Mixing Memory

Framing the Great Atheist Schism

As Trinifar says, we’re witnessing a great atheist schism. While there are actually several different types of atheists participating (I wonder if we’re just playing into the hands of anti-atheist rhetoric by pretending we are, or should be, a homogenous group), the tendency is to classify the participants into one of two groups. I’m not really sure, at this point, what we should call these groups. Those on one side of the schism have been called Churchill school atheist, skeptical atheists, new atheists (new to what, I’m not sure), “meanie” atheists, and several less flattering names (anti-religious bigots comes to mind). Those on the other side (which includes me) have been called Neville Chamberlain atheists, appeasers, and probably some other names I’m forgetting. My own inclination is to call the first group positivist atheists, but I know of some positivist atheists who consider themselves members of the second category, so that won’t really work. I don’t really know what to call the second group, largely because they seem to be much more heterogeneous than the first group. For example, while it’s pretty clear that all members of the first group are positivist (they are committed to a fairly strong version of scientism, at least), as I’ve just noted, some members of the second group are positivists, some are just strongly pro-science and reason, and some are relatively ambivalent about the epistemological status of science.

Furthermore, it’s not always easy to tell where the division lies, or what, exactly, the schism is about. For the most part, the first group — let’s just call them new atheists, as inaccurate as that label is — has framed the schism, and if you read around, it’s their version of it that you’ll see. According to them, the schism is about criticizing religion. They do it a lot, the way they see it, those in the second category — let’s call them old atheists, just for contrast — are against criticizing religion. Their frame has been bolstered, recently, by the framing science discussion, in which some have renewed their call for the new atheists to tone down their attacks of religion. But let’s be clear on this. I have yet to see an atheist say that atheists should not criticize religion at all. In fact, I suspect that most atheists aren’t big fans of religion in general, or specific religions that they encounter on a regular basis in particular, and have said so from time to time. I myself have said some not-so-flattering things about Christianity, describing it as a source of misogyny, homophobia, and intolerance in general. In fact, I would go so far as to say that religions tend to be inherently misogynistic and intolerant, because they reflect the inherently misogynistic and intolerant cultures that produce and maintain them.

But there’s a difference between being critical of religion, even harshly so, and insulting religion and the religious. I can say that religion is inherently misogynistic, while recognizing that there are plenty of religious people who aren’t misogynists (to the extent that it’s possible, in our society, not to be a misogynist). I doubt many old atheists would have a problem with me saying this, even if they disagreed with the content of my criticism. And because I intend my criticism as a step towards dialogue and change, I can actually discuss this with religious people. The new atheists, however, spend a lot of time insulting religion and the religious, whether they’re calling all religious people irrational or stupid, describing parents teaching their children about religion as child abuse, comparing belief in the Chrsitian God to belief in fairies and unicorns, or just endlessly mocking the religious. And that’s where the old atheists and the new atheists part ways. The old atheists feel that it’s imperative, both for improvement of the atheist image among non-atheists, and in order to create social change, that our criticisms of religion be voiced respectfully, even if forcefully. The new atheists have, in the words of one of their leaders, “nothing but contempt” for religious belief, and therefore feel they’re justified in their rudeness.

Which leads me to another of the new atheists attempts to frame the schism. While they’ve vigorously denied attempting any such thing, it’s quite clear to me, and to many others I think, that the new atheist-suffragette analogy was an attempt at framing. Even if you reject that, it was clearly an attempt to legitimize the new atheist rudeness by comparing it to sufragette (or feminist, gay rights activist, labor movement, civil rights activist) rudeness. But as I tried, and failed, to convey in my previous post, there’s a fundamental difference not only in what the new atheists and suffragettes were trying to acheive, but also in their particular forms of rudeness. The suffragettes, civil rights activists, etc., were rude in ways that disrupted the status quo, in order to call attention to their plight. The new atheists are rude simply in that they’re running around insulting large swaths of the population, and displaying an utter lack of respect for their most cherished beliefs.

No matter how hard the new atheists try to frame their side of the schism as the righteous side by comparing their methods, if not their mission, to those of clearly righteous movements, the fact remains that it’s blatant propaganda. And no matter how much they insist that we old atheists are trying to silence them altogether, or calling for them to stop criticizing religion, the fact remains that it’s not criticizing religion that we object to, but the way in which they do it, which is wholly uncritical.

I still think that dialogue is possible between the two sides, and the schism need not be permanent. But in order for there to be dialogue, the new atheists have to recognize exactly what it is about their behavior that the old atheist are objecting to. Even if the new atheists disagree with our objections, unless they’re honest about what those objections are, and stop pretending that we’re trying to silence them, or trying to appease the religious by forcing new atheists to tone it down, conversations are pretty much impossible. And if atheist are as embattled as many new atheists think they are, these days, then a schism is the last thing we need.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Harrison
    April 24, 2007

    Don’t forget about the atheists who find this whole deal silly.
    As you say yourself, even the “appeasers” criticize religion and insult religious beliefs from time to time. So where is the schism really? PZ and Dawkins do it *more* than you or I, and perhaps with more condescension? Both “sides” think the other is wrong in its methods, but the real difference is over how scathing the criticisms of religion should be?

  2. #2 bigTom
    April 24, 2007

    I don’t think there is any clean boundary between the two groups, just as there may not be a clean boundary between atheists and agnostics. I think the difference is more about tactics, and perhaps goals. The Chamberlains believe that the religious are so dominant in society -and likely to remain so for a long time. They will settle for getting by, i.e. they want to avoid being victimized by an anti-atheist
    pogrom. They are willing to settle for a modest increase in the US attitude of tolerance of all religions, to include those with no religion. The Churchillians, believe the fastest progress in the battle for a rational society will be made by active confrontation.

  3. #3 Kevin
    April 24, 2007

    The first I heard about the “schism” (I detest this religious framing, but I’ll play along), was with Ed Brayton ripping on PZ for criticizing Collins and that other theist scientist (forgot his name at the moment, not trying to belittle him). Ed then very clearly divided up the groups in two. Maybe the split happened earlier, with the “new” atheists writing about the split, but that is the first I saw of it.

    I think we understand the objections quite clearly. But at the same time, you haven’t given us any reason why we shouldn’t hold religious belief as the same as fairies and unicorns. I can’t help it that I find religious belief to be utterly ridiculous, whether it is the “Sky daddy” religion, or the ultra vague God of the philosophers used to shield God from critique that no real person believes in due to it’s utter emptiness.

    And you act as though Larry or PZ just decided, “hey, we’re like the suffregettes”. But they didn’t. It was in response to the statement that anger and rudeness never gets anything done. Well, time and time again, this has proven to be the most effective way at getting attention. PZ makes a very good point that I rarely see adressed. As much as the “old” atheists like to toot their horn about their great successes, they really haven’t gained any ground at all. Science education is still horrible and in many places getting worse. Because of religion, most teachers just completely ignore the topic altogther. So, while we can all be happy with Dover, the real issue are those other schools.

    It isn’t pretty, but the “new” atheist method gets people talking, it gets the issues exposure (check the best seller list for proof). It’ll cause a backlash from all sides (you’re proof of that), but in the end, I can’t see it being anything but a good thing. The polls show that most religious people don’t even know what they believe. Maybe the “new” atheists shining a spotlight on that and telling them how ridiculous it is will make them take the time to actually evaluate their beliefs. It’ll certainly work better then doing nothing.

  4. #4 Malthus
    April 24, 2007

    Chris, there is an exact analogy between the rhetoric of the suffragettes and that of the “meanie” atheists. You might want to read this Pandagon post. I particularly liked this bit: “Mere equality between men and women wasn’t considered reason enough to extend the franchise to women, but when the purity movement latched onto suffrage and started pushing the message that women were better than men, then things changed. Men were considered drunken, violent assholes who needed women’s civilizing hand to get them in shape.”

    Yeah, so some atheists are calling the religious idiots and are “insulting large swaths of the population, and displaying an utter lack of respect for their most cherished beliefs”. This is different from the above how, exactly?

  5. #5 razib
    April 24, 2007

    As much as the “old” atheists like to toot their horn about their great successes, they really haven’t gained any ground at all.

    that’s false. don’t you know any history since the french revolution?

    as a point of fact, i have been involved in ‘atheist activism.’ it has its place. my main problem with the ‘new atheists’ is that they’re focused more on atheism, one singular idea, then the bigger context of a tolerant and rational society. i know that they want, and argue for, a tolerant and rational society, but hammering on about atheism all the time doesn’t seem to be pushing the ball forward. and honestly, some of the ‘new atheists,’ like sam harris & michael onfry don’t know what they’re talking about.

  6. #6 Colugo
    April 24, 2007

    I suggest that the groups be called New Atheists and Reconciliationist Atheists. The latter group is reconciliationist in two respects: in terms of what science has to say about theism and atheism, and in terms of mutually respectful coexistence between theists and atheists devoid of Manichean zeal.

    Perhaps New Atheists and Reconciliationist Atheists cannot agree to disagree, but at the very least they ought to agree on what they are disagreeing about. Many New Atheists and their supporters insist that they are merely about atheist rights, advocacy, and visibility. But that does not serve to distinguish them from Reconciliationist Atheists.

    I have already stated in several comments on Mixing Memory and Pharyngula what I believe the defining characteristics of New Atheism are. The simplest formulation:

    1. Atheism is part of science, not just a personal philosophical or aesthetic preference.
    2. Because there is a heightening ideological struggle between faith and reason, religious faith must be universally ended (through peaceful persuasion).

    Victor Stenger’s ‘God: The Failed Hypothesis’ is a key text in the New Atheist movement.

    Sam Harris expresses both defining aspects in ‘Science Must Destroy Religion':
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/science-must-destroy-reli_b_13153.html

    “In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.”

    Frederick Crews criticizes Reconciliationists who emphasize the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism:
    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=198

    “(S)ome scientists and philosophers who are privately indifferent or hostile to transcendent claims nevertheless seek an accommodation with them. … Hence, they insist, the practice of science doesn’t entail metaphysical naturalism, or the atheist’s claim that spiritual causation is not only inadmissible but altogether unreal. …
    Metaphysical naturalism may be undiplomatic … but it is favored by the totality of evidence at hand.”

    What is Reconciliationist Atheism?

    Massiamo Pigliucci, ‘Science and fundamentalism’ Embo Reports, December 2005:
    “(M)any scientists can be both religious and believe in evolution… (M)ost people—including, alas, prominent science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins—do not make the subtle but crucial distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.”

    In 1998, Pigliucci held the view that God has been scientifically falsified. Minds can change in this debate.

    My previous comment on the defining characteristics of New Atheists:
    http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/04/youre_no_suffragist.php#comment-412507

    My comment on Pigliucci’s change in position on science and atheism:
    http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/04/youre_no_suffragist.php#comment-413208

  7. #7 Chris
    April 24, 2007

    Malthus, I’m pretty sure the characterization of the change in the suffragist movement at Pandagon is more than an oversimplification. It’s actually false. But Razib could better explain that than I can.

  8. #8 Colugo
    April 24, 2007

    The difference between “old atheism” and New Atheism:

    Pierre-Simon Laplace: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

    Victor Stenger: “The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the data. Indeed that hypothesis is falsified by the data.”

  9. #9 Richard
    April 24, 2007

    Part of the “schism” is, as Chris says, about the how to criticize religion rather than what criticize about it. But also, I think the two groups have somewhat different goals. The “new” atheists would like to see religion eventually marginalized. That doesn’t seem to be as big an issue with the “old” atheists, who have more of a live-and-let-live attitude. If one thinks that religion is basically pernicious, I think one has to side with the tactics of the “new” atheists, as I do. I don’t think that one can argue with the “new” atheist’s success in putting the issue of god’s existence into the public sphere. Has it ever been debated so publicly before (at least, in America)? And when was the last time that the Believers were so on the defensive?

  10. #10 razib
    April 24, 2007

    Pierre-Simon Laplace: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

    Victor Stenger: “The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the data. Indeed that hypothesis is falsified by the data.”

    thaz the diff between explicit/positive atheism & implicit/negative atheism. i mix the two myself depending the god hypothesis peddled.

    Has it ever been debated so publicly before (at least, in America)? And when was the last time that the Believers were so on the defensive?

    do you know about robert ingersoll? or the “golden age of freethought”? oh, and remember that the first six presidents of the united states were not orthodox chrisitans! (from unitarian christians to materialist deists) talk about the poverty of ahistoricism….

  11. #11 Todd
    April 24, 2007

    The “new atheists” are all fluffy bunnies compared to that old atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hare. Dawkins, for all the bad press he gets, is always very pleasant in person and down right gracious compared to how Madalyn behaved in public. Rude? PZ wishes he was as rude.

    I think both sides are wrong, if that’s possible. The new atheists are wrong because not all religious systems work like the ugly Abrahamic versions, and the old atheists don’t seem to realize that science has been rendered obsolete by pomo relativism. The fate of the humanity’s existence lies in the hands of scientists who have been marginalized out of the debate by mystical flimflam artists on both ends of the political spectrum and we’re sitting here arguing about which insulting names to label the other side.

    That leaves us misanthropes just wishing that mass extinction would hurry up and get here already.

  12. #12 bigTom
    April 24, 2007

    Some of us (at least myself) who believe that religion is pernicious fear that the time for aggressive confrontation is not here yet. We fear that premature action, especially in a majority ruled democracy is especially dangerous. I don’t want the US to end up as a Christian Fundamentalist ruled Fascist state, but that fate doesn’t seem to be beyond-the-pale today.

  13. #13 Kevin
    April 24, 2007

    I don’t think that people criticizing religious belief will lead to a Christian facist state, and I think that is pretty alarmist thinking (if that is what bigTom is implying, if not, I apologize for the mischaracterization).

    Chris, do you not think your “contempt” for new atheists might be colouring your viewpoint at all? All this schism talk is pretty over the top. Like someone mentioned, both “sides” criticize religion and religious belief. One side just does it more and more blatantly.

  14. #14 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 24, 2007

    I would suggest there’s a third camp, and it’s those who arrive at a skeptical view of religion by way of the humanities and the 60’s counter-culture movement.

    This came to mind while listening to an NPR podcast interview with Camille Paglia over the weekend. I will be blogging it when I get a chance this week. In the meantime, here is the link. It was on the NPR affiliate program Open Source:

    http://www.radioopensource.org/back-to-god-with-camille-paglia/

  15. #15 Scott Belyea
    April 24, 2007

    Chris Harrison:

    Don’t forget about the atheists who find this whole deal silly.

    Amen!! No … wait …

    “Silly” is an awfully well-chosen word. The divison is almost as silly as some atheists telling agnostics how misguided they are to call themselves “agnostic.”

  16. #16 Chris
    April 24, 2007

    Matt, yeah, that’s really the camp in which I fall, though not from the counter culture movement, but from social theory that came before it and largely defined the new left movement of the 60s). We’re critical of religion, but not in the same way as the new atheists, in part because we recognize the role of culture and society in both theism and atheism, religion and secularism.

  17. #17 revere
    April 24, 2007

    Being defined by what your aren’t (a theist) doesn’t mean that you have to agree with others who also aren’t that thing. We all do our atheism in different ways. That seems fine to me. If you aren’t a Republican, it doesn’t mean you are a Democrat. What’s the problem?

  18. #18 JYB
    April 24, 2007

    It’s sort of like how we pit minorities against each other (“Look at the nice Korean storekeeper, why can’t you get a job like him!”) and people of color all end up fighting amongst themselves instead of dealing with the white hegemony.

  19. #19 miko
    April 25, 2007

    “The new atheists are rude simply in that they’re running around insulting large swaths of the population, and displaying an utter lack of respect for their most cherished beliefs.”

    How is that different from suffragettes or civil rights activists again? “Cherished beliefs” don’t get much more cherished than belief in the inherent superiority of men and white people.

    The so-called “New Atheists” are demanding vehemently that religion be kept out of civic life, and trying to raise awareness of the constitutional, SCOTUS-verified principle that freedom OF religion includes freedom FROM religion.

    They also often provide their opinions that religions are on the whole ridiculous and will hopefully some day be non-existent, and their tone is frequently derisive. I’ve never heard a SINGLE one of them say that anyone should be legally stripped of their right to believe in anything.

    These are militants? The most extreme of them is a pussy cat compared to the genocidal, sociopathic infliction of mainstream religion on millions of people over just the last couple of centuries. Yeah, I know that religion is just an excuse for evil, not a cause of it. But I find it ridiculous that anything about the “New Atheist” position is considered extreme compared to people who believe (literally or not) that threat of an eternal torture chamber is a good pedagogical tool.

    I personally don’t see the point of willfully pissing people off if you are trying to convince them of something. At the same time, I won’t misreprent my opinion of religion as arbitrary folklore, and sometimes shocking people is a great way to get their attention. Either way, the New Atheism is as legitimate a voice as any other. This whole wave of the Warm Fuzzy Atheists attacking the New Atheists seems to be about a provincial communications agenda, and an attempt to limit a discussion to their own narrow terms. Look at most countries in the developed world and the marginal or negligible role of religion in politics (check with Bill O’Reilly if you don’t believe me). I give a fuck about talking down to the level of the idiotic quagmire of American sociopolitical discourse why?

  20. #20 Malthus
    April 25, 2007

    Chris, look into the intersection between the suffragette movement and the temperance movement, and you’ll find rhetoric along those lines.

  21. #21 Chris
    April 25, 2007

    Malthus, I’m still not sure that’s quite a fair representation (but again, I could be wrong; Razib knows more about this stuff than I do, and could better reply to this), but I’m not sure questionable alliances is a good way to defend a practice. For example, the suffrage movement was, in some circles, aligned with racist and xenophobic movements, arguing in essence that white, western European women should be able to vote to cancel out/counteract the influence of Eastern European votes. This was, I gather, a successful argument as well (and rather rude). I’m not sure it success justifies the tactic.

  22. #22 greemsmile
    April 25, 2007

    So finally, I have a label. I am a Neville Chamberlain atheist. I think of it as mere pragmatism. If most of the world is trying to limp along with a meme of projected conscience presiding over their world, I figure I gotta play the ball where it lies.

    Odd how few people thank me for this accomdation. Why don’t they appreciate a guy who is not bent on opening the Overton window for religious dicourse by using dynamite and dozers?

  23. #23 Clark
    April 26, 2007

    A few thoughts. Ironically many religious areas gave women the vote long before the secularists did. (Think Utah prior to Federal control)

    Interestingly it seems that many of the tensions Chris is pointing out in the atheist community can be found in the religious communities as well. There are many religious folks who take a live and let live attitude. If they attempt to proselytize they do it in a fashion more about saying what they believe and why rather than tearing down or attacking the beliefs of others. One can debate how effective this is. Fundamentalists tend to grow at a faster rate than the nicer religions. So perhaps the same would be true of atheism.

    I’d just note that this sort of polarizing activity tend to produce blowback. A lot of Christians already love the persecution complex for various reasons. (Primarily due to a longing for the “good old days” of Roman persecution I think) So quite contrary to the aims of atheists, I really think this would produce a lot of religious fervor.

    As to the attempts by some to tie science and atheism together, I confess I find that distasteful and perhaps problematic given the nature of science. More significantly it takes groups who ought be the atheists allies (religious people who are scientific and probably the group most open to treating atheists equally) and alienate them.

  24. #24 Kevembuangga
    April 26, 2007

    From the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens God Is Not Great via GNXP.
    And a french cartoon.
    (Translation : Your password ‘Allah Akbar’ does not exist. Contact the network admin.)

  25. #25 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    As to the attempts by some to tie science and atheism together, I confess I find that distasteful and perhaps problematic given the nature of science. More significantly it takes groups who ought be the atheists allies (religious people who are scientific and probably the group most open to treating atheists equally) and alienate them.

    Sorry, but I refuse to assent to claims I don’t believe are true (that theism and religion are compatible with science and reason) simply because you find criticizing those claims “distasteful,” or believe that challenging them undermines some topical political agenda (the teaching of evolution in public schools, or whatever else it may be).

    And by the way, if you’re hoping this will all blow over, I think you’re likely to be disappointed. Religion is on the skids. Its power, prestige and popularity have been in gradual decline for a long time. But we now seem to be approaching a threshold. The old deal–the irreligious pretending to respect religion, and the religious pretending to believe them–is over. Hostility to religion and public criticism of religion are growing. Not just hostility to particular religions or religious doctrines, but hostility to religion itself. This trend is clearest in Europe, but it’s happening here too. I hope and expect it to deepen.

  26. #26 John B
    April 26, 2007

    I hope my beliefs about things don’t end up being the target of this growing global hostility. I kind of liked being wrong sometimes.

  27. #27 Chris
    April 26, 2007

    JasonR, I’d recommend a history textbook. Skip ahead to the section on France circa 1789. After you see what genuine hostility to religion looks like, compare it to talking really loud, usually out of the ass (ala Dawkins or Myers), about religion, and tell me that religion isn’t doing just fine in the United States and just about everywhere but Western Europe now.

  28. #28 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    Chris,

    If you seriously think France circa 1789 was less religious than France circa 2007, you’re the one who needs a history book. You do understand that the French Revolution was a rebellion against tyranny and privilege, not a rebellion against religion, don’t you?

    As for your notion that religion is “doing just fine,” I suppose if you consider a doubling of the proportion of the population that professes to have “no religion” over a mere decade to be “doing just fine,” then it is. More thoughtful apologists for religion, however, are rightly alarmed by that development, and the abundance of other evidence indicating that religion is declining rapidly throughout the developed world.

  29. #29 Chris
    April 26, 2007

    Jason, yeah, again, a history book would help. Are you familiar with the de-Christianization of France? The anti-clericalism that resulted in physical violence towards the clergy in certain areas? The “Cult of Reason” and “Cult of the Supreme Being?” The open hostility towards the Catholic church in particular makes Dawkins/Myers handwaving look positively tame — and baseless. Granted, France was not entirely anti-spirituality or theism (Deism), but it was certainly openly anti-religion.

  30. #30 Colugo
    April 26, 2007

    Examples of atheism and naturalism turned into quasi-religions: Cult of Reason, Monism, dialectical materialism, Objectivism, Extropianism.

  31. #31 JasonR
    April 26, 2007

    Keep playing that fiddle, Chris. I do find your strange devotion to religion and your passionate hostility towards what you call “scientism” very bizarre. I wonder where it comes from.

  32. #32 Chris
    April 26, 2007

    Jason, I’m not sure I follow. Instead of addressing the point (that Dawkins et al. are just silly compared to real hostility towards religion, and the history to which I referred), you say I’m devoted to religion and hostile towards “scientism.” Huh?

    Now, I am hostile towards scientism, which Dawkins, Myers, Moran, Harris, etc. clearly display. Do you know what scientism is?

    But did you read this post? Devoted to religion? I prefer the French hostility to religion, and the motivations for it. Granted, I don’t advocate violence of any sort, but if you’re going to attack religion, you should, as I’ve argued previously, recognize it for what it is — a social institution, determined in its content and behavior by social processes — and address it/attack it appropriately. If you do so on purely epistemological grounds, particularly from a position as internally inconsistent as scientism, you’re fighting a battle that was lost 50 years ago in philosophy, and will never be won among the general public.

  33. #33 miko
    April 27, 2007

    Chris,

    I know what “scientism” is: it’s a straw man. Your first clue should be that no one claims “scientism” as their position. Unless you want to take the extreme relativist position that there is no external, observable reality, you are as much a “scientismist” as anyone else.

    You seem to be saying that it is only permissible to criticize and engage with religion as a social phenomenon. That’s rubbish, there is an epistemological argument to be had, and I’d be interested to hear why you think it ended 50 years ago (I smell Tripplehorn).

    To me, this isn’t about two ways of understanding the world. It’s about one honest effort to try and understand the world and one way of willfully deciding not to. How is this not a valid position, and a persuasive one, from which to argue against the role of religion in social policy?

    Finally, who cares if religion is “doing fine?” As far as I know, no one is arguing for the immediate abolition of religion, they are just hoping that it gradually fades from our society from irrelevance. The argument is about removing religion as much as possible from civic life and politics. Among developed countries, the US is a lonely freak when it comes to this.

  34. #34 Chris
    April 27, 2007

    “Scientism” would be a straw man if people hadn’t said on their own blogs, and in comments on this one, that science is the only route to truth.

    And feel free to criticize religion on epistemological grounds, but if you do so from the position that science disproves it, you’ve already lost.

  35. #35 Richard
    April 27, 2007

    Chris, you seem to be jumbling up the two issues I tried to separate in my post, viz., (1) whether religious beliefs are in fact epistemically unjustified, i.e. ought not to be believed; and (2) whether it’s inappropriate for New Atheists to draw attention to this fact, e.g. by accurately describing precisely how bad the belief in question is (as unjustified as belief in faeries, or whatever case may be).

    You complain that New Atheists are “displaying an utter lack of respect for [others'] most cherished beliefs” — as if “cherishing” a belief enough made it inappropriate to criticise, no matter how accurate the criticism might be. That sounds like a type-2 complaint.

    But then a paragraph later, you insist it’s not the criticizing that’s wrong, but the fact that the New Atheist is being “wholly uncritical”, by which I presume you mean the New Atheist’s arguments simply aren’t any good: a type-1 complaint.

    If new atheists have trouble “recogniz[ing] exactly what it is about their behavior that the old atheist[s] are objecting to”, this isn’t necessarily due to a lack of “honesty” or good faith on their part. It could just be that the old atheists are not being very clear.

    Aside: At times, you give the impression that anyone who cares about truth and evidence/reason is an idiot in the thralls of “scientism”. While such disrespect for the cherished epistemic values of new atheists would be legitimate if adequately supported, you haven’t given any reason — that I’ve seen — to think that it is. All I’m perceiving is the attack, and not the reasons for it. So please, start that dialogue: make your next post on atheism one that shows why the new atheist position is wrong, rather than just throwing around epithets (“scientism”, etc.) that may or may not stick.

  36. #36 Chris
    April 27, 2007

    Richard, I went into more detail about scientism in previous posts (the ones a few months ago).

    I have another one in the wings, but I’m going to wait for this to settle down a bit first.

    On the other part: I think it’s possible to show respect to positions you disagree with, and to criticize with respect. That’s what I was suggesting.

    By the way, I’m all for truth and evidence. I am, after all, a scientist. What I am not for is the belief, expressed by blogging and book-writing new atheists that science is the ultimate source of all truth.

  37. #37 Richard
    April 27, 2007

    Fair enough; I think maths and philosophy (and reason generally) are good sources of truth in addition. But neither of them provide any support to pop theism either. So that doesn’t really alter the strength of the epistemic grounds for criticizing religious belief.

    A quick question: do you think it’s possible for a truth-claim to be genuinely ridiculous, i.e. so epistemically unjustified as to not warrant intellectual respect? Perhaps this is the core issue of contention…

  38. #38 Chris
    April 27, 2007

    I suspect some people, including some readers of this blog (and yours) would argue that philosophy does provide good reasons for believing in a higher power. You and I would disagree with them, of course, but there are very real differences of opinion that have to be addressed on their merits — something Dawkins, for example, refuses to do.

    I do think there are claims that are genuinely ridiculous. In fact, I think that the idea of a personal God is one of those.

  39. #39 Richard
    April 27, 2007

    Insofar as the new atheists are concerned with religion as found in our society (what I call “pop theism”), it’s only this “personal God” that they’re addressing.

    So you agree, in this case, that ridicule is perfectly justified after all?

  40. #40 John B
    April 27, 2007

    As far as I know, no one is arguing for the immediate abolition of religion, they are just hoping that it gradually fades from our society from irrelevance.

    Miko, I agreed with almost everything you had to say except the above. The new tactic is to make everyone’s religious beliefs extremely relevant.

  41. #41 Chris
    April 27, 2007

    Richard, no, I still don’t think ridicule is justified. Epistemological factors aren’t the only things that determine what people believe (and that goes for me as well), and as a result, epistemological absurdity doesn’t qualify someone for ridicule. Oh, and the arguments against the existence of God you’ll find in The God Delusion and other “new atheist” books argue against the existence of a God that could be impersonal as well.

  42. #42 Chris' Wills
    April 27, 2007

    As to the attempts by some to tie science and atheism together, I confess I find that distasteful and perhaps problematic given the nature of science. More significantly it takes groups who ought be the atheists allies (religious people who are scientific and probably the group most open to treating atheists equally) and alienate them.

    Posted by: Clark | April 26

    I agree, it is this deliberate and unfactual linking that I find moste distasteful and harmful (harmful to science that is). Science has always been agnostic, in respect of the god question and the claim that methodological naturalism = philosophical naturalism is just false.

    One might conjecture that some people have little knowledge of the history and roots of modern science and the difference between a method and a philosophy.

  43. #43 Chris' Wills
    April 27, 2007
    As to the attempts by some to tie science and atheism together, I confess I find that distasteful and perhaps problematic given the nature of science. More significantly it takes groups who ought be the atheists allies (religious people who are scientific and probably the group most open to treating atheists equally) and alienate them.

    Sorry, but I refuse to assent to claims I don’t believe are true (that theism and religion are compatible with science and reason) simply because you find criticizing those claims “distasteful,” or believe that challenging them undermines some topical political agenda (the teaching of evolution in public schools, or whatever else it may be)…….Posted by: JasonR | April 26

    Whatever your personal beliefs, the fact that you appear willing to damage and misrepresent science makes you no better than those you claim to dislike.

    You may believe that your philosophy is correct, you may find that science bolsters your faith. That is your business. But don’t try and equate a methodology to your personal belief set.

  44. #44 JasonR
    April 27, 2007

    Chris’ Wills,

    Mixing Memory Chris doesn’t seem to like debates and discussions about the conflict between science and religion on his blog, or indeed any criticism of religion other than the “fundamentalist” kind, but we talk about those things all the time over at PZ Myers’ blog, so if you really believe that religion and theism are compatible with science and reason, come on over to PZ’s place and try to defend your position there. You’ll have a much bigger audience, and many more participants in the discussion.

  45. #45 Peter Garner
    April 28, 2007

    Frankly, before I was directed to this post (which I found eminently reasonable) I had no idea such a debate even existed. I’m flabbergasted.

    I knew that Dawkins is a shit-disturber but have more or less agreed with what he has to say, though I’ve always loathed the way he says it.

    I’m a third-generation atheist, and our family has seen its fair share of debates on the topic of religion, but the one thing that has always struck me is that whenever you attack religion, it only digs its heels in harder.

    It seems to me that if you’re “preaching” reason, then a calm and reasoned approach is the most seemly one. Creating resentment never wins an argument or a convert.

  46. #46 Chris
    April 29, 2007

    JasonR, after 100+ comments, most of which include some disagreement with me, you’re dumb enough to say that I don’t “seem to like debates and discussions about the conflict between science and religion” on my blog? Reality, meet JasonR; JasonR, meet reality.

  47. #47 Alipio
    April 30, 2007

    I thik PZ’s blog is a continuous exercize of tasteless after tastless “framing”. Simplistic equivalences and confoations to get a propagandistic message across being “religon and appeasers suck” or something in these lines.
    Easily digested crappy ideas even though bad or evidently unfair are used anyways as a means to “proselitize”. proselitize they do: the notion that scientists muts be chauvinistic fools and assholes.
    Only retards and teenagers I think can take that man’s posture seriously.

  48. #48 Alipio
    April 30, 2007

    “confoations” = conflations

  49. #49 Chris' Wills
    May 1, 2007

    Chris’ Wills, Mixing Memory Chris doesn’t seem to like debates and discussions about the conflict between science and religion on his blog, or indeed any criticism of religion other than the “fundamentalist” kind, but we talk about those things all the time over at PZ Myers’ blog, so if you really believe that religion and theism are compatible with science and reason, come on over to PZ’s place and try to defend your position there. You’ll have a much bigger audience, and many more participants in the discussion.
    Posted by: JasonR | April 27

    Well it is obviously true that science and religion are compatible given the number of scientists who claim to be religious.
    A measurable fact, scientific :o).

    That wasn’t what I said, I said that method doesn’t equal philosophy and that atheists shouldn’t claim that it does.

    I have posted on PZs blog, bit of a trial given the propensity for swearing and the automatic attacks on any dissenters (please note it was a discussion about vestigiality not religion). As with AIG, I might wander over there again someday.

  50. #50 Brandon
    May 2, 2007

    How many goals are set and accomplished by blog readers of either PZ or Chris (including themselves) on the “atheist front”? If I could be of any service whatsoever it would be to recommend that instead of dividing a bunch of quite random people into 2 groups. You actually debate/talk to specific people. What gets accomplished when people agree with you? What sorts of things do you personally do that others should give time and attention? Do you consider yourself a strategic mastermind or an atheist pundit?

    If all we’re doing is playing the opinion game then all atheists should just start reading up on marketing, propaganda, persuasion, negotiating, etc.

  51. #51 B.Adu
    May 9, 2007

    The things I don’t like about shouty atheists are;
    They pretend science is a religion.
    They say too many things that are blatantly false,such as,
    ‘I have no beliefs’
    ‘All things wrong with humankind are down to religion’ etc.
    The fact that human beings keep creating religion, means it is worthy of study in and of itself, as one of the central facts of being human is that we do not fully understand ourselves, and the way our minds work. I can’t stand it when we pretend we do know everything about ourselves, something that religion often loves to do.
    I couldn’t care less about appeasing religion, but you cannot build anything close to the truth on so many lies. If you want to shout down religion, fine, but why do you have to insult people’s intelligence?

  52. #52 alexa
    May 10, 2007

    For me at least, the motivation to move towards the ‘churchillian’ camp vs the ‘neville chamberlain’ was 9/11 and some of the responses to it. In the past I think I could feel that religion was a relatively harmless delusion and the worst aspects of it for us in the West (bigotry etc) could be fought in a political context. That position is harder and harder to hold, so I think there is a ‘call to action’.
    Having said that, I don’t see it as a ‘schism’, just a spectrum of emphasis.

  53. #53 Chris
    May 10, 2007

    Wow, that sound an awful lot like the, “I used to be a liberal, but then 9/11 happened” line you hears often. Now, I don’t recall ever saying that religion was harmless, but then you’re kidding yourself if you think any social institution (and that includes science and every other current and potential secular institution) is harmless. And to be honest, I think it’s pretty clear that if you lose religion, something else will replace it in its socio-political role pretty quickly. Hell, science did so to a large extent at the turn of the 20th century, and with disastrous consequences. People are going to do really bad things, and they’ll use any justification they can find — be it religion, race, technology, or if they can’t find anything else, friggin’ extraterrestrials.

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