Framing Science

In provoking the emotions of fear and anger among non-believers, the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign motivates many atheists to be ever more vocal in attacking and complaining about religion. Yet does this PR campaign reach beyond the base, convincing Americans to give up their collective “delusions”? Or does it simply create further polarization in an already deeply divided America?

As the social psychologist Carol Tavris notes in a recent Point of Inquiry interview, if anything, social science research suggests that the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign only serves to further balkanize America. Tavris, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, is past author of the The Mismeasure of Woman and several of the leading textbooks in psychology.

She appeared on the show to talk about her new book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, co-authored with Eliot Aronson. In the book, the two social scientists elaborate on the theory of cognitive dissonance and its application to everyday life.

When asked about the New Atheist movement, Tavris’ expert opinion is consistent with the analysis I have offered here at Framing Science and in the articles on framing at Science and at the Washington Post.

Everything we know from social science research on attitude formation and beliefs predicts that the communication strategy of the New Atheist noise machine will only further alienate moderately religious Americans, the very same publics who might otherwise agree with secularists on many social issues.

The Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign provides emotional sustenance and talking points for many atheists, but when it comes to selling the public on either non-belief or science, the campaign is likely to boomerang in disastrous ways. Below the fold I provide a rough transcription of the key parts of the interview with Tavris, beginning at minute 28 of the podcast. I encourage you to listen to the full interview.

DJ GROTHE:

Let’s talk about religious and paranormal beliefs. Let’s talk about their connection with cognitive dissonance or dissonance theory… These days it seems like atheism is all the rage with these big time bestselling books by scientists and public intellectuals writing against religious beliefs. Do you think that the fact that religious people, increasingly–I mean there are sections of the religious, groups of the religious,–who don’t demand proof for their beliefs. Do you think this is a way of elevating their cognitive dissonance, the same could be asked about those who believe strongly in the paranormal, UFOS, faith healing, Bigfoot, ghosts etc, they are kind of just believing because they believe.

CAROL TAVRIS:

Yes well look, the more important a particular belief is to us, the more strongly we will ignore or reject evidence suggesting that we are wrong. So what are the most central beliefs that people hold? Their religious beliefs, their political beliefs. Certainly many scientists have held beliefs deeply that have taken a few hundred years to overturn, it’s not that scientists always think scientifically either.

But religion is the big one of course, because religion is central to many people’s feeling of what gives them meaning and purpose in life. When you have a belief that is that central to your needs, you are going to defend it at all costs…people of all religions. Now, to me as a social scientist, what’s interesting is how people reduce the dissonance between my religion says this, but now how do I deal with that.

So, evolution is a good example. Most religious people believe in evolution, and feel no discrepancy, no dissonance between Darwin and their religious beliefs. And of course other fundamentalist Christians do. So you have to start with what the religious belief is, and then what is the disconfirming kind of information that comes along.

For Jews for example, consider the massive dissonance that would be evoked by: “We believe in God, a God that is looking after the chosen people, and the Holocaust. How do we explain the Holocaust? How could God have permitted, ah, such a devastating act of Genocide?”…

…That’s massive dissonance.

DJ GROTHE:

Yeah, given the all loving nature of the creator, how could he have let that happen to the chosen people how could he have justified that?…

TAVRIS:

Exactly, exactly, what’s interesting, students of self justification, of dissonance, would say, how would you predict people would react to that, would they become less religious or more religious?

GROTHE:

Well you don’t hear stories of rampant atheism in the death camps…but you do hear stories of some people’s faith being strengthened.

TAVRIS:

Exactly right, it’s the counter intuitive not obvious reaction, and that’s the power of dissonance. So strong is the need to believe in God, that when a terrible thing happens, what most people will do, is not lose their faith in God, but reduce the dissonance by saying, something, as I heard in one Temple: “God is responsible for the good in the world, human beings are responsible for the evil”…

So there are many ways of coming to accept these horrible tragic things and maintaining their belief in God….any thing that happens that doesn’t seem to be consonant with God is reinterpreted to make it consonant…

GROTHE:

Both you and Eliot Aronson are scientists, you’re both social scientists, and you mentioned a few questions ago, earlier that it’s part of the nature of science to change your beliefs, to surround yourself with people who keep you honest….but most people out there, don’t share that scientific spirit. So do you think pointing out to people that just how wrong their beliefs are…do you think pointing out to them that they’re wrong will help them overcome their self deceptions or make them become more entrenched?

I am thinking of these best-selling books such as Richard Dawkins, I guess I am asking does really forceful, compelling arguments really get through to people who believe nonsense.

TAVRIS:

Well DJ, as someone who has read our book and who understands cognitive dissonance, you would know exactly what the prediction is. Well this is one of the things I think is so important for scientists to understand, how cognitive dissonance works.

When they go around saying “Oh look how foolish it is to believe such and such a thing.” What they are doing is putting people into a state of dissonance. “I am a smart capable, wise, kind person and you are telling me I believe something that is stupid and wrong, to the hell with you!”

To understand dissonance is to understand how to persuade other people, because you can’t do it by making them feel stupid that they hold such and such belief.

I think it is really important for skeptics and scientists to avoid that tone that we know what is right and you don’t. “We are smart because we are scientists and you are not…”

Not only is the tone off putting to somebody you want to persuade, but you won’t be persuasive, it makes the other person defensive and even more likely to protect their own views.

It’s important in an argument whether it is about creationism or about…the importance of good medical research versus alternative medicine, to understand what the purpose of the belief is to a person, why they want to hold it so tenaciously, what it means to them, before you can go along and tell them that the evidence doesn’t support their point of view.

For example, I was talking to an attorney who works on civil liberties cases and religious issues, he said when the issue is framed between science and religion, when you ask the general population in a way that forces them to choose between science and religion, they will choose religion…

…but if you say, that is if you make the evolutionary argument, not one in which you have to choose between believing in evolution and believing in God, but you say instead this is an issue that divides religious people, some religious people believe in evolution and some reject it, what are the reasons for accepting or rejecting it within a religious framework. See, then you aren’t making religious people feel like they have to reject science.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Eccles
    August 19, 2007

    Your interviewee leaps straight in with a falsehood. She says that most religious people believe in evolution. This Gallup poll shows otherwise.

    http://www.galluppoll.com/content/default.aspx?ci=27847

    This is why a robust response is necessary. Religion as it is practised is more awful than you seem to realise.

  2. #2 Anna_Z
    August 19, 2007

    Finally, the light of science is brought to the topic. A staunch insistence by some that the masses can be won over through insults and posturing goes against all we know of human behavior. It’s pitiable when scientists, as happens so often, insist their personal points of view trump any actual research that should be, could be or has been done into attitudes, social psychology, etc.. Human realities will affect the acceptance or rejection of scientists’ message, and those attitudes and attributions are subject to study and analysis – just like the rest of our world. Instead of the finger-pointing, name-calling and arm-waving, why can’t we see a few of the rational analyses in behavioral science brought to bear?

  3. #3 Badger3k
    August 19, 2007

    I find it funny that those who are on both sides of the issue – the so-called “militant” and the so-called “appeasers” seem to react in just the same way as those described in the interview. A lot of people are set in their ways and refuse to see any benefit in the other way (ie – my way is the Only Way That Works). And for the record, I am more vocal when I choose, and am definitely in the anti-delusion and pro-critical thinking crowd. Personally, I’d like to see people actually face the world as it is, and learn to cope, than believe falsehoods and mythology as reality, no matter how “comforting” (except you ever notice how it really is not comforting when they are on the block).

  4. #4 Felicia Gilljam
    August 19, 2007

    I agree with Badger; I’m very much live-and-let-live myself. I admire Dawkins but I also recognise that there are those who find him off-putting. But look at it this way: different people need to be made to think in different ways. Some of them respond to Dawkins-type rethoric, others respond to other kinds. Why can’t we allow both kinds to exist without whining at each other?

  5. #5 Anna_Z
    August 19, 2007

    What anyone wants to see happen is rather irrelevant when studying human behavior. Could it be excessive idealism among scientists lies behind so much persistent rejection of the research and analysis on how people form attitudes? It’s necessary to deal with the findings of behavioral sciences, as distasteful as those may be, if one would find effective ways of conveying a message.

  6. #6 Anonymous
    August 19, 2007

    I think you completely miss the point. Bringing atheism out of the closet is not about convincing the most die-hard believers – most of them are unconvinceable, nobody is disputing that. They will believe what they believe until they die.

    The real purpose behind outspoken atheism is to convince the *next* generation that there are alternatives to mindlessly believing whatever their parents believed. “Your parents are wrong about X” comes across very differently than “You are wrong about X”, for people who occasionally conflict with their parents (which is pretty much all of them).

    Societal progress will be made the way it always is made – one funeral at a time. Hidebound opinions die with the people who held them and the next generation believes something different.

    The Enlightenment did not occur by converting the pope first so that all his followers would follow, but by successive generations deciding that an almost fanatical devotion to the pope wasn’t such a great thing after all, and maybe the alternatives were worth exploring. The former “strategy” is a strawman and pointing out that it won’t work is useless.

    But the Enlightenment *did* occur, which proves that massive society-wide changes in attitude *can* happen, given enough time and work. You can’t deny the historical possibility of change, even on a large scale. Modern “mainstream” denominations of religion are sufficiently different from pre-Enlightenment orthodoxy to get you burned at the stake. It’s not really that long a leap to suppose that the remaining vestiges could be discarded altogether. Arguably it’s already happening in parts of Europe.

    If more people can be persuaded to think about what they are going to believe *before* they become so heavily emotionally attached to the belief, then they will reject beliefs that don’t bear critical scrutiny (which includes, but is by no means limited to, basically all religions). It’s a long term attempt to promote critical thinking in general – atheism and evolution are merely consequences, because they look pretty good on the available evidence, so people who evaluate their beliefs based on evidence tend to believe them.

  7. #7 T_U_T
    August 19, 2007

    Two words : overton window.
    .
    Without this moderate-christian-alienating-america-balcanising-cute-little-kitten-killing atheist noise machine anchoring one end, the overton window would be completely pulled towards the fundeamentalist end to that extent that even not being fanatical enough would be considered unacceptable apostasy.

  8. #8 Chris
    August 19, 2007

    Perhaps this has been said before, and if so I apologize. I think it’s always worth putting arguments in their strongest possible form. Part of what good writer/thinkers are supposed to do is come up with the most powerful expression of the truth as they see it. The rest of us can then compare notes, and a lot can come of that in my experience. Thus, the tasks of compiling the reasons for disbelief and persuading the credulous are properly handled separately. That is to say, for example, to criticize Hitchens for adopting poor tactics of persuasion is off base because that’s not his job. Nor should the worth of “preaching to the choir” be minimized, as processing well constructed arguments is the means of examining and refining one’s beliefs. Carefully manufactured works guided by political and social science may indeed be valuable to the persuadable faithful, but they’re totally useless to the rest of us. One response to this point might be that Hitchen’s goes out in search of confrontation with the religious in an effort to emphasize the fact that faith will not stand up to reasoned inquiry, a poor method of deconversion as has been discussed. This is a fair complaint, but it doesn’t justify devaluing real, unrestrained writing in general as a mere element of a ‘noise machine’, and that’s where we’re headed here.

  9. #9 Chris
    August 19, 2007

    That post was really muddled. Maybe I should have just said that it’d be really depressing if writers started giving undue consideration to the convenience and utility of their work to political movements.

  10. #10 Chris
    August 19, 2007

    Talking about atheism is not just about changing the religious views of this generation or the next. It is also about encouraging tolerance for atheists, a group recently named the most distrusted in America. Atheists are more distrusted than Jews, more distrusted than blacks, more distrusted than gays, and more distrusted than arabs.

    It used to be that Christians burned atheists, or heretics, at the stake for their beliefs. Look at just about any time over the last 2000 years and you see that repeatedly. Even today, you have President Bush Sr saying that atheists aren’t American. Other people incorrectly disparage atheists by saying you’ll never find one in a foxhole or that all atheists convert on their deathbeds. This last February, this hate-filled spectacle aired on CNN:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=fPHnXrU5JzU

    Racists were upset when blacks started the civil rights movement. Sexists were upset when women started the equal rights movement. The lesson? Society did not hand rights to women or rights to blacks, they had to fight for those rights. Gays are also learning that lesson now.

    Today, Christians are upset now that atheists are pushing to be heard and pushing for social acceptance. Is this polarizing? Yes, to the religious, intolerant bigots. That does not mean atheists should shut up and leave, no more than the women or blacks in previous generations should have stopped because they angered the sexist or racist.

    What that means is society should open its mind enough to accept that atheists are out there, they are not evil people, and they deserve to live in peace, just like everyone else.

  11. #11 Science Avenger
    August 19, 2007

    In provoking the emotions of fear and anger among non-believers, the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign motivates many atheists to be ever more vocal in attacking and complaining about religion.

    Way to frame the issue in the manner most likely to cause your intended audience to stop reading. I know it had that effect on me. This is a recording.

    Anna_Z said: A staunch insistence by some that the masses can be won over through insults and posturing goes against all we know of human behavior.

    [Yawn] Another straw man destroyed. I know I feel safer.

    You guys really really REALLY don’t get it.

  12. #12 Fuquier
    August 19, 2007

    “A staunch insistence by some that the masses can be won over through insults and posturing goes against all we know of human behavior.”

    I guess you don’t live in the United States, eh Anna_Z?

  13. #13 Randy Olson, Head Dodo
    August 19, 2007

    Here’s what I love about so-called atheists and non-believers. A couple months ago I showed my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” at the Center for Inquiry West in Los Angeles to about 150 mostly geriatric atheists and non-believers. Before the show the Director talked about their latest debunking of paranormal phenomena efforts. And all of a sudden I gulped.

    I realized I was about to show a movie in which the star, my 83 year old mother Muffy Moose, says she believes in space aliens, witches, fortune tellers, Edgar Cayce, Erik Von Danikan, and every other nutball to come down the pike. In fact, she sums it all up by saying, “I believe in all of it!” I thought I was going to be in for a tongue lashing after the movie.

    But when the Q&A began, true to form of most screenings, the first old guy to raise his hand said, “I just want to say that your mother was the best thing in the movie!” And the entire audience erupted in wild applause.

    Atheists. Hogwarsh. Go watch South Park — they nailed it in their two part episode.

  14. #14 Jennifer Ouellette
    August 19, 2007

    I have a very good, intimate knowledge of just how horrific and destructive religion can be, since I was raised by fundamentalist/Pentacostal Christians and even attendd a Christian college. (Speaking in tonges? Check. In-home exorcisms? Check. Book- and record burnings? You betcha? Daily exposure to The 700 CLUB? Yep. Jack Chick comix? The only comics allowed in our house. And so forth.) It was not vicious, full-frontal attacks to “combat” the “delusions” of my community that rescued me from its clutches, however. It was simply being made quietly aware, over time, that there were alternatives out there that made far more sense than the illogical environment in which I was raised.

    Despite being an atheist/agnostic and skeptic, I personally find it saddening that there are so many angry atheists who will be satisfied with nothing less than a full-scale anti-religion revolution to stamp out the “disease” once and for all. How is that any different than being forced to adhere to religion under threat of expulsion or ridicule? What I needed was the opportunity to explore the alternatives and lots of time to sift through everything, think it through and arrive at my own conclusions. I’m sure there are others like me out there, who also have questions and doubts, and who could be persuaded, if they were afforded the same courtesy. I shudder to think of the horror of being ridiculed and reviled by BOTH camps when I was in that “in between” process, given the amount of s&#* I was taking at the hands of the Christians.

    See, that’s what critical thinking and free will are all about — there’s no guarantee that people will arrive at the same conclusion you do. And THAT’S OKAY. Considering how quick those in the scientific blogosphere are to jump all over anyone who even HINTS at being sympathetic to religion or personal belief in God, the mindset is closer to that of my fundamentalist upbringing than the honest, open process of discovery that science should stand for.

    I understand the anger many atheists feel at the way they are viewed and treated by so-called “Christians” — who, even if they really do spend lots of time reading the Bible, clearly have very poor reading comprehension, given how regularly they flout Christ’s own teachings. For years, I had a great deal of anger towards organized religion of any sort, precisely because of how badly I was treated when I began asking difficult questions about the Christian faith. Part of growing up and moving on is learning to let go of the anger, and be the bigger/better person. Dawkins/Hitchens and Co. might be getting a lot of attention for making a lot of noise, but it’s a reactionary, rather juvenile approach — necessary, perhaps, in order to instigate change, but I fervently hope we can all outgrow the rebellious adolescence phase and move on sooner rather than later, and have more useful, proactive debates on the topic.

  15. #15 Ian
    August 19, 2007

    What anger? Atheists are already ignored and/or marginalized and/or ridiculed and/or threatened and have been so since long before Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al were born. How is the fact of people like these writing books emphasizing their point of view going to make things any worse?

    How does pointing out that reality is rather different from what the theists pretend it is constitute anger? Those who so label atheism are not pointing out any such thing. What they’re doing is pointing out their bigotry, the limitations of their grasp on reality, and their risible inability to deal with it.

  16. #16 Russell Blackford
    August 19, 2007

    Of course, some people are won over when they see well-expressed arguments against their views. I was won over from theistic belief back in the day largely by reading Bertrand Russell, J.L. Mackie, Paul Edwards, etc. Some of Russell’s work is pretty scathing about religion. You need to get the detailed argument out there, but sometimes you also need to let your scorn show when you’re confronted by popular absurdities. Totally dry argument will never be enough to get people to see how it looks from other perspectives where a lot of the underlying premises are different.

    That said, the scorn and stridency of The God Delusion, which I read for the second time about ten days ago, are greatly exaggerated in any event: most of the book consists of page after page after page of cool, clear prose in which Dawkins discusses the pros and cons of positions very carefully and fairly. It is far less angry and rhetorical than almost anything that I’ve read by intellectuals discussing any other phenomenon that they wish to denounce (go and compare it to the work of Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon, for example … or to that of almost anyone who has strong views on any topic of social importance).

    When I see Dawkins, in particular, criticised for writing a book as civil and non-strident as the one he actually wrote, I almost despair.

    Will it win everyone over when you write about religion like Dawkins does? Of course not. It will probably work only on the small percentage of believers who are already wavering because they are attracted by some of the same premises as you. But if it adds even a small extra layer of people who are willing to take your side that is a valuable outcome.

    At the same time, the New Atheist books do have the effect of getting the so-called “choir” of unbelievers to see a rallying point. You’ll be seeing more and more people prepared to argue articulately for secularism as a result of what Dawkins, etc., have done. Already, I see around me that secular intellectuals who never believed in God are more prepared to crticise religion openly and to talk about their unbelief.

    Talking about further Balkanisation of society is just ridiculous. I feel as if I’m bashing my head against a brick wall when I see such nonsense. If “more Balkanisation” means that a formerly silenced group will now be seen as a significant part of the intellectual and political landscape, that is surely a good thing. Of course, you can have less Balkanisation if some of the groups can be shut up. Wow, let’s shut up every group except one … that will give us a nice harmonious, undivided society. Right.

  17. #17 Ian B Gibson
    August 19, 2007

    Where’s all this research of which you speak? Give me the details.

    Also, are you suggesting that religious moderates will turn to fundamentalism if atheists continue to insist that everything is up for debate? Or they’ll institute a theocratic government? Or what? How will it ‘backfire’?

  18. #18 Ed S.
    August 19, 2007

    Once again, this blog simply declares non-believers to be the divisive element, conveniently eliminating any reference to centuries of religious division, sub-division, and sub-sub-division. I happen to think the precise opposite- non-believers do not carry the odor of any religion, nor are we burdened by the self-aggrandizing pronouncements of any cult. In this regard, we are a force for unity rather than division.

    By the way, “New Atheist” sounds like dismissive media code words.

  19. #19 Stagyar zil Doggo
    August 19, 2007

    Don’t look now, but your Frame is blocking your view.

    The ‘frame’ that you seem to be carrying around and showing everyone is one in which an “angry atheist” is (as you characterize it) ridiculing and making fun of religious people. But perhaps because its so large and heavy, and because you’re so close to it, it prevents you from noticing the other actor in the scene – the virulently ignorant and maliciously dishonest seller of Fundamentalist Religion and Woo who’s actively working to reinforce credulity and dogma.

    People try to point him out to you, but perhaps cognitive dissonance can explain your continued inability to notice.

    In the meantime, you continue trying to sell us “Optimal Methods to convince believers to accept the benifits brought forth by Reason (but not Reason itself) while alone on a desert island with them”. But we’re not on a desert Island, and there’s a loud cacaphony of voices other than ours all around. Voices carrying bigger frames, which block more of the picture than yours and carry scary shadow puppetry to boot.

    As soon as social science produces anything on ways to convince people that ‘Reason’ is the sole legitimate epistemology, while an “Other Side” is simultaneously working to reinforce their ‘Belief’, “Angry Atheists” will be the first to listen. In the meantime, we hope that ‘framers’ like you put their frames down, step back a little and try to see around them.

    Also, what Anonymous said above.

  20. #20 Anonymous
    August 19, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet completely misses the point. The emperor has no clothes, no clothes, no clothes since 1859! This fails to impress Nisbet, who is apparently fearing the imminent collapse of society or the wrath of God. If only the atheists would shut up the sea of sword waving fanatics might be calmed and disaster averted. Uh, really? Isn’t it possible that a sane viewpoint might eventually prevail?

  21. #21 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 19, 2007

    This is really getting to be old ground and ignores some basic observations. The people that don’t like evolution because they perceive it to be anti-God are not going to change, whatever Dawkins writes about religion. On that we are agreed. But then, Matthew it occurs to me that in subtext you are saying that discussion of atheism is something that should be reserved for the elite, for private discussions between the professors. It is not something to be discussed in polite company. And now you are also saying that scientists should be hush-hush towards specious woo, so that you can more favorably frame issues such as global warming and stem cell technology for the huddled masses?

    Did you ever talk to Chris about this and tell him that the title of his book The Rebublican War on Science will offend moderate Republicans and turn them against science?

    You are making this some sort of crusade; that scientists should only express opinions on science and not on areas that tread on the feet of those whom you think are too tender to be able face contrary opinions. The moderates you seek to protect from hints of atheism in scientists are not children, nor are they your mother (sorry, Randy.) They can be expected to handle a little exposure to atheism without suffering too much from dissonance.

    Sure, here are atheists who are jerks, but the “deadly triumvirate” of Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are not among them. They are making their cases for their various stances on religion. Other people are re-interpreting them to mean something far different than their main points.

    The books sell. There is a renewed taste for what they write. And Ed S., you are exactly right. It is a frame, and meant to be interpreted as Jennifer Ouellette has done. What the books say is little different than what Maimonides, Ecclasiastes and even Al_Razi wrote. And even in the 11th century philosophers interested in science were dissing astrology. Your proposal is ridiculous.

  22. #22 HMiller
    August 19, 2007

    Being both a scientist and a religious individual, I really do not understand why so much is being discussed about religious people vs. atheists!!! Look, the last time I checked we live in a country where the constitution protects us in two ways; we are free to believe as we choose and we can state that belief without threat of government intervention (remember the 1st amendment is about preventing government from interfering with our personal beliefs…not about how we interact among ourselves–that is left to our sense of reason and society…)
    I understand the issue of evolution vs. creationism… but it is like a colleague of mine once said when asked in a church meeting: ‘do you believe in evolution’? He said, NO because evolution is not an issue of faith it is an issue of accepting evidence. I think that as scientist; we should spend our efforts at explaining the evidence NOT at attacking the personal beliefs…I have no data but I’m sure that when the evidence is explained (in conceptual terms.. not in terms of all of this verbiage we scientist are so guilty of creating!)- People will listen and consider what they are told and shown. I think that the real problem is not religion but is the poor way at which science is described in our textbooks, etc. The battle we should be fighting is, not trying to tear down belief but trying to educate properly on how to look at and study the evidence. Who knows, if we were to attack this problem with the same vigor, as we seem to be attacking religious beliefs, maybe we could put this whole thing behind us as a country!

  23. #23 David Ratnasabapathy
    August 19, 2007

    In the interview, Tavris said:

    When they [atheists] go around saying “Oh look how foolish it is to believe such and such a thing.” What they are doing is putting people into a state of dissonance. “I am a smart capable, wise, kind person and you are telling me I believe something that is stupid and wrong, to the hell with you!”

    Perhaps that is the immediate reaction to having ones ideas belittled. But after that initial reaction what do people do? Do they examine their beliefs to check if they are in fact stupid?

    IMO, Tavris is implying that people don’t re-examine their beliefs. Isn’t he implying, then, that most people are stupid?

    It seems to me that Dawkins’ view — that people are willing to be educated — is the more respectful one.

  24. #24 Colugo
    August 19, 2007

    This new essay by virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier seems relevant to the topic at hand:
    http://discovermagazine.com/2007/sep/jarons-world-peace-through-god

    “Scientific experimentation neednít be a source of constraints that reduce God over time. There are well-established streams of religious thought that treat science as elevating God so as to be concerned only with things too big to be framed by science. But why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?

    Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions donít exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what Iíll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.

    Itís mean-spirited to fight against that kind of hope. It also reinforces fears that scientists are claiming to be an immaculate, elite population. After all, scientists are also afraid to die, and we havenít necessarily achieved some hypothetical level of perfect rationality inside our own heads. Instead of telling other people what not to hope, a more constructive approach is to learn how to be more articulate about the limits of experimentation.”

  25. #25 bigTom
    August 20, 2007

    Nearly all of the comments show important perspectives of this difficult social change so many of us want. Yes, we want to create a society in which the atheists are respected, not denigrated. Yes only patient non-derisive methods have much chance of getting through to those whose beleifs are at odds with our own. Yes true conversion, if it happens at all will take generations.

    In trying to answer political type questions on blogs, I try to start by stating something positive about my opponent. I realize that he/she is likely to have a pretty sensitive dissonance immune system, and the moment that gets switched on, the teachable moment is over. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, it truly is exasperating to have the some discredited arguments throw back again, and again. But it is likely to be the only way to succeed. Few people have the emotional character of a scientist, most won’t respond to being forcefully shown that they are fools.

  26. #26 steve
    August 20, 2007

    Hitchens’s thesis is that religion is a terrible and destructive enterprise. If there’s some badass framing technique which would make that message palatable to religious people, by all means lets hear it.

  27. #27 Soren
    August 20, 2007

    I find it very interesting how Nisbet have chosen to frame this debate.

    He is going in guns blazing with a “take no prisoners” approach, and exhibits a unilateral condemnation of anyone who dares to rock the boat.

    As a professional he must surely be aware that by his choice of frame he is alienating the very audience he is, supposedly, trying to reach.

    By using terms as “the atheist noise machine”, by condemning Dawkins, Hitchins etc, without any constructive critisism, and without even the appearance of listening to his chosen opponents he must be aware that his frame has no chance in hell of convincing anyone. He is preaching for the quoir.

    By choosing this frame it seems he wants to scare of those that are more aligned with his frame from voicing any arguments that might be construed as criticism of belief, and to try to work against any compromises.

    I am just curious what his ultimate goal is with this choice of frame? Why does he insist on dividing people with so many common goals? I thought the important point was to strengthen the scientific facts, but with his slash an burn tactic Nisbet is trying to cut away a large part of the very movement for better science education.

    For anyone who disagrees, please, the proof is in the pudding. Nisbets demonisation of dissenters from his frame is actively contributing to poisoning the perception of non-believers.

  28. #28 MartinC
    August 20, 2007

    While its clear that Matthew is giving us a lesson on ‘framing’ here, its unclear, just yet, what is the objective.
    Look at the way it is presented; its apparently all a “Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign”. Not a Dennett-Harris campaign?
    Surely real Americans wouldn’t be so uppity, its those nasty colonial types behind it all.
    How about Matthew’s allies, Chris “Republican War on Science” Mooney (way to go Chris – on pissing off half the electorate in one go, using just a book title!) and Randy Olson (who I’m sure has a lovely Mother, just lets not confuse that with the matter of determining the science to be taught at public high schools – we wouldn’t want UFO-ology taught either), who didn’t exactly portray the creationist side in favorable terms in his Dodo movie. Notice how they are not expected to avoid portraying the other side in a bad light ?
    What is your real point Matthew, its not just a cheap way of upping your blog hits is it ?

  29. #29 Tilsim
    August 20, 2007

    I have been looking for months to locate the secret bunker of this Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign. I’d love to order some t-shirts and mugs!

  30. #30 csrster
    August 20, 2007

    Maybe “Atheist PR Noise Machine” would be a good name for a band?

  31. #31 roboboy
    August 20, 2007

    My beef was his anecdotal evidence about “war strengthening faith”.

    I want to see evidence to support this anecdote.
    LETS SEE IT.

    From the people I have heard from, responding to the “no atheists in foxholes” bullsh1t, being in the midst of war usually “turns religions volume WAY down.”

    A woman who lived through WWII bombing told us that in those situations, everything not vitally important falls away, religion being one of the first to go.

    That makes more sense to me. Because prayer isn’t going to feed your belly, its not going to stop the bleeding, and its not going to bring back the dead.

    That a big false premise he asumes.

  32. #32 Matt Penfold
    August 20, 2007

    It has to be said that atheists keeping quiet has not been a successful strategy so far. I cannot see any reason why it should be successful in the future.

    The moderate theists in the US have done nothing to stop the rise of their more fundamentalist co-religionists. If they want the likes of Dawkins to shut up they need to show they can do what they say they want to do. So far they have not and only have themselves to blame when Dawkins et al get fed up with waiting for them to do something.

  33. #33 Matt Penfold
    August 20, 2007

    One other point.

    How can their be a compromise on, for example, the teaching of evolution ? Do we take the average ages of the earth claimed by each side ?

    The simple fact is that on some issues their can be no compromise. The earth is billions of years old, not thousands.

  34. #34 MartinC
    August 20, 2007

    Matt, I suppose if mentioning the age of the earth or certain other aspects of science (such as genomic DNA sequences or fossils) portrays creationists as liars or delusional then it may be best to stay clear of those subjects completely.
    Just teach biology without that contentious evolution section.
    Is that really too much to ask ?

  35. #35 MPW
    August 20, 2007

    All this whining about how “vicious” and “angry” atheists are indicates to me that theists need to hear even more of this stuff, if just to grow a collective spine and a slightly thicker skin. Sheesh.

  36. #36 David Ratnasabapathy
    August 20, 2007

    Um, MartinC, teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching the New Testament without Jesus.

  37. #37 gerald spezio
    August 20, 2007

    Just imagine how difficult it would be to even suggest to a so-called “cognitive scientist” such as Nisbet or George Lakoff that language is NOT the most important variable in conditioning behavior.

  38. #38 Felicia Gilljam
    August 20, 2007

    Dvavid Ratnasabapathy; I think that was MartinC’s point. You know … irony? :P

  39. #39 David Ratnasabapathy
    August 20, 2007

    Ah, my apologies. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell :-)

  40. #40 jeffk
    August 20, 2007

    Being both a scientist and a religious individual, I really do not understand why so much is being discussed about religious people vs. atheists!!! Look, the last time I checked we live in a country where the constitution protects us in two ways; we are free to believe as we choose and we can state that belief without threat of government intervention

    This is an exhausting point and I think I’m going to promise myself this is the last time I ever argue against it. Peoples’ beliefs don’t just come from some place deep inside. They come from the people around them. We should be a social people, that try to influence each other for the good of everyone, or even just because it’s interesting. Why is there always some whiner who is asking for a world where people only talk about the weather?

    Not to mention the fact that from the atheist perspective, religion has serious direct and indirect consequences for our lives. We might consider being quieter when that ceases to be the case.

  41. #41 James Hrynyshyn
    August 20, 2007

    This attempt to explain “Why the New Atheist Noise Machine Fails” begs the question by assuming that the machine has failed. Isn’t it a bit soon to be declaring a victor?

    Harris’ book came out a couple of years ago. Dennett’s and Dawkins’ last year and Hitchens just a couple of months ago. Considering the only evidence we have so far is big sales for all four of them, I’d have to say it’s too soon to conclude the campaign is kaput. If anything, the attention that the four horsemen have drawn to atheism suggests quite the opposite.

    This thing will take time. And I have to agree that calling Dawkins angry is just plain silly. As others have commented, his book is for the most part polite and calm. The fact that believers react so viscerally to his arguments says more about the believers than the author.

  42. #42 Matt Penfold
    August 20, 2007

    James has a point about Dawkins and civility.

    On scienceblogs I have seen both Rob Knopp and Ed Brayton have fits about PZ Myers and how he damages the “cause”. Neither is civil in their discourse. I have yet to see Matt Nisbett tell them they need to calm down. And Matt, what about Brayton and his pro-gay stance ? Surely that must upset the religious ? How come it is OK for a deist to call theists who discriminate against gays bigots but not for the like of Dawkins ?

  43. #43 Booker
    August 20, 2007

    I think that Dawkins’ assault on religion is done, for the most part, with wit and humour, not anger. Calling Richard Dawkins a “noise machine” says rather a lot about the person making that assertion. Saying that what Dawkins is doing is merely a “PR campaign” is an attempt to re-frame what is a serious philosophical and scientific argument into something crass, commercial, and self-serving — something that can, therefore, be dismissed out-of-hand. I don’t think this will have any effect of Dawkins’ message, and calling him “sophomoric” or “fundamentalist” (as one poster above does) is simply a case of cognitive dissonance in action. See Blake’s Law.

  44. #44 PZ Myers
    August 20, 2007

    I understand that that horrible polarizing Taslima Nasrin’s strategy also boomeranged on her in a disastrous way. When we look at that incident, we should appropriately assign the blame entirely to her actions.

  45. #45 Pierce R. Butler
    August 20, 2007

    If Nisbet considers the recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, et al to be “noise”, would he be so kind as to offer a constructive example of what sort of critiques might constitute “signal”?

  46. #46 Pierce R. Butler
    August 20, 2007

    Tilsim: … some t-shirts and mugs!

    Rumor has it that Christopher Hitchens is hardly willing to wash his t-shirts, never mind sell them – and you’ll get his mug when you pry it from his cold dead fingers.

    On the other torso, Richard Dawkins does vend some Appropriate apparel. No beverage containers yet, though as a civilized Englishman, he may invite you for a cup of tea – if you can arrange a proper introduction.

  47. #47 Oran Kelley
    August 20, 2007

    The Enlightenment did not occur by converting the pope first so that all his followers would follow, but by successive generations deciding that an almost fanatical devotion to the pope wasn’t such a great thing after all, and maybe the alternatives were worth exploring. The former “strategy” is a strawman and pointing out that it won’t work is useless.

    But how did the Enlightenment occur? Did most pre-enlightenment people have a fanatical devotion to the pope? I think your pre- and Enlightenment-era Europe are also nothing but strawmen.

    As far as there needing to be a compromise on teaching evolution, let’s take the big example of a “Chamberlain atheist”: Stephen Jay Gould. What was his attitude toward teaching evolution?

    We can choose our compromises. I haven’t heard of anyone who says “Let us compromise on everything.”

    When you argue against the spirit of compromise, argue against Gould, not some imagined ubercompromiser.

  48. #48 Oran Kelley
    August 20, 2007

    I understand that that horrible polarizing Taslima Nasrin’s strategy also boomeranged on her in a disastrous way. When we look at that incident, we should appropriately assign the blame entirely to her actions.

    And we all know that the best solution to this problem would be heaping comtempt on Islam. Taslima Nasrin obviously fails to see that insult and a logical demonstration or two will help these people see the light. She should really take PZ on as her press agent. That’d show them!

  49. #49 Leni
    August 20, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler wrote:

    If Nisbet considers the recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, et al to be “noise”, would he be so kind as to offer a constructive example of what sort of critiques might constitute “signal”?

    That was just a perfect way to ask that question.

    I’d be interested in seeing the answer, too. I’m tempted to say that the very fact they are registering on the Nesbit detector at all should be a pretty good indicator of the fact that they aren’t just noise.

  50. #50 Matt Penfold
    August 20, 2007

    Oran.

    You make the assumption that this is just about evolution. It is not.

    The Catholic church is pretty clear in its position on the teaching of evolution: Evolution is science and should be taught, creationism/ID is not and does not belong in a science classroom. So far I go along with them. Catholic scientists are often held up as examples of how science and religion can co-exist and how moderate theists are on the side of the “goodies”. Now let us look at the Catholic church’s position on gay rights. The position of the Catholic Church is equally clear, they oppose them. They condemn and attempt to obstruct attempts to allow gays the right to marry or adopt children, and they do so because they claim their god does not approve. There is a name for people who hold such views, and that word is bigot. Their position is hardly a moderate one, and remember, the Catholic church accounts for half of all people who identify themselves as Christian so they are not a minority.

    Well sorry Oran, I will not compromise on the teaching of evolution, nor will I compromise on allowing gays human and civil rights. Nor will I compromise by stopping pointing out that having religious leaders use religious texts to justify treating others in ways they would not want to be treated is neither just nor conducive to a stable society.

    Now if only other religious people, the ones who really are supposed to moderate were doing something about all this. But they are not, or if they are they are failing. So my message to the “moderate” religious and their “appeasers” is this. Sort out the problem yourself, and if you cannot, stop complaining when others decide they will do so.

  51. #51 tbell1
    August 20, 2007

    It seems there are several audiences for proponents of reason. There are also several different ‘effects’ of any given message. A shortish list, that could be reorganized:
    1-younger generations
    2-fence sitters
    3-potential (closeted atheists)
    4-religious moderates
    5-religious dogmatists
    6-religious zealots who would actively persecute non-believers if they gain power

    The effectiveness of any single pronged strategy, be it aggressive in your face (ridiculing or just insulting),or simple brutally honest statements of atheism, or diplomatic atheism, or conciliatory atheism–is going to heavily depend on the messages effect on particular populations and their relative proportions.

    I personally think that a multipronged approach is probably best. And that attempts to shut down more aggressive atheist ‘messages’ miss the point that there are legitimate target audiences for that…and also that conciliatory messages also have legitimate audiences.

    Also, differing goals of self-assurance, vs. persuasion, vs. acceptance, vs. tolerance also seem to require different messages tailored for different audiences.
    A single approach doesn’t seem likely to do it.

    Atheists sometimes face the challenge of balancing honesty and truthfulness against ‘diplomacy’. One hopes that one can be both diplomatic and honest. Sugar-coating becomes a bit hard to take after a while.

  52. #52 Alexis
    August 20, 2007

    Hahahah. Holy crap, taken as a whole, the comments on this post actually reinforce the argument the authors of this book have put forward!

    If you disagreed with this post before reading it, chances are you just made an impassioned argument about why it was a stupid post/study/book/what-have-you. If you agreed with it, you just told us why it was the most brilliant thing you ever read.

    Fascinating.

  53. #53 dzd
    August 20, 2007

    Yes, we are all puppets dancing on your strings. Dance, my fellow puppets, dance!

  54. #54 Joe Ward
    August 20, 2007

    Have any of you group selectionists even read Dawkins (or George Williams)? You all seem to assume that the “good of society” is a desirable outcome to promote. We will be dead in a few years or decades, our species extinct in a few decades to millenia. What difference will it make to our individual fitness, what nonsense people believe now? What difference does it make now? Why not just let people wallow in their ignorance? If their superstitious supernaturalism causes them to make stupid decisions, that merely places them at a selective disadvantage to the more rational. If anything, progressive thinkers should be encouraging fantastical beliefs. The children of those acting upon such beliefs will be less fit than our own. The only criteria of “success” in this (or any) endeavor is how many grandchildren you leave when you die, relative to your ideological competitors. Looks like in terms of what really counts, atheists/agnostics/progressives are losing out to the religiously fecund, in this world in decline.

  55. #55 Adrienne
    August 20, 2007

    Someone asked, “What difference will it make to our individual fitness, what nonsense people believe now? What difference does it make now?”

    Well, you know, the Religious Right has managed to accomplish a fair amount of what I would consider bad stuff that affects me right now as a citizen of the US. And this was done during the course of my own lifetime. Not all of this mischief waits until the next generation, you know. The more political clout they have, the more they will use it, and the faster they will use it.

  56. #56 Felicia Gilljam
    August 20, 2007

    Joe Ward, your argument kinda collapses if you actually look at how many children people have. Religious people are a lot more likely to “accept the children god gives them” than the rest of us. And given that people tend to inherit religion from their parents… well let’s just say there’s good reason to forbid all kinds of faith schools.

  57. #57 J. J. Ramsey
    August 20, 2007

    “If Nisbet considers the recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, et al to be ‘noise’, would he be so kind as to offer a constructive example of what sort of critiques might constitute ‘signal’?”

    Leni’s right that this is a very good question. Perhaps it is somewhat easier to identify what is not “signal”:

    * Shoddy arguments

    * Misinformation

    * Playing games with rhetoric to get across a message that would be seen as obviously wrong if said outright

    As for good examples of actual critiques, I’d say that William K. Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” would be a good start, especially the opening paragraphs. A more obscure example would be Chris Hallquist’s half of the debate on the resurrection in ChristianForums. (He was arguing against it.)

  58. #58 Arnosium Upinarum
    August 20, 2007

    DOCTOR Nisbett: What on earth are you talking about?

    Allow me to hazard an answer for you: You are talking about the dissonances that naturally accrue from a devisive and emotionally-charged debate. You recognize a need for fairness and tolerance on the part of contesting parties engaged in any such debate.

    You identify an imbalance and rush to the defense of the side which cannot support its stance on the basis of empirical reasoning, which automatically elevates irrational superstition to an equal footing with rationality, and just as automatically excoriates the opposition who DO, as a matter of moral and ethical integrity, employ it as a routine matter in any intellectual discourse that is clearly framed by science, not only because it works, but because it is also entirely honorable to honestly convey one’s opinions succinctly and without equivocation.

    There is no failure on the part of the champions of rationality because they challenge religious adherents and openly question why such a powerfully entrenched political phenomenon – which religion in fact is – should continue to wield such enormous influence on human cultures faced with real problems that will only be solved through rational means.

    If there is any failure, it is in your inability to recognize the simple distinction between the frame that contains the INTERACTIONAL DYNAMICS of the debate and the frame that contains the SUBSTANTIVE CONTENTS of that debate. The world needs people to recognize and engage themselves to the actualities and the substance of the debate, not people who ineffectually seek parity where none belongs.

    The world is going to change whether we like it or not. We all desire a better world. (Well, except perhaps for those who irrationally, if not psychotically, look forward to an apocalyptic end-time). It has been changing for billions of years, and its high time we all stood up and openly admitted it, before we lose what little control we now have over our future to the dark irrational forces of mysticism and superstition.

    You know, it IS possible to denounce the falsehood while respecting its victims. The trouble is, too many people identify their personal selves with a conviction based entirely on the criterion of popularity. They will react emotionally to any challenge because they have so personalized their chosen faith.

    But as Russell Blackford, I think, best says in his eloquent post above, there really isn’t any basis to the charge that Dawkins is as stridently offensive as so many recklessly claim. I have not seen any such indication in reading his work either. Yet I will wager that most who repeat the claim have NOT read any of his books. They repeat it simply because it is popular to do so, and so therefore it must be, they believe, true. (True to form, for the criterion for judging the authenticity of a claim or belief for the religious – sociologically and psychologically-speaking – is contained within the combination of popularity and proximity, and very, very little else).

    But to employ the habit of credulity as a device to mischaracterize the actual position of an intellectual opponent is yet another indication of the political essence of religion. That is not science, sir, nor is it remotely ethical to remain silent on the charge, let alone underhandedly capitalizing on it to redress some alleged “imbalance”.

    Shame.

  59. #59 matthew
    August 20, 2007

    Very well put Arnosium Upinarum, if Dr. Nisbet were to only read one comment on here, I think yours is the best choice. It would be even better if responded to all of your points.

  60. #60 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    August 20, 2007

    Uh oh, another concern troll. Only this one is the blogger himself.

    How exactly does keeping quiet or making soothing sounds at the religious, benefit atheists? Will they take it upon themselves to accord us a place at their table?

    What are the action items to take away from this meeting? Loud atheists must stifle themselves? Loud atheists must lie about their beliefs? Uppity atheists must admit the error of their ways, and through a process of self criticism, expiate their rebellion against their God?

    Fortunately, it is not cognitive dissonance that forces me to reject the premise of this post. That would be ironic. Rather it is the lack of evidence for the assertions.

  61. #61 Pierce R. Butler
    August 20, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: Throwing out a bunch of vague accusations (which could apply to Nisbet at least as easily as to those he criticizes), without backing or specifics, is noise.

    Not having access to Clifford?s work, I followed your link and have to agree that Hallquist handled his half of the debate on the “resurrection” fairly well, even though he conceded some points he could?ve held. His case also benefitted from having an opponent willing to argue on the basis of logic and fact (though neither was on his side), and to forego personal attacks, non sequiturs, etc. Dawkins?s critics fail to reach that standard (though I?d say both Dennett & Hitchens also stoop to ad hominems as well).

    Other than Dawkins having more polish (which is to be expected from a professor writing a book at leisure, as compared to a layperson in an online debate), I fail to see a crucial difference between his approach and Hallquist?s – please enlighten me on this.

  62. #62 Adrienne
    August 21, 2007

    I have to say, I have always tended more towards the “live and let live”/argue politely for rationalism side of the debate rather than favoring the approach of openly, pugnaciously, and (to my view) pointlessly attacking religion at every turn.

    But I have to say that Nisbet’s arguments that assertive, “impolite” atheism will only scare believers away ring hollow when you consider that our enemies, chiefly the Religious Right, have enjoyed a resurgence in the US due to aggressive proselytizing.

    And the RR has not only been aggressive, but played downright dirty. The would-be-theocrats do not play nicely or politely, and do not try to advance their views by means of well-reasoned, rational arguments (how could they?). No, they lie, they equivocate, and they appeal directly to people’s fear, anger, and loathing.

    And contrary to scaring people away, this strategy has worked quite well for the Religious Right in the United States, at least–not that I’m proposing that non-theists adopt exactly the same tactics, mind you. But maybe the time for non-theists’ being “nice”, respectful of religion in general, and relatively quiet is over.

  63. #63 MartinC
    August 21, 2007

    Is there really an agreed objective amongst non-believers to wean the entire populace over to atheistic rationalism ?
    I really don’t think so. Deists or even moderate theists pose no great problem to most of us who, like the religious moderates themselves, are a fairly tolerant bunch, prepared to let people live as they want to live. The religious moderates tend to support scientific and rationality in terms of governmental policy just as non-believers do. The strange thing is that the moderates themselves are often seen as heretical tools of Satan by the evangelical or fundamentalists. Why should we worry about the tone of Dawkins or Hitchens when a boring Jesuit or Unitarian sermon would be enough to cause the evangelical shutters to come down?
    While a lot of us would like a world where rationality is universal we do realize that this is not a likely scenario for the forseeable future. In this case we seek an intermediate solution, a world where rationality is not seen as an societal evil, and it is in this context that vocal defenders of rational thought, such as Dawkins, have an important place. The alternative, as Debbie Schlusser on CNN so clearly pointed out, is for rationalists to “just shut up”.
    So then, how do we get evangelicals to accept rationality, either for themselves or (as Francis Collins does) within secular society in general ?

  64. #64 J. J. Ramsey
    August 21, 2007

    “J. J. Ramsey: Throwing out a bunch of vague accusations (which could apply to Nisbet at least as easily as to those he criticizes), without backing or specifics, is noise.”

    So here are some specifics:

    * Shoddy arguments: Dawkins’ non-argument argument against the Trinity.

    * Misinformation: Dawkins credulously (!) regurgitates doctored quotes of the Jefferson and Adams, on pages 31 and 43, respectively. The ScienceBlog “Stranger Fruit” has more details, see the post “Thomas Jefferson and Richard Dawkins” and its comments, especially the comments by Ed Brayton.

    * Playing games with rhetoric to get across a message that would be seen as obviously wrong if said outright: One word: “faith-head.” It’s a neat shorthand for implying that someone fits the stereotype of the religious as rubes, without stating it outright. PZ Myers’s post “I’m surrounded” is also an example of communicating the idea that “theists are stupid” without actually saying it.

    “Not having access to CliffordÔŅĹs work …”

    A copy of it is on Infidels.org. It’s public domain.

    “I fail to see a crucial difference between [Dawkins'] approach and Hallquist’s – please enlighten me on this.”

    Hallquist is usually a lot more careful with his facts and logic than Dawkins. Dawkins’ covers for his less-than-stellar rigor by being very good at rhetoric.

  65. #65 Matt Penfold
    August 21, 2007

    JJ Ramsey,

    Ed Brayton is, by his own admission, ignorant of Dawkins’ views on religion. He will not read “The God Delusion” and therefore should refrain on commenting on it. That he thinks he knows what Dawkins’ has said in the book shows how intellectually dishonest Brayton is.

  66. #66 Derek James
    August 21, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler wrote:

    If Nisbet considers the recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, et al to be “noise”, would he be so kind as to offer a constructive example of what sort of critiques might constitute “signal”?

    Great question. There’s a hint of the answer at the end of Nisbet’s post:

    …but if you say, that is if you make the evolutionary argument, not one in which you have to choose between believing in evolution and believing in God, but you say instead this is an issue that divides religious people, some religious people believe in evolution and some reject it, what are the reasons for accepting or rejecting it within a religious framework. See, then you aren’t making religious people feel like they have to reject science.

    See, you’re supposed to make the argument in a way that doesn’t threaten their religious beliefs or make them actually make a choice.

    Problem is, instead of the “evolution question”, what about the “god question”? It would be kind of difficult to simultaneously tell people that their religious beliefs are rationally unfounded while still letting them feel good and not make any choices.

    Seen in this light, yes, Nisbet’s claims and criticisms are just flat wrong. There’s no polite, comfortable way to say the emperor has no clothes. You just gotta yell it out so everybody can hear you. Dawkins and friends are doing that, and they’re doing it very well.

    Personally I’d like to see a more constructivist approach among the new wave of atheists, establishing a framework for meaning and morals based on secular ideals (and no, “go read some philosophy” doesn’t cut it). Harris touched on this in The End of Faith, and Dawkins touches on it to. But I’d like to see a new positive manifesto put forth. In the meantime, the New Atheists are doing a good job with the tearing down, and their efforts should be applauded, not denigrated.

  67. #67 MartinC
    August 21, 2007

    Derek, even the evolution question is fraught with difficulties for some (not all!) religious people. The only way evolution can fit in a religious framework is if you are prepared to accept a metaphorical view of religious texts. Asking a fundamentalist to do this is akin to asking them to change their religion. It is entirely disingenuous to assume there is a simple option here that will be acceptable to all religions. There isn’t.

  68. #68 J. J. Ramsey
    August 21, 2007

    Matt Penfold: “Ed Brayton is, by his own admission, ignorant of Dawkins’ views on religion”

    Ed Brayton provided a direct quote from the God Delusion, which, as I said before, is on page 43.

  69. #69 Pierce R. Butler
    August 21, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: Thanks for filling in specific examples. I read a borrowed copy of God Delusion a few months back, and don’t have it on hand for reference, so will have to rely on excerpts in the quotations provided in your links.

    That said, I can’t agree with your assertion that Dawkin’s critique of the trinity concept is a non-argument: no one needs a battering ram to penetrate a cloud of mist. E.g., you paraphrase Gregory the Miraclemonger -

    No part of the Trinity was created by any of the others, e.g. the Son was not created by the Father.

    - without bothering to note that, at the least, this “explanation” torpedoes any meaningful definition of the last two nouns it uses. As usual with attempts to make sense of the intrinsically nonsensical, there ain’t no there there.

    Lynch’s post does indeed find that Dawkins seems to have slightly misquoted Jefferson. It may be sloppy to have written “The Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” when the original was “…the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”, but I don’t think the meaning has been significantly distorted.

    The commenter “ThomasJ” nails Brayton’s attempt to claim Adams’s “actual position” as being pro-religion when the full context (as quoted by Brayton) of the famous “world with no religion in it” rant does indicate that Adams “… was very conflicted about the effects of religion …” If one were to judge only from this thread, it’s Brayton whose credibility comes off the worst.

    One word: “faith-head.” It’s a neat shorthand for implying that someone fits the stereotype of the religious as rubes, without stating it outright.

    Au contraire, the suffix “-head” connotes drug use, not rusticity. “Opiate” cracks aside, such allusions are fully appropriate when describing any systemic and sought-for scrambling of cognitive processes. There is no evidence that the western monotheistic version of “faith” improves anyone’s grasp of reality: can you find a pithier way of expressing this?

    I’ll have to get back to you later on Clifford’s work.

    Hallquist’s rigor was, apparently, sufficient for his purposes (that “formal debate” seems to have ended arbitrarily and inconclusively). I’ve seen better refutations of the resurrection myth, but that of course doesn’t invalidate the arguments Hallquist did make. Similarly, Dawkins did not deploy the maximal, squash-every-conceivable-apologia verbal barrage that most of us village atheists can launch at the drop of a wimple, but such detailed exegeses don’t belong in introductory texts for the general public.

  70. #70 Mantisdolphin
    August 21, 2007

    Whatever the status of its truth claims, if religion is so maladaptive, then how on earth did humans evolve it and it develop as a survival mechanism for so long?

    Anthropologists typically cite burial rites–which are often taken as connoting any number of speculative, “religious” or spiritual beliefs–as evidence of emerging “humanness” or of some distinctly human identity among human ancestors. Does one simply respond that atheism and science are post-human?

    One could argue that science is maladaptive–the high technologies that science makes available (nuclear bombs, bioweapons, and so on) to primitive beings such as ourselves only allows for the end of our species to come about sooner rather than later.

  71. #71 Pierce R. Butler
    August 21, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: All right, now I’ve gotten around to the opening ‘grafs of Clifford’s epochal essay. It is indeed a fine example of good argumentation, but comparing this to God Delusion is like comparing Charles Dickens to John LeCarre’ – generally pointless, unless you’re undertaking a fine examination of prose in Victorian and contemporary writing.

    Clifford makes his points by means of parables, a usage almost extinct in our times. There are surely several reasons for this prosodic evolution, but it seems obvious that such a strategy would contradict Dawkin’s foremost goal. When one argues for the importance of guiding thought by reality, reliance on ad-hoc constructed fictions would be laughably self-contradictory.

    Dawkins might have done well to have added Clifford’s larger points to his case, but to have used this rhetorical tactic would have been an even bigger blunder than his inept Neville Chamberlain analogy.

  72. #72 J. J. Ramsey
    August 21, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler: “- without bothering to note that, at the least, this ‘explanation’ torpedoes any meaningful definition of the last two nouns it uses.”

    There’s no need to put “explanation” in quotes. The quote from St. Gregory hammers home the point that all the bits of the Trinity have always been around by rephrasing the point several different ways. Yes, it means that “Father” and “Son” end up becoming proper nouns with very limited relation to real fathers and sons. Nonetheless, what St. Gregory wrote was easy enough to parse and understand, which makes Dawkins’ description as “obscurantist” inaccurate.

    Pierce R. Butler: “The commenter ‘ThomasJ’ nails Brayton’s attempt to claim Adams’s ‘actual position’ as being pro-religion when the full context (as quoted by Brayton) of the famous ‘world with no religion in it’ rant does indicate that Adams ‘… was very conflicted about the effects of religion …’”

    Oh, please! ThomasJ is tap dancing. Adams makes his own final conclusion very clear: “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.” Yes, he comes to that conclusion after a lot of self-conflict, but it is a conclusion diametrically opposed to the opinion that Dawkins attributed to him.

    Pierce R. Butler: “Au contraire, the suffix ‘-head’ connotes drug use, not rusticity.”

    I was thinking of a definition of “rube” more like this one: “a person who is not very intelligent or interested in culture,” emphasis on “intelligent.” In the end, you just confirmed my point, that “faith-head” implied a kind of stupidity. Your elaboration of it as akin to a drug-induced stupidity hardly derails that.

    Pierce R. Butler: “allusions are fully appropriate when describing any systemic and sought-for scrambling of cognitive processes.”

    But we aren’t dealing with a “systemic and sought-for scrambling of cognitive processes.” There are too many smart religious people for that model of religion as a systemic scrambling of reason to be accurate. (It should go without saying that this doesn’t make religion true.)

  73. #73 J. J. Ramsey
    August 21, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler: “All right, now I’ve gotten around to the opening ‘grafs of Clifford’s epochal essay. It is indeed a fine example of good argumentation, but comparing this to God Delusion is like comparing Charles Dickens to John LeCarre’ – generally pointless, unless you’re undertaking a fine examination of prose in Victorian and contemporary writing.”

    You are missing the point, which is that Clifford’s arguments, especially his opening ones, are cogent and free of nonsense, while Dawkins, by contrast, cuts corners.

  74. #74 Pierce R. Butler
    August 21, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey: Nonetheless, what St. Gregory wrote was easy enough to parse and understand…

    “The gostak distims the doshes” is also easy to parse. Unless, it seems, you’re already convinced that this “trinity” stuff makes some sort of sense, the two propositions are equally understandable.

    Adams makes his own final conclusion very clear: “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”

    For the benefit of lurkers, if any, here’s the quote (as supplied by Ed Brayton):

    Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.

    ThomasJ’s conclusion that Adams viewed religion very ambiguously seems well-supported by this passage, but I suppose someone who considers 3=1 a valid statement, looking at this through the same lens, might well think only the final sentence meaningful. What strikes me is that Adams is here contemplating religion as an institution of social control, holding its truth claims moot.

    Your elaboration of it as akin to a drug-induced stupidity hardly derails that.

    Nice bit of tap-dancing around that “rube” mis-allegation. As for the “stupidity” part, that’s an unjustified distortion to fit the usual atheist-bashing frame of what Dawkins states quite clearly, namely that religion is a *delusion*. Do you have a better suggestion of how to describe delusions to the deluded in such a way they cannot retreat to the customary defense of getting all huffy over a purported insult to their (self-image of) intelligence?

    There are too many smart religious people for that model of religion as a systemic scrambling of reason to be accurate.

    There used to be a lot of smart people who worshipped pharoahs, caesars, nature spirits, and all the rest, too. Smart people systemically scramble their brains with alcohol and other drugs even today. Just what is the numeric threshold (give or take 1 or 3) below which such a model of religion would be accurate, by your calculations?

    … Clifford’s arguments, especially his opening ones, are cogent and free of nonsense, while Dawkins, by contrast, cuts corners.

    Clifford’s arguments depend on his reading the inner thoughts of the protagonists of his little fictions, to a depth beyond that of the characters themselves. This technique can be and is used by hack writers of all persuasions, and would be sliced to ribbons by any awake first-year debate team.

    His larger point, that understanding and action should be based on hard fact rather than wishful thinking, survives because it corresponds to the world we live in. Alas, it seems that most of his readers in 1877 disagreed vehemently – I’d bet many thought he was calling them stupid rubes…

  75. #75 J. J. Ramsey
    August 22, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler: “‘The gostak distims the doshes’ is also easy to parse.”

    But the words “gostak”, “distims”, and “doshes” have no meaning at all, while “subject”, “immutable,” etc. do. Your only serious objection is that for St. Gregory’s passage to make sense, “Father” and “Son” cannot have quite their usual meanings, and even this can be gotten around easily. One can justify dubbing the 2nd member of the Trinity the “Son” by arguing that the earthly form of the “Son” was indeed a son, born of a woman, and one can justify calling the 1st member of the Trinity the “Father” on the grounds that he had gotten the aforementioned woman pregnant.

    Heck, in the passage that Dawkins quoted, St. Gregory doesn’t even discuss anything that can be interpreted as 3=1, which could have easily lead to real obscurantism. Instead, in that particular passage, “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” could just as well have been three gods in a triumvirate. Of course, that is not what Gregory believed, but that is beside the point, which is that to pin Gregory as obscurantist, one needs to bring into evidence a quote from him that is actual nonsense, rather than a paragraph that makes sense, and Dawkins failed to do this.

    Pierce R. Butler: “ThomasJ’s conclusion that Adams viewed religion very ambiguously seems well-supported by this passage”

    But not ambiguously enough that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it” expresses Adams’ actual beliefs. Dawkins quoted Adams out of context, period. Get over it.

    Pierce R. Butler: “As for the ‘stupidity’ part, that’s an unjustified distortion to fit the usual atheist-bashing frame of what Dawkins states quite clearly, namely that religion is a *delusion*.”

    In this context, that is a distinction with little meaningful difference, except that “delusion” connotes craziness. Any way you slice it, you are talking about an unmerited insult to intelligence.

    Pierce R. Butler: “There used to be a lot of smart people who worshipped pharoahs, caesars, nature spirits, and all the rest, too.”

    Indeed. Scary, isn’t it? What, you thought I’d disagree with this?

    Pierce R. Butler: “Smart people systemically scramble their brains with alcohol and other drugs even today.”

    Which causes an across-the-board depression of their intellectual faculties. Religion doesn’t act across-the-board that way, which is what makes your model inaccurate. Rather, like any ideology, secular or otherwise, it tends to lead to selective blind spots. Actually, that’s just a description of confirmation bias, a trait that is very human and not particularly religious.

    “Clifford’s arguments depend on his reading the inner thoughts of the protagonists of his little fictions, to a depth beyond that of the characters themselves. This technique can be and is used by hack writers of all persuasions, and would be sliced to ribbons by any awake first-year debate team.”

    Clifford is using hypothetical scenarios to illustrate his point, and a first-year debate team that tried to pick them apart on the grounds that they involve “reading the inner thoughts of the protagonists of his little fictions, to a depth beyond that of the characters themselves” would be immediately called on by an even more awake first-year debate team for “fighting the hypothetical” in order to dodge Clifford’s points.

  76. #76 Pierce R. Butler
    August 22, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    Taking it from the top: Nope, for Greg’s verbiage to make sense, there would need to be some actual referents involved, at least in the form of coherent concepts. Your way of “getting around” the problem by redefining words again begs more questions than it answers, such as what is meant by an “earthly form” as a secondary aspect to some supposedly pre-existing entity. Moreover, you’re even mixing up your theology: it was the Holy Ghost who was assigned the wet work with little Mary.

    Again, I don’t have GD to hand to see just what Dawkins says about the passage you quote at your blog, but I can see your point that the one (run-on) sentence can be read as internally consistent (if not congruent with observable reality).

    And I can see where you might feel you have a point in saying “Dawkins quoted Adams out of context…” by not showing how Adams actually had mixed feelings on the subject. I’ll concede your criticism here, if not Brayton’s.

    …except that “delusion” connotes craziness.

    Yes, but it does not connote stupidity, nor “an unmerited insult to intelligence.” Consider the pontiff formerly known as Joe Ratzinger, who speaks multiple languages, has flourished for decades in a legendarily tricky bureaucracy, and runs a complex international organization – all indicators of high intelligence. But when he said the Indians of the western hemisphere welcomed their forced conversion to christianism with a “silent longing” (whether he truly believes this, or merely expected his comment would be accepted without outrage), the word “delusional” also seems indicated.

    … like any ideology, secular or otherwise, it tends to lead to selective blind spots.

    That’s only one negative effect of religion: there are others, including an overt tendency to see things that aren’t there. Supernatural intervention, a very common misperception of this sort, is (arguably by definition) specific to religious ideologies – and is delusional by any rational standard.

    “Fighting the hypothetical” is hardly a debate-trumping charge. Let’s look again at Clifford’s opening ‘graf:

    A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

    From this Clifford concludes his hypothetical capitalist is guilty of numerous deaths, but doesn’t provide a dividing line between actual negligence and nervous-nellyism. Are we to think that every rumor or flight of anxiety requires an exhaustive inspection? In such a scenario in reality, I’d ask whether reports of potential problems were made by the captain, officers, or crew – in which case the owner’s failure to act goes beyond his beliefs – or whether they failed to speak up – which brings their own competence into question. In short, one can tell a story with “selective blind spots” making any point at all, but settling none whatsoever.

    Small wonder that these days even politicians avoid parables as a rhetorical device. Given Dawkins’s emphasis on reality-orientation, that sort of exposition would have been a worse choice than unresearched quotations and malapropos metaphors combined.

  77. #77 J. J. Ramsey
    August 22, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler: “I can see your point that the one (run-on) sentence can be read as internally consistent (if not congruent with observable reality).”

    Which was my whole point. An internally consistent passage is not a great example of obscurantism.

    Pierce R. Butler: “From this Clifford concludes his hypothetical capitalist is guilty of numerous deaths, but doesn’t provide a dividing line between actual negligence and nervous-nellyism.”

    Clifford had already indicated that the doubts were justified when he wrote, “He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs,” so nervous-nellyism is not seriously an issue.

  78. #78 Pierce R. Butler
    August 22, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey -

    An internally consistent passage is not a great example of obscurantism.

    My Apple “widgets” dictionary defines obscurantism as “the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known”. So, that says nothing one way or the other about consistency – but it does suggest Dawkins chose the wrong word to denigrate theological bafflegab.

    Clifford also left a lot of fudge-room with “Doubts had been suggested to him…” – a phrasing that reinforces (a) why good writing teachers insist students avoid the passive voice, and (b) why political speechwriters use it so often.

    Looks like we’ve about sucked all the juice out of this lemon by now, and should be moving along. Thanks for an interesting dialog, and congratulations on being the first in many moons to get me to explicitly concede a point in an online debate!

  79. #79 J. J. Ramsey
    August 22, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler: “Consider the pontiff formerly known as Joe Ratzinger, who speaks multiple languages, has flourished for decades in a legendarily tricky bureaucracy, and runs a complex international organization – all indicators of high intelligence. But when he said the Indians of the western hemisphere welcomed their forced conversion to christianism with a ‘silent longing’ (whether he truly believes this, or merely expected his comment would be accepted without outrage), the word ‘delusional’ also seems indicated.”

    Only if “delusion” is used in a very careful sense, and even then, the word “delusion” carries around quite a bit of baggage from its use as a clinical description. It would be more accurate to say that he has ideological blinders.

    Pierce R. Butler: “That’s only one negative effect of religion: there are others, including an overt tendency to see things that aren’t there.”

    Seeing things that aren’t there isn’t that specific to religion. As part of our evolutionary baggage, we have a somewhat hyperactive agency detector.

    Pierce R. Butler: “[Misperception of] Supernatural intervention … is delusional by any rational standard.”

    That depends a lot on the nature of the misperception. If we are just talking about a mistriggering of our normal agency detector, then “mistaken” is far more accurate than “delusional.”

  80. #80 J. J. Ramsey
    August 22, 2007

    “Looks like we’ve about sucked all the juice out of this lemon by now”

    Hmm, given my previous post, I’d say that I may have echoed a joke my Jewish mother told me. Anyway, the dialog has been interesting, yes. Thank you.

  81. #81 Inoculated Mind
    August 27, 2007

    Starting out a post trying to appeal to atheists with “Atheist Noise Machine” sounds like more bad framing. I’m afraid I don’t understand your approach.

  82. #82 Melinda Barton
    August 27, 2007

    Matt,

    I think your big problem is that too many people can’t see that there’s a huge gulf between silence and rabid and often vapid rhetoric. Those who live in a world of false dichotomies will never get the point. But keep going. Those of us who hail from the communications side of things truly appreciate it.

    As for Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al., I’m surprised that anyone can read their books and consider them “reasoned” arguments at all. Citing discredited theories (Freud in Hitchens), pseudosciences (memetics in Dawkins), and poorly conducted studies (prayer and IQ studies in Dawkins, the now-infamous sociological comparisons of societies by religiosity in Harris) is bad science. Ignoring the simplest explanation, that we are predatory primates and thus naturally tend towards factionalism and violence (all three), is bad science and an affront to reason. Ignoring historical fact in order to frame political or economic conflicts as religious (all three) is intellectually dishonest. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin with Hitchens’ recycling of the myth that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in the sheet. It’s all very sad.

    Before anyone asks: Yes, I’ve read the books. In fact, I’ve already tackled the historical, political, economic, logical and scientific errors in Harris on my blog. I’m tempted to blog the others, but to be honest a.) I’m tired of pointing out the obvious and b.) It would be depressing to deconstruct the fall of a man of Dawkins’ prior intellectual stature.

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