who score relatively high, like Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, but even they only approach 10 or so.

    I’ve also evaluated some notable recent fictional heroes like the Skywalkers and Harry Potter, and they also score high.

    That’s not to say that Lord Raglan’s profile cannot be improved; I think that it needs a bit of clarification, like splitting “royal virgin” into 2 criteria, and clarifying the lack of childhood documentation. I also think that a few features could be added, like spectacular child-prodigy stories and the hero fulfilling prophecies despite attempts to thwart that fulfillment.

  46. #46 J. J. Ramsey
    October 17, 2008

    Loren Petrich: “Lord Raglan had prepared a 22-point average biography of legendary heroes, and Alan Dundes found that Jesus Christ scored about 19 …”

    As pointed out in an old IIDB thread (in which you participated), the score of 19 is very arguable and depends on a loose interpretation of Raglan’s criteria. That may make for interesting papers in humanities journals, but such ambiguities make the scoring less than meaningful.

    Then there is the question of what the scoring is even supposed to mean. If one is using the score as a sign that the hero in question is mythical, then this is a very poor line of argument, since one can easily argue that the accounts of Jesus look like they were the product of tacking on heaps of myth to a real person–and Raglan’s points match the mythical parts. If you are simply trying to argue that Christianity is false, then you don’t need to argue that Jesus is a myth, and you don’t even need Raglan in the first place. So what use is Raglan?

  47. #47 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 17, 2008

    Pseduonym –

    The article you linked to does not even address the point I was making. That more liberal forms of religion are easier to live with than conservative ones is not the issue, I have said as much myself in an earlier comment in this thread. If we must have religion, then I’d rather have the more liberal forms be prominent. That has nothing to do with the best strategy for diminishing the role of religion in American life, or for carving out more space for atheism The question is whether an aggressive approach like the one taken by Maher (and Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris) is more or less effective than a mild-mannered, can’t we all just get along approach. Linker seems to think it is obvious that the latter strategy is the better one. I’d like to see some evidence that he’s right.

    And since PZ said precisely what I just said, I’m not sure why you linked to him.

    The acquisition of ratings is not the highest goal, but it is an important one if you want to call attention to your cause.

  48. #48 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 17, 2008

    Folks, keep your comments related to the thread or they will be deleted.

  49. #49 bigbang
    October 17, 2008

    But windy, we are organisms with purposes, some of which are to fear for your and our humanity, eternally and cosmologically.

  50. #50 windy
    October 17, 2008

    Folks, keep your comments related to the thread or they will be deleted.

    Jason, if you are going to delete my and Leni’s comments complaining about the troll using our names, the least you could do is delete the fake posts too. Thanks.

    (The “I’m sure these posts…” post is not mine. So far the troll hasn’t posted anything too nasty under our names, but better nip it in the bud.)

  51. #51 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 17, 2008

    windy -

    I’m working on it, but the server is a bit slow just now and it takes time to track down and delete all the nonsense.

  52. #52 JimC
    October 17, 2008

    No, ‘discredited’ is precisely descriptive.

    Nope, plenty of room for discussion.

  53. #53 Pseudonym
    October 17, 2008

    The article you linked to does not even address the point I was making.

    Obviously it didn’t answer your specific point, since it wasn’t specifically in reply, but you only asked for a “shred of evidence”. That’s what it had: The American constitutional framers did it, and for a while (probably up until the Civil War), it worked for the most part. It worked like a charm in bits of Europe. PZ more or less agreed with this point, he’s just not convinced that it’s possible in the United States today.

    Now what’s the evidence that the alternative is a better option?

    Americans don’t seem to understand this, but your biggest problem, from the point of view of most outsiders, is extreme polarisation. (At least, that’s the only explanation we have for Bush being re-elected.) The proposal is, essentially, to fight this with more polarisation. The burden of proof is surely on those who think this will work to justify it.

  54. #54 J. J. Ramsey
    October 18, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “The question is whether an aggressive approach like the one taken by Maher (and Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris) is more or less effective than a mild-mannered, can’t we all just get along approach.”

    This looks like a false dichotomy, although since you haven’t indicated what you meant by “mild-mannered,” it’s hard to say. Do you have an outright milquetoast in mind when you write “mild-mannered,” or does “mild-mannered” describe those who are assertive as well?

    Trouble is, I don’t see the approach of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris working all that well, either. I think that you are too optimistic to say that

    Becuase of them atheism is now out of the closet and in the air. It is now a mainstream topic of conversation, and not a view that can be marginalized.

    Dawkins et al. have given a shot in the arm to various atheist organizations and have “grown the base” a bit, but after the book promotions and such, they are now out of the mainstream’s eye, yesterday’s news. Atheism is still marginal.

    I partly disagree that there has been no backlash. We haven’t seen a rise in religiosity in response to Dawkins et al., but there has been a pushback that limits their effectiveness, which has been to portray them as those with the same demeanor and intellectual honesty as the religious fundies. Right or wrong, that pushback has largely worked, in no small part because there is an element of truth in it. You can see a similar response to Maher as well.

  55. #55 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 18, 2008

    Pseudonym –

    No, the burden of proof is on those who say the Linker approach is the way to go. Virtually every successful social movement in American history made its progress by screaming and yelling, and by not wringing its hands over the possibility of offending those on the other side. And virtually all of them were told at some point that they should be patient and understanding, and that they shouldn’t rock the boat. Meanwhile, during the last thirty years or so American atheists have been largely silent and deferential, and it was during that same period of time that the religious right emerged as a dominant social force.

    It is the polite approach that hasn’t worked for atheists, and that has rarely worked for comparable movements in the past. You say polarisation is the problem, and give as evidence the success of George W. Bush. But have you bothered to notice how the far right went from despised minority in the seventies to the dominant political force today? They didn’t do it with polite engagement, and they definitely didn’t worry about blowback from offended liberals.

    J.J. Ramsey –

    This looks like a false dichotomy, although since you haven’t indicated what you meant by “mild-mannered,” it’s hard to say. Do you have an outright milquetoast in mind when you write “mild-mannered,” or does “mild-mannered” describe those who are assertive as well?

    I meant whatever Linker had in mind as the alternative to the “asinine” strategy followed by Maher and the others. Since that strategy is usually described with words like militant and aggressive, I chose mild-mannered as the opposite of that.

    Dawkins et al. have given a shot in the arm to various atheist organizations and have “grown the base” a bit, but after the book promotions and such, they are now out of the mainstream’s eye, yesterday’s news. Atheism is still marginal.

    For heaven’s sake, what more could they have accomplished? Of course their books eventually become old news and the story changes to something else. And of course you don’t go from despised minority to mainstream view in a few years and with a few books. The fact remains that growing the base and putting your ideas in front of large audiences are huge accomplishments. They showed the world that even in America there is a large audience for their views. They could not have accomplished that with a more sedate approach.

    I partly disagree that there has been no backlash. We haven’t seen a rise in religiosity in response to Dawkins et al., but there has been a pushback that limits their effectiveness, which has been to portray them as those with the same demeanor and intellectual honesty as the religious fundies. Right or wrong, that pushback has largely worked, in no small part because there is an element of truth in it. You can see a similar response to Maher as well.

    You have no basis for your assertion that the pushback, such as its been, against Dawkins et al has limited their effectiveness or that it has largely worked. I would argue that their ability to provoke pushback is a sign of their effectiveness. It is books like the OUP anthology that are ineffective. (Which does not mean it was a bad book or not valuable in other ways.)

    The question is: Are atheists in a better position today than we were, say, ten years, ago before Dawkins and the others did their work? I can’t imagine how you answer anything other than yes to that question.

  56. #56 J. J. Ramsey
    October 18, 2008

    Rosenhouse: “Meanwhile, during the last thirty years or so American atheists have been largely silent and deferential”

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair was deferential? Dan Barker was deferential? The Internet Infidels were deferential? Maybe the atheists who haven’t been involved in atheist organizations might be characterized as deferential, but the idea that atheists involved in activism were taking the “polite approach” before Sam Harris made a name for himself and Dawkins wrote TGD is just wrong.

    What’s changed is not the tone of atheist activism. What changed was 9/11, which was used as a modern-day example of the danger of religion, especially by Sam Harris. That opened the way for Dawkins, who could then leverage his celebrity to get a larger forum for the things that atheist activists have been saying for a while.

    Rosenhouse: “But have you bothered to notice how the far right went from despised minority in the seventies to the dominant political force today?”

    I’m not so sure that the “impoliteness” of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, etc. was what put the far right into power. Probably some of the credit (or blame, if you will) goes to the affable Ronald Reagan. Anyway, I’d want to consult some history books before I’d say anything more definitive on that score. That said, regardless of whether polarization has gotten the far right into power, it is certainly clear that it has been toxic to this country, and for that reason, I’d be leery about using the far right as a success story for “impolite” activism.

    Rosenhouse: “I meant whatever Linker had in mind as the alternative to the ‘asinine’ strategy followed by Maher and the others. Since that strategy is usually described with words like militant and aggressive, I chose mild-mannered as the opposite of that.”

    What Linker describes as “asinine” is “scor[ing] easy points than explore the messy reality of humanity’s complicated–often sordid, but sometimes noble–religious impulses and experiences,” “tak[ing] on simpletons and extremists,” saying “that religious belief is a ‘neurological disorder’,” and being “intellectually fraudulent and morally sloppy.” Now to be fair, Maher did not avoid the “thoughtful believers” as much as Linker claims. That said, what Linker describes as “asinine” is far more than just the opposite of “mild-mannered.” What Linker describes is basically the sort of demonization done by, for example, the far right.

    Rosenhouse: “For heaven’s sake, what more could they have accomplished?”

    How about shattering stereotypes about atheists? How about showing that, no, atheists aren’t necessarily arrogant people who think that theists are stupid? How about offering some Sister Souljah moments where they tell off fellow atheists for confusing being wrong on metaphysical questions with being stupid or crazy, or where they tell off atheists for indulging in crankery?

    Rosenhouse: “The question is: Are atheists in a better position today than we were, say, ten years, ago before Dawkins and the others did their work?”

    So far, the main thing that Dawkins and company have accomplished is to make mixed bag atheist organizations a little larger. I have not seen that translate into abating the stigma against atheists–which is my idea of progress. So long as Dawkins and company act even halfway close to the stereotype of the arrogant atheist that I had mentioned earlier, I don’t see how they are going to change that.

  57. #57 Pseudonym
    October 18, 2008

    Virtually every successful social movement in American history made its progress by screaming and yelling, and by not wringing its hands over the possibility of offending those on the other side.

    Every successful social movement has, either implicitly or explicitly, understood that there is not just “the other side” to consider. There’s us, there’s those who are against us, and then there’s everyone else. We fight those who are against us with everything we have, but we befriend, and thereby win over, everyone else.

    It’s a very fine line, but virtually every successful social movement succeeded by doing that. It’s why you have a national holiday named after Martin Luther King, but not after Malcolm X.

    Perhaps other people are telling you guys to be polite. I’m not. I think it’s horrible the way that Atheists are thought of in the Bible Belt, and you’re right to be obnoxious about it. All I’m saying is that if the anger were more carefully targeted, it’d be more likely to work.

    You have to ask yourself: Is it “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” (G.W. Bush) or “everyone who is not against us is for us” (some famous guy I can’t recall the name of right now)?

    J.J. Ramsey:

    What changed was 9/11, which was used as a modern-day example of the danger of religion, especially by Sam Harris.

    Bingo. But, of course, 9/11 is, to most Americans, the Universal Example. To Sam Harris, it’s an example of religion. To Pat Robertson, it’s all about lesbians and the ACLU. Whatever your personal prejudice, it’s proof positive that you’re right.

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    October 18, 2008

    Pseudonym: “There’s us, there’s those who are against us, and then there’s everyone else. We fight those who are against us with everything we have, but we befriend, and thereby win over, everyone else.”

    Or, as Ed Brayton put it a while back:

    Where Nisbet is wrong, I think, is in not separating the really hardcore anti-atheists – the ones who are likely to engage in discrimination and harassment – and the much larger body of Christian believers who do not have an inherent dislike of atheists (disagreement need not be hostility) but who are likely to be pushed more toward a fearful and negative reaction if they see, for example, that PZ Myers has called for the “obliteration” of religion from the planet.

  59. #59 Pseudonym
    October 18, 2008

    Indeed.

    One of the biggest problems for those trying to make history is understanding just enough to be dangerous yet not enough to understand what made it work.

    Yes, social movements of the past were in-your-face and obnoxious. But the successful ones were very careful about what they were in-your-face about, and who they targeted it at.

    For all of the obnoxiousness, it’s undeniable that Martin Luther King was far more effective than Malcolm X, and Susan B. Anthony was far more effective than Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It follows that were he alive today, Carl Sagan would likely be far more effective than Richard Dawkins.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    October 18, 2008

    Let me get back on topic to Maher’s film …

    One catch is that Maher makes it too easy to misperceive that he is relying on cheap shots.

    It is easy to notice him interviewing an actor playing Jesus in an embarrassingly kitschy theme park, and to see that as a way to ridicule Christianity by associating it with kitsch. It isn’t as obvious to see that the interview is surprisingly friendly, and that the actor isn’t being portrayed as an idiot.

    It is easy to see Maher describing Christianity in a way that makes it sound ridiculous. It is not so easy to notice how he trips up religious people simply by asking tough questions like “Why is faith good?”

    Maher could have staged the documentary in such a way as to make it hard for the charge about cheap shots–which would be nearly inevitably made–to stick, but he didn’t. He made it easy for his documentary to fit believers’ pre-existing frames about atheists.

  61. #61 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 19, 2008

    Pseudonym -

    Bringing up Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is a spectacularly poor choice for your argument. The difference between them was not that one favored in your face tactics while the other was keen on polite engagement. The difference was that Malcolm X advocated using violence, while Martin Luther King did not.

    Dawkins and the others are far closer to King in their approach than to Malcolm X. For all the talk about how militant they are, all they have actually done is to write books and engage their critics in debate. A few harsh phrases here and there do not make them the heirs of Malcolm X.

    King’s success was the result of making it impossible for white people to ignore the consequences of racism. And with every act of civil disobedience in which he engaged he had people warning him that he would alienate folks and that he needed to have patience. It is fortunate he ignored such people.

    Dawkins and the others are making it impossible for people to ignore the views of atheists, and they are doing it with tactics that are remarkably civil. In their public appearances they are models of decorum. And even their books actually contain very little in the way of crude insults or stereotyping. For this they are called militant, and are lectured about how important it is not to scare away emotionally delicate moderates.

  62. #62 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 19, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey –

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair was largely finished as an activist by the early eighties. In her time she was effective precisely by employing tactics very similar to Dawkins, in particular by being uncompromising in her rhetoric and by debating religious figures in public forums. She also took on a lot of taboo issues via the legal system, which is even more obnoxious (in a good way) and in your face than what Dawkins does. I don’t understand why you think bringing her up helps your argument.

    Maybe the atheists who haven’t been involved in atheist organizations might be characterized as deferential, but the idea that atheists involved in activism were taking the “polite approach” before Sam Harris made a name for himself and Dawkins wrote TGD is just wrong.

    That is, indeed, wrong, so its lucky for me I didn’t say that. I said American atheists were largely silent and deferential, and since the number of atheists active in atheist organizations is vanishingly small I’d say you just confirmed the correctness of my statement.

    It is certainly true that 9/11 changed a great deal, by making the threat of religious violence immediately apparent to everyone. But that is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that the rise of the religious right in the late seventies and eighties went almost completely unopposed by anyone with the stature to make a difference, and today we are paying a great price for that.

    I’m not so sure that the “impoliteness” of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, etc. was what put the far right into power. Probably some of the credit (or blame, if you will) goes to the affable Ronald Reagan. Anyway, I’d want to consult some history books before I’d say anything more definitive on that score. That said, regardless of whether polarization has gotten the far right into power, it is certainly clear that it has been toxic to this country, and for that reason, I’d be leery about using the far right as a success story for “impolite” activism.

    This is so far off I hardly know where to begin. My emphasis was not on the “impoliteness” of right-wing discourse. I said simply that polite engagement and hand-wringing over what the moderates will think were not the tactics they employed, and indeed they weren’t. Instead they forcefully, repeatedly and unapologetically made their case, extreme though it was. Reagan certainly had an air of affability (as does Limbaugh, for that matter) and that made him an effective conduit for presenting their message. But he didn’t exactly tone down his rhetoric to make his message appealing to moderates.

    As for the rest of your paragraph, you’re telling me that the success of the right’s tactics should not be used as vindication for their tactics? That seems odd. We can all agree that polarization is a bad thing. But sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Democratic politicians have tried for years to respond to the polarizing tactics of the right with precisely the sort of careful, measured, moderate-soothing rhetoric you are advocating. How has that worked out for them?

    How about shattering stereotypes about atheists? How about showing that, no, atheists aren’t necessarily arrogant people who think that theists are stupid? How about offering some Sister Souljah moments where they tell off fellow atheists for confusing being wrong on metaphysical questions with being stupid or crazy, or where they tell off atheists for indulging in crankery?

    So you’re saying the non-asinine strategy is to try to appeal to people who hold mindless stereotypes about you, to be meek in your rhetoric and to avoid stating bluntly what you think of specific religious views, and to attack your own side? Glad we cleared that up. Forgive me for being skeptical of your strategy.

    The only crime of which Dawkins and the others stand accused is of sometimes using harsh rhetoric and of occasionally being sloppy in their research. It is this that gets them called militant, and has everyone fearful that the much ballyhooed religious moderates will be scared off into the realm of the religious right. The fact is that it is atheism itself that people find repugnant, as the public opinion polls tell us. You can be the most gracious and intellectually respectable atheist in the world, but if you ever manage to sell a significant number of books you will be attacked in precisely the manner in which Dawkins is attacked today. If you’re relevant, you are going to be accused of being militant.

    You also steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what a great feat it is to put your views in front of millions of people by writing successful books, garnering media coverage, and by making well-attended public appearances. You change societal views by making your view part of the zeitgeist. You make atheism such a familiar part of everyday life that the younger generation gets used to and does it see it as bizarre. Dawkins and the others have done about as much as they possibly could to drive us in that direction. Your conniptions about Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument, or his admittedly unfortunate use of the term “faith-heads” seem rather silly by comparison.

    In the nineties, every time homosexuals staged a gay pride parade they received a version of your lecture. They were told that if they were so strident and in your face about everything they would only scare away centrists and moderates. But the critics were wrong then and they are wrong now.

  63. #63 Pseudonym
    October 19, 2008

    Bringing up Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is a spectacularly poor choice for your argument.

    I’m mildly aware of that, but I thought the comparison between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was quite apt. Their main disagreement was over who to make friends with. Stanton was not in favour of alliances with moderate and conservative feminism, and Anthony was. Anthony appears (so I understand) on a coin, and most people don’t know who Stanton was.

    The difference between them was not that one favored in your face tactics while the other was keen on polite engagement.

    Indeed. Martin Luther King was not “keen on polite engagement” with the powers of racism.

    Dawkins and the others are making it impossible for people to ignore the views of atheists, [...]

    If only they were doing that by being compelling! Hitchens, for example, engages religion on the level of one-liners and slogans. He’s impossible to ignore in the same way that Bill Kristol is impossible to ignore.

    But they’re very easy to dismiss. You’ve talked about a lot of the dismissive stuff here. It is unfortunate that most of those who have tried to explain why it’s wrong have stuffed it up, much like a typical biologist would easily stuff up a debate with Duane Gish. But there’s a reason why the likes of John Shelby Spong have not tried to engage the New Atheists. It’d be like Stephen Hawking engaging creationists: it’s not a good use of their time when there’s real work to be done.

    And even their books actually contain very little in the way of crude insults or stereotyping.

    I’ve read God is not Great. It’s nothing but crude insults and stereotyping with a whole bunch of “proof by example” thrown in.

  64. #64 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 19, 2008

    Pseudonym -

    I disagree with you about the strengths of Hitchens’ book. I thought much of it was cogently argued, and all of it was eloquently written. But this is something we can simply agree to disagree about.

    John Shelby Spong is an atheist himself, if by that term you mean someone who does not believe in a supernatural creator God. It’s interesting that you choose him as your model of a theological superstar. On the other hand, people like John Haught and Alister MacGrath are pretty high powered theologians, and they thought the new atheists merited book-length responses (among many others).

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain on the one hand that they are easy to dismiss, and then turn around and say their strident rhetoric is having an adverse effect on the lot of atheists.

  65. #65 Leni
    October 19, 2008

    I would imagine a lot of credit should go to the “affable” Reagan:

    If it’s to be a bloodbath, let it be now. Appeasement is not the answer.

    Mind you, he’s referring to Berkeley, not Russia.

    [Evolution] has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. But if it was going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught.

    The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.

    Admittedly there is a risk in any course we follow other than this [surrender], but every lesson in history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face – that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight and surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand – the ultimatum. And what then? When Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be? He has told them that we are retreating under the pressure of the Cold War, and someday when the time comes to deliver the ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary because by that time we will have weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he has heard voices pleading for “peace at any price” or “better Red than dead,” or as one commentator put it, he would rather “live on his knees than die on his feet.” And therein lies the road to war, because those voices don’t speak for the rest of us. You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin – just in the face of this enemy?

    This one isn’t so much affable as laughable:

    The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor.

    More:

    One hundred nations in the UN have not agreed with us on just about everything that’s come before them, where we’re involved, and it didn’t upset my breakfast at all.

    The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to use quotes to smear Reagan. I don’t think he was all bad or anything. I am more interested in illustrating the point that Reagan took the hard line against his opponents and was often needling and sarcastic about it.

    Further, and unlike atheists, he had the weight of public opinion behind him. Of course he is going to get a better “review”. He wasn’t part of a despised minority.

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    How about shattering stereotypes about atheists?

    So only atheists who aren’t “stereotypical” need apply?

    How about showing that, no, atheists aren’t necessarily arrogant people who think that theists are stupid?

    Do you mean like how Dawkins characterized Kurt Wise? Or perhaps how Harris describes spirituality?

    How about offering some Sister Souljah moments where they tell off fellow atheists for confusing being wrong on metaphysical questions with being stupid or crazy, or where they tell off atheists for indulging in crankery?

    Part of the criticism is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between “stupid and crazy” and “metaphysical”.

    What is “stupid and crazy” to you, may be perfectly acceptable to someone else. 72 virgins and a shot at helping his family, or a chance to get back at the mean old government (and anyone in the near vicinity), or praying that god lets you govern the most powerful nation on earth to set the stage for Jesus’ return. Sometimes the distinction is not all that clear.

    As far as the “sistah souljah” moment goes. Good christ, I can only hope that never happens. If Dawkins ever channeled Oprah like that I’d openly advocate for his immediate termination. As an atheist spokesman.

    Thank you, Jason, for finally deleting the troll’s posts and not removing mine (except the few which I’m happy to see go). I am sorry for my impatience and irritation.

  66. #66 Pseudonym
    October 19, 2008

    Jason:

    I disagree with you about the strengths of Hitchens’ book. I thought much of it was cogently argued, and all of it was eloquently written. But this is something we can simply agree to disagree about.

    Sure. I think that the “New Atheist” books are of varying merit. I really liked Breaking the Spell, for example. I disagreed with some of it (in that some of it contradicted research I’d seen elsewhere), but I thought it was very well-argued nonetheless.

    John Shelby Spong is an atheist himself, if by that term you mean someone who does not believe in a supernatural creator God. It’s interesting that you choose him as your model of a theological superstar.

    I picked him because everyone’s heard of him. I guess I could have named John Dominic Crossan or Richard Holloway.

    On the other hand, people like John Haught and Alister MacGrath are pretty high powered theologians, and they thought the new atheists merited book-length responses (among many others).

    Both wrote books about Atheism, evolution and Christiantiy before Dawkins did. If I recall correctly, McGrath is an ex-Atheist. He also used to be a molecular biologist or something like that, so he’s not exactly ignorant on the science. Haught was an expert witness at the Kitzmiller trial, on the side of cute puppies and candy.

    So in summary, if you’re the sort of person who has written a lot of books for general consumption, and the topic of evolution and Atheism falls directly in your area of expertise, and especially if you’re an ex-Atheist and/or have spent court time defending science from the loonies only to have one of the world’s most famous evolutionists turn on you for your trouble, a book-length response from you is kind of expected, if not mandatory. From everyone else, the most I’ve seen is a half-hearted dismissive shrug.

  67. #67 J. J. Ramsey
    October 19, 2008

    Rosenhouse: “I don’t understand why you think bringing her [Madalyn Murray O'Hair] up helps your argument.”

    Because you had claimed that atheists had been taking the polite approach over the past few decades, and she is an obvious counterexample. And as for her effectiveness, her legacy is decidedly mixed. She certainly wasn’t a persuasive example for her own son.

    Rosenhouse: “I said American atheists were largely silent and deferential, and since the number of atheists active in atheist organizations is vanishingly small I’d say you just confirmed the correctness of my statement.”

    That presumes that the reasons for their lack of participation have to do with being deferential, rather than, say, apathy or being afraid that these atheist organizations are too crankish–an image reinforced by the likes of O’Hair.

    Rosenhouse: “My emphasis was not on the ‘impoliteness’ of right-wing discourse. I said simply that polite engagement and hand-wringing over what the moderates will think were not the tactics they employed, and indeed they weren’t.”

    Okay, so your emphasis wasn’t on the “impoliteness” but on how the right-wing didn’t worry about “polite engagement.” Gotcha.

    Rosenhouse: “As for the rest of your paragraph, you’re telling me that the success of the right’s tactics should not be used as vindication for their tactics?”

    The far right has been successful at stoking hate, which has been seen in the crowds of recent McCain-Palin rallies. That’s not the sort of success I want emulated.

    Rosenhouse: “So you’re saying the non-asinine strategy is to try to appeal to people who hold mindless stereotypes about you,”

    The non-asinine strategy is to show those stereotypes as false.

    Rosenhouse: “to be meek in your rhetoric and to avoid stating bluntly what you think of specific religious views,”

    Strawman much?

    Rosenhouse: “and to attack your own side?”

    If my own side is doing stupid things, you bet!

    Rosenhouse: “The only crime of which Dawkins and the others stand accused is of sometimes using harsh rhetoric and of occasionally being sloppy in their research.”

    It’s not just the research where they’ve been sloppy. Their reasoning has all too often been sloppy as well, and when they do so much talk-talk about the value of reason, that’s a big deal. When Dawkins’ spends several paragraphs on the Trinity, and all of it is a non-argument argument that is a tissue of snark, falsehoods, and ambiguous statements, when Dawkins does a half-baked job of tackling theistic arguments to which there have been decisive rebuttals for about a century, when Dawkins spends nearly a whole chapter on an argument that borders on incoherent because he fails to see how ambiguous the word “complex” is, that is way more “occasional” than I find acceptable. This is not a good example to set before either theists or atheists.

    Rosenhouse: “You also steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what a great feat it is to put your views in front of millions of people by writing successful books, garnering media coverage, and by making well-attended public appearances”

    I don’t see that great feat translating into something useful. There was some mainstream hoopla about atheism for a while, but it didn’t last, and the bad old stereotypes are left unchallenged.

    Rosenhouse: “In the nineties, every time homosexuals staged a gay pride parade they received a version of your lecture.”

    Except that the stereotypes that are seen in gay pride parades aren’t inherently negative. Silly and crazy, perhaps, but not bad. There is nothing wrong with sequins, feathers, or leather. There is plenty wrong with being arrogant.

    Leni: “Anyway, I’m not trying to use quotes to smear Reagan. I don’t think he was all bad or anything. I am more interested in illustrating the point that Reagan took the hard line against his opponents and was often needling and sarcastic about it.”

    And if I go to the blog of friendly atheist Hemant Mehta, I can find plenty of places where he is blunt about atheism. For example,

    In fact, he was SO comfortable the audience warmed up to him. He seemed like the type of guy you could laugh away an afternoon of cards with. Or even…dare I say?…let date your daughter. Or…(how could this be possible?)…even not think twice about dropping your kids with at a day care.

    And every time they started to think, “what a neat guy!” he would hit them in the face with a board. (Figuratively.) “Oh, I am an atheist.” “As an atheist…” “No such things as god…” The people around me were letting out their breath when they started to relate, and then sucked it in when they heard that word. Like being seated with a pack of bellows.

    The question, “Fill in the Blank, ‘God is ___’” and without hesitation he replied “Make-believe.” The people stiffened around me. “Did he just say…uh…but he seems like such a nice boy?!”

    Being affable and being blunt are not opposite.

    Me: “How about showing that, no, atheists aren’t necessarily arrogant people who think that theists are stupid?”

    Leni (in reply): “Do you mean like how Dawkins characterized Kurt Wise? Or perhaps how Harris describes spirituality?”

    Actually, I mean something far more direct, like pointing out, as I did on another comment on the Friendly Atheist blog, that the religious aren’t bird-brained but ape-brained–just like the rest of us. Our evolved human brains are not well-designed for rational thought, and even bright people can believe very wrong things. Dawkins, at least, has occasionally nodded in this direction, but stuff about “faithheads” and “delusion” undermines this.

    Leni: “As far as the ‘sistah souljah’ moment goes. Good christ, I can only hope that never happens. If Dawkins ever channeled Oprah like that I’d openly advocate for his immediate termination. As an atheist spokesman.”

    Actually, a “Sistah Souljah” moment refers to Bill Clinton denouncing Sistah Souljah for making racist comments. More generally, it’s an example of someone repudiating misdeeds of someone supposedly on their own side.

    Rosenhouse (to Pseudonym): “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain on the one hand that they are easy to dismiss, and then turn around and say their strident rhetoric is having an adverse effect on the lot of atheists.”

    That’s not as contradictory as you claim. One can argue that their rhetoric reinforces the bad things that theists believe about atheists, which in turn make it easier for theists to dismiss them.

  68. #68 J. J. Ramsey
    October 19, 2008

    Looking back on Reagan’s comments, I’d say that it does look like stuff that Limbaugh would say, except that he did it with a grandfatherly tone instead of obvious bombast, which isn’t much of an improvement. That said, that puts Reagan in the same company as the right-wing pundits whose “success” is not the sort that we want to emulate.

  69. #69 Matt Springer
    October 19, 2008

    “Regarding the dream of religion withering away, that is precisely what has happened in most of Western Europe. Why is it so unreasonable to hope for it to happen here as well?”

    I suspect – without any evidence – that this may be an anomalous artifact of post-WWII culture, like Europe’s comparative pacifism. Given a few decades I’m not at all sure it will remain the case.

  70. #70 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 19, 2008

    Pseudonym -

    If the publication of anti new atheist books is any measure then you are simply mistaken to say that the response of the religious community has been a dismissive shrug. I mentioned Haught and MacGrath simply because they are especially big names in this area. But the fact is there are dozens of such books out there written by prominent people. Rabbi David Wolpe, a somewhat well-known figure in Jewish circles, has a new one just out. As does biologist and evangelical Christian Denis Lameoureaux. And prominent Catholic writer Michael Novak. And this is just to focus on names that are likely to be familiar to people who follow these things. There are numerous others by less well-known, but equally serious folks. (Not to mention efforts by less serious folks like David Berlinski and Dinesh D’Souza). And if we include the recent glut of books defending theistic evolution, which nearly always contain a lot of material about new atheists, then your claim becomes even more transparently absurd. Apparently an awful lot of people find something worth discussing in these books.

    The surprising success of the new atheist books, predicted by no one, has been one of the biggest developments in the public dialogue about religion in the last five years. Of course the religious community is not going to meet that with a shrug.

    Matt Springer -

    Well aren’t you just a little ray of sunshine!

  71. #71 J. J. Ramsey
    October 19, 2008

    I don’t think my posts have quite gotten into troll territory yet, although they are definitely a case of SIWOTI syndrome.

    Seriously, here is another ray of sunshine:

    Many of Ingersoll’s speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could stop his rising popularity.

    One could make the same charges of arrogance and sloppiness about Robert G. Ingersoll as one can about Maher and Dawkins. One could also excuse Ingersoll on the same grounds as one can excuse them, that he is bringing atheism (well, agnosticism, anyway) out of the closet and into the mainstream. I think we can see just how successful Ingersoll ultimately was at changing the zeitgeist.

    We need something better than just 21st-century rehashes of Ingersoll.

  72. #72 Pseudonym
    October 19, 2008

    Jason:

    Maybe it depends who you pay attention to. I only know what Berlinski and D’Souza are up to thanks to reading your blog, so clearly you listen to different people than I do.

    I do concede your point on the theistic evolution books, but to be fair, the point of those books is to defend both science and religion from fundamentalists and creationists. Before Dawkins and Harris (though not, I might add, Hitchens and Dennett), it would not have been necessary to defend science from the accusation that it’s philosophically Atheistic, nor theistic evolution from the accusation that it’s intellectually indefensible.

    In that sense I get the impression that the bits that deal with the New Atheists in those books are not really written with the New Atheists as the intended audience. Rather, it’s well-meaning Christians who have been taught creationism to whom they wish to say “yeah, Dawkins said X, but we both know that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on that topic, and by the way, let me wax on for a bit about how I feel”.

    At least, that’s the impression I get from the reviews on this blog; they don’t seem to be intended to be full-on responses to books like TGD. It’s not Ken Miller’s job to defend religion from Dawkins, it’s his job to defend science from Dembski and Behe. To the extent that the IDiots use faux-philosophical arguments and point to books like TGD, Miller has to deal with that otherwise his books are incomplete.

    Not being American, not being US-self-styled “evangelical”, not being Catholic and not being Jewish, I really haven’t seen the other books that you mention, so I can’t really comment on their purpose or their relative success. I do find it telling that, taking a more global view, there’s been relatively little written outside the United States on the topic.

    Having said all that, you do have a point. Where can I find the modern-day equivalent of Henry Ward Beecher, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Leslie Weatherhead, Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan, Walter Kaufmann or Bertrand Russell?

    They are out there, I’m sure, but we’ll never find them because the really good intellectuals don’t take part in public debate.

  73. #73 J. J. Ramsey
    October 19, 2008

    BTW, my last quote above is from the Wikipedia article on Robert G. Ingersoll.

  74. #74 J. J. Ramsey
    October 19, 2008

    Sorry for the double post, but here are my thoughts on what atheist activists should be doing, especially since our host thinks for some strange reason that I advocate being “meek in your rhetoric and to avoid stating bluntly what you think of specific religious views”

    * Repeatedly emphasize that theists are wrong but not stupid. And I say again, wrong not stupid. And again, wrong not stupid, wrong not stupid, wrong not stupid. This should be emphasized often enough so that even theists who get their information about atheists in passing have a chance to get the message. It is not enough to drop this as an occasional disclaimer. And yes, in practice, this would exclude insinuations that the religious are crazy in general. Make it as unambiguously clear as possible that theists are not mentally inferior simply on account of being theists.

    * Filter out the urban legends and B.S. that have circulated in atheist and skeptical circles. We have the truth on our side, so we don’t need pseudohistory from 19th century theosophists or quote mines of Founding Fathers.

    * Make sure arguments are as bullet-resistant as feasible. Again, we have the truth on our side. We don’t need umpteen bad manglings of Hume on miracles that amount to question-begging. We don’t need half-baked rebuttals of the standard theistic arguments when the university libraries contain perfectly good ones.

  75. #75 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 19, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey -

    Your three bullet points are all well-taken, but I still think you are missing the forrest for the trees. I would be more impressed with arguments like yours if they were tempered by some acknowledgment that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have achieved something extraordinary and important. I’m all in favor of strong arguments and scholarly research, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s the difference between atheists being treated respectfully vs. being held in contempt.

    You also massively exaggerate the extent to which Dawkins and the others imply that theists are stupid. If you go pawing through their books you can find some unwise statements here and there, but that does not characterize their writing in general. And in their public appearances (especially Dawkins and Harris) they are gracious to a fault.

  76. #76 Pseudonym
    October 19, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey:

    One could make the same charges of arrogance and sloppiness about Robert G. Ingersoll as one can about Maher and Dawkins.

    I’m pretty lenient to Maher on sloppiness because he is primarily a comedian/satirist. I prefer finer-pointed satire myself, but what he does works for his audience.

  77. #77 Pseudonym
    October 19, 2008

    Jason:

    You also massively exaggerate the extent to which Dawkins and the others imply that theists are stupid.

    I know what you’re getting at, but personal insults are, surely, in the eye of the beholder.

    Take, for example, the idea that moderate or liberal theologians are deluding themselves about the impact of evolution on their theology. While this may be true of some theologians, there’s any number of reasons why this idea is wrong in general (perceived incoherence of any scholarly work from anyone in a field not ones’ own, historical ignorance, argument from personal incredulity etc). However, it can also be interpreted as a personal insult: You’re just too stupid to know what you believe or why you believe it.

    It may not be intended as such, but there it is. Pile on a few more examples, and the recipient can perceive a pattern of personal insult, whether the pattern was intended or not.

  78. #78 Leni
    October 20, 2008

    Jason wrote:

    I have my disagreements with Mr. Ramsey, but his comments are always interesting and he is welcome to comment here whenever he likes.

    That post about deleting JJ was the troll again.

    (For the record, I used to really loathe JJ, but he’s sort of grown on me the past year or so. Even so, I would never suggest deleting his comments, even as a joke.)

    As for deleting troll comments, my usual approach of ignoring the problem in the hopes that it would go away didn’t seem to be working. What did you do to that guy to piss him off so much?

    Again, I’m sorry for feeding the troll, but I’ve been trying to ignore the guy for about two months now. With marginal success, ha ha. As for what I did to piss him off, I made an ill-considered and irate post/rant about the annoying tendency of some people to get hung up on pointless and distracting metaphors. I referred to them as “stupid mofos”. He freaked out about it.

    Trying to de-escalate just made it worse, so I decided he earned the name, even though it wasn’t originally even directed at him specifically (since I actually include myself in that group-see below), and that he wasn’t going to get the apology he thought he deserved.

    ….

    JJ Wrote:

    Being affable and being blunt are not opposite.

    I wasn’t suggesting Reagan was being blunt, I was offering examples of him being a horrible prick.

    Saying there should be a bloodbath in Berkeley is both not affable and blunt. Likewise, suggesting that doctors reassemble fetuses is both not affable and blunt. The horrible part is self-evident.

    Reagan wasn’t always an affable or nice. He, like Dawkins, could be caustic, arrogant, condescending, disrespectful, wildly wrong about even simple details, and downright insulting. Even worse, there were serious questions about ethical and legal violations committed by his staff and possibly himself. Certainly, he wasn’t the guttersnipe that Ann Coulter is, but neither are the “New Atheists. Calling Reagan “affable” in contrast to the “New Atheists” just misses the point that certainly not everyone thought of him that way. Conversely, not everyone everyone thinks the “New Atheists” are as bad as their most vocal critics do.

    Perhaps that ties into what Pseudonym just wrote about perceptions and about how they sometimes do not mesh with reality.

    Anyway, earlier Pseudonym said:

    All I’m saying is that if the anger were more carefully targeted, it’d be more likely to work.

    To steal a line form JJ, anger and bluntness are not opposites ;)

  79. #79 Leni
    October 20, 2008

    JJ Wrote:

    That said, that puts Reagan in the same company as the right-wing pundits whose “success” is not the sort that we want to emulate.

    Woops- missed that.

  80. #80 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 20, 2008

    That post about deleting JJ was the troll again.

    Noted, and deleted. I have modified my earlier comment accordingly.

  81. #81 J. J. Ramsey
    October 20, 2008

    Rosenhouse: “I would be more impressed with arguments like yours if they were tempered by some acknowledgment that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have achieved something extraordinary and important.”

    I think that we come at this from different perspectives.

    I come at it from the perspective of someone who’s seen and interacted with atheists online before the whole “New Atheist” wave. I’ve seen forums that were better than expected and forums that looked like they were populated by people who’d been in the zenite mines too long. On the one hand, a lot of this is just a variant of Sturgeon’s Law at work. On the other hand, American Atheists’ web site still has woo-woo about the twelve disciples being related to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Michael Shermer claims that Apollonius of Tyana was supposedly crucified, and as far as I can tell, the evidence for this is nil, and certainly not in Life of Apollonius. What I’d seen of Dawkins hadn’t impressed me, either. For example, his “Gerinol” article struck me (and still does) as an example of using a vivid metaphor as a substitute for evidence. What I saw in the world of atheism was a lot of B.S.

    When I was a Christian, I was a bit embarrassed about kooks in Christianity. Ideally, I shouldn’t be as embarrassed about kookiness in the atheists’ subculture, since I don’t even have to be in that subculture to be an atheist, but in practice, it doesn’t quite work out that way. What I’ve seen the “New Atheists” do is give a boost to the world of atheism, but that boost’s effect has largely been to make it a little larger, but not any less embarrassing. I consider this more of a grating achievement than a great one, and it’s perhaps just as well that its impact has been limited.

    Rosenhouse: “you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s the difference between atheists being treated respectfully vs. being held in contempt.”

    Well, I don’t think that the religious are in general taking a fair-minded look at atheists and disrespecting them on account of their arguments. Rather, they do to nonbelievers what too many nonbelievers do to the religious, namely focus more of their attention on the embarrassing atheists and use their mistakes to reinforce their prejudices. Bad arguments give them more ammunition to help them do this. When we are talking about nonbelievers who profess to be skeptics, this gets even worse, because there is the hypocrisy angle. There is a bitter irony when a trumpeter for reason reasons badly. Well, it’s bitter if you’re a nonbeliever. If you are religious, it can be schadenfreude.

  82. #82 Bob Evans
    October 21, 2008

    Jason wrote: “Regarding the idea of religion withering away, that is precisely what has happened in most of Western Europe. Why is it so unreasonable to hope for it to happen here as well?”

    This could be one reason: There has been a strong movement over the last 20 years or so among young American Christians of all stripes, for a return to traditional beliefs and morality. The vanguard of this movement encompasses young people born between 1965 and 1983, according to Colleen Carroll, author of: “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy”. Carroll states in the book that, conversion rates in conservative Catholic and Orthodox churches are at an all-time high. She says that, among young Catholics, the trend has been in the direction of a return to many pre-Vatican II practices. “Amid the swirl of spiritual, religious, and moral choices that exist in American culture today, many young adults are opting for the tried- and- true worldview of Christian Orthodoxy”, says Carroll. What they are opting against, according to Carroll, is an “unholy trinity of isms” : relativism, pluralism and postmodernism.

    A second title on the subject is: “The Rebirth of Orthothoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity” by Thomas C. Oden. Reviewer, David Gushee says this about the book: “Odens argument is crisp and clear. He claims that the modern world is fading-and with it modernist presuppositions about truth and how it may be known, and about the human condition and how it may be healed. Amidst the collapse of modernity ,religious orthodoxy is making a comeback . Both Jews and Christians (and he refers to both respectfully throughout) are returning to the roots of their faith and reclaiming ancient texts, traditions, and convictions with growing confidence.”

  83. #83 loni
    October 21, 2008

    Orthothoxy rebirth? So much for University libraries.

  84. #84 Leni
    October 21, 2008

    Bob Evans wrote:

    Carroll states in the book that, conversion rates in conservative Catholic and Orthodox churches are at an all-time high. She says that, among young Catholics, the trend has been in the direction of a return to many pre-Vatican II practices. “Amid the swirl of spiritual, religious, and moral choices that exist in American culture today, many young adults are opting for the tried- and- true worldview of Christian Orthodoxy”, says Carroll.

    Well, this doesn’t square with polls showing younger Catholics and Evangelicals to be less likely to oppose gay marriage and abortion rights. It’s not a great improvement, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

    So they may be turning to conservative churches, but there are indications that the people who will be replacing current leadership- people who are now in their twenties and thirties, perhaps even forties- will not be as conservative.

    Although, who knows. Perhaps they’ll just become worse as they age.

    I still have hope, though.

  85. #85 loni
    October 21, 2008

    That’s OK, Leni – you can all grow worse together.

  86. #86 Serkan
    December 14, 2008

    atheism…is not a certitude that there is no god.
    It certainly can be.

  87. #87 Michael
    January 12, 2010

    Religion lies at the foundation of human existence of God. Who can forget. Everything is not for people. Why are you still trying to force something?

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