Framing Science

As I’ve argued, one of the reasons I find the New Atheist PR campaign so troubling is that it is has radicalized a movement that feeds on anger and fear and that offers little more than complaints and attacks. New Atheism turns on a binary discourse of us vs. them. In the rhetoric of the New Atheist movement, you’re either with us or your against us.

The New Atheists risk alienating moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with secularists on many important issues. Moreover, the movement lacks any kind of positive message for what it means to live life without religion. Other than selling books and further polarizing the public, where is at all going? To what end?

As an atheist and as someone who cares about the public image of science, I am certainly not alone in my reservations about the The New Atheism movement.

In fact, last week, on CFI’s Point of Inquiry podcast, host DJ Grothe interviewed the philosopher Philip Kitcher on his new book “Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith.” Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and is past author of “Science, Truth, and Democracy” and “Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.” I encourage you to listen to the full podcast, but here are a few excerpts of what Kitcher had to say:

DJ Grothe: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism, or maybe in a more limited way atheism to the public? All these anti-God books are the real rage right now, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens…your book is addressing some of the same topics, are you addressing the same audience…

Kitcher: Well I’m actually not happy with any of the books you mentioned, I haven’t read all of them. The ones I have read and the parts I have read of others, suggests to me that there is a biting tone about them, which is of course being picked up in the press. They are in many ways unremittingly negative books, they want to get rid of this stuff, they want to sink it, they want to throw it away.

DJ Grothe: Without providing much of an alternative, they are attacking…

Kitcher: Right, and without seeing that while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering and continues to do so today. On the other hand, it has also provided a lot of consolation, a lot of meaning, a lot of genuine uplift for people. I think to simply snatch this away, and in effect say, in the voice of a very commanding doctor, “Oh read a couple pages of the origin, and you will feel better in the morning,” Um, that’s simply not enough. I think there has to be something more about the contribution of secular humanism than we see at the moment.

Later in the interview, Kitcher describes the central question of his book as “How do we make sense of human values and how do we move forward in a post-religious age?”

In part, he says his book addresses “why the kinds of things that you get from Dawkins and Dennett and so on, really strike people as shrill, unfeeling, and unsatisfying.” According to Kitcher, even if the critiques of religion are true, there is no reason for atheists to gloat, instead they should be actively exploring alternatives and replacements to religion. He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.

Comments

  1. #1 mlf
    July 17, 2007

    Your first two paragraphs are filled with nothing more than assertions. No one has any reason to automaticaly believe everything you say if you do not back anything up. Which is ironic because you condemn the “New Atheist PR campaign” of the exact same thing. What is a “new atheist”? What is the “New Atheist PR campaign”? Who is part of it? Prove that “new atheists risk alienating [the] moderately religious”. What is their full message? Why do you not find it positive?

  2. #2 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    The world consists of more than just American. You seem to be being far to parochial.

  3. #3 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Matt P.,

    –>”New Atheism” is not my term, but rather is frequently applied in news coverage and everyday blog discourse to describe the cluster of Harris-Dennett-Dawkins-Hitchens books that have taken atheism to a new level in visibility and sharp rhetoric, posing God as a scientific question, and in many cases denying respect for the beliefs of even moderately religious citizens.

    –>The PR campaign refers to the successful efforts of major publishers and others to spend money on media visibility, marketing, and book store placement.

    –>The movement refers to bloggers, activists, and others who have adopted the label New Atheism and who have been mobilized to take attacks and complaints against religion to ever greater levels of volume.

    –>Alienation derives from the low information nature of the public. One of the world’s most famous scientists and defenders of evolution is now the world’s leading attack dog against religion, arguing that science undermines the validity of religious belief. Translated in magazine covers and sound bites, the PR campaign offers up a very readily available heuristic for moderately religious Americans that science is at odds with their values.

    –>My focus right now is on the American scene, though I am interested in how the New Atheism PR campaign and it’s reception translates cross-nationally and culturally.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    Ok, you are concentrating on the US scence but please, do not forget that in Western Europe the position of religion is much different than it is in the US. As I keep pointing out to people who complain about Dawkins’ being divisive, they need to realise that here in the UK is he not. He may regard as being at one end of the debate but he is not a hate figure amongst the moderate theists and indeed is friends with a good number.

  5. #5 Pelio
    July 17, 2007

    I don’t buy the argument from consolation. It just doesn’t change the effectiveness of the Dawkins-ian rebukes of religion. Which *should* be sufficient for a rational church goer to question their beliefs.

    Sadly, a lot of people WANT to live in a world of angels, devils, and the all seeing sky monster. Even if the benefits of atheism were presented to such people, I don’t know if it would help.

    WE know that atheism is a profoundly positive doctrine not only because it is much more likely to be true but also because it puts a premium on the value of human life here on earth. Religion negates the importance of our real lives instead holding believers in suspense, hoping for a better after life.

    I guess my point is that the philosophical tradition which explains atheism as a truly life-affirming world view is available for all to see. I am pessimistic that, had Dawkins et al devoted significant space to expounding the philosophical consequences of atheism, it would make much difference to the vast majority of religious people.

    Like you, perhaps, I hope books on the positive side of atheism are forthcoming but I am pretty comfortable with ‘attacking’ as a first step. Step one if you’re trying to raise a believers consciousness – break down their fundamental assumption.

  6. #6 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    Yay, another post attacking atheists (those uppity ones) for only attacking religious beliefs without offering up positive alternatives, all while offering absolutely no positive alternatives of it’s own.
    Cue the music, here we go again!!

  7. #7 Bob J
    July 17, 2007

    As the Senior Vice President of the New Atheists Official Religion I take offense to this. Did you not see our Official Member List Because We’re Actually A Movement website? None of this is official without the stamp of our Leader Richard Dawkins (founder of New Atheists LTD.) I’m going to sue for libel.

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Molkien,
    That’s the point. There is a well developed body of work offering up a positive alternative, but it is not part of the New Atheist movement. And that’s Kitcher’s task in his book.

  9. #9 Jason
    July 17, 2007

    He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.

    I think Kitcher is right that religion is, in large part at least, a product of threat and unease. And not surprisingly, therefore, religion has declined in the U.S. and other developed nations as threats to people’s lives and welfare have receded. No particular “positive vision and alternative” to religion is necessary. People tend to just lose interest in religion, and supernaturalism more broadly, as their lives become easier and more secure. I think supernatural belief of some kind will probably persist to some degree even in the most advanced societies, but it is likely to become increasingly abstract and disconnected from human affairs.

  10. #10 Anonymous
    July 17, 2007

    “The ones I have read and the parts I have read of others, suggests to me that there is a biting tone about them, which is of course being picked up in the press. They are in many ways unremittingly negative books, they want to get rid of this stuff, they want to sink it, they want to throw it away.”

    Here Philip Kitcher complains about “biting tones” (oh noes!!! the means athiests are coming!!) and how the press picks up on it. No offense to Kitcher, I’m sure his book is intelligent and full of feel good feelings, and I’m sure it dances nicely around on tip toes being careful not to offend those precious religious moderates, but it’s why you will never hear of him in the mainstream press.
    You want to talk about making converts? At least people are talking about Dawkins, Hitchens, etc…
    Take a look at NBC, CNN, and even Fox News. Lots of stuff on Dawkins. Not a single thing on Kitcher. So if I was you, I wouldn’t waste your time arguing whether Dawkins and the “New Atheists” end up turning off the moderates, but how to get those moderates to actually hear your message.
    Maybe that’s what this is all about, If only those damn obnoxious New Atheists would just shut up, then people could actually hear our message. Maybe you just aren’t framing it correctly.

  11. #11 matthew
    July 17, 2007

    It’s been argued many times that if the claim is made that “science undermines the validity of religious belief” that “alienation” will occur. This is an important claim. You’ve yet to back it up with evidence. How much alienation will occur? Will the amount of people that feel alienated be greater than the amount of people intrigued about this issue? How do know that the risk of alienation is so great that it outways any possible benefits of this “movement”?

  12. #12 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    Sorry, that above anonymous comment was mine.

  13. #13 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Matt P.,
    In the U.S., it’s not clear to me what the benefits of the movement are other than to sell books or magazines and to intensify the opinions of atheists in the direction of ever more militant rhetoric and us vs. them thinking.

    This is a classic social movement phenomena of organizing the base through anger and fear. The problem other than just further creating polarization is that there is no alternative unifying message of positive values and world outlook that that movement can draw upon.

    Finally, as basic theoretical principles, everything we know from public opinion research and political communication predicts that if you:

    A) Give people through news coverage, as Dawkins does, a very readily available heuristic that science is at odds with their core identity and that their beliefs don’t deserve respect..

    B)…then you risk diminishing trust in science among moderately religious Americans..

    C)…give rhetorical fodder to religious activists who want to turn the wider public against science and secularists…

    d)…and make it that much harder to defend the teaching of evolution in schools or come together in a religiously diverse society to solve collective problems such as climate change, poverty etc.

  14. #14 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Molkien,
    Of course, by feeding a conflict hungry media, Dawkins/Hitchens are great at getting news attention and selling books, just like Ann Coulter. The question I raise is at what price is all this attention?

    It’s not clear to me what the benefits are other than selling books and magazine articles, whereas the potential damage to the public image of science, the secular humanist movement, and our ability to solve collective problems in society is great.

  15. #15 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    Well all I can say is that in the UK Dawkins does not have any problems working with the more moderate theists in attempting to deny creationism/ID a toehold in the UK education system. For example a year or so ago he was a signatory of a letter to The Times calling on the government to ensure a school in the North East of England that was being partly funded by a christian fundamentalist businessman, and had a headteacher and head of science who were both creationists, followed the national curriculum when it came to science education. He was not the sole signatory: leading Anglicans and Catholics also signed the letter. In addition Dawkins had interviews leading religious figures in the UK for various documentries. Now I doubt very much if any of those people agree with Dawkins’ about religion, although I suspect a few at least will share a similar political outlook.

    Now if the moderate theists in the US have a problem with Dawkins maybe they need to look to their UK counterparts, and wonder if the problem is not Dawkins but them. They also need to understand that Dawkins is NOT American, and the fight for rationality over superstition is not restricted to the US.

  16. #16 Jason
    July 17, 2007

    Finally, as basic theoretical principles, everything we know from public opinion research and political communication predicts that if you: A) Give people through news coverage, as Dawkins does, a very readily available heuristic that science is at odds with their core identity and that their beliefs don’t deserve respect.. B)…then you risk diminishing trust in science among moderately religious Americans..

    Ah yes, the old “Truth? They can’t handle the truth!” argument again. Sorry, but pretending to believe that science and religion are compatible and that religion has merit and deserves respect is ultimately far more harmful to science than any “alienation” from science moderate religious adherents might experience from being told things they don’t want to hear. Our first duty is to tell the truth as we understand it. The truth as I understand it is that religion is nonsense. Not just “fundamentalist” religion, but all religion.

  17. #17 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Matt P.,
    I have no doubt that Dawkins can be successful in working with moderately religious citizens on issues. The problem is that his message translates as just the opposite in media coverage.

    So if Dawkins is concerned about building a lasting movement that is for the good of society and also working collectively on social problems, he needs to steer the PR campaign in a new direction and start pairing his negative message with a complementary positive one.

    Again, don’t take my opinion. Listen to the interview with Kitcher and read his book.

  18. #18 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Thanks for your opinion Jason, but your opinion is at odds with the official positions of the major scientific societies, including the National Academies and AAAS.

    And that’s part of the problem. The New Atheists argue that the implications of science are atheism and to back down from a critique of religion means not being true to science.

    Last I checked, in every document I have read from the major scientific organizations, God is not a scientific question. Dawkins argues that it is, but again, that’s his opinion.

  19. #19 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    Since in Europe Dawkins is doing just that, it seems the problem is with the US. Dawkins is not American and cannot be held reponsible the state of religion in the US. This touches on something that I have raised before, but never had answered . In Europe, or Western Europe at least, the Englightenment seems to have stuck. In the US there seems to be a large percentage of the population in whom it has not stuck, and indeed who are hostile to the whole idea of it. Why is this ?
    It strikes me that if we knew why we would better placed to fix the problem.

  20. #20 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    With regards Dawkins and god being a scientific hypothesis, we need to be clear of the type of god Dawkins refers to.

    Many religious groups make scientific claims part of their belief: creationism being one example but the idea of god answering prayer and intervening in the universe are others. It is that god that Dawkins takes on. For others god is the god of Einstein or the personal struggle to find a way to live a good life. Those are not gods Dawkins takes on.

  21. #21 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    You make it sound as if selling books isn’t part of converting people. I’ll tell you one thing I know for certain, not everyone who bought one of Dawkins books was part of the choir so to speak. And I won’t deny that some are turned off by Dawkins, it’s funny actually, the only people I’ve heard turned off by him are already atheists, or theists that are already well versed in science (like those on SciBlogs) or theologians who are just upset he didn’t debunk their specific definition of religion. I’m sure there are moderates who are offended and in turn, turned off of science (although I’d be willing to bet New Atheists aren’t the sole reason) but based off the sales of such books, I find it hard to believe it is a large problem without more evidence, which you don’t really provide besides your assertions.
    It also doesn’t help your cause by comparing Dawkins/Hitchens to Coulter, although I realize you aren’t making a direct comparison. But c’mon you are supposed to be an expert at framing or something.

  22. #22 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Molkien,
    The Ann Coulter comparison is directly appropriate in identifying what drives media attention and book sales: conflict, controversy, and extreme rhetoric.

    Moreover, when faced with criticism, many New Atheists adopt a similar response as Ann Coulter, spinning the criticism as suggesting they be muzzled, “shut up,” be quiet, stop writing columns/blogs etc.

  23. #23 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    Have you read “The God Delusion” ? Only I have and failed to find any extreme rhetoric in it, unless you count where Dawkins is quoting the more lunatic religious fundamentalists.

  24. #24 Jon Winsor
    July 17, 2007

    Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society.

    One thing to remember–you never get rid of threat and unease. As they say, it’s not a bug it’s a feature. Everyone gets sick, experiences mortality, and kicks the bucket. Everyone experiences people close to them do the same. It’s not something that progress can get rid of, unless you really start getting into sci-fi dreamy land.

    If you look at the history of art and literature, this is a theme addressed over and over.

    I’ll be interested to hear how Kitcher addresses this. It should be an interesting read…

  25. #25 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,
    The metaphor of child abuse, esp. as it translates in media sound bites, is a great example.

  26. #26 Jason
    July 17, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet,

    Thanks for your opinion Jason, but your opinion is at odds with the official positions of the major scientific societies, including the National Academies and AAAS.

    The NAS and the AAAS don’t have opinions on questions of whether science and religion are compatible and whether religion has merit and deserves respect. The Cornell Evolution Project found that distinguished biologists are overwhelmingly non-religious and overwhelmingly disagree with the view that evolution and religion are compatible.

    Gee, I wonder when the NCSE is going to publicize those findings?

  27. #27 mlf
    July 17, 2007

    (Ooops, sorry, “mlf” and “matthew” are one in the same. I usually use “matthew” but I thought it’d be less confusing if I use “mlf” on this blog. Of course it would help if I could simply remember my own logic…)

    Matthew N.,

    Again, where is the evidence that B, C, and D will follow A?

    MCN: “Moreover, last I checked, in every document I have read from the major scientific organizations, God is not a scientific question.”

    They don’t say anything about the existance Santa Clause either. You wouldn’t expect them to write about the super natural in those terms. The only thing they can do is test claims where the supernatural supposedly has some sort of effect in the real world. Naturally.

    MCN: “Moreover, when faced with criticism, many New Atheists adopt a similar response as Ann Coulter, spinning the criticism as suggesting they be muzzled, “shut up,” be quiet, stop writing columns/blogs etc.”

    Which “new atheists” specifically are doing this? Are any of them in the list you gave above doing it? Who?

  28. #28 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Matt,

    Well the problem with that example is that it bringing children up in a religion can be a form of child abuse. You only have to look at how children as describe as a “christian” child, or ” muslim” child when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Having muslim or christian parents does not make a child a muslim or christian.

  29. #29 Ms. Krieger
    July 17, 2007

    The arguments of many New Atheists miss a crucial point about religion:

    It’s not about G_d. In fact, whether or not G_d exists is irrelevant for many religious practitioners. Religion provides a moral framework, a supportive community, and guidance during life cycle events (birth, death, marriage etc). These are all areas in which Western society, and the US in particular, are lacking. When Matt says that the New Atheism does not provide an acceptable alternative to these benefits, he is right.

    Dawkins may argue that the existence of G-d is a question that science can (dis)prove. But there’s a long tradition of analysis by theologians since the middle ages, beginning with Spinoza, that says that science simply exposes the workings of the Divine Mind. In this view, G-d encompasses science–instead of being super-natural, the divine is natural by definition. I have not yet seen New Atheists address any of this rationalist stream of religious thought.

    Part of the legacy of this rationalist thought is a much more sophisticated notion of G_d, one that is not so much a direct giver of punishment and reward. As well as less of an emphasis on the afterlife.

    The result of this is that many religious individuals are close to secular humanism in attitude and action. But they are by no means ready to cede their religiosity.

    And with, as I said, the US and much of Western Europe distinctly lacking in community, moral guidance and support during stressful life events, perhaps they would be foolish to.

  30. #30 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    It would be entirely accurate for those like Coulter to argue her critics are telling her to shut up and stop writing columns, that’s how I feel, I wish she would shut up, although she has the right to say (most of) what she says. The inaccuracy comes when she claims her opponents want to take her freedom of speech away… but I digress.
    You are right, the media thrives on conflict (not truth), and again this is why Kitcher’s message will never make it to a wide audience.
    I still fail to see evidence that Dawkins / Hitchens et al are hurting the cause in a significant way.

  31. #31 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Krieger,

    First off please drop that silly affectation of typing “G_d”.

    Second, have you actually read “The God Delusion” ? Only if you had you would find he specifically refers to Spinoza’s god , and makes it clear that is NOT the god he discusses in the book. Indeed he goes further and says that Spinoza’s god is not something he objects to, although he see no point to it himself. What he argues is that the god most often worshipped is not that type of god at all, and that those worshippers make all kinds of claims for that god that do fall in the purview of science, such as claiming prayer can heal, or the earth was created some 6000 years ago. He then points out that making such claims, and having them refuted by evidence, destroys their hypothesis that god does indeed exist. In otherwords if god is something that plays a part in the universe then science can look at it, if not then it is not really a god at all.

  32. #32 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    “The metaphor of child abuse, esp. as it translates in media sound bites, is a great example.”
    Please, that is not an example of extreme rhetoric by Dawkins, but an example of how the media spins stories to fit it’s point of views facts-be-damned. Just look how they treated Edwards $400 haircut (while Romney just spent $300 on makeup consulting and you won’t get the coverage that Edwards received) and how CNN ran a completely biased segment against Sicko. The media will spin the stories anyway they want, and Atheists shouldn’t give up speaking out forcibly for fear the news outlets will use it to reflect badly on them!
    That’s one of the reasons why Democrats never show any spine, and capitulate to everything this adminstration does, and I for one am sick of it.

  33. #33 Jason
    July 17, 2007

    I think it’s pretty obvious from her strawman arguments that Krieger has not read Dawkins. And the fact that she follows the tradition of certain Jewish sects of writing “God” as “G-d” (it’s a sin to say his name, you see) indicates that her own theism is sectarian and religious in nature rather than the abstract spinozan theism that she claims to be defending.

  34. #34 mlf
    July 17, 2007

    Ms. Krieger: “…moral framework, a supportive community, and guidance during life cycle events (birth, death, marriage etc).”

    Religion is especially not needed for any of those things and all of the “new atheists” mentioned in this thread so far have explained why.

  35. #35 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Jason,

    Add to that the fact that Dawkins, Hitchens et al are not specific about which god they have in mind, as they have all them, which is why I always write “god”, lowercase “g”. After all Dawkins objects just as much to Zeus and Thor as he does to the Christian god.

  36. #36 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    And one other thing.

    Why is it so many people think they know what Dawkins says in “The God Delusion” when they have not read ? At least one blogger on SciBlogs regularly has a go at Dawkins about his views on religion but refuses to read the book. Like the issue with Spinoza above, 99% of the criticisms I see levelled at Dawkins he takes of in the preface or first chapter. I mean, these people do not even have to buy the book, just find a bookshop where you can hide away to read.

  37. #37 Ms. Krieger
    July 17, 2007

    It’s true Matt P, I have not read Dawkins’ books at all. I am responding mainly to the threads of conversation on this and other blogs on this topic.
    And the subsequent commentator is also right, that I am Jewish and I use the typical Jewish convention of leaving out the vowels when I write a name of G-d.

    But if, as you say, the god that Dawkins attacks is not the one referred to by Spinoza, then Dawkins’ (and other New Atheists’) arguments are not applicable to religion generally, but rather to specific streams of it. A lot of theists would criticize those same streams of religion. So why do you claim he attacks and attempts to disprove the belief system of all theists?

    And mlf says: ‘Ms. Krieger: “…moral framework, a supportive community, and guidance during life cycle events (birth, death, marriage etc).”

    Religion is especially not needed for any of those things and all of the “new atheists” mentioned in this thread so far have explained why.’

    Please explain. You provide no examples.

  38. #38 Matt Penfold
    July 17, 2007

    Ms Krieger,

    Well unfortunately at least one blogger on SciBlogs has not read “The God Delusion” and does not understand what it says, although he tries to pretend otherwise. That blogger I should point out is not Matt Nisbet, I disagree with him over Dawkins but I do get the impression he as at least read the book. You can get some idea of what Dawkins says from reading various essays he has written about religion but if you do not read “The God Delusion” you will be missing a lot. In the book he develops his ideas into a cogent argument which people may or may not agree with but do not have any valid criticisms of unless they have read it.

    I would point out that when you refer to G_d you presumably mean your (Jewish) god. The argument made by Dawkins is not specific to a particular god so it makes no sense to refer to the god Dawkins refers to as G_d.

    With regards Spinoza’s god, Dawkins explains that god is not a god who intervenes in the univese, and in fact is a more spiritual way at looking at the laws that govern the universe. Dawkins does not share that view but does not think it is a problem either. However as Dawkins points out, most people do not worship a god like that.

    The point about “a moral framework, a supportive community, and guidance during life cycle events” is interesting but again Dawkins is ahead of you. He says that there is a need for us to celebrate births, and to commemerate deaths. He just does not see the need to invoke gods in doing so. Indeed when it comes to deaths many people already opt for services that are secular in all but name. The best funeral service I have ever been to was taken by a C of E vicar but god was not what it was about. Instead we had people remembering the person, and reading from some of his favourite literature. When it comes to providing moral guidance the evidence seems to suggest that in the US the more religious states in fact are less moral. The rates for divorce and abortion, and childbirth to unmarried parents is higher in states with a higher level of religiosity. In addition the prison population in the US has only 1% of its inmates claiming to be atheists, which is far lower than the general population.

  39. #39 Jason
    July 17, 2007

    krieger,

    But if, as you say, the god that Dawkins attacks is not the one referred to by Spinoza, then Dawkins’ (and other New Atheists’) arguments are not applicable to religion generally, but rather to specific streams of it.

    This is just utter nonsense. The abstract philosopher’s god of Spinoza is nothing like the gods of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and the other theistic religions. Religious gods supposedly feel love, jealousy and other emotions. They care about the fate of both individual human beings and humanity as a whole. They intervene in human affairs. They hear and respond to prayers. They punish sin and reward virtue. They have particular, identifiable wishes and characteristics and natures. And so on. And those wishes and characteristics and natures have supposedly been revealed to us through sacred texts like the Bible or the Koran, or through religious leaders held to have some special relationship to god (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.). This is NOTHING LIKE the abstract deity of philosophical theism.

    I am Jewish and I use the typical Jewish convention of leaving out the vowels when I write a name of G-d.

    And why is it that you do that, exactly?

  40. #40 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    So he can show everyone how very pious and Jewish he is, obviously.

    What would the point be of following a pointless and mis-applied tradition if no one saw him do it?

  41. #41 Lifewish
    July 17, 2007

    I have no doubt that Dawkins can be successful in working with moderately religious citizens on issues. The problem is that his message translates as just the opposite in media coverage.

    The problem I have here is that, as far as I can tell, anything he said that was interesting enough to appear on the media’s radar would inevitably be “translated” into an outright attack on religion. Media thrives on conflict, and manufactures it wherever it can.

    And, if the media didn’t do it, the evangelicals would. There are plenty of preachers out there who know that a bit of conflict will energise the masses, and they are not above misquotations that would make a creationist weep.

    All that would happen if Dawkins toned down the rhetoric is that the evangelicals would lack an opposition. Knowing the media, they’d probably interpret this as meaning that the evangelicals are right, and slant their stories accordingly. You’d get precisely the same attacks as you do now, only there wouldn’t be any defence in place to stop the Overton window shifting.

    If you’re interested in positioning the atheist/agnostic message positively, and undercutting the negative components of Dawkins’ approach, may I suggest the following frame: these arguments themselves reflect a deeper shared commitment. For example:

    Reporter: What are your thoughts on the militant approach of the New Atheists?
    Framer: I think it’s great that people of all faiths and none can stand together in the same forums and discuss their beliefs.

    Reporter: But isn’t their criticism of religion horribly insensitive to people’s beliefs?
    Framer: Not at all – it’s a sign of great mutual respect to invest so much time in dialogue with others.

    Reporter: So why is Dawkins so rude?
    Framer: He’s not rude – he’s passionate, and he respects his audience enough not to water down his beliefs for them. Would you call a vicar rude for discussing Hell in a sermon?

    Reporter: Then why do some atheists claim that the New Atheists are a divisive force?
    Framer: I don’t know. It’s a shame that they can’t seem to grasp the fundamental principles that unite New Atheists with Christians. For, whilst we may disagree vehemently about the answers, we all share a fascination with the questions, and hope that the quest for truth will never die.

    IANAF (I am not a framer), but it seems that this approach would be less divisive of the atheist community whilst helping prevent the development of an us/them mentality. Any thoughts?

  42. #42 mlf
    July 17, 2007

    Ms. Krieger: “Please explain. You provide no examples.”

    Moral framework: The Golden Rule
    A supportive community: The Golden Rule.
    Guidance during life cycle events (birth, death, marriage etc): Professional councelors, therapists, doctors, life coaches, family, friends, teachers, etc.

    Hitchens: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1412,An-Atheist-Responds,Christopher-Hitchens
    Hitchens: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/mayweb-only/119-12.0.html
    Harris: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1229,The-Myth-of-Secular-Moral-Chaos,Sam-Harris
    Dawkins: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1219,The-Atheism-FAQ-with-Richard-Dawkins,Diganta-Richard-Dawkins
    Dennett: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett06/dennett06_index.html

  43. #43 J. J. Ramsey
    July 17, 2007

    Matt Penfold: “I have and failed to find any extreme rhetoric in it, unless you count where Dawkins is quoting the more lunatic religious fundamentalists.”

    * “dyed-in-the-wool faithheads”
    * “Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists”
    * Using “child abuse” to describe the labeling of children as Christian, Muslim, etc. (That you don’t see that as stretching the meaning of “child abuse” like taffy says a lot about you.)

    MCN: “Moreover, when faced with criticism, many New Atheists adopt a similar response as Ann Coulter, spinning the criticism as suggesting they be muzzled, “shut up,” be quiet, stop writing columns/blogs etc.”

    mlf: “Which ‘new atheists’ specifically are doing this? Are any of them in the list you gave above doing it? Who?”

    PZ Myers is a good example.

  44. #44 mlf
    July 17, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: “PZ Myers is a good example.”

    Where has PZ said that people like Coulter should be muzzled?

  45. #45 Molkien
    July 17, 2007

    mlf, I think you misunderstood Matt’s original comment. He claimed that New Atheists and those like Coulter often complain that their critics are trying to silence them, not that PZ or others want to muzzle Coulter.
    Although like I said earlier, I would like Coulter to stfu, but believe she has the right to say (some of) the things she says. Coulter, however, claims her critics want to take away her freedom of speach.
    I do believe that the critics of Dawkins/New Atheists would like them to shut up, although not completely. They, let’s call them appeaser atheists, would like new atheists to not criticize all of religion and only parts of it. Which, to new atheists, is no different than telling them to shut up.

  46. #46 MartinM
    July 18, 2007

    He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.

    Interesting. So presumably you can point to those positive visions and alternatives that have been presented in countries with far greater incidence of atheism than the US?

  47. #47 gerald spezio
    July 18, 2007

    Since it has been established that all is intercourse about discourse, as in postmodern theory; we don’t need no stinking “binary discourse.” Binary discourse creates another offensive false dichotomy as in sophomoric discourse. It’s a schism thing.

  48. #48 mlf
    July 18, 2007

    Molkien,

    I agree, I too would like Coulter to stfu, but I would never want to “muzzle” her and take away her right to free speech (even if I could), which Coulter claims her critics are wanting. However, I haven’t seen where people like Dawkins or PZ are actually trying to “muzzle” or “shut” people like Coulter up (maybe that wasn’t technically what MCN meant). It’s one thing to want them to shut up, it’s another to actually try to make them shut up.

    MartinM, good comment.

    (BTW, one of my previous comments was cought by a filter, probably because of the links, it was in response to Ms. Krieger)

  49. #49 Molkien
    July 18, 2007

    lol mlf, i think we are kinda talking past each other, as we are in exact agreement on the subject. my point is that no one (here at least) is claiming that Dawkins or PZ are trying to muzzle Coulter. The conversation hasn’t been about what PZ/ Dawkins etc think about Coulter, but that they react the same way under similar criticisms.

  50. #50 mlf
    July 18, 2007

    Molkien,

    I figured as much, here is the relevent play-by-play action that has driven my comments:

    Matthew C. Nisbet: “Moreover, when faced with criticism, many New Atheists adopt a similar response as Ann Coulter, spinning the criticism as suggesting they be muzzled, “shut up,” be quiet, stop writing columns/blogs etc.

    mlf: “Which “new atheists” specifically are doing this? Are any of them in the list [Harris-Dennett-Dawkins-Hitchens] you gave above doing it? Who?”

    J. J. Ramsey: “PZ Myers is a good example.”

  51. #51 Molkien
    July 18, 2007

    I think J.J was interpreting your question a: who specifically argues their critics are telling them to shut up.

    I.E PZ argues his critics want him to shut up. I think he is right, in that his critics, in essence, want him to shut up.

    I don’t think J.J was arguing that PZ wants to muzzle Coulter.

  52. #52 Trinifar
    July 18, 2007

    I just put the following comment on a post at the Intersection, but it fits here as well (with a little modification):

    It’s nice to see more people expressing useful ideas on this topic. I’ve been reading ScienceBlogs since it began thinking that it was a great idea. It still is, but PZ’s religous rants do not do it credit. One thing science bloggers can do is show how science and its methods improve our lives. PZ’s rants are the antithesis of that — that is, unless you think making emotional metaphysical and epistemological claims is somehow good example of good science. Science and rationality don’t need a Rush Limbaugh.

    Tantalizing taboo topics, my most recent post on this subject, looks at what Ronald Aronson had to say in a recent article in The Nation. John Wilkins has one of the best collection of thoughts on the matter — and he’s a philosopher! ;-)

    Where are the social scientists (besides Matt) when you need them? I’d much rather hear their professional views on religion than listen to PZ rant well outside his competency. (Why aren’t the social sciences better represented on SciBogs?) The irony is deep and rich when a Myers takes on religion and promotes atheism using all-encompassing, inflamatory rhetoric rather than the tools of science: study, understanding, gathering evidence, making a rational case with argument based on reason, point to the literature and the work of others, etc. Turns out the science writers and Wilkins the philosopher have a far more rational, scientific approach than the biologist does.

  53. #53 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2007

    Molkien has it right about what I was saying. He’s wrong about this:

    “I do believe that the critics of Dawkins/New Atheists would like them to shut up, although not completely. They, let’s call them appeaser atheists, would like new atheists to not criticize all of religion and only parts of it.”

    “Appeaser” atheists think that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Yes, it would be all well and good if theists gave up all their false beliefs–including theism itself. Not all false beliefs are equally pernicious, and letting the goal of getting theists to shed all their religious beliefs interfere with the goal of getting theists to shed the beliefs that have major impacts on public policy is a serious misplacement of priorities.

    Furthermore, the things that the “new” atheists say, or at least insinuate, that get in the way of the more immediate priorities are simply wrong, e.g, theists are morons, religion cannot accomodate evolution. The “appeasers” get understandably cranky when the people who rail at the falseness of religion can’t get their own facts straight. If Dawkins, Myers, etc. put at least as much effort into rigor as vigor, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    MartinM: “So presumably you can point to those positive visions and alternatives that have been presented in countries with far greater incidence of atheism than the US?”

    I’m not so sure myself of the answer to that question, but the Europeans had the social cohesion to get universal health care off the ground in their countries. Of course, there is a lot of history involved in how they got there, but they seem to have stronger group identities than we do. It would be interesting to see what kind of social rituals and social networking they have that have evolved apart from religion, and how strong those are, as compared to comparable ones in the U.S. I would guestimate that theirs are stronger.

  54. #54 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2007

    I should add that if the “New” Atheists were to criticize all of religion and do it in such a way that respects the facts, they wouldn’t be getting in the way of the anti-creationists.

  55. #55 Jason
    July 18, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    “Appeaser” atheists think that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Yes, it would be all well and good if theists gave up all their false beliefs–including theism itself.

    Yes, it would.

    Not all false beliefs are equally pernicious, and letting the goal of getting theists to shed all their religious beliefs interfere with the goal of getting theists to shed the beliefs that have major impacts on public policy is a serious misplacement of priorities.

    Some religious beliefs are certainly more harmful than others, at least in a direct and immediate sense. But it is not necessary to pretend that the less harmful religious beliefs are true or reasonable or worthy of respect or harmless in order to attack the more harmful religious beliefs. Religious moderates help to nurture and sustain religious fundamentalists by encouraging the conviction that one is justified in holding strong beliefs about what is true on the basis of religious faith, divine revelation, sacred writings, prophets, popes and priests, and other religious authorities. If you encourage people to believe that religious faith is benign, and even virtuous, you’re not in a position to deny responsibility when they engage in harmful actions on the basis of that faith. Examples of such behavior are legion, from the persecution of women and homosexuals to the suicide hijacking of airplanes.

    In all of Dawkins’ voluminous writings on religion you have managed to find just a handful of words and phrases in a handful of places that could arguably be described as “extreme” (and I do mean just “arguably”). You harp on these few words endlessly to try and create the false impression that rude and inflammatory language is characteristic of Dawkins, when in fact the exact opposite is the case.

  56. #56 ponderingfool
    July 19, 2007

    Maybe the value of Dawkins, et al. is to empower those who are atheists. To get them to come out of the closet as you will. On a very simple level the US hasn’t recovered from the “Commies are atheists, Commies are our enemies & unAmerican ergo atheists are unAmerican” mentality. Until atheists feel comfortable standing up they can not stand with other groups as equals.

  57. #57 mlf
    July 19, 2007

    J.J. Ramsey, in regards to muzzling, I appologize for not understanding you as well as Molkien has. My next response to you and everyone else would have been extremely similar to Jason’s.

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    July 19, 2007

    Jason: “But it is not necessary to pretend that the less harmful religious beliefs are true or reasonable or worthy of respect or harmless in order to attack the more harmful religious beliefs.”

    Agreed. However, one can treat the person who holds those beliefs with respect.

    Jason: “Religious moderates help to nurture and sustain religious fundamentalists by encouraging the conviction that one is justified in holding strong beliefs about what is true on the basis of religious faith, divine revelation, sacred writings, prophets, popes and priests, and other religious authorities.”

    And the evidence of this is? The moderates hold to their beliefs about purported revelation less tightly, and the liberals even less tightly still, and both have been responsible for critical examination of the Bible as a humanly flawed set of documents. If you have it in a library, take a look at how moderate John P. Meier takes the Gospels apart in A Marginal Jew or how Dale Allison tackles the problems with the resurrection narratives in Resurrecting Jesus. The latter book is not too expensive and you may find it worth buying.

    Jason: “In all of Dawkins’ voluminous writings on religion you have managed to find just a handful of words and phrases in a handful of places that could arguably be described as ‘extreme’”

    An argumentum ad Naziium isn’t extreme? Questionable use of the phrase “child abuse” isn’t extreme? Dawkins spends at least a few pages on each, which is more than a “handful of words and phrases.”

  59. #59 Jason
    July 19, 2007

    And the evidence of this is?

    The fact that religious moderates appeal to, and defend, the same religious sources of belief as fundamentalists–faith, scripture, personal experiences they attribute to encounters with God, and so on.

    It just makes no sense to take the position that a religious moderate is justified in believing through faith or scripture or revelation that there is a God who loves us and wants us to love one another, but that a religious fundamentalist is not justified in believing through faith or scripture or revelation that there is a God who hates infidels and wants his followers to kill them. Religious faith is religious faith. There’s no good religious faith vs. bad religious faith. It’s all bad.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    July 19, 2007

    Me: “And the evidence of this is?”

    Jason: “The fact that religious moderates appeal to, and defend, the same religious sources of belief as fundamentalists–faith, scripture, personal experiences they attribute to encounters with God, and so on.”

    Problem #1: Fundies do not treat “faith” the way moderates do. Indeed, if by “faith” you mean the usual atheist’s definition of “willful belief without evidence,” then fundies have less faith than moderates, not more. Notice that the fundies will sweat the historical apologetics and try to argue that the evidence does support a six-day creation. They have tried to convince themselves that their beliefs do have a basis in fact.

    Problem #2: Moderates–as I pointed out before–do not treat the scriptures the way fundies do.

    Jason: “It just makes no sense to take the position that a religious moderate is justified in believing through faith or scripture or revelation that there is a God who loves us and wants us to love one another, but that a religious fundamentalist is not justified in believing through faith or scripture or revelation that there is a God who hates infidels and wants his followers to kill them.”

    Let’s expand that in the light of Problem #2:

    It just makes no sense to take the position that a religious moderate is justified in concluding that there is a God who loves us and wants us to love one another by reading scripture while taking into account reason and conscience and the Bible’s many flaws, but that a religious fundamentalist is not justified in concluding that there is a God who hates infidels and wants his followers to kill them by reading scripture as if it were infallible truth.

    Saying that the moderates and fundies appeal to the same sources doesn’t help when they treat those sources very differently.

  61. #61 Jason
    July 20, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    I don’t think it’s true that religious “fundies” rely less on appeals to faith to justify their religious beliefs than religious moderates. You offer no evidence to support that assertion. Show me your evidence that the religious beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers, for example, were less reliant on faith than the religious beliefs of religious moderates.

    But if it’s true that religious moderates rely more on assertions of faith, and less on assertions of evidence and reason, than religious fundamentalists, so much the worse for the moderates. Faith is so dangerous precisely because it is not subject to rebuttal through evidence and reason.

    And your claim about the difference in the way “fundies” and moderates treat scripture is inconsistent with your claim that moderates rely more on faith. If moderates rely more on faith, then historical evidence regarding the authenticity, meaning or importance of sacred writings would be less important to them.

  62. #62 Jason
    July 20, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    It just makes no sense to take the position that a religious moderate is justified in concluding that there is a God who loves us and wants us to love one another by reading scripture while taking into account reason and conscience and the Bible’s many flaws, but that a religious fundamentalist is not justified in concluding that there is a God who hates infidels and wants his followers to kill them by reading scripture as if it were infallible truth.

    Since I’m not claiming that either of them is justified (I’m claiming the opposite, in fact), I’m not sure why you this statement is relevant to my argument.

  63. #63 J. J. Ramsey
    July 20, 2007

    Jason: “I don’t think it’s true that religious “fundies” rely less on appeals to faith to justify their religious beliefs than religious moderates. You offer no evidence to support that assertion.”

    Actually, I did: “Notice that the fundies will sweat the historical apologetics and try to argue that the evidence does support a six-day creation. They have tried to convince themselves that their beliefs do have a basis in fact.”

    If you want historical apologetics, look for Ankerberg, CARM, Tektonics, etc. Tektonics in particular explicitly denies that faith is belief without evidence. As for fundies arguing that a six-day creation is supported by evidence, you know where to look.

    Jason: “And your claim about the difference in the way ‘fundies’ and moderates treat scripture is inconsistent with your claim that moderates rely more on faith. If moderates rely more on faith, then historical evidence regarding the authenticity, meaning or importance of sacred writings would be less important to them.”

    I am simply noting the way I have seen actual fundies and moderates behave. You are right in that there is a sort of contradiction, but it is inherent in their own actions. Fundies are far less self-conscious that they believe on either no evidence (if they haven’t examined their beliefs) or evidence that is far less solid than they think, and so they affirm their beliefs forcefully. Moderates are far more self-conscious that they are believing on low or no evidence, and end up far more guarded on what they affirm by “faith,” usually confining it to things for which there is no contrary evidence or for which there can be no contrary evidence. Funny thing, no one acts like one likes the idea of belief without evidence that much, even if lip service is paid to affirming the practice.

    Jason: “Since I’m not claiming that either of them is justified (I’m claiming the opposite, in fact), I’m not sure why you this statement is relevant to my argument.”

    What you were claiming is that moderates have no basis for criticizing fundies because they supposedly both justify themselves the same way.

  64. #64 Jason
    July 20, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Actually, I did: “Notice that the fundies will sweat the historical apologetics and try to argue that the evidence does support a six-day creation. They have tried to convince themselves that their beliefs do have a basis in fact.”

    The attempt to justify a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story scientifically, through evidence and reason, is a fairly recent, and mostly American, phenomenon. I see no evidence that it is representative of how fundamentalists in general (especially non-Christian ones) justify their religious beliefs. They seem no less likely to appeal to faith and revelation for that justification than do religious moderates. In fact, I think you have it exactly backward: religious moderates are more likely to subject their religious beliefs to rational and empirical scrutiny than are fundamentalists. But both groups also appeal heavily to faith, and the promotion of religious faith by moderates helps to nurture and sustain the religious faith of fundamentalists–with horrendous results, like 9/11.

    What you were claiming is that moderates have no basis for criticizing fundies because they supposedly both justify themselves the same way.

    Actually, what I said is that moderates appeal to religious faith to justify their own beliefs, and therefore have no basis for criticizing fundamentalists for doing the same thing. If religious faith is a legitimate basis for belief, then it is just as legitimate for the fundamentalist as for the moderate.

  65. #65 J. J. Ramsey
    July 20, 2007

    Jason: “The attempt to justify a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story scientifically, through evidence and reason, is a fairly recent, and mostly American, phenomenon.”

    The attempt to justify a six-day creation is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea of attempting to bolster religious beliefs with appeals to facts and reason is older than that, though. Take the attempts of Paley, for example, or to go further back, Thomas Aquinas. Or Anselm.

    Jason: “In fact, I think you have it exactly backward: religious moderates are more likely to subject their religious beliefs to rational and empirical scrutiny than are fundamentalists.”

    I don’t have it backwards at all. I am well aware that religious moderates are more likely to subject their religious beliefs to rational and empirical scrutiny, and I pointed that out to you moderates are aware of the Bible’s flaws. So how do moderates hold on to their beliefs, given what they know? Often, they appeal to the idea of a leap of faith, making a deliberately nonrational decision to believe. That’s what I mean when talking about moderates having more “faith” than fundies–provided that we stick to a definition of “faith” as willful belief without evidence. As I noted before, they actually don’t make that much of a leap in practice, but a leap of faith is the nominal justification.

    Jason: “Actually, what I said is that moderates appeal to religious faith to justify their own beliefs, and therefore have no basis for criticizing fundamentalists for doing the same thing.”

    Except as I noted before, moderates don’t justify their beliefs quite the same way as the fundies, even when it comes to how they handle faith.

  66. #66 J. J. Ramsey
    July 21, 2007

    To clarify, I’ve seen a couple different arguments for how moderates enable fundies:

    1) Moderates and fundies argue from the same sources, so there is no lever by which moderates can challenge the fundies’ beliefs. This is flawed on two grounds: first, to the extent that the moderates’ and fundies’ sources overlap, they don’t use them the same way, and second, they don’t all use the same sources.

    2) Moderates promote the idea that belief without evidence is a virtue. The problems is that moderates may preach this “virtue” without practicing it, and fundies who practice this “virtue” don’t realize that they are doing it and will gravitate toward things like ID or so-called scientific creationism, which go against this virtue. No one is very comfortable with willfully believing without evidence. If moderates are promoting it, they aren’t doing it very well.

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