Framing Science

i-ae60e463dd712d5903d015f2c1c4b011-Candle.jpg Philosopher Paul Kurtz has been an influential mentor to me and he remains a major inspiration. Back in 1997, Kurtz hired me to work at the Center for Inquiry-Transnational as Skeptical Inquirer’s media relations director. Three years later he strongly supported my decision to go to graduate school.

In my time at CFI, I learned from Kurtz the importance of framing messages in ways that affirm shared common values and that go beyond just attacks. When I arrived at graduate school, I began to research how to turn Kurtz’s philosophy and practice into a systematic approach to public engagement. To this day, his thinking informs my work.

Kurtz has always been a major critic of the most extreme versions of religion. Yet, he has also maintained that criticism must never compete with the need to work together with moderately religious publics, emphasizing shared goals, dialogue, and trust.

As he notes, most of his writings have been in the area of this positive message, rather than focused on negative attacks. What Kurtz advocates is a critical mind but an even more tender heart.

Compared to the New Atheists, Kurtz stands as a candle in the dark. Indeed, it has been Kurtz’s three decade focus on an affirmative and inclusive message that has made his organization one of the central catalysts behind the modern day secularist movement.

This past weekend, Kurtz was interviewed by host DJ Grothe on the popular Point of Inquiry podcast. Below I have tried to reproduce as best I can a rough transcript of some of the key points made by Kurtz in the interview.

To sum up, Kurtz repeatedly emphasizes that it is wrong to draw a line in the sand between the godless and the religious. Instead secularists desperately need to reach out to moderately religious allies on pressing issues such as poverty and the environment. As we do at Science, he names EO Wilson as a shining example of such efforts.

Moreover, he strongly rejects the arguments advanced by Hitchens and Harris that the moderately religious are just as deserving of attacks as extremists.

I can only offer excerpts from the interview since the transcription takes some time. I encourage all readers to download and listen to the full podcast after reading these excerpts.

GROTHE: …I take it that you wonder how effective evangelical atheists are if all they are talking about is atheism?

KURTZ: I think they have had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they publish in Free Inquiry…so they have had positive impact, of course they are criticizing religion.

However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that! You can’t talk about abstract atheism, or merely a negative attitude. It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against! So I think on that point, one must affirm a positive humanist morality.

The interview later continues…

GROTHE: Do you think these New Atheists… have they gotten a bad rap by the press….?

KURTZ: Yes well they have had adverse criticism in some areas and important impact on others. And the adverse criticism relates to a distinction that we do at the Center for Inquiry.

We are not anti-religious, we are non-religious. We criticize religion, but we don’t simply blame everything on the religions of the world. I mean that will get us nowhere.

So we live in a secular modern society with great opportunities, and we want to talk about that, not any kind of poisonous attitude about religion.

GROTHE: So humanism, secular humanism, especially the kind that the Center for Inquiry advances, it’s not just the rejection of religion, it’s advancing a set of humane values based on reason. In that way there is not a whole lot of difference between you Paul Kurtz and some liberal religionists at least when it comes to ethics.

KURTZ: Well I think we have a lot in common with the liberal denominations. As a matter of fact DJ, if we look at contemporary modern society, a large sector of people agree fully with our agenda…

Kurtz then goes on to say, for example, that many liberal denominations affirm the human dignity and individual choice of gays and bisexuals. Humanism, he says, means tolerance for alternative lifestyles.

GROTHE: And you are saying that the secular humanist values that we adopt, that we advance, we should engage our liberal religionist colleagues in pushing for this kind of tolerance?

KURTZ: Of course, you know, America is a great liberal pluralistic democracy and we have common ground not only with liberal religionists but even conservative people who believe in human freedom. So we need to make, if you will, coalitions, we need to work together with others to make this a greater democracy. We need a kind of unity, if possible, about the basic framework of this country.

GROTHE: And I take it if some of these people decrying God belief, as true as you think they are, you are saying that they limit coalitions. That they turn off people who might be able to work with us around certain issues of concern?

KURTZ: I think that is true, so we have to put another step forward. But I think I should point out that we have been attacked, very much so, people have condemned us and blamed us, for all the ills of America. But I think we really go beyond that, if we can, and I think we can. For example, and on this point, EO Wilson has led the way, and he is a secular humanist.

GROTHE: In terms of environmentalism, he has reached out to people that secularists would not normally be in coalition with.

KURTZ: Yes.. in his book The Creation, he says, look the planet earth, that we love, our abode, we all share that habitat, and we have to work together, how can we not do so. So that is building, finding common values in that which we can stand. Improving the environment is part of that.


GROTHE: Let’s get back to the liberal religious. You have been more interested I think lately in reaching out to the liberal religious. Not just drawing a line in the sand and saying if you believe in the supernatural, you are my enemy. You’re not fighting that fight. We need to reach out to more liberal religious allies on issues of concern. Number one, how do we reach out to them and tell me what some of these issues are.

Kurtz replies in detail, naming poverty and the basic principle of democracy and human rights. He also names environmentalism and climate change as issues where collaboration between the religious and non-religious are absolutely necessary.

GROTHE: What about the critics that say that the liberal religious are part of the problem, that they give room for fundamentalists to grow?….They make it harder for reason and science to prevail against the cults of unreason?

KURTZ: I realize that many people have said that. Hitchens says that religion poisons everything. Well some religions have poisoned many things. And Harris says that we need to attack the liberal religionists at the same time. And I think many of the religionists overlook these problems.

But nevertheless, I think that [liberal religionists] are well meaning, good natured, honest, moral people in the churches, and they want to enter into the modern scientific world. So it is the scientific extremes of religion that need to be attacked.


  1. #1 Watt de Fawke
    September 18, 2007

    We should emphasize shared values? What values do we share? Name one. I can’t.

  2. #2 lpg
    September 18, 2007

    A candle can’t dispel the darkness of irrationality.

  3. #3 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 18, 2007

    Belief in democratic governance, social progress, economic prosperity, and as Kurtz notes, in many cases, freedom of personal choice, tolerance, helping and uplifting others, and the environment, to just name a few.

  4. #4 Mike P
    September 18, 2007


    But I share all those values with, say, Black people. And Asians. My point is, those have nothing to do with religion, and those have everything to do with morality and a perceived rational response to the world. The religious don’t hold those values by virtue of the fact they are religious, just as we don’t hold them because we are non-religious.

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 18, 2007

    So I don’t see your point? When engaging publics, it’s about figuring out which identities and values can be most relevant to supporting and working on an issue. For example, a majority of American Catholics support stem cell research, yet their church leaders remain opposed.

    In this case, the Catholic public’s support stems from a more salient belief in the values of social progress and economic development. That’s why instead of attacking religion, framing stem cell research around these values is the best way to build public acceptance.

  6. #6 Caledonian
    September 18, 2007

    Belief in democratic governance, social progress, economic prosperity, and as Kurtz notes, in many cases, freedom of personal choice, tolerance, helping and uplifting others, and the environment, to just name a few.

    But I don’t share many of those ‘values’. Frankly, it is presumptuous to suggest that defenders of rational inquiry are going to share your particular sociocultural positions – and even MORE so to presume that the “moderately religious” are going to as well, simply because they’re moderately religious.

    It’s one thing to talk about having to use a carrot instead of a stick. But what you don’t seem to grasp is that science IS the carrot. There’s nothing that we can offer people to accept science that’s more valuable – or in any way comparable – to accepting science itself.

    That’s why there’s so much emphasis on the stick. The carrot requirement has already been met.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    September 18, 2007

    For example, a majority of American Catholics support stem cell research, yet their church leaders remain opposed.

    It is my understanding that on the subject of birth control, there’s a similar schism: American Catholics approve of and use it, while their leaders and their church condemns the action.

    I agree with the concept of leaving behind the Church’s teachings which are outmoded and antireality. I just think American Catholics – as well as followers of other religions – aren’t taking it far enough. They should reject the faith entire.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    September 18, 2007

    One last thought:

    Prof. Nisbet, don’t you share those values with PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins? Why aren’t you emphasizing your community with them, instead of rejecting them because you disagree with their message?

    You seem to be doing the very things you’re accusing your opponents of doing. If it’s wrong for scientists to reject the doctrines of the moderately religious, shouldn’t it also be wrong for you to reject the doctrines of what you call the “New Atheists”?

  9. #9 Jon Eccles
    September 18, 2007

    Of course we should make common cause when possible. Dawkins, for instance, issued a statement with the Bishop of Oxford, in defence of science teaching in schools.

    But some conversations are unavoidably tense. By definition, religious people are the set of people who think the voices in their head are real. When someone says “God talks to me”, either you duck the argument or you say “no he doesn’t, you just think he does”.

    Crucially, many children grow up in an environment where all the responsible adults around them believe the voices are real, and it’s vitally important to shout out that they aren’t, and to shout it loudly enough so that they can hear. Otherwise, how are they to hear alternative views?

  10. #10 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2007

    “When engaging publics, it’s about figuring out which identities and values can be most relevant to supporting and working on an issue.”

    Wait – what are we talking about here? What is meant by ‘engaging publics’? Are we talking about engaging publics on specific political issues that have scientific ramifications? Or are we talking about addressing and writing for a broad public in general? Those are two completely different situations with different reasons, motivations, criteria, demands, etc. Yet, Matthew, with all due respect, you seem to be treating the two as one. You must be, because what else could your objection to Dawkins and Harris be about? Dawkins’s God book is not part of a political effort to address stem cell research, so what does ‘figuring out which identities and values can be most relevant to supporting and working on an issue’ have to do with his book?

    Frankly, you seem to be claiming that 1) some scientific issues are politically contested 2) religious believers are antagonized by scientists who criticize religion therefore 3) all scientists should refrain from criticizing religion in any medium or context whatever.

    Don’t you see what a sweeping claim that is?

  11. #11 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 18, 2007

    There is only so much context I can provide in a comment.

    But going back to our article at Science, our project was to address how scientists (and secularists) can work with a diverse public on specific and pressing problems. We then argued that when scientists like Dawkins systematically attack the values of many moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with scientists and secularists on many issues, it risks alienating these publics.

    It’s a proposition that is informed by well established theories from the social sciences including research in the areas of cognitive dissonance, framing, and media effects. And it’s an empirical question subject to evaluation. That’s why I am doing the project affiliated with the paper at the AAAS panel and why I invite others to collect data and test hypotheses.

    Certainly, Dawkins et al. are entitled to their goals of criticizing all religion and rallying atheists.

    But my goal is a different one. It’s about figuring out communication strategies for bringing diverse publics together around common problems like poverty or the environment, and making progress not fifty years from now when we might live in a more secular society, but given the urgency, in the next five to ten years. It’s a mission I share with people like EO Wilson.

    It is my proposition that in making progress on these issues, that when Dawkins et al attack many moderately religious Americans, they risk doing a lot of damage.

  12. #12 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2007


    Okay, but even if you’re right about the empirical question, it doesn’t follow that you’re right about what to do about it. I think your goal of bringing diverse publics together around common problems *by urging scientists to refrain from challenging the truth claims of religion* is antithetical to free and open inquiry. Of course it’s true that free inquiry always risks angering or alienating some or many people who don’t like what free inquiry turns up – but that’s why it’s called ‘free inquiry.’ If we decide in advance to shackle it in deference to pre-existing beliefs, then it’s not free inquiry anymore. The Center for Inquiry, if it heeded your advice, would have to change its name to The Center for Cautious Limited Deferential Inquiry.

    Really – do you not see any risk in your approach? Because I certainly do.

  13. #13 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 18, 2007

    In urging caution, I don’t see much risk, since I see Dawkins et al. as only activating people who are already latently skeptical rather than persuading the middle or the deeply devout. Growing a movement is important–but as I detail in my post and below– it can also go too far.

    In fact, what we know from cognitive dissonance research is that such direct challenges to belief and ideology only make people grow stronger in their adherence to a particular worldview.

    Moreover, like Shermer, Wilson, and Kurtz, I strongly believe that when Dawkins et al. attack moderately religious Americans it alienates our natural allies and is a major self-inflicted wound.

    They have a right to loudly broadcast their opinion, but I have a similar right to offer my reservations and urge caution.

    Moreover, if the goal is to promote secularism, what will lead to an increase in the secular outlook is generational change built around creating alternative forms of community in the US that will compete with the current limited choices of church going, shopping, and sporting events.

    Secular humanists in places across the country need to set an example and help build these cross-cutting and new forms of community. They can do this by being messengers for a positive and affirming message around shared values.

    The path should be to hold religion in its most extreme form accountable while assuring that there are not efforts to politicize science or weaken civil liberties.

    Meanwhile, change will flow through working with diverse faith communities around common problems like poverty, the environment, and income disparity. If we lift people up, if we reduce their social and economic uncertainties, we also eliminate much of the personal need for religious faith.

    In the process, we can create alternative forms of community that compete with and go beyond church going by promoting diverse social interaction and bonding.

  14. #14 Richard
    September 18, 2007

    I have no problem working with religious people, and I do it all of the time. However, I treat supernaturalism (i.e. religion) as I would, for example, HIV denialism. I may agree with 90% of the HIV denialist’s views, and work with him/her on those issues, but I will not have a “hands-off” attitude to the HIV denialism. That denialism has real-world effects, as belief in supernatural agency does. Being an uppity atheist does not preclude working with religious people. It’s no different than my working with a Republican or a Libertarian (I’m a liberal Dem.) — I can do it while disagreeing with them on certain core issues. Do you think that attacking religion is different from attacking politics?

  15. #15 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2007


    You strongly believe that when Dawkins et al. ‘attack moderately religious Americans’ it alienates *what* natural allies? Natural allies in what? You always seem to take political alliances as primary and everything else as either helpful or harmful to that – but political alliances aren’t the only possible alliances; politics isn’t the only possible subject or organizing principle. Some people simply are more interested in questions of truth and knowledge than they are in political maneuvering; you never seem to take that on board. People have multiple goals, some of them in tension with others. You simply don’t give any real reason why people who are genuinely interested in science or epistemology or the psychology of belief should allow political pragmatics to trump all that.

    Also, I think it’s tendentious and (frankly) provocative to say Dawkins et al. ‘attack moderately religious Americans.’ No they don’t. Disagreement is not attack.

    “They have a right to loudly broadcast their opinion, but I have a similar right to offer my reservations and urge caution.”

    Do they ‘broadcast’ their opinion any more loudly than you broadcast yours? In any case, rights are not really the issue, since no one is calling the police. You do quite a lot more than offer reservations and urge caution (don’t forget that ‘must’). But anyway my question is not about what you have a right to do, it’s about the implications of your project. I don’t think you pay enough attention to the implications for free inquiry of urging people to shut up about religion.

    “Moreover, if the goal is to promote secularism”

    That’s one goal, of some people, but again, *it’s not the only possible goal*. Again, you’re seeing everything in terms of politics and coalition building, but those just aren’t the only possible terms.

  16. #16 Brandon
    September 18, 2007

    Matthew, you silly goose. You’re still stuck in reality. Don’t you know that we should always cling to our utopian ideals like a life preserver? Never mind that screaming at people endlessly that they’re not as good as us has zero chance of winning any friends. It’s the rational thing to do.

    There, now every other comment will be redundant.

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

    Again, I don’t share your idealism and commitment to wiping religious belief from the planet via a concentrated campaign of criticism that draws a bright line in the sand between people of all faiths and the few of us who are atheists.

    Instead, I am an atheist-pragmatist who argues for tolerance, respect, dignity, and most of all, that we apply a scientific understanding of the media system, public opinion, and politics to addressing pressing collective problems such as poverty or climate change.

    Also, for the record, and again for about the 40th time over the past four days, I have never said or have intended to say that Dawkins et al should “shut up,” be muzzled, or go in a dark closet. This unfortunately is a distortion and twisting of my arguments by people like PZ Myers and others.

    The New Atheists can be as vocal as they want to be in pursuing their campaign for their version of truth in the world.

    However, I also have the right to evaluate their impacts and direct criticism their way if their campaign distracts from achieving real and obtainable objectives that matter today, five years from now, and into the foreseeable future.

  18. #18 Caledonian
    September 18, 2007

    I have never said or have intended to say that Dawkins et al should “shut up,” be muzzled, or go in a dark closet.

    True. You merely called them an “Atheist Noise Machine” and said they needed to be silenced.

  19. #19 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2007

    Oh I give up. I was trying to ask you some serious (and genuine) questions, Matthew, but I give up. I don’t have a commitment to wiping religious belief from the planet – what a goofy thing to say! Aren’t you supposed to be the communications genius? I can’t say I’m impressed.

    Yes you have said Dawkins et al. should shut up – to repeat – “scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.” Your words. Scientists MUST avoid ‘attacking’ the religious beliefs of fellow citizens. That’s telling them to shut up.

    And why repeat the silly formula about rights when I’d just said that’s not the issue? Of course you have the right – and I’m not the one who tells people what language they MUST adopt, you are – but that’s not the issue, the issue is the merit of what you’re arguing. But it’s not possible to engage with you, you simply ignored all my points and repeated your own formulas instead. Again – for a communications whiz, you’re doing a remarkably bad job of it.

  20. #20 Taryn
    September 19, 2007

    There’s a problem if one reads “shut up” in “scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal…” I don’t entirely agree with Matthew’s call to change, but there’s not a “shut up” in it.

    Being an atheist does not give any of us license to be intractable or deliberately obtuse. There is a rich and nuanced conversation to be had here, and what is it that we like to say about certainty not being a virtue.

    There’s nothing unique or especially insightful, earth-shattering or profound about religious intolerance. I’ve been intolerant of religion as an institution, practice, philosophy and fairy-tale since I was a child and I am equally intolerant of self-righteous vitriol delivered in the name of secularism.

    The problem some of us have with the “New Atheists” is not that they’re wrong – it’s that they’re painfully boring on an intellectual level, woefully uninspiring and plain old unlikable. Time for a new dialog, and for new people to lead it.

    Thanks for this, Matthew.

  21. #21 Jud
    September 19, 2007

    Taryn wrote: “The problem some of us have with the ‘New Atheists’ is not that they’re wrong – it’s that they’re painfully boring on an intellectual level, woefully uninspiring and plain old unlikable.”

    I’ve read The God Delusion, and watched videos of a couple of Dawkins’ television programs and public appearances. In all of these, he is never IMO any of the things of which you accuse the “New Atheists.” Is he more insistent than I would be about the beneficial effects of reason and the deleterious effects of unreason? Yep. OTOH, I haven’t written any bestsellers regarding atheism *or* science, so who am I to be telling Dawkins how to communicate with a wide audience?

    So whom specifically (whose books you’ve read, or whose talks you’ve seen or listened to) are you accusing of being boring, uninspiring and unlikable?

  22. #22 Fergus Brown
    September 19, 2007

    Matt: This thread seems to indicate the complexity involved in attempting to resolve two different ways of perceiving the world in terms of the values they share. would we not be better served by emphasising instead the goals (ends) which are shared? Inasmuch as humanists, atheists, Christians or whomsoever, have a common ground, no reasonable member of any of these groups is likely to object to the claim that one of the prime objectives is to preserve life on Earth. If this is our goal, then why we think it matters is less important than the fact we agree it does matter.


  23. #23 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2007

    ‘There’s a problem if one reads “shut up” in “scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal…” I don’t entirely agree with Matthew’s call to change, but there’s not a “shut up” in it.’

    No doubt – but that’s not what I read ‘shut up’ in – I read it in what I said: the combination of ‘scientists must’ with ‘avoiding…alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.’ I take those two together to amount to an order to shut up on a particular subject. What else would they be? Scientists must not ‘attack’ i.e. dispute or criticize religious beliefs; thus, scientists must shut up about religious beliefs (unless of course they want to hug them).

    Nisbet seems (oddly, for a communications whiz) blind to the coerciveness of his own rhetoric, but that’s no reason for anyone else to be blind to it.

  24. #24 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 19, 2007

    The “communication whiz” line is a nice frame device picked up while reading the discussion threads over at PZ Myers’ blog. 😉

    I fully recognize that ideology plays a prominent role in how any argument is perceived and interpreted.

    I also know that opinion intensity is what drives participation generally, and along with personality type, it is especially true in determining who decides to post comments at blogs.


    1) Given that ideology is a powerful perceptual screen and…

    2) Given that people who are likely to feel strongest about the AAAS panel are in the Dawkins et al. camp…

    3) And that these same people are having my arguments framed for them by their opinion leaders i.e. PZ Myers…

    4) It’s not surprising that many of the blog commenters interpret my statements as arguing for New Atheists to “go in a dark closet” or to shut up.

    Step outside the opinion and ideological climate of the new atheist blogs, and it’s a different perceptual world, with my argument being received very differently.

  25. #25 Taryn
    September 19, 2007

    Ophelia, in using the ellipses, I did mean to refer to the entire passage you had earlier, including the part about “avoiding…alienating them by attacking”. Again, there is no “shut up” in that statement. As I read it, “don’t attack” means “don’t attack”, not “shut up”, and I can think of at least a few words that exist between the two. I’m sure you can, too – just perhaps not in this context.

    Jud, you use the word “accuse” as if my opinion on Dawkins (that they are boring, uninspiring and unlikable) is some fact whose veracity can be ascertained. I think we all know who I mean when I say “Dawkins et. al”, and in order to avoid laying the foundation for an endless and likely unproductive argument, I’ll ask you to trust that I’ve given the work of “New Atheists” sufficient consideration to determine that *my* time is better spent on different conversations.

    Persuasion is a tricky thing, given that we humans believe what and who we’re ready to believe, and for many different reasons. It’s not necessarily a noble thing to do, this setting out to convince people to think one thing over the other, to adopt one identity over another. Many of us have a very different goal in mind when we endeavor to write anything at all.

    The “New Atheists” have given voice and energy to hoards of people, and while they undoubtedly illuminate science and the application of reason to philosophical considerations often left to suffer the insult (my opinion!) of mythical thinking, at the same time they stand firmly in the way of further understanding. There’s almost nowhere left to go after “we’re right and they’re not”. Even if it’s true, it’s not a conversation I want to listen to over and over again.

  26. #26 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2007


    No, I did not get the communication whiz line from PZ; it occurred to me independently and with increasing force yesterday as I took in your repeated refusals (or failures) to respond to my questions and your repeated choice to resort instead to recycled insults and undisputed bromides. I just think this is bad communication, and I can’t possibly help noticing the irony.

    “these same people are having my arguments framed for them by their opinion leaders i.e. PZ Myers”

    No. Really, you need to get past that idea – it’s terribly self-serving and self-exculpating. I for one have been reading your articles and commenting on them first; I read PZ and others later, out of curiosity as to whether I’m the only one who thinks this stuff is absurd.

    You really, really are bad at this. For instance this use of the word ‘must’ – that does you a lot of totally unnecessary damage right there. I’ve noticed three places just in passing where you or you and Chris M use that word; you could just as well use ‘should’ (and you sometimes do); ‘must’ is guaranteed to make people bristle; your resort to it does not speak well for your skill at communication.

    Neither of course does the repeated use of the word ‘attack’ when you mean disagree with or criticize; neither does the ‘Atheist noise machine’; neither does the habit of ignoring reasonable questions; and so on.

    I don’t need PZ or anyone else to point this out to me. I have some communication skills myself.

    I really think you should have answered the question about free inquiry. I think it’s an important point, and your refusal to address it just tells me that you can’t.

    You quote Paul Kurtz saying we should talk about affirmation as well as criticism; we should be for things as well as against things. Well, one of the things I’m for is free inquiry, and I think your approach is inimical to that. You could try to convince me and everyone that it isn’t – yet you don’t. Why not?

  27. #27 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2007


    ‘As I read it, “don’t attack” means “don’t attack”, not “shut up”,’

    Sure, but in this context, surely what Matthew means is for instance that Dawkins should not have written ‘The God Delusion’? If that’s not what he means, I’m completely misunderstanding him, and he should by all means correct me. But that seems to me to be his whole point – and I think that does indeed mean ‘shut up.’

  28. #28 Leukocyte
    September 19, 2007

    I don’t see why the two approaches need to be at all mutually exclusive. Dawkins, PZ, Harris, et al. speak to me and others like me who already have a skeptical viewpoint and build up a community of people not afraid to voice their disbelief. This is good and helpful to the cause. However, people like my parents (good, scientifically educated, moral people who happen to be practicing religious) will not respond to such uncompromising rhetoric. I think they are wrong, not stupid, but for whatever reasons (and there are many) they will not give up religious beliefs in the face of confrontation – believe me, I’ve tried. Enter “framing”.

    Let guys like Nisbet reach out to the people on the fence and engage them on issues like teaching accurate science and making sound health policy decisions. I really don’t care if what he says doesn’t speak to me. I’m not his audience. I don’t need convincing, but there are plenty of people out there who could be reached by this kinder, gentler spokesperson. And if Nisbet needs to criticize the outspoken types to gain some credibility with the “soft” religious, then whatever man, go for it. It’s the message that matters, and pragmatically speaking, more people will be reached by using both approaches simultaneously.

    I think of Nisbet like an ambassador of sorts to a foreign mindset. I can’t stomach playing nice with religious beliefs and acting like I give a crap about religious peoples’ feelings being hurt by “mean old” Dawkins and co., but HE CAN! And he seems so sincere about playing nice that some hardcore atheists are offended by it. That makes him so useful. Fight on, buddy; win some converts to rationality, whatever it takes.

  29. #29 potentilla
    September 19, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet: you say (forgive the paraphrase) that shouting and sneering at people and telling them they are idiots will only entrench them in their current (religious) views and have absolutely no chance of enticing them to change their minds (about religion). Fine. I can agree strongly with that.

    However, you imply that these people will be “alienated” and therefore less likely to work on “common problems like poverty, the environment, and income disparity”. This claim I have much more of a problem with. Are you suggesting that religious people will be less likely to want to work to solve such problems if they think that atheists (who they now associate with nasty New Atheists) are also working on them? This seems implausible to me, either at the pressure-group/political level, or at the personal level, since the problems affect religious people just as much (perhaps even more).

    Or perhaps you’re saying that it would be more efficient if everyone were trying to solve the problems in the same way, rather than separately? This also seems to me to be somewhat doubtful (humans are bad at planning and controlling their own future, because they are too stupid; it seems to me just as plausible to hypothesise that different groups working on different solutions are more more likely to produce one that actually works).

    Or are you hypothesising that some specific linkage will be set up in the minds of believers about some particular social problem? For instance, “anthropogenic global warming = scientists = atheists = nasty mean people we are against = anthropogenic global warming can’t be true”? This seems more plausible (anyway in relation to a.g.w. if not to other social problems) but if that’s your view, you should say so.

    Pragmatism and tolerance are probably the ruling principles of my life, and but I don’t yet see the rational case here for a pragmatic approach. Can you tell us in more detail what you think will, or could happen, in relation to socially/humanly desirable outcomes, were the New Atheists to voluntarily tone themselves down a bit, that you believe won’t happen if they don’t?

  30. #30 Jamie G.
    September 19, 2007

    First, I’d like to say that I agree more with and understand completely what Ophelia is saying.

    IMO, I think we are seeing an all out brawl between secularists who have different goals. Unfortunately, one is being labeled as “New Humanist” and the other as “New Atheist”. I find it almost hypocritical with what I am hearing out of the ‘humanist’ camp. They are arguing that secularists should not alienate some religious groups as to work toward more ‘noble’ goals, yet they seem to be more than willing to alienate the more staunch secularists (atheists). I find this highly offensive, as if the humanists are saying they are better than those within their own camp, and so much so they are willing to placate the ”enemy” so to speak. Humanists (I identify myself as a secular humanist first, atheist second) think this sort of dialogue works so well, yet it isn’t working in our own camp between secularists.

    Plus, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me that such humanist groups like CFI/CODESH (for which I am a member of) want to argue so hard for working with religious groups, yet I don’t see them working very hard to unite and work with other secular groups not under their own banner.

    I can understand where guys like Sagan made the effort to work with religious groups THEN, but now it seems to only give some semblance of weight or authority, like working with the Vatican, etc. But many secularists are pissed off because they are tired of getting crapped on by religious groups, moderate or not. Doesn’t the old saying the difference between a cult and a religion are the amount of adherents? So how long will it be before we are trying to work with moderate Scientologists? Or whatever other run-of-the-mill irrational belief system. What I’d like to see in the headlines tomorrow is, “Recently groups like the FFRF, American Atheists, CODESH/CFI, AHA, SCA, and others have joined forces in America and are finally giving the old religious institutions that have kept America in the Dark Ages a run for their money.”

    I will only be impressed with the rhetoric of Kurtz, the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, and other “New Humanists” when they work just as hard to work with other secularists instead of doing the same thing to fellow secularists they say they are trying to avoid with the ‘moderately-religious’.

    I might be intellectually boring, but I think it would be more impressive to win other secularists before tackling the religious.

  31. #31 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 19, 2007


    I agree, although the panel description was not intended for this audience, it does seem that “must” is a trigger word for the atheist blogger community and its most intense readers. When directly addressing this community in future, I plan to use “should.” 😉

    But regardless of my word choice, what I am suggesting is really only to take what people like Carl Sagan and EO Wilson have done individually and intuitively and to apply it systematically at the institutional level. This means engaging diverse American audiences by emphasizing the shared and common values between science, religion, and other relevant social identities.

    Contrary to what you claim this is every bit in the tradition of free inquiry. In fact, what you are doing is expanding the audience for science!

    You remain true to science and hold accountable extreme forms of religion, while engaging in positive ways with the moderately religious.

    After all, polls show that the moderately religious strongly support science in general and even view most issues as scientists do. It’s only a few issues that public engagement breaks down. As Sagan and Wilson have done, on these particular issues the scientific community needs to craft messages that resonate with this latent support.

  32. #32 Ophelia Benson
    September 19, 2007


    Excellent about ‘should’!

    I agree with everything you say there – but then, Sagan really did challenge people’s religious beliefs. He did it in a slightly less washpish way than Dawkins does (and, come to think of it, he had a lot of good will built up because of Cosmos, not to mention the Tonight show and Parade magazine – that probably made a difference), but he still did it. I don’t think scientists should in general refrain from challenging religious beliefs (I agree that they should in some particular cases), but I certainly do agree that the more Sagans and Wilsons and Tysons there are the better.

  33. #33 ngong
    September 19, 2007

    Certainly, Dawkins et al. are entitled to their goals of criticizing all religion and rallying atheists.

    It should be no surprise that “New Atheism” is a post-9/11 phenomenon. Many of these “strident voices” are profoundly worried about the consequences of allowing certain beliefs to go unchallenged. I doubt Dawkins or PZ or the others would agree that their aim is merely to increase the membership of their fan clubs.

    I’d expect a framing proponent to approach Dawkins with something like, “we both agree that irrational thinking….” and then go on to provide evidence that Dawkin’s methods are counterproductive, though well-intentioned. Instead, you impute motives to him that may or may not be real.

    Personally, I hope the popular media latches onto the fact that there’s a good deal of dispute within the atheist “community”, and there’s not (and won’t be!) a coherent, organized attempt to win the meme-wars.

  34. #34 G. Tingey
    September 20, 2007

    Nisbet said: “Belief in democratic governance, social progress, economic prosperity, and as Kurtz notes, in many cases, freedom of personal choice, tolerance,…”

    Since when has christianity (or any other major religion) had anything to do with these values?

    As opposed to burning people alive, and torturing them because they have “incorrect” beliefs?

    And what are the “moderately” religious actually doing about shooting down, ridiculing and trashing the beliefs and public statements of the immoderately religious?
    I’ll tell you: sweet Fanny Adams, zilch, zero, nothing, de nada.
    They’re sitting around whingeing, because the “new” atheists have dared to come out of the closet.

    Come to that, what do the “moderately” religious actually believe in?
    As far as I can see, it’s still the big, dominant sky fairy…..

  35. #35 Caledonian
    September 20, 2007

    You remain true to science and hold accountable extreme forms of religion, while engaging in positive ways with the moderately religious.

    So we’re free to denigrate forms of religion that are uncommon, but we have to kowtow to forms of religion that are common?

  36. #36 Tulse
    September 20, 2007

    Kurtz presents a fairly different view of this matter in an editorial entitled “Are ‘Evangelical Atheists’ Too Outspoken?”. Some excerpts:

    What disturbs us is the preposterous outcry that atheists are “evangelical” and that they have gone too far in their criticism of religion.

    I have often said that it is as if an “iron curtain” had descended within America, for skeptics have discovered that the critical examination of religion has been virtually verboten. We have experienced firsthand how journalists and producers have killed stories about secular humanism for fear of offending the little old ladies and gentlemen in the suburbs, conservative advertisers, the Catholic hierarchy, or right-wing fundamentalists.

    The war against secularism by the Religious Right is unremitting. Even New York Times columnists are running scared. We note the column by Nicolas Kristof (December 3, 2006) calling for a “truce on religion.” He deplores the “often obnoxious atheist offensive” of “secular fundamentalism.”

    it is important that we apply scientific inquiry as best we can to all areas of human behavior, including religion and ethics. I fail to see why it is “arrogant” to attempt to do so.

    We think it appropriate to defend the integrity of science and the importance of secularism at a time when both are under heavy attack.

    But why should the nonreligious, nonaffiliated, secular minority in the country remain silent? We dissenters now comprise some 14 to 16 percent of the population. Why should religion be held immune from criticism, and why should the admission that one is a disbeliever be considered so disturbing? The Bush administration has supported faith-based charities—though their efficacy has not been adequately tested; it has prohibited federal funding for stem cell research; it has denied global warming; and it has imposed abstinence programs instead of promoting condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS. Much of this mischief is religiously inspired. How can we remain mute while Islam and the West are poised for a possible protracted world conflagration in the name of God?

    Given all these facts, why should the criticism of religion provoke such an outcry?

    I don’t know how the views Kurtz expresses here are supposed to provide support for Nisbet’s position. Kurtz is clearly defending Dawkins et al. from the charge of being “too evangelical”. While Kurtz may believe that atheists should make common cause when possible with the religious, he also clearly believes that the New Atheists are doing good work, and pursuing a worthwhile endeavour, and should be encouraged as a counterweight against religion, regardless of whether it is offends “little old ladies and gentlemen in the suburbs, conservative advertisers, the Catholic hierarchy, or right-wing fundamentalists”. This is hardly consistent with Nisbet’s expressed views.

  37. #37 Ophelia Benson
    September 20, 2007

    Thank you, Tulse. Perfect.

  38. #38 J. J. Ramsey
    September 20, 2007

    Ophelia Benson: “Sagan really did challenge people’s religious beliefs. He did it in a slightly less washpish way than Dawkins does (and, come to think of it, he had a lot of good will built up because of Cosmos, not to mention the Tonight show and Parade magazine – that probably made a difference), but he still did it. [emphasis added]”

    Yes, building up that good will did make a difference. It is easier for one to accept harsh criticism from someone for whom one already has good will, and you can’t build good will by calling people “faith-heads” and misusing the word “delusion.”

    BTW, considering that the people that Nisbet mentions as good examples: Shermer, Kurtz, Sagan, etc., have criticized religion, don’t you think maybe, just maybe, that “don’t criticize religion” was never Nisbet’s message?

  39. #39 jb
    September 20, 2007

    What never ceases to amaze me is how positively dim-witted the wannabe “intellectual elite” really is, underneath all the pontificating and macho posturing. How ‘bright’ do you have to be to see the punch line coming in the first sentence of the gag’s set-up: “There was a loose confederation of egotistical elitists who decided to declare war on humanity…”

    Of course you can’t agree on tactics, approaches, weapons, strategic goals or even on who the enemy is. Duh.

    What is it that humanity is supposed to be so afraid of, again?

  40. #40 Jon D
    September 20, 2007
  41. #41 J. J. Ramsey
    September 20, 2007

    Ok, I looked at the portion of the transcript of the Kurtz interview posted by Chris Hallquist, and I have to say that it is pretty damning. In Nisbet’s defense, Kurtz is saying that coalitions with liberal religionists are necessary, while Dawkins has insinuated that such coalitions are appeasement, but he has overemphasized the tension between the New Atheists and Kurtz, which is misleading.

    Dr. Nisbet, you need to explain yourself or apologize, or possibly both.

  42. #42 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 20, 2007

    I stand by my interpretation of Kurtz’s latest interview. I never said he didn’t offer praise for Dawkins et al. and obviously that is part of the transcript at my blog.

    Kurtz has read my blog post and I have corresponded with him over email about it. Bias again appears to be in the eye of the beholder.

    In my post I call attention to Kurtz’s concerns that Hitchens and Harris have gone too far in singling out moderately religious Americans who share many common values with secular humanists, in the process possibly alienating these allies.

    That’s the exact same argument I have applied since the original publication of our Science article.

    I bought Dawkins book the day it went on sale, enjoyed it, and generally agree with his worldview. I support his right to voice his opinion. (Hitchens I don’t think wrote nearly as a good a book.;-))

    But I also know as a social scientist who’s expertise is in media effects that Dawkins et al.’s message comes with certain risks, specifically in working with diverse publics on solving collective problems.

    Indeed, this is the great indirect and unintended consequence of the “Noise Machine,” defined as the heuristics, short cuts, frame devices, and fleeting bits of information that moderately religious people might pick up by way of the conflict driven media.

    Translated in the press and twisted by opposing interest groups, the low information signal is that science is at odds with what moderately religious Americans value.

    By definition if we end up alienating natural allies on issues such as the teaching of evolution, poverty, the environment, or stem cell research, it is an unfortunate self-inflicted wound.

  43. #43 J. J. Ramsey
    September 20, 2007

    Nisbet: “I never said he didn’t offer praise for Dawkins et al. and obviously that is part of the transcript at my blog.”

    True, but recall what you yourself know about heuristics and how you can expect people to read your post. The very title of your post is “Paul Kurtz: In Contrast to the New Atheists, We Must Emphasize Shared Values with the Moderately Religious,” which implies that he sees his stance in competition with the New Atheists, rather than just going beyond what they offer. The way you emphasize parts of the transcript guides the eye away from the points where Kurtz disagrees with you. Sure, someone who parses your post carefully will note that you did show that you and Kurtz disagree as to whether the New Atheists have had a negative impact, but I could just as easily say that if one parses PZ Myers’ post “I’m surrounded” carefully, he never actually says that theists are stupid. In both cases, what both posts imply and what they literally say is very different.

    Nisbet: “That’s the exact same argument I have applied since the original publication of our Science article.”

    Unfortunately, you haven’t done much actual arguing for that point. Mostly, you’ve just repeated it and pointed to others who agreed with you. (A partial exception is the post on Carol Tavris’ book.) Maybe you are saving the data backing your point for a journal or conference paper, but since you have denounced the New Atheists, the least you can do is show some of that data on which you are holding back.

  44. #44 Tulse
    September 20, 2007

    if we end up alienating natural allies

    …which is precisely what you do when you use terms like “New Atheist Noise Machine” (which I would think you would recognize as “a social scientist who’s [sic] expertise is in media effects”). Dawkins, Myers, et al. are not your enemy — irrationality is. You may disagree with the efficacy of their tactics, and choose to focus on short-term social policy rather than long-term cultural change, and that’s certainly fine. But it is silly (and not a little undercutting of one’s argument) to continually use charged language and stake out a hardened position (just as you accuse Dawkins et al. of doing), rather than see them as people with very similar goals to yours who have simply chosen a different (and potentially complementary) means of achieving it.

    In other words, how the hell can we take you seriously about the efficacy of cosying up to the religious moderates when you are completely unwilling to moderate your own stance (point out common values, work toward similar goals, etc. etc. etc.) regarding the New Atheists?

  45. #45 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 20, 2007

    Specific to the blog heading, I think Kurtz does make it clear that his position is in contrast to Hitchens and Harris and the heading is a fair reflection of that. I know what you are saying, but I don’t think a comparison to PZ is a fair one!

    I respect the seriousness with which you approach your role in the discussion threads. Indeed, there is more soon to come in terms of laying out arguments and evidence.

    Next week (or the week following) there will be a 3500 word cover article at The Scientist that explains much more about science communication, audiences, and framing, all carefully cited to the peer-reviewed literature, with specific recommendations on how the scientific community can start to adopt the implications of this research.

    There’s another article and book chapter in the works laying out a normative framework for “when to frame or not frame” in engaging the public, which I think includes valuable stuff that I have not had space for at Science, or that addresses concerns that have been raised. Hopefully, those works will be available in the spring.

    And of course, there is the AAAS panel presentation and associated paper that will be forthcoming in February. Ultimately, there is a book in the works on all of this stuff as well.

    I’ve also published about 15 or more well cited peer-reviewed journal articles on media coverage and public opinion about science and/or politics, anyone is free to look up and read those. There are links to the abstracts of the articles at my faculty page. Almost all of these articles are data driven and explain thoroughly the theories on which the Science article is based and a lot of my propositions about the New Atheists.

    As for the “noise machine” rubric, it was used in posts where I simply noted the arguments made by Shermer, Tavris, and Kitcher. In comment spaces, you yourself have pointed to the “Noise Machine” quality of how Dawkins et al. message is translated in the press. (See how I define this in my earlier comment.) That’s what I am currently collecting data on, analyzing, writing up, and then submitting to appropriate outlets.


  46. #46 ngong
    September 20, 2007

    In other words, how the hell can we take you seriously about the efficacy of cosying up to the religious moderates when you are completely unwilling to moderate your own stance (point out common values, work toward similar goals, etc. etc. etc.) regarding the New Atheists?

    Perhaps Prof. Nisbet believes that framing only works with the ignorant masses, and doesn’t work so well with the scientific crowd.

    If so, he might be right. But it’s a bit ironic to see that guys like PZ are the ones with the more positive view of human nature…there’s no smart, or stupid, just ignorant. No need to spin…just a need to get the truth out.

  47. #47 Anton Mates
    September 20, 2007

    To sum up, Kurtz repeatedly emphasizes that it is wrong to draw a line in the sand between the godless and the religious.

    He also repeatedly emphasizes that what the New Atheists are actually doing is a good thing, even if it requires supplemental approaches.

    GROTHE: I take it that you wonder about how effective evangelical atheists are, if all they’re taking about is atheism.

    KURTZ: Well, look, I think they’ve had a positive impact. And I know most of the leaders, and they’ve published in Free Inquiry. So they’ve had positive impact, of course, they’re criticizing religion. However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that….One has to affirm a positive humanist morality.

    GROTHE: Look I really believe that God, belief in God, is a delusion. Is there anything wrong with Richard Dawkins, eminent scientist that he is, actually saying that, if he really believes that, if he has a good argument for it?

    KURTZ: No, I agree that it’s a delusion. And I think Dawkins is to be applauded for that. But only one shoe has dropped. We need to drop the other shoe.

    Evidently, he doesn’t believe that all the New Atheists are doing is “drawing a line in the sand.” And while he strongly advocates that other approaches than theirs also be taken, he nowhere suggests that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. should cease attacking religion, or that their overall contribution has been negative. (This in spite of the fact that he clearly thinks Harris and Hitchens are wrong in attacking “liberal religionists.”) And he certainly doesn’t argue that “when Dawkins et al. attack moderately religious Americans it alienates our natural allies and is a major self-inflicted wound.”

    Incidentally, I’d say that even Harris seems willing to ally with certain believers; he finds plenty to praise in Jainism and Buddhism. Hitchens I’ve never seen say a good thing about any religion, but then I haven’t read much of his output.

  48. #48 Duae Quartunciae
    September 21, 2007

    There seems to be a stark contrast between Kurtz and Nisbet. And that is that Kurtz actually does seem to be serious about shared values; both with the moderately religious and with the so-called “New Atheists”. Nisbet, on the other hand, does not come across that way. Even the title of this post gives the game away; he just can’t help a dig at the New Atheists.

    I’m a pretty conciliatory atheist. I work well with religious friends, who are nevertheless well aware of my own total disbelief. I’ve clashed with PZ a couple of times, though I continue to respect and value and read his contribution to the whole engagement.

    In this mix, I’d think I’m roughly aligned with Kurtz; though not so much with Nisbet. I do support the idea of working with religious believers who are willing to work with me, in cases where we have matching objectives; like good science education. So I guess I’m aligned with Nisbet on that as well. It’s just too bad that most of what I see from Nisbet seems to be mainly about attacking New Atheists.

  49. #49 Ruth
    September 21, 2007

    “3) And that these same people are having my arguments framed for them by their opinion leaders i.e. PZ Myers…”

    I’m sorry, who is supposed to be antagonising who by calling them ‘mindless sheep’ again?

    When your entire complaint seems to be that the ‘New Atheists’ insult the religious, why is it that you cannot seem to get through a day without suggesting that anyone who doesn’t swallow YOUR opinions un-chewed MUST be swallowing someone elses?

  50. #50 potentilla
    September 21, 2007

    @Matthew Nisbet – can you tell me where in your existing and forthcoming publications you list above, I can/will be able to find your answer to the question I asked September 19th 2.31 pm above?

  51. #51 J. J. Ramsey
    September 21, 2007

    Nisbet: “I know what you are saying, but I don’t think a comparison to PZ is a fair one!”

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that when trying to counter reality-distorting partisanship that comes from the likes of PZ, it is easy to become a partisan in the opposite direction and start to get careless with reasoning the way that a partisan does. I’ve done that myself, and gotten disemvoweled for it. Be wary of continuing to make similar mistakes.

  52. #52 oyunboy
    December 4, 2007

    Sebebini bilmediginiz seyler icin bosuna islem yapmayin.

  53. #53 murat
    June 29, 2008

    Tamam bu konulardan anlamam tamam,
    ama birazda siz cal???n.

  54. #54 samuel welsh
    December 24, 2010

    they should stop being ignorant and uncareing about others

New comments have been disabled.