We New Atheist types are used to having hyperbolic claims leveled against us. A while back author Ron Rosenbaum, writing at Slate, wrote “And some of them [the New Atheists] can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.” Clearly so. The most unbending religious Inquisitors were in the habit of torturing and imprisoning those with whom they disagreed. The NA’s write books and give public presentations in which they express their views. The comparison is obvious.
More recently, we have Michael Ruse proclaiming, “And this is why I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.” He has been gleefully supported by his fellow blogger Jacques Berlinerblau, most recently in this post.
We skeptics like to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The harm done by the Tea Party, in terms of electing lunatics to public office and moving the Republican Party ever farther to the right, is pretty easy to see and measure. If the NA’s are a disaster of that magnitude there should be some clear evidence to that effect.
A while back I wrote a post pointing out that in the long-running Gallup poll about evolution and creationism, the percentage choosing the “atheistic evolution” option had been going steadily up over the past ten years, from 9 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2008. I also cited a poll from Virgina Commonwealth University in which the atheist option scored a whopping 18 percent. It was not a terribly long post, and it concluded as follows:
I do not know the explanation for these numbers, and I have no interest in speculating.
It does seem interesting, though, that while many people are wringing their hands over the supposedly pernicious effect of the New Atheists on evolution acceptance and education, the numbers show not the slightest evidence of a backlash. To the extent that the numbers are moving at all, they seem to be going in the right direction.
I thought my point was clear enough. That the poll numbers are, from an atheist’s perspective, moving slowly in the right direction, is not evidence of a backlash against the NA’s. The only way to argue otherwise is to claim that somehow the NA’s are retarding a favorable trend that would proceed more quickly were it not for their interference. If you are inclined to go that route then I would simply refer you to my earlier statement about extraordinary claims.
Incidentally, my post was written before the 2010 Gallup numbers were available. The latest number is up to 16 percent. I’m just saying.
Well, Josh Rosenau, who I consider a close personal friend and a brother from another mother, went ballistic. In a very long post, he seized on an offhand remark I had made about the percentage accepting the atheist option. Noting the 9 percent in the Gallup poll in 1999 and the 18% in the 2010 VCU poll I casually suggested that the number had doubled. I acknowledged that the wording of the questions was different in the two polls, and I stated my conclusions with great caution and circumspection, and I thought it was clear that I was not presenting a detailed statistical analysis of the situation, and I also thought I was clear that my point was simply that the numbers do not support any conclusions about the NA’s being a disaster, but no matter. Josh scolded me for 3000 words anyway.
Well, it’s happened again.
Jerry Coyne has a post up directing us to new polling data from Pew. One of their findings is that 61 percent of people would be less likely to support a political candidate who did not believe in God. The authors of the survey write, “Among traits perceived negatively, 61% say they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who does not believe in God, which is little changed from four years ago.” Here, in its entirety, is Jerry’s discussion of this finding:
“Not believing in God” is the worst trait of all, much worse than having had an extramarital affair. The Pew report finds that this figure is “little changed from four years ago.” America remains a nation deeply disapproving of atheists. (I wonder what the figures would be in Europe.) The unchanged level of disapprobation is a bit disconcerting, but at least gives the lie to accommodationist claims that vociferous atheism is turning people off. And we know that lack of religious belief is still increasing everywhere in America.
Seems like essentially the same point I was making in my earlier post. Flat poll numbers, in this case, are not evidence of a disaster commensurate with the Tea Party. The burden of proof lies with the people making the extraordinary claims. Polls such as this are an obvious place to look for evidence of the putative harm done by the NA’s, but the numbers stubbornly refuse to cooperate.
Josh, unsurprisingly, could not let that stand. He has produced a very long post going after Coyne for, well, all sorts of things. Josh writes:
First, I don’t think the reach of New Atheism has become so wide that it would necessarily have any dramatic (outside the margin of error) impact on broad surveys of public opinion. The only substantive evidence I’ve ever seen offered for the influence of New Atheism – number of book sales and number of Youtube videos viewed – are at best crude estimates. The Left Behind series sells well, but its influence on the broad culture is small, after all.
Though Josh has been a consistent critic of the NA’s, he has not repeated the more hyperbolic claims of people like Ruse and Berlinerblau. The fact remains, however, that a disaster commensurate with the Tea Party really suggests that the influence of NA’s has become pretty wide. And it’s not as if those two are the only ones making such bloated claims. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point out, against such rhetoric, that the latest polls do not show an increase in suspicion directed towards atheists.
Moving on, I can’t imagine how Josh justifies his statement that the influence of the Left Behind series on the broad culture is small. They certainly had an impact on publishing and entertainment, by showing that there is a big market for explicitly Christian books and films. LeHaye and Jenkins popularized and mainstreamed a set of ideas that were marginal to the point of being invisible prior to their success. Would Harold Camping’s insanity have been big news in a pre-Left Behind world? I don’t know. But selling 65 million books sure sounds to me like it constitutes having an influence on the culture.
Now, what about the influence of the NA’s? This, to me, is the crux of the matter. I can certainly point to good, concrete things that have resulted from the NA’s books. I can point to the numerous testimonials of people who say they had their eyes opened by reading them, for example. I can point to the fact that even though I live in one of the most culturally conservative counties in Virginia, my local Barnes and Noble had a highly-visible, front-of-the-store display for Richard Dawkins’s book The Greatest Show on Earth. They did not have such a display for his previous science book The Ancestor’s Tale. What changed? I’m guessing it was the enormous success of The God Delusion in between. Multiply that by all of the other bookstores that behaved likewise, and I see a positive development in promoting evolution. And I can point to all of the bus campaigns, and the innumerable skeptics conferences (which are receiving increasing amounts of media attention), and the thriving skeptical community on the internet. All of these things tend to make atheism more visible. We have actual scientific evidence now that shows that a lack of visibility is specifically part of atheism’s problem. But seriously, some things really are too obvious to require proof.
Is this the start of a revolution? Will we look back twenty years from now and marvel that religion ever had so much power in American society? How should I know? But all of the things I just listed strike me as inherently good. There is simply no question that atheism today has a much bigger public profile than it did before the publication of the NA books, and this bigger profile is good all by itself.
But maybe I’m wrong about all of that. Maybe I’ve hallucinated all of these favorable developments. Maybe the NA’s have managed to sell millions of copies of their books and give countless presentations to sell-out crowds without having the slightest positive effect on the public’s perception of atheism. Maybe their only contribution is to write books some of us enjoy reading and to give presentations some of us enjoy watching. Well, fine. But then why all the vitriol? Why the endless hand-wringing about what a big disaster the NA’s are, or about how they are “hurting the cause,” or how they’re scaring away the moderates?
The NA bashers are basically telling me that I can’t simply enjoy the books put out by the NA’s, because they are actually harming other causes that I care about. It is for the bashers to back up that charge with actual evidence. This they never do.
Instead they gesture sagely to the communications literature, and direct us to the brilliant insights found there. They tell us, as though it were news, that people don’t like it when you insult them. Or that people sometimes get defensive when you attack things they care about deeply. Indeed, but what about all the people who don’t have firm views on this subject? What about all the people who mostly absorb their ideas from what is prevalent in the surrounding culture? Which is to say, what about most people?
Second, the secularizing trend in American society goes back well before the New Atheists arrived on the scene, so they can’t take credit for it. The interesting question is whether they increased it or decreased it relative to the rate it would otherwise have taken (given underlying demographic trends, etc.). I don’t see anyone trying to build such a model for comparison.
What? Did Jerry claim that “the secularizing trend in American society” was the result of the New Atheists? Certainly not in this post. It looks to me like he was simply addressing the claim of whether the NA’s are actively hurting the cause by creating a backlash against atheists. He noted there is nothing in the polls to suggest that they are. Period.
Josh here dangles the possibility, mentioned previously, that the NA’s are hurting the cause by slowing the secularizing trend that was happening already. Show me a shred of evidence for that improbable proposition and I’ll take it seriously.
After presenting a litany of other polls, the point of which escapes me, Josh unloads his haymaker:
Fourth, and most importantly, an increase in the number of nontheists in society ought, all else being equal, to increase support for atheist candidates. On balance, someone should be less iffy about voting for an atheist after becoming an atheist! You’d also expect an increase in willingness to vote for an atheist to follow from more people knowing they know an atheist, the effect atheist “out” campaigns and bus ads seek to promote. The lack of any such shift should be more than “disconcerting.” It verges on falsifying.
I am not sure what it is that Josh thinks is on the verge of being falsified here. Certainly not the claim Jerry actually made, which involved the possibility that NA’s were driving people away. I think Josh’s point is something like this: NA’s are trying to make atheism more visible and acceptable to the general public. If they were successful in this then you would expect people’s antipathy towards atheistic political candidates to go down. But the polls show the numbers are flat. So the NA’s have failed.
But this would be premature, to put it kindly. For one thing, if we bend over backwards to be generous we can date the origin of the NA’s to 2004, with the publication of Sam Harris’s book. A more reasonable date would be 2006, when the term “New Atheist” was coined. So at most we’re talking seven years that the NA’s have been around, and five is more like it. That just isn’t very much time at all. And we’re talking about a movement starting very deep in its own end zone, with a massive, extremely well-funded machine on the other side. These are the sorts of things Josh is keen to point out when the question is why rates of evolution acceptance have been flat for so long. This, despite the best efforts to convince people that evolution poses no threat to religion, and despite the complete absence, until recently, of NA troublemakers to gum up the works. But somehow he is less charitable when considering the effects of the NA’s.
Josh closes with this:
But New Atheism is oriented toward the general public, towards shifting public opinion (in some often-ill-defined way). We should expect to see a result from those actions when we look at general surveys. Not immediately, and it’s possible the effect would always be too small to measure, or that it could fall prey to confounding factors and other difficulties associated with any attempt at measuring change in public opinion without having a control group for comparison. But with the right poll questions and the right controls, static polls point either to no effect – i.e., failure – or to a positive effect counterbalanced by a backlash – also failure.
Actually, there’s a pretty obvious third possibility. It could be a positive effect counterbalanced not by a backlash, but by the even more effective promotional efforts of those on the other side. That would mean NA is not a failure, it’s just insufficient to overcome all of the forces working against it. Obama’s stimulus package undeniably had a positive effect on the economy, but it proved insufficient to counteract everything that was dragging the economy down. Same thing here, I suspect.
Most of Josh’s post has nothing to do with what Jerry said. He seems to have in mind certain grandiose claims about the success of New Atheism, but without specific quotes to work with it’s hard to know what he is replying to. If there is anyone out there who claimed that NA would need only a few years to produce a revolution, then I am sure they are now feeling a bit silly. But the far more common claim is simply that NA is having a positive impact on the public discourse, which seems undeniable to me. I can see it in the small, concrete ways I mentioned earlier in the post. Not the stuff of massive societal shifts, but they are real nonetheless. And I can see it in less quantifiable ways, in the increased visibility atheism now has. Against this I can see not the slightest reason for thinking that NA’s are “hurting the cause,”
To me, this whole conversation seems to play out like this:
HYPERBOLIC NA BASHER: New Atheists are hurting the cause!
They are driving people away from good science education!! They are scaring away the moderates!!! They are a disaster commensurate with the Tea Party!!!!
CALMER, MORE SENSIBLE, PERSON: What cause are they hurting? Evolution acceptance? Not according to the polls. Public perceptions of atheists? Again, not according to the polls. So where can I find evidence of this disaster you speak of?
WIMPY FALLBACK POSITION: Yeah, well you haven’t revolutionized American culture in the last few years, so you’re a failure.