I should probably warn you that this is a long one. So either get comfortable or go elsewhere!

Josh Rosenau has a post up, replying to this earlier post from Jerry Coyne, who was discussing this L. A. Times article about the recent secular humanist conference in Los Angeles. At the conference there was a panel discussion between Chris Mooney, Genie Scott, P. Z. Myers and Victor Stenger on everyone’s favorite topic: Accommodationism!

During his presentation, Mooney repeated some of the sentiments from his USA Today op-ed discussing the notion of “atheist spirituality.”. I discussed some problems with Mooney’s thesis in this post.

Jerry wrote this:

How can Mooney, The Great Communicator, think that if atheist accommodationists and atheist non-accommodationists both emphasize their common spirituality, everything will magically improve and the faithful will suddenly come to Darwinism?

Josh believes he has the answer.

Now I’m not Chris, and I won’t pretend to be speaking for him. Maybe he’d answer Coyne differently. But the answer I’d give to Coyne’s question is: because SCIENCE!

Which is to say, the science to date indicates that you’re more likely to sway people to your point of view if you present your argument in a context that breaks through the conceptual narrative they’ve built up around their opposition, and that’s what Chris has been advocating for a long time now.

Now, I’m not Jerry, and I won’t pretend to be speaking for him. Maybe he’d answer Josh differently. But the answer I’d give to Josh’s statement is: YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WRONG SCIENCE!

Josh presents a lengthy quotation from an article published in the Journal of Risk Research. Here is a sample:

Research informed by cultural cognition and related theories is making progress in identifying communication strategies that possess this quality. One is identity affirmation. When shown risk information (e.g., global temperatures are increasing) that they associate with a conclusion threatening to their cultural values (commerce must be constrained), individuals tend to react dismissively toward that information; however, when shown that the information in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms their cultural values (society should rely more on nuclear power), such individuals are more likely to consider the information open-mindedly (Cohen, Aronson, and Steele 2000; Cohen et al. 2007; Kahan 2010).

The other main paragraphs are variations on this theme. Turns out people tend to mistrust information that comes from people they don’t like. Who knew?

Here’s Josh trying to apply this sort of wisdom to the evolution question.

Talking about spirituality ticks all of these boxes. Talking about the widespread spirituality and even religiosity that scientists report in surveys certainly counts as “information [which] in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms … cultural values” of people ambivalent about evolution. Talking up the widespread spirituality and religiosity of a significant chunk of scientists will also diffuse a perception that evolution is “advocated by experts whose values [the evolution-ambivalent] reject.” And by taking evolution out of a narrative of conflict with religion and into one of several other viable narrative frames, talking about the spirituality that many scientists feel can “evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, … assur[ing] that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.” (Emphasis in original.)

There is so much wrong with this.

Josh begins by touting the “widespread spirituality and even religiosity” of scientists. But any honest consideration of the data shows that nonbelief is vastly more common among scientists than it is among the public at large. There has been a lot of discussion of this question recently, since the publication of Elaine Ecklund’s book on the subject. Let us recall that her data shows that 72% of scientists do not believe in God (64% are atheists or agnostics, while an additional 8% believe in a higher power that is not God.”) It was a mere 23% who claimed a clear belief in God. (An additional 5% said they believe in God sometimes.) More than half, 53%, do not even claim a religious affiliation. An additional 16% are Jewish, and 75% of them are atheists. These numbers are stark. Moreover, evangelical Christianity, the preference of 28% of the population, is all but nonexistent among scientists. Theological liberalism is ubiquitous among those scientists who view themselves as religious. Anyone who worries that science and religion are in conflict would see his fears confirmed by this data.

Thus, any discussion of the spiritual or religious minority that does not also make clear the general tenor of the numbers is spin at best, and dishonesty at worst.

Once this is appreciated it becomes clear why Josh’s next sentence, that this minority holds values that are consistent with those of people ambivalent about evolution, is very dubious. Atheist spirituality, such as it is, has almost nothing in common with traditional religion. So far as I can tell, it refers simply to the notion that atheists, no less than theists, can look at nature and be impressed. To suggest that this represents a point of contact between the religious and the nonreligious, which was, after all, the point of Mooney’s original USA Today article and was the issue raised by Jerry in his post, trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous. People with religious concerns about science are not worried that if they accept evolution they will no longer be able to feel things deeply.

Which leads to the next problem. Josh encourages us to take evolution out of a narrative of conflict with religion. That is like taking circumcision out of a narrative of genital mutilation. It is very hard to do. That evolution and traditional religion are in conflict has been obvious to everyone who has ever considered the question. Some people manage to reconcile them through various implausible arguments, and I am all in favor of them speaking publicly and making their case. But we should not act surprised that so many people find their arguments unpersuasive. The assumption of the paper Josh cites, as applied to evolution, would be that it is even possible to frame the evolution issue in a manner that does not run afoul of people’s religious beliefs. (Keeping in mind, of course, that ours is the side that actually cares about intellectual honesty and integrity). I am not convinced that assumption is correct.

As an example, consider that Josh linked to this article by John Haught, to illustrate the idea that there are other viable narrative frames for the science/religion conflict. Whether those alternatives are viable is a matter of opinion, of course. What I wish to point out, though, is that Haught achieves his reconciliation between evolution and Christianity by advocating process theology. He is welcome to it, of course, but I think a lot of people would look at his version of Christianity and see only a farrago of dubious assertions unsupported either by scripture or tradition. They would say that if being an evolutionist and a Christian means accepting process theology, then that is equivalent to saying an evolutionist cannot be a Christian.

And that is the problem. Josh acts as though it is a problem of poor marketing that people think evolution and religion conflict. That, I believe, is a misapprehension of the issue. They see a conflict because they are thinking clearly. You can tell them they are not, and you can point out the folks who manage to reconcile the two, but in the end all of the slick marketing in the world cannot change the basic facts.

That said, I am all in favor of outreach to religious communities. One of the biggest problems with the creationist subculture is its insularity, and I think a lot of people are genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this question. So by all means send out whomever you can find to make that case. If I worked for an organization devoted exclusively to the narrow question of science education then I too would play up the harmonizers (though not to the extent of being insulting or dismissive towards those who demur), simply because I think it is good politics to do so. So far as I am aware, no one is arguing differently. In the context of school board disputes you should not send in people who are going to horrify the locals. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

It’s just that some of us are not directly involved in school board disputes. Some of us think that such disputes are an almost trivially small front in a much larger battle. We see the pernicious influence of excessive religious belief in almost every aspect of American public life, and we think it would be a good idea if we had a bit less of it. We are tired of being told, preposterously, that science and religion are different, but equally valid, ways of knowing. And so we try to mainstream nonreligious ways of thinking.

Which brings me to my remark that Josh is looking at the wrong science. He wants to win people over to evolution by showing them that, at worst, they need to make only small alterations to their religious values. The paper he cites is very much in the same vein. That is, we are trying to win people over to a way of thinking about specific political issues by working within their previously held ideas. On the subject of evolution I am pessimistic about the strategy because I believe it is based on a false premise.

But more to the point, I am far more interested in changing the religious values themselves.
The big problem that needs fixing is not so much that people reject evolution. It is that people’s religious values are teaching them to be mistrustful of atheists.

Josh should be looking at the science of advertising. If he did, he would discover nuggets like this:

Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps. (Emphasis Added)

And this:

Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.”

Quite right. Obviously neither of these examples is talking about atheism specifically, but following Josh’s example I think the analogies are pretty clear, especially the part about repetition. As I see it, this is where the New Atheists are making a real contribution.

A thirty-second spot for Colgate toothpaste is not directed at die-hard Crest users. It is not about making a rational argument that Colgate is superior to Crest. It is not appealing to the rational side of the brain at all. It is about making the Colgate brand so ubiquitous that it gradually seeps into people’s minds that everyone is using Colgate. When you go to the store and see twenty different brands, you will remember that all the cool kids use Colgate.

Likewise, if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.
It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.

Of course, I am not saying that the rational arguments don’t matter. Of course you have to make a good point. Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris all have numerous e-mails to offer from people who credit their books with changing their minds on this issue. So persuasion via rational argument should not be underestimated. I am simply noting that the importance of books like those of the NA’s goes far beyond the people who actually buy them and read them. It goes far beyond the people sitting in the audiences during their public presentations. It extends to the fact that four years after the publication of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books everyone is still talking about them. Atheism is a part of the public conversation to a degree that was unheard of prior to the publication of those books. Keep it up and pretty soon you have a generation of people who think there is nothing bizarre about atheism, just as today we have a generation of teenagers growing up in an environment in which homosexuality is visible and largely accepted.

Now let us get dramatic. The arguments made against the New Atheists today; that they are too confrontational, that they turn off moderates, that they need to be understanding of people’s fears and concerns; were all made to civil rights leaders in the sixties, and to gay rights leaders in the eighties and nineties. Martin Luther King was lectured endlessly about being patient and not being confrontational. He had exactly the right answer in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

Now, this is where indignant commenters start lecturing me about the differences between the civil rights movement and the situation for atheists today. Spare me. You know perfectly well that I am not likening the situation of atheists today to that of Blacks in the sixties. Nor am I suggesting any significant similarity between King’s critics, many of whom were motivated by racism and not sound strategy, and NA critics today. The fact remains that there are clear parallels between what King heard from his critics in the sixties and what New Atheists hear today. King did not achieve his success by thinking about framing or by working within the value systems of those who were hostile to civil rights. He did it by working around them, until pretty soon the national zeitgeist changed.

The simple fact is that with all the talk about how NA’s are “violently anti-religion”, or that they are as intolerant as “the most unbending religious Inquisitor,” or that their intolerance is comparable to that of Middle East terrorists, it is easy to forget that all they actually did was write a few books. They also speak publicly, when invited to do so, and in those presentations they are always models of decorum. Even their books are nowhere near as militant as is sometimes pretended. You have to paw through them pretty carefully to find the juicy bits. But this is still too much for their critics, who do not seem to have the slightest difficulty using the same militant and hyperbolic language they claim to decry.

I would suggest that this ludicrous overreaction is itself a big social problem, and it is not one that will be solved by talking sweetly or hiding under the table.

Of course, you might argue there is a conflict between making atheism visible and mainstream over here, while fighting school board battles over there. I do not believe that. I think that is just scapegoating. I think the most clever framing in the world will have little effect on the perception that evolution and religion are at odds, for reasons I have already explained.

In defense of the New Atheist strategy of creating tension and making atheism visible we have a body of research on advertising that shows that repetition and ubiquity are essential for mainstreaming an idea. We have the historical examples of social movements that changed the zeitgeist by ignoring the people urging caution, and by working around the people whose value systems put them in opposition to their goals. We know that hostility towards atheists was at a fever pitch well before the NA’s arrived on the scene, a time during which accommodationist arguments were common but vocal atheism was not. And we have the all-important verdict of common sense, which says that you don’t mainstream your view by getting down on your knees and pleading with people to treat you nicely.

Against this Josh has a few papers breathlessly reporting that people don’t like it when you offend them. It is on this basis that he gives smug lectures about communications strategies.

I am underwhelmed.

Comments

  1. #1 tbell
    October 12, 2010

    thank you for this. It’s perfect. Do any accomodationists out there still favor a monolithic (and accomodating of course) approach, or can we now all agree that it might be a fine thing to be direct even while quibbling that such directness doesn’t work for all audiences?

  2. #2 Deepak Shetty
    October 13, 2010

    Brilliant.

  3. #3 Janice Cornforth
    October 13, 2010

    Thanks Dr. Rosenhouse, this is an excellent reply to the accommodationists. I mean it thanks again!

  4. #4 gillt
    October 13, 2010

    Rosenhouse: “It’s just that some of us are not directly involved in school board disputes. Some of us think that such disputes are an almost trivially small front in a much larger battle.”

    As Hitchens says, all politics is yokel.

    In my opinion school boards have too large an influence on public education and are far too easily populated with know-nothings. One of the ways of encouraging atheists to make known their presence is by making their presence known at school board meetings.

  5. #5 Jeff Hebert
    October 13, 2010

    Perfect! Thanks so much for this, it’s outstanding.

    Strangely I have actually been having a — well, “discussion” I guess is what you call it when you’re married — about my wife’s doubt that I, as an atheist, can really feel awe at the natural world, an awe she claims she can feel because she’s “spiritual”. I’m at a bit of a loss how to defend myself against just a patently ludicrous claim, but it’s a lot more common than I think we’re all understanding.

  6. #6 Brad Thiessen
    October 13, 2010

    I think you just changed my mind on this debate. I was on the fence for a while but now I think I’m heavily leaning to your position. Very well written piece.

  7. #7 Hamilton Jacobi
    October 13, 2010

    Outstanding article, Jason. Bravo.

    Jeff, it’s no use arguing with your wife over this. After all, you are a meat robot, whereas she has been blessed with the gift of a soul.

  8. #8 ThatGuyMontag
    October 13, 2010

    Jason, as always you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Just to elaborate a little bit, this is building on my own view that as a debate, the debate we’re engaged in is actually a debate about ethics. It turns into a discussion about what the results of actions are because almost everyone in this argument accepts a version of consequentialism which judges ethical actions by their outcomes. There are however other ethical theories and the one I think that’s most relevant is virtue ethics.

    Roughly, virtue ethics work on the assumption that good acts are done by good people. The problem is then one of how do we train good people. This approach is most obvious in the civil rights movement in fact. The success of the civil rights movement isn’t the fact that we’ve laws against discrimination and it’s only tangentially the fact that life is better for black people; the victory is the fact that the majority of people can no longer treat black people as if they don’t matter. This isn’t a matter of say rational reflection and I don’t think it could be, it’s a question of instilling the right kind of emotional affect, about literally feeling disgusted at the idea of discrimination.

    The reason I bring this up is because this is the level at which this debate is right now. This is a battle exactly analogous to the civil rights movement where a minority needs to challenge the actually harmful and dehumanising assumptions that the majority holds about how apparently our lives have no meaning or that we are morally and ethically bankrupt. We do that through bus campaigns and protests and books and most importantly by having fulfilled and self-confident atheists out there in the world, making noise!

  9. #9 ThatGuyMontag
    October 13, 2010

    Jeff:

    I can understand your frustration and as you can tell I agree that it is prevalent in fact I think it’s the major problem. I’ll point out that by couching her experience in terms of spirituality she is in fact treating you as something less than fully human. That’s frankly a horrifying thing for her to think. You’re just as human as anyone else and your life is just as rich, no one has the right to demean that!

  10. #10 Peter Beattie
    October 13, 2010

    Just as in the recent PZ–Mooney debate on PoI, I would ask why on earth it is that we should be looking for the lowest common denominator instead of being teachers about these issues and actually help people raise their game.

  11. #11 red pepper
    October 13, 2010

    The reason I bring this up is because this is the level at which this debate is right now. This is a battle exactly analogous to the civil rights movement where a minority needs to challenge the actually harmful and dehumanising assumptions that the majority holds about how apparently our lives have no meaning or that we are morally and ethically bankrupt. We do that through bus campaigns and protests and books and most importantly by having fulfilled and self-confident atheists out there in the world, making noise!

  12. #12 Michael
    October 13, 2010

    “All they did was to write a few books.”

    Not quite true.

    Desecrating sacred objects (consecrated host, copy of the Koran)? Not just writing books. Inciting people to obtain consecrated communion wafers to be used in further acts of desecration? Not just writing books. Threatening to haul the Pope into court? Not just writing books.

  13. #13 Sigmund
    October 13, 2010

    “King did not achieve his success by thinking about framing or by working within the value systems of those who were hostile to civil rights. He did it by working around them, until pretty soon the national zeitgeist changed.”
    I do wonder exactly how quickly the zeitgeist changed. Reading my history from the time I get the impression that a lot of the change came about due to legal measures – federal legislation – rather than the public quickly changing their mind. That the general attitude of the public towards racism changed over time is not disputed but I wonder whether this is more due to the older racists simply dying out and being replaced by younger generations that were used to different races (since segregation had been outlawed). If that is the case then the exposure of atheism due to the gnus may have a strong effect on the overall religiosity of the US although it may take a generation for this to become obvious.

  14. #14 Peter Beattie
    October 13, 2010

    » Michael:
    Desecrating sacred objects

    Mommy! They’re being mean to my magic cracker! *sob*

    Threatening to haul the Pope into court?

    How dare they treat teh Pope (another holy object) like he was not above the law? How DARE they?

  15. #15 Zach Voch
    October 13, 2010

    “Desecrating sacred objects (consecrated host, copy of the Koran)? Not just writing books. Inciting people to obtain consecrated communion wafers to be used in further acts of desecration? Not just writing books. Threatening to haul the Pope into court? Not just writing books.”

    Hm… Let’s add context.

    “Desecrating sacred objections (consecrated host, copy of the Koran) in response to threats of violence and expulsion against a Florida college student? Not just writing books. Inciting people to obtain consecrated communion wafers to be used in further acts of desecration while explicitly discouraging any disruption of services and practice in response to the same? Not just writing books. Threatening to haul the Pope into court for his well-evidenced complicity in the evasion of local and international law in the trafficking and protection of sex offenders? Not just writing books.”

    Good point. They’ve expressed themselves through nonviolent action in accordance with their consciences as well. They’ve made stands for freedom of expression and the enforcement of law. The monsters!

  16. #16 Lorax
    October 13, 2010

    @Michael

    Not that it matters for you, but for others reading your lack-of-context comment.

    First the history, a vocal and powerful minority of the religious community despised atheists evolution science personal freedom lllloooooonnnnnnggggg before crackergate. Im not sure if you were born yesterday or not, but having to play nice with this vocal religious minority has NOT been working for centuries.

    Second, destroying the cherished wafer of Antioch by the heathen PZ Myers was done in response to the threats of death given to an actual breathing human being in Florida. This was the student that was grabbed and threatened with physical harm, had voices crying for his expulsion and worse. PZ, I think, was pointing out the absurdity of cherishing a bread product over the life a person. Of course its PZ, and by association atheists that are willing to let their presence be known, who are the problem. Not those poor moderate christians who did not seem to be around noting the stupidity of the vocal minority.

    Third, threatening to haul the pope into court you know because we all just hate catholic. Not because he is the CEO of an organization that, for reasons that fail me, have shuttled pedophiles from one Sunday school to another. An organization that actively hid evidence from state authorities in violation of numerous laws in many countries. I could also mention that said CEO had direct knowledge of these issues and was an active participant in protecting the church’s PR not the children they supposedly love (in a non-sexual way). Of course that doesn’t matter because the pope has the magic get-out-of-jail-free hat.

    Are the moderates that are so weak-kneed and fragile that we need to avoid offending the vocal minority when laws are broken, science is upended (you do realize there is a vocal minority that will never get on board with evolution of the whole >10,000 years thing? They will also be offended by encroachments by reality into their fanatical beliefs), medical benefits are denied to the public, etc? If so, then fuck em, they are just part of the vocal minority (without the vocalness).

    How many stories has anyone come up with along the lines “I thought evolution was a great explanation for all the diversity on earth, but then PZ screwed with a cracker, so I decided to join the pedophile-protection church and prevent poor africans from getting codoms. If only PZ hadn’t done that, then I would be singing Hallelujah and studying Darwin finches.”

  17. #17 Aj
    October 13, 2010

    @ 5 – A suggestion (albeit one with certain risks).

    Next time the subject of comes up, try treating your wife as though she has extremely limited intellectual capacity.

    When she begins to take umbrage, point out that since she is religious she clearly cannot think with any kind of clarity.

    Hopefully she’ll catch the implication and rethink her position (well that, or throw something at you).

  18. #18 Craig Pennington
    October 13, 2010

    @Michael, point taken.

    PZ has pointedly demonstrated that he actually believes that a cracker is just a cracker and a book is just a book. Quite the iconoclast, that one. Of course, it should be noted that he did not do these things out of the blue. Both of these actions were responses to specific third party threats of violence. So yes, PZ does occasionally take the radical action of treating inanimate objects badly as a form of protest.

    And yes, it has been mentioned that the head of any other organization that had systemically shielded its members from the consequences of their criminal actions would have been charged with a crime, and there have been calls that no special exemptions be given to religious organizations on this front (really, just as Rastafarians are given no breaks from drug laws.) Of course the top story when I google “pope” and “court” today isn’t about any new atheists, but some crime victims seeking civil redress.

    And lastly I’d note that the accommodationists were making their arguments before anyone laid a finger on a cracker.

  19. #19 IanW
    October 13, 2010

    Never aplogize for long blogs when they’re as appropriate as this one! Well said – and it needed to be said.

  20. #20 kevin
    October 13, 2010

    Threatening to haul the Pope into court?

    Suggesting in public that the Pope should be hauled into court?

    There, fixed that for you.

  21. #21 kevin
    October 13, 2010

    So far as I can tell, it refers simply to the notion that atheists, no less than theists, can look at nature and be impressed. To suggest that this represents a point of contact between the religious and the nonreligious, which was, after all, the point of Mooney’s original USA Today article and was the issue raised by Jerry in his post, trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous. People with religious concerns about science are not worried that if they accept evolution they will no longer be able to feel things deeply.

    Actually, this is one place where I disagree with you. I am an athiest who goes to church every week for the socialization, and have my whole life. I’d say that for the vast majority of “religious” people I know, religion really is that trivial. The concept of awe at nature has been thoroughly cooped by religious institutions, to the point of being synonymous with spirituality, and hence belief in god. And for most people, the awe part is the only part they actually have any stake in — lots of people feel awe at nature, they like it, and they don’t want anyone to take it away. Hardly anyone I know actually lives their life as if they really believe in any gods.

  22. #22 Tulse
    October 13, 2010

    spin at best, and dishonesty at worst

    “Framing” in a nutshell.

  23. #23 Katharine
    October 13, 2010

    PZ put it best, I think:

    No matter how much certain wussy religiobot people cannot digest it because it gives them the vapors, we in science are absolutely obligated to tell the unvarnished truth – what we have proof for – without framing and without capitulation, and this includes saying that there is absolutely no proof for the things religion claims and that it’s a bit like a very large yeti with a series of spikes sticking out of its butt in that it has precisely the same amount of proof going for it. What religion claims to exist does not exist.

    Which means no accommodationism.

  24. #24 s. pimpernel
    October 13, 2010

    Out of the plethora of writings on this issue, this is one of the most lucid and persuasive that I have read. Hundreds of years of being accomodating has gotten nowhere. Now, with the internet and the spreading of common sense and reason by scientists and others who feel the same about these issues, the possibility of making some real headway, especilly with younger persons who are going to be carrying the torch in the future, makes one even optomistic.

  25. #25 Skeptico
    October 13, 2010

    You’re correct that the accommodationists are missing the point. The approach you adopt depends on what your objectives are. As you wrote, if your objective the narrow question of science education, then you too would play up the harmonizers. But if your objective is to attack the source of the problem – the pernicious influence of excessive religious belief in almost every aspect of American public life – then you need to point out that the basic problem is religion itself. There is really no getting away from that.

  26. #26 Tyro
    October 13, 2010

    It’s about shifting the Overton Window. If we increase the visibility of atheists even if that means having some really freaky ideas (which I don’t think we have) then the centre shifts.

  27. #27 Kevin
    October 13, 2010

    So, let me summarize…
    1. Some atheists wrote some books declaring that there is no such thing as god. Those books were wildly popular commercially, and fomented increased interest in the subject.
    2. Some theists were offended by those books, and said so.
    3. Some other atheists are so afraid of offending theists, that they’re trying to — what exactly? Take back the truth claims of those books?

    Accommodationism is just another way of saying — hypocritically — “we didn’t mean it.” Except it’s only to be said in front of the faithful; behind their backs, we still acknowledge that Santa Claus isn’t real.

    What else would the accommodationists have us say? Boil it down to a single sentence, please. To me, there appear to be few choices other than:
    1. We didn’t mean it. We take it back. (Except we don’t.)
    2. You can still believe in your magic fairy as long as you believe in the science of [insert scientific discipline here].

    As to the second sentence, I’m quite sure that my understanding of the sciences has precisely and exactly nothing to do with my atheism. So, it’s a red herring at best. I was an atheist long before I gained an appreciation of the sciences.

  28. #28 Norwegian Shooter
    October 13, 2010

    Bravissimo! I particularly liked your insight of applying the science of advertising to this issue. As good advertisers and marketers know, people make decisions emotionally, then justify rationally. (So providing rational reasons is still important, just not primary).

    For some more scientific study of emotions read Darwin’s other book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. And Paul Ekman’s work, starting with Emotions Revealed. There is also books and articles by advertising/marketing/branding people who realize that emotions are crucial to persuasion.

    I also agree with focusing on changing the culture (the disease), not the message (symptoms). A great place to start is to recruit atheists to run for school board. That is where the right-wing starts to develop politicians, atheists should too. A great concrete medium term goal would be to elect an open atheist to Congress (a new one who is open about it in the campaign, Stark doesn’t count). There are lots of safe Democratic seats where the atheist would only be competing against other liberals for the endorsement / primary win.

  29. #29 Kevin
    October 13, 2010

    I also should have noted that while Dr. King’s work was invaluable in gaining civil rights, his job would have been made enormously more difficult without Malcolm X and the Black Panthers standing in the background saying “you can either do it his way, or our way.”

    Nonviolence was Dr. King’s way…it wasn’t the only way being advocated at the time. And although the actual perpetration of violence by the “black power” movement was quite small in comparison to the perception or the threat (deliberately so), the undercurrent clearly was there.

  30. #30 eric
    October 13, 2010

    Very good post. I also liked the advertising tie-in. One quibble – isn’t Mooney’s proposal to tell theists that atheists are also ‘spiritual’ (by whatever admittedly vacuous definition of that term they want to use) also a form of advertising? Why the opposition to more mentions of atheism?

    If there’s some baseball-playing, crest-using, colgate-hating fanatic out there, and you’re a colgate user, you might appeal to him by saying “I like baseball too.” Replace baseball with X, and “we like X too” is a perfectly reasonable way to get colgate-using into the zeitgeist.* It is not, as you point out, a rational argument for using crest. But you aren’t making an argument for rational argument, you’re making an argument for better advertising. And that is advertising.

    *As long as you like X and are being honest. But if spirituality is going to be defined as a deep appreciation and wonder at nature, well, I think a lot of atheists can honestly say they have that.

  31. #31 James Sweet
    October 13, 2010

    I’m just going to repeat two things I have said elsewhere, because I think both are highly relevant to this post.

    1) Regarding Mooney’s “atheist spirituality” gambit, it reminds me of Tim Minchin’s Peace Anthem for the Middle East. For those who don’t know, it goes:

    We don’t eat pigs, you don’t eat pigs
    It seems it’s been that way forever
    So if you don’t eat pigs, and we don’t eat pigs
    Why not not eat pigs together?

    Nothing ruins a good joke like explaining the obvious punchline, but I will do so anyway to make my point: The joke here is the idea that some superficial similarity between two feuding groups has any bearing on the feud. It doesn’t. Yes, both sides feel something that could arguably be termed “spirituality” (though many, including myself, have reservations about the word itself — but I think we all know what Mooney means). So what? How does that affect the epistemological divide? It doesn’t.

    2) I have a long-standing challenge which so far has gone unanswered: Name one social movement, anywhere in the world and at any point in history, which failed because its advocates were too outspoken.

    Yeah. Exactly.

  32. #32 AL
    October 13, 2010

    my wife’s doubt that I, as an atheist, can really feel awe at the natural world, an awe she claims she can feel because she’s “spiritual”. I’m at a bit of a loss how to defend myself against just a patently ludicrous claim, but it’s a lot more common than I think we’re all understanding.

    Ask her to define “spiritual.” If she defines it as anything like “a sense or feeling of awe and wonder at the world,” then her argument reduces to “I have a feeling of awe because I have a feeling of awe, and you don’t have such a feeling of awe, because you don’t have such a feeling of awe,” which is just tautology.

  33. #33 Alex Young
    October 13, 2010

    Great post, and James Sweet nailed it too: you might as well point out that Atheists love their children, too. Only the most bigoted religionist would doubt such commonalities, and who does more to dispel such disgusting anti-atheist prejudice: the accommodationists or the gnus?

  34. #34 Ophelia Benson
    October 13, 2010

    Great piece. Perfect. I wanted to write this piece yesterday when I read Rosenau’s, but I didn’t know how.

  35. #35 Saikat Biswas
    October 13, 2010

    There is also a stark difference between a scientist who experiences “spirituality” in the sense that his/her understanding of the world around him/her by means of the scientific method evokes a feeling of awe and wonder, and someone who is “spiritual” merely because he/she feels that some aspect of our universe and of our place in it are forever beyond comprehension. As Douglas Adams observed, some of us are inspired by the `awe of understanding’ while others revel in the `awe of ignorance’.
    Here’s the inimitable Richard Feynman on the beauty of flowers :

  36. #36 Norwegian Shooter
    October 13, 2010

    Eric, you allude to the answer but don’t follow it through – Mooney is not being honest. He claims that atheist and theist spirituality is the same thing. One of two problems here: 1) it takes a possible similarity of very small slices of each side at the dividing line and generalizes it to everyone or 2) it dilutes the meaning of spirituality so that neither side recognizes it.

    James, any protest movement in Soviet bloc countries from 1945 to 1980. A more general class is any protest movement in sufficiently repressive societies.

  37. #37 Eric MacDonald
    October 13, 2010

    This is perfect. Thank you. This is now the benchmark for understanding the ‘framing’ debate. Chris and Josh: this is how it’s done!

  38. #38 James Sweet
    October 13, 2010

    James, any protest movement in Soviet bloc countries from 1945 to 1980. A more general class is any protest movement in sufficiently repressive societies.

    So…. you think that a quieter and more accommodating protest movement, more willing to make concessions to the Soviets, would have been successful???

    I’m not saying that no outspoken social movements have failed. I am merely saying that it is very difficult to argue that any of them would have been successful if they’d just been a little quieter.

    (Now, if you are saying that said movements would have been successful if they had stayed underground acting subversively… Well, that’s a different kettle of fish. Perhaps I need to rephrase my challenge slightly to avoid this. I would argue that it is far less “accommodating” to secretly blow up your enemy than to loudly proclaim them wrong…)

  39. #39 Norwegian Shooter
    October 13, 2010

    James, I think if that’s your challenge / statement, then it’s a truism equivalent to “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If you’d consider violence as very outspoken, then I’d counter the Red Army Faction, Shining Path, i.e. Marxist / Maoist / Anarchists in the 60′s and 70′s would have been more successful if they moderated their violence.

  40. #40 Tulse
    October 13, 2010

    If you’d consider violence as very outspoken

    That seems to me to twist the notion beyond all reason, like saying an insult is just like a punch in the face.

  41. #41 Steve Greene
    October 13, 2010

    Jason, you’ve hit the nail right on the head again – all “accommodation” accomplishes is maintaining the status quo, yet it is precisely the status quo that we find simply unacceptable any longer. Our objective is to change the status quo.

    As you wrote, “…if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. …It is about working around [conservative religious folks], by making atheism part of the zeitgeist. It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies.”

    Besides the little details that those advocating an “accommodation” approach get wrong when they criticize those of us who choose to take a more open, forthright approach (such as wrongly claiming that Christian rhetoric about atheists using a significantly high level of anti-atheist bigotry was brought about by atheists being more open and forthright about the atheist perspective, since we know that prejudice-pandering rhetoric has been around long before Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists of recent years started publishing), they are simply advocating the wrong approach in regard to changing the status quo. The whole point is that being accommodating and “quiet” about the atheist perspective and about our criticisms of the arguments advanced for religious belief (and of the rhetoric used to attack scientific results religious believers don’t like because of their religious beliefs) is what gave us the “status quo” that we are no longer willing to accept.

    If we were to keep doing what has been done for decades, then we could not expect to get different results. But it is different results we want, so we’re changing the “rules of the game” that, after all, are rules that were laid down by religious beliefs prejudiced against atheists in the first place.

  42. #42 Tulse
    October 13, 2010

    all “accommodation” accomplishes is maintaining the status quo

    As evidenced by the fact that, without the Gnu Atheists, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion — atheism would still be a disreputable backwater viewpoint. How can accommodationists say the GAs are so bad when at least they are being talked about — how many times did Mooney appear in the major media prior to the GAs?

  43. #43 Screechy Monkey
    October 13, 2010

    “how many times did Mooney appear in the major media prior to the GAs?”

    I’m not sure of the timing, but I’d be willing to say that Mooney got plenty of media exposure that was unrelated to Gnu Atheists.

    The irony is that he got it for writing a book (“The Republican War on Science”) that was decidedly confrontational and non-accomodating.

  44. #44 Ophelia Benson
    October 13, 2010

    And he used to blog about what the admin was up to now, and other confrontational and non-accomodating stuff about politics v science. It was admirable, gutsy work – I was totally impressed by him.

    It’s a tragedy!

  45. #45 Joe Fatzen
    October 13, 2010

    I… I think I love you.

  46. #46 edwords
    October 13, 2010

    And let’s not forget Pres. Obama’s foolish attempt to

    reason with, and accommodate his bitter enemies.

  47. #47 Rieux
    October 14, 2010

    I, too, strongly agree with, approve of, and congratulate Jason for, this blog post.

    (As a great man once said, “I heartily endorse this event or product.”)

  48. #48 Rieux
    October 14, 2010

    Screechy Monkey:

    I’m not sure of the timing, but I’d be willing to say that Mooney got plenty of media exposure that was unrelated to Gnu Atheists.

    Fair enough, but in terms of simple chronology, The End of Faith (the first salvo in the Gnu onslaught) was published in August 2004; The Republican War on Science came out almost exactly a year later.

    Your point is probably more relevant to the discussion here than the unadorned chronology is, though.

  49. #49 gillt
    October 14, 2010

    S.C.: “The irony is that he got it for writing a book (“The Republican War on Science”) that was decidedly confrontational and non-accomodating.”

    Yes, and Mooney has since disavowaled a Slate or Salon article he wrote back in his pre-Nisbett days was stridently Atheist, but, as far as I know, only after people called him out on it.

    I reckon that he would never do that with his breakthrough book, “The Republican War on Science” because to do so would be professional suicide (hypocrisy is far better) AND because most of the people who disagree with his religious accommmodationism side with most everything said in that book, especially the way he said it. With a change of guard the book is not so topical anymore and therefore rarely gets brought up.

  50. #50 Kathy Kirk
    October 14, 2010

    Yikes! I’m always so amazed at how we can get our feathers ruffled over opinions! What makes this a great country, eh?
    I started out in science – premed – etc. And now I teach Applied Spirituality which to me, is applied science. I don’t have the math or physics brain to explain it. I’m trusting that somewhere soon a physicist or other scientist will put the science beneath what I teach. To my mind, science and spirituality are the same thing. It’s Energy. Perhaps another way of seeing it or saying it, science is the language of God. How you could look at this amazing world, a body, a bug and not know that Something Very Smart figured this all out…and we’re included in this Elegance. What I do know is that we Create our own reality by virtue of focus…string theory? The scientific and spiritual worlds are merging. Exciting time to be alive! I’m just wishing we could all take the stance of, “Isn’t this interesting? Who knew it would take us here?” I’m eager to see this unfold, and the answers are available and unfolding rapidly. Either/or is out. “And” is in.We are all on an amazing adventure…kinda like when Columbus set out to see what he would see.

  51. #51 Tulse
    October 14, 2010

    I’m not sure of the timing, but I’d be willing to say that Mooney got plenty of media exposure that was unrelated to Gnu Atheists.

    Of course, but not due to his views on religion. My point was simply that the debate about atheism and religion didn’t even exist in the public consciousness until the Gnu Atheists started publishing.

    (And given that the “Republican war on science” was/is largely motivated by religion, Mooney’s myopic hostility to assertive atheism has always confused me.)

  52. #52 david
    October 14, 2010

    The wife who said she is more “spiritual” is probably right, seems to me. Misunderstanding comes from the direction we go toward understanding. If we arrogate that we know the meaning of spiritual, then apply that to this wife, we can deny that she is right. But if we go the other direction, take what we know of this wife, and understand her to mean that those qualities are “spiritual” then she can be right and we can try to understand what she means. Surely we are willing to grant that she knows her own self.

    Historically I would remind you of the feasts of Dionysius and the maenads, and of this, from Nat’l Geo : At the temple of Saint Sophia the stone steps of the women’s entrance are worn completely through by the bare feet of the faithful.

    Women it appears are more “spiritual,” but we are hard put to pinpoint what each side of the talk means, etc.

    I saw a TV program for kindergartners in which five or six bunnies were filmed, and there was a talkover voice for the bunnies, which said, “Well, it looks like we are all here together.” For bunnies! For the most part, a woman would have projected that. I see it at Thanksgiving, I see it at churches. I’ll leave it to you to lump it with spirituality or to split it off as very different, one route sympathetic to that wife, the other not.

  53. #53 gillt
    October 14, 2010

    Opps, attribute that to Screechy Monkey, not Salty Current.

  54. #54 Wonderist
    October 14, 2010

    Jeff Hebert wrote:

    Strangely I have actually been having a — well, “discussion” I guess is what you call it when you’re married — about my wife’s doubt that I, as an atheist, can really feel awe at the natural world, an awe she claims she can feel because she’s “spiritual”. I’m at a bit of a loss how to defend myself against just a patently ludicrous claim, but it’s a lot more common than I think we’re all understanding.

    Jeff Hebert,
    I hope you find this reply. What you are facing is what I call “the last refuge of religious argument”. It is the idea that the natural human experience of ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ is only associated with ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience.

    Of course, that’s complete nonsense — religion does not have any sort of monopoly on wonder. And so I’ve taken up the mantle of ‘Wonderist’ to promote the idea that — as anyone who has watched Carl Sagan in action knows — the universe inspires us with wonder and awe regardless of our superstitious beliefs. Science itself is incredibly awe-inspiring. God is imaginary, but wonder is real. Wonder is something all humans can experience, and most of us experience it to varying degrees every day of our lives. Sometimes we even have ‘revelatory’ experiences, but we call them ‘Ah ha!’ moments or ‘Eureka!’ experiences, instead of secret messages from some disembodied mind.

    I’ve written some stuff on the various philosophies of wonder at the Wonderism group on Atheist Nexus (http://www.atheistnexus.org/group/wonderism/ ). I hope you can find some inspiration there to help you in your ‘discussion’ with your wife.

  55. #55 Vicki
    October 14, 2010

    David,

    If you grant that Jeff’s wife knows herself, you should also be prepared to grant that he knows himself. But your argument is basically that if she claims that she is more capable of feeling awe than he is, she must be correct, because the person who claims to be superior must have more self-knowledge. The flaw there is obvious. Jeff could equally well argue that he is clearly more able to feel awe at the natural world, because as an atheist he sees it more directly, focusing on the actual galaxy or dragonfly rather than on a hypothetical creator.

    Jeff’s wife is the one who is denying his self-knowledge, not the other way around. He isn’t claiming that she can’t feel awe, but that he can.

    Jeff, my sympathy: I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved tried to convince me that I was lying or self-deluding about something important.

  56. #56 Pierce R. Butler
    October 14, 2010

    Craig Pennington @ # 18: … the head of any other organization that had systemically shielded its members from the consequences of their criminal actions would have been charged with a crime…

    Apparently you missed numerous stories about a company called Blackwater, or the reports of ex-Halliburton/KBR employees Jamie Leigh Jones and Tracy Barker.

    And how many executives have you heard of facing charges for the continuing stream of US workers killed and maimed at their workplaces every goddamn day?

  57. #57 Mike Hanson-Haubrich
    October 14, 2010

    though not to the extent of being insulting or dismissive towards those who demur,

    This is the part that drives me crazy about Mooney and the “you’re not helping” crew. They want to get a reconciliation message, but only towards the select who are on their favored side and without giving any consideration for the “feelings” of those who are honestly delineating religion and science. They are tone deaf to the damage that they are doing to the people that they want to listen to them.

  58. #58 Badger3k
    October 15, 2010

    “Applied Spirituality”, misuse of (and capitalization of) energy, other random caps…yep, we got a winner!

  59. #59 Alan Cooper
    October 15, 2010

    Talk about missing the point!

    The research cited by Josh had more to do with finding common ground than being liked as you so derisively put it, and as a mathematician I would have expected you to understand the difference between having a point of conflict and lacking any point of agreement.

    For many religious people, the needs met by their faith may well be met by something far more reasonable which you (again derisively) say “trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous”. But again you are deeply wrong here. Those core needs for what might be called a feeling of oneness with the universe and a sense of confidence in one’s innate value and morality are decidedly not trivial, and are deeply felt by many. So if you start by announcing a claim that agreeing with you will leave them unmet then you can reasonably expect to meet quite aggressive resistance. If on the other hand you start by asserting that what is truly valuable in religion can be found also in a rational worldview (and in fact I would venture to say that not only is that true but that it can be matched and exceeded there to boot), then your interlocutors are less likely to resist both listening themselves and (more importantly) to object to having a proper education provided for their children.

    If you think, as I do, that what you offer provides ultimately better ways of meeting the core needs addressed by religious faith, then it is not dishonest to emphasize that fact. (But conversely, I suppose, if you don’t honestly believe that you have something of equal or greater value to offer in place of that faith then I would have to question the morality of intervening at all.)

  60. #60 SLC
    October 15, 2010

    Re John Haught

    As a matter of fact, I would wager that the majority of Christians would not consider Prof. Haught one of them. For instance, in his Dover testimony, he implied that there was no physical Resurrection but that Yeshua of Nazareth appeared before his followers in a vision (what he actually said was that, had a video camera been present and recording the events, nothing would have been recorded; the implication is obvious). For instance, Prof. David Heddle, in response to a question I posed to him, stated categorically that rejection of a physical Resurrection is tantamount to a rejection of Christianity.

  61. #61 llewelly
    October 15, 2010

    Kathy Kirk | October 14, 2010 7:04 AM:

    To my mind, science and spirituality are the same thing. It’s Energy.

    Spirituality does not do useful work. Therefor it is not Energy.

    How you could look at this amazing world, a body, a bug and not know that Something Very Smart figured this all out..

    Every aspect of reality which has so far been explained has been explained by a non-intelligent process. Neither evolution, nor quantum mechanics, nor relativity require or benefit from the assumption of an intelligence. Furthermore – every attempt to explain natural phenomena as the result of intelligent design had failed.

    What I do know is that we Create our own reality by virtue of focus…

    Do you believe victims of domestic violence are responsible for creating the reality in which they were abused by virtue of their focus?

  62. #62 gillt
    October 16, 2010

    Alan Cooper: “If you think, as I do, that what you offer provides ultimately better ways of meeting the core needs addressed by religious faith, then it is not dishonest to emphasize that fact. (But conversely, I suppose, if you don’t honestly believe that you have something of equal or greater value to offer in place of that faith then I would have to question the morality of intervening at all.)”

    Are you suggesting accommodationists are trying to convert millions to a new faith?

    What chutzpah!

    As for the rest, I could easily argue that the “deeply felt” feelings, of oneness, completeness, morality, solidarity, etc., desperately sought after by people are fulfilled in the definition of tribalism religious sects provide rather than some vague talk about oneness with the universe.

  63. #63 SocraticGadfly
    October 17, 2010

    Doesn’t Mr. Buddhism Lover, and New Atheist toast of the town among people who don’t know better, Sam Harris, defend “spirituality” without using that word by being Mr. Buddhism Lover? #samharrisfail

  64. #64 Barry
    October 18, 2010

    Any idea why Josh closed comments on his MLK/Malcolm X thread? Is he screening all posts now? Is he big into censorship? I posted a response a few days ago and nothing has been posted since the early hours (ET) of Saturday morning.

    Just wondered. Sorry if this is a little off topic.

  65. #65 James Sweet
    October 18, 2010

    James, I think if that’s your challenge / statement, then it’s a truism equivalent to “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

    It’s close, but subtly different. It would be more like, “Wheels don’t tend to get grease withheld because they are squeaky.”

    It takes more than outspoken-ness to make a social movement a success. Inversely, it may be the case that some social movements have succeeded without being particularly outspoken. But they don’t tend to fail because they are outspoken.

    And yeah, violence vs. outspoken-ness are two different things. As I mentioned before, plenty of social movements have failed because they were quiet-but-violent. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a social movement that failed, but would have been successful if only they hadn’t asked for what they wanted. That’s inherently self-contradictory, eh? That’s my whole point.

  66. #66 Birger Johansson
    October 19, 2010

    @ 46: “And let’s not forget Pres. Obama’s foolish attempt to
    reason with, and accommodate his bitter enemies”

    Yes. This is the gold standard of “wasting effort”.

  67. #67 JimV
    October 19, 2010

    RE: Jeff Hebert @ #5 (… my wife’s doubt that I, as an atheist, can really feel awe at the natural world, an awe she claims she can feel because she’s “spiritual”.)

    I would hope your wife would acknowledge that, regardless of who is right about her brand of theism, people created according to either principle (billions of years of evolution or special divine creation in the creator’s image) should have the same general capabilities. Under biological evolution, this follows from the definition of species and is supported by biological evidence such as the human genome. Under special creation, she would have to be claiming that her god created different classes of humanity, some capable of certain common feelings and other not, yet all in the same image.

    So my approach would be to ask her to explain the mechanism by which your sensorium lacks a capability which hers has.

    There probably also some neurological tests which would quantify both of your reactions to emotional stimuli.

  68. #68 MadScientist
    October 19, 2010

    I am reminded of that somewhat recent film of R. Dawkins visiting an islamic school in the UK. The students were allegedly taught evolution in their science class – they were also taught that the Koran says differently and therefore evolution is simply a lie which the government forces the schools to teach. Like Dawkins, I’m a bit annoyed that he didn’t think of asking the question “did you ever try to mix fresh water and salt water” when they got to that bit about how the Koran proclaims that salt water and fresh water cannot mix. Personally I think that film was an excellent example of how effective this accommodationism is. Accommodationism merely serves to stroke the egos of the religious and give them an undeserved sense of legitimacy in their claims.

  69. #69 Charley63
    October 20, 2010

    I’m an ex-Christian and a naturalist, a term I prefer to alternatives like atheist. I have wonderful, loving human beings in my life who are still Christian and who accept me. I have wonderful loving human beings in my life who are atheists. I know lots of others on both sides are unpleasant and hostile. I don’t judge those who are negative as they probably had abusive childhoods.

    My point is, religion or atheism is a matter of metaphysics. Can’t prove God exists or not, though I accept that it is unlikely. However, intellectually grasping facts or not does not make a person a positive or negative force. That is a matter of psychological health. Atheism has no monopoly on constructive behavior.

    I do agree that atheism needs to be tolerated and accepted much as being gay or non-white. The New Atheists have made room in our culture for some of that to begin. However, the NA’s do make the mistake of assuming that metaphysics is what makes for destructive behavior. There is no one-to-one correlation.

    Most of my heroes are religious, like Dr. King, Gandhi, or Buddha. I also have my atheist heroes, like Marx, Einstein, or Sagan. I believe in rejecting all prejudices about metaphysics in favor of a pragmatic embrace of people who want to be constructive and address social and environmental challenges. Those who want to be negative could use a little psychology, even psychiatry. It did wonders for me.

  70. #70 Sean
    October 20, 2010

    “However, the NA’s do make the mistake of assuming that metaphysics is what makes for destructive behavior.”

    Hmm, it seems to me that gnu atheists care far more about epistemology than metaphysics. I mean, a lot of gnus think that, say, Deism is silly, or pantheism is silly, but they don’t tend to spend much time on those. The big targets are traditional religions, not just because they are populous, but also because reliance on traditional dogma or the authority of church leaders is itself the problem.

    As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The problem is not just “negative” dark angry people doing bad things (in any case, I doubt anyone can live well without a little chaos and conflict going on). The problem is that people are not tied into the real world. Think of their fantasies, their sincere, deeply held convictions, the ones that they prize as the source of their moral behavior, that comfort them when trouble strikes, that motivate them to seek justice and help the oppressed, that reassure them that their children will be equally as moral and happy and healthy when they tuck those kids in at night. For so many people, those convictions are intimately connected to, sometimes even identical with, the convictions that make them do bad, terrible things, to slander and stereotype, to oppress others, sometimes even to kill. And it’s critically, critically important that people learn to tell reality from fantasy so that they can distinguish between those truly valuable, necessary convictions, and the ultimately meaningless convictions that destroy lives.

    Being an atheist doesn’t make you a good person. Being religious doesn’t make you a bad person. Deconversion doesn’t always make you a better person. But for goodness’ sake, trying to work out a consistent ethical worldview within traditional religion is like trying to win at poker after stacking the deck against yourself.

  71. #71 Aj
    October 20, 2010

    #69
    “I don’t judge those who are negative..”

    Okay, that’s nice. But, you know, some people might claim that labeling people as negative (or positive) is itself being judgmental.

    So you really want to watch out that you don’t start making further gross assumptions about people on the basis of the labels you’ve ascribed to them.

    “… as they probably had abusive childhoods.”

    Or not. Your choice.

  72. #72 R. Schauer
    October 20, 2010

    Jason,
    You, PZ, Jerry, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc…all do a wonderful job of introducing the “elephant in the room” and what to do to move things forward peacefully and expeditiously. Thanks!

    Yes, now Pete and Re-Pete!

  73. #73 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 21, 2010

    Brilliant, bookmarked and bloody well done!

  74. #74 Webmaster
    September 29, 2011

    My point is, religion or atheism is a matter of metaphysics. Can’t prove God exists or not, though I accept that it is unlikely. However, intellectually grasping facts or not does not make a person a positive or negative force. That is a matter of psychological health. Atheism has no monopoly on constructive behavior.

    I do agree that atheism needs to be tolerated and accepted much as being gay or non-white. The New Atheists have made room in our culture for some of that to begin. However, the NA’s do make the mistake of assuming that metaphysics is what makes for destructive behavior. There is no one-to-one correlation.

  75. #75 Wow
    September 30, 2011

    “Can’t prove God exists or not, though I accept that it is unlikely.”

    There’s no need for god to exist. If you feel there is, please point to such an example.

    At the moment, we have no need for that hypothesis.

    “Being an atheist doesn’t make you a good person. Being religious doesn’t make you a bad person.”

    But religion requires you stop thinking for yourself and just follow orders. At the very least *organised* religion does.

  76. #76 Iain Walker
    September 30, 2011

    Webmaster (#74):

    My point is, religion or atheism is a matter of metaphysics. Can’t prove God exists or not, though I accept that it is unlikely.

    But not all metaphysical positions are equally reasonable, and relegating the debate to the realm of metaphysics doesn’t automatically mean that the question is an open one, or that there is no balance of probabilities one way ot the other.

    However, the NA’s do make the mistake of assuming that metaphysics is what makes for destructive behavior.

    Do they? Seems to me that the Gnus see the downside of religion (or of theism at least) as stemming from a authoritarian, top-down approach to ethics and from the detaching of emotional and ideological commitment to an idea from proper considerations of epistemic justification (i.e., faith). In which case, what they’re assuming is that flawed ethics and flawed epistemology make for destructive behaviour, which is an entirely justified position.

    A case can also be made that certain metaphysical beliefs can also do damage in combination with certain ethical beliefs – e.g., a belief in the soul/afterlife leading to the devaluing of this life, or to Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant opposition to abortion.

  77. #77 Paulita Vaksman
    July 15, 2012

    Wow, fantastic weblog structure! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging glance easy. The total glance of your site is fantastic, let alone the content!