Pharyngula

At last, I get it. I understand what “framing” is. It’s pandering to the status quo, the petty conventions, and the bigotry of the majority. It means don’t rock the boat, don’t be different, don’t stand up for your beliefs. It means CONFORM. You will get other people to support you if you just abandon your principles and adopt theirs. That’s the clear message I get from Matt Nisbet now.

Forget it. If this is “framing,” it’s useless—it’s a tool for opposing change.

The first thing that Nisbet and DJ Grothe do is pummel a straw man for a bit. Atheism is not a civil rights issue, they say, it’s a public image problem, and therefore these “New Atheists” are all wrong. They are incorrect. It’s both a civil rights issue and a public image problem (with the latter by far the most important aspect), and the assertive campaigns by atheists — this is more a matter of new tactics rather than any kind of new atheism — are exactly what is right.

The commenters there have done a fine job of handing Nisbet and Grothe their asses on this one, with links to lots of instances of the problem of atheism as a civil rights issue. There are unconstitutional laws on the books in several states that in principle preclude atheists for running for any office; that is a civil rights issue. We have schools that try to make our kids take a loyalty oath which includes acknowledging a nonexistent god; that is a civil rights issue. We have government support of ridiculous “faith-based” charities that exclude secular institutions; that is a civil rights issue. We have widespread bigotry against atheists that is encouraged by authorities — try living in the rural midwest if you think there aren’t such situations going on all the time.

Grothe’s article is particularly annoying in this regard. He’s resting his argument on the fact that atheists haven’t suffered comparable harm to minorities and women, and yes, we already know this. We aren’t being lynched or imprisoned in our own homes, we’re just being metaphorically kicked in the shins every day. The fact that injustices are small does not change the fact that they are injustices, nor does the fact that there are greater crimes being committed mean that the littler ones should be ignored. Grothe’s litany of greater problems is nothing but a demand for passivity from atheists.

However, far from being the paramount focus of modern atheism, atheists have treated civil rights violations simply on a case-by-case basis. It’s there, all right, but we don’t have a simple, sweeping case of legal discrimination that has to be dealt with; we aren’t denied the right to vote, we aren’t told to sit at the back of the bus, there aren’t many laws that overtly discriminate against non-believers, and the main legal issue we have to deal with are pervasive attempts (some successful) to get the government to endorse religious belief. We know all this; nobody has complained that atheists are oppressed anywhere near as badly as minorities or women. No one is demanding legal redress in the form of something analogous to the Civil Rights Act or universal suffrage. So really, Nisbet’s argument begins with a lie, a false claim that we are making a big deal out of one view of the issue … which greatly simplifies his job of dismissing it.

One of the common claims that has been amplified by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that “atheism is a civil rights issue.”

That is complete bullshit. Neither of those two writers are making any kind of argument about civil rights. In the entirety of The God Delusion, Dawkins mentions civil rights precisely once, in the context of fundamentalist Christians who insist that discriminating against homosexuals is their civil right. Here it is.

The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar
Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discrimination against homosexuals and other groups,
has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century:
‘Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be
Christian.’

Seriously, that’s it. I searched the whole book for discussions of law and legal arguments, and they simply aren’t there — it is not a book that takes a position on atheism as a civil right or argues that we need to modify our laws or fight for the right to disbelieve in the courts. Nisbet begins his whole argument with a gross misrepresentation. Dawkins’ book is entirely about raising consciousness, about providing a useful rational framework for arguing against theism, and motivating atheists to stand up and be counted — to make themselves known and to be proud of their ideas and heritage. And this makes Nisbet’s and Grothe’s suggestion particularly ironic and clueless.

Yet is atheism really a civil rights issue? The answer is a resounding “No.” In a column at Free Inquiry magazine, DJ Grothe, vice president for public outreach at the Center for Inquiry, lays out the case against atheism as a civil rights issue, and argues as I do, that atheists don’t face a civil rights battle but rather a public image problem. (To Grothe’s argument, I would add that this image problem is only made worse by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign.)

We have a “public image problem,” Sherlock? Good grief. Has this guy even read Dawkins and Hitchens? Their books are not legal or political guides for a civil rights movement — they are manifestos for an atheist world view. They lay out in simple arguments and good prose the atheist position — they stake out what our image is to ourselves, and help to clarify the atheist identity. They have written books that simply and plainly say “we are godless, and this is what we think,” and the hapless Nisbet has essentially replied, “Well, yeah, and that’s your whole problem right there, and you’re making it worse by making your ideas public.” With friends like these…

Atheists benefit from the fact that our difference is entirely in our brains, so as long as we silence ourselves, we can ‘pass’—it means that any civil rights problems we experience are going to be sporadic rather than unavoidable and pervasive. This is to our advantage, but it also has the unfortunate side effect that many who claim to be our friends think the best way for atheists to get what they want is to continue to be silent, and also lets them blame the atheists themselves for any problems, because they never would have occurred if only Dawkins would shut up and if those darned atheists would just stop expressing themselves. They completely miss the point that hiding our identity is not a viable solution, hasn’t worked at all, and has led to a country overrun with pious sideshow freaks who want to wage a holy war against Islam and think good science is teaching kids that the earth is 6000 years old.

Our particularly idiotic friends go further and tell us to stop fighting battles we aren’t fighting in the first place, and smugly inform us that we need to wage a public relations campaign, instead … without noticing that that is exactly what we are doing. The problem they actually have is that we are, in these last few years, running a successful public relations campaign that doesn’t compromise our principles and that is being well-received — we are being up-front and bold about our ideas, and making it clear that we are here to stay, and that we plan to grow. Perhaps Nisbet’s problem is personal: we’re doing PR without “framing” atheism as a meek and innocuous idea that is obligingly compatible with pretending that politicians relying on god’s input into their decision-making is a good plan. In fact, let’s just throw this whole “framing” idea out — we’ve got this radical idea that just telling the truth about what we believe might be a good strategy.

The funniest part of their complaints is when they start whining that the “New Atheists” are “polarizing” — which is shorthand for making the religious unhappy. Talk about missing the point — yes, we are. We want to make the Pat Robertsons of the world very, very angry, and we want to make it clear that we are opposing their lunacy every step of the way, and we want to make the religious moderates ashamed of their meekness and apathy. The alternative to polarizing is to surrender and just let the one side have their way, as they have since Reagan. Since the gutless Christian moderates have allowed the religious right to walk all over them, I think it’s about time the “New Atheists” rose up and provided some opposition. We’re proud to be polarizing when the other side is such a catastrophic collection of stupid ideas; we are not hurt or remorseful when we are accused of being militantly against religious idiocy, and that we are trying to gather more to our cause. It’s a point of honor, actually, so I’m deeply unimpressed with people so out of touch that they don’t even recognize that basic issue. The lack of polarization has been a disaster for this country.

Nisbet has convinced me. He has framed his ideas so well that I am now confident that framing is nothing but pandering to the status quo, and of absolutely no use when your goal is change. It’s a tool I can safely ignore.


Jason beat me to the punch, but we say pretty much the same things.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    June 29, 2007

    There’s a reason so many people get their undies in a knot when the plight of atheists is compared to past civil rights problems:

    It’s not only true, it’s a damn effective rhetorical strategy.

    If people object to an argument, it might not be because they’re concerned about your cause and think you’ve made a poor choice. It might be because they want to convince you to abandon a winning strategy.

  2. #2 paulh
    June 29, 2007

    Not so much Neville Chamberlain as Philippe Petain or Vidkun Quisling.

  3. #3 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 29, 2007

    This seems familiar.

    “Nobody’s keeping blacks out of major-league baseball, they just haven’t found anyone good enough yet.”

    And….

    “I’ve got no problem with anybody being gay. I just don’t think they should parade it about.”

    Et cetera.

    PZ, even though I’m sympathetic with the ‘framing’ argument, even though I’m not an atheist, I have to say Nisbet is wrong, wrong, wrong. Atheism is a civil rights issue, else why would this exist?

    The rest of your argument seems similarly cogent, as does Caledonian’s comment. Speaking of which, old Scot, your glory awaits you.

  4. #4 Brian Thompson
    June 29, 2007

    After reading your post, and viewing comments from a variety of readers, I feel like my own comment on Nisbet’s post didn’t go far enough. Thanks for being more bold than I was willing to be.

  5. #5 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    One thing strikes me about all this, and that is atheists tend to be pretty active in supporting the civil rights of others.

    I do not see atheists calling for religious people to not be given jobs, or sacked from jobs they have, just because those people happen to hold views on religion that are not shared by atheists. On the contrary, I see atheists saying that no one should be discriminated against because of their religious views, or lack thereof. Of course if someone holding strong religious views insists on allowing those views affect how they do their job (such as trying to teach that the earth is only a few thousand years old) then the situation is different, but it is important to note that the objection then made to their employment is not based upon the person’s religion but upon how they do their job.

    Likewise it tends not be atheists who say that someone’s skin colour, or gender, or sexuality should be criteria used in assessing suitability for employment.

    Nisbett et al seem to accept that being denied employment based on your sex, skin colour or sexuality is not only wrong but also a violation of a person’s civil rights. Why they refuse to accept that a person’s religious views should not also be considered a civil right is not something they seem to have explained very well.

  6. #6 Brian W.
    June 29, 2007

    *sigh* i’m so disappointed in DJ Grothe. I was listening to the Point Of Inquiry podcast on the way to work today.

    One of the things that i’ve thought was missing from the books by Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens was that they DIDN’T touch on the civil rights arguments are much as i’d liked.

  7. #7 CCP
    June 29, 2007

    I think Nisbet’s post and subsequent comments are just an excuse to juxtapose the word “atheist” with the phrase “sophomoric attacks” as many times as possible.
    see, that’s “framing.”

  8. #8 Patness
    June 29, 2007

    Framing is very useful – but twisting it to conformity makes it useless. You’ve got a job to do, framing will help you do it. It’s there to take advantage of natural susceptibilities; it’s there to take advantage of the large common ground that conformity provides. It’s not there to actually BE conformist, in the end, and anyone that says otherwise has not been in the people business very long.

    That said, one of the most common results I see is people pretending conformity and playing the good son while they rape the system (any government, any corporation).

  9. #9 redstripe
    June 29, 2007

    Well said. Posts like this make me thankful that we have people like you writing online. It is invigorating. It makes me think of times when people had to rely on subversive midnight pamphlets to find someone writing about what they believed in. How exciting it must have been to get something like that and be able to point to it: yes, this is what I believe.

    I’ve thought this way about dozens of your posts, Prof. Myers, and I know other people do too. Thanks (again) for your work.

  10. #10 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Patness,

    With regards framing being useful, in as much that if you are trying to get a message across it it sensible to look at your target audience and pitch your message accordingly, then it does make sense. However that much is also nothing new, common sense and I suspect fully understand by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. The problems come about because Nisbett, Brayton et al do not seem to understand that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris were not targeting fundamentalist or moderate theists, they were talking to atheists, telling us it is time to stand up and be counted. The fact that such calls to arms have attracted such attention is no doubt especially galling to those appeasers who’s actions seem to have achieved so little date Ok, they have won a few court cases but they do not seem to have make any inroads into the attitudes that meant their had to be such court cases in the first place.

  11. #11 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    A little while ago, I wrote,

    I have come to hypothesize that there are the reasonable Mooney and Nisbet, who get written up in places like Brainard’s article [on the Columbia Journalism Review website], and then there are their insane twin brothers who keep trying to kick those uppity atheists back into the corner. (Similar statements about rational and bizarre twins have been made for Thomas Kuhn and Lee Smolin.) To a first approximation, if I heard some people saying what Curtis Brainard records Nisbet and Mooney as saying, my response would resemble the following:

    “Yeah, OK, we need more and better communicators. Are your claims that such-and-such technique worked in your example cases A, B, and C actually falsifiable, or are they Just-So Stories? What are your plans for funding plans X and Y, and what do you think of plan Z?”

    Instead, I get told that if I speak what observation and inference tell me are the truth, I’m giving “creationist adversaries a boost,” and therefore I should keep my mouth shut about things I’ve known since I was a preteen bookworm.

    Right.

    As I mentioned over at Jason Rosenhouse’s place, people should think back to the early days of the “framing” kerfluffle, when Coturnix divided the problem into short-term and long-term strategies. “Framing,” he said, could be useful in the short term, while bulking up the critical thinking standards and scientific literacy of the citizen body was necessary in the long term. OK?

    Now, the thing is, issues of civil liberty are inherently long-term problems. We’re talking about securing rights not just for ourselves but for our posterity. Everyone who hopes for a secular America with a well-mended wall between Church and State talks in timescales of generations. So, I can’t help but conclude that concerns of “framing” have at most secondary importance.

    Also, I personally did not reject all the gods and goddesses as born of human dreaming and then turn around to dose myself with homeopathic medicines and finger my spirit crystals. Atheism is a consequence of marrying skepticism with wonder, of learning to love truth more than preconceptions; it is not the only consequence, although it appears to be a socially significant one.

    (I’ll take it as an empirically demonstrated fact that some people, possessed of a certain honesty and moral character, can hold on to parts of their religious beliefs which they deem significant whilst accepting and even enjoying the truths uncovered by science. Why organizations can’t do this as well as individuals is another question, as is what tomorrow’s discoveries might do to such structures of belief. It’s important to remember, I believe, that not all such “moderates” take the same approach. I have a great deal more respect for the Hatfields and Chu-Carrolls of this world, however many there are, than I do for the Collinses, who typically apply the same arguments to human moral behavior that Michael Behe does to the bacterial flagellum. All these are questions which require more data to clarify, not just philosophical musings, and right now, they’re all questions for another day.)

  12. #12 CalGeorge
    June 29, 2007

    WTF is a “School of Communications” anyways? And why would anybody want to go there?

    Don’t all those vapid faux journos we see on T.V. have “communications” degrees?

    Fwaming means never having to say you’re pissed off, fed up, and not going to take it anymore!

  13. #13 mojojojo
    June 29, 2007

    Nisbit kind of has a point. We need Atheist Pride parades! And holidays of our own! Also tons of t-shirts, jewelry, and knickknacks. And weekly meeting places, with bands, lightshows, and inspiring speeches, just like the theists! And summer Atheist Camp for the kids!

    Defending atheism with logic alone makes it easy for the theists to conclude that we are all somewhat mean-spirited and dull. After all, reasoning is hard and requires reading and and thinking and sitting arguing and stuff–where’s the fun in that? Creating a circus atmosphere around atheism may be undignified, but then, what kind of asshat would try to deny a clown his civil right to gambol about?

  14. #14 CalGeorge
    June 29, 2007

    Sort of ironic that the anti-polarization Nisbet refers to atheists as being on a “PR campaign”, as being “sophomoric”, and calls the atheists NetRoots an “echochamber” where we are engaged in a “feeding frenzy”.

    Fuck you forever, Nisbet. You’re a prick. Go play woith Mike S. Adams. That’s where you belong.

    He’s just vaulted to the top of my shit list.

  15. #15 cm
    June 29, 2007

    Could it be that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Stenger, PZ Myers, et al. are providing framing already? Atheism framed as smart, new, New York Times Bestseller List, clever, impassioned, articulate, engaged, blogspheric, and very very 21st century, babe.

  16. #16 Jimmy
    June 29, 2007

    “Since the gutless Christian moderates have allowed the religious right to walk all over them, I think it’s about time the “New Atheists” rose up and provided some opposition.”

    I agree — and that’s true not only for the issue of atheism, but for everything else as well.

    The problem is not that liberals have offended the extremist religious right too much, the problem is that we have not offended them enough.

    Look at what happens when people actually stand up against their nonsense, as in the case of John and Elizabeth Edwards telling Ann Coulter to take a long hike — over a cliff.

    I suppose they could have framed the whole thing differently, and said something like “Ann, we respect your bigotry. Some of our long lost relatives may even have been bigots [the familiarity frame] and we still love them (whoever they were) [the lovey-dovey frame] , so let’s just agree to disagree [the congeniality frame], shall we?”

  17. #17 AB
    June 29, 2007

    I think one of the most important points you make is that atheists aren’t recognizable upon simple inspection. If atheists (and only atheists) had blue hair, I think we would see _many_ more cases of discrimination and “atheist bashing” might become a phenomenon common enough to deserve the name.

  18. #18 Reginald Selkirk
    June 29, 2007

    I am reproducing my response to Nisbet here, since he has been known to censor his blog:

    Thank you for putting your title in all caps, it tips us off as to how seriously you should be taken.
    You say that atheists have the same civil rights as others, but if those rights are routinely, yes routinely, violated, then there is indeed a civil rights issue to be addressed.
    Here’s one issue in which routine bias occurs: Anti-atheist discrimination in child custody cases, as researched by Eugene Volokh.

  19. #19 CalGeorge
    June 29, 2007

    “I’ve got no problem with anybody being gay. I just don’t think they should parade it about.”

    Exactly! He would undoubtedly favor a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for atheists.

  20. #20 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    CalGeorge,

    I always thought that communication in academic circles was something to be done as part of being academic rather than something to be studied in its own right. If you want to study how various groups engage in communication then I would have thought you should be doing sociology.

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2007

    No, no. Framing atheism as smart and bold isn’t framing — it’s only framing if we do it the way Nisbet wants us to, and that requires lying on our tummies and stifling our tears in our pillow and being very, very quiet while the good Padre has his way with us. Silence and obedience is the frame we’re supposed to be in.

  22. #22 Dave W
    June 29, 2007

    The issue is whether to frame or not; it’s a debate over whether to use a confrontational frame or a conformational one. Hitchens, Dawkins, et.al. are indeed framing the debate, a frame of reason v. idiocy. Grothe finds this particular frame objectionable and confrontational.

    Lakoff and others often advocate choosing frames that conform to desirable ideas of the majority, but framing does not have to mean conforming to the status quo, although many would say that to improve chances of success one should do this. That framing faith as “idiocy” is a marketing mistake–one should not antagonize those one wishes to convince.

    This argument for non-confrontation is not necessarily correct.There have been thousands of successful marketing and ad campaigns based on the idea that only losers don’t use the advertised product. The religious right certainly continually frames arguments in confrontational terms, especially among themselves–us v. the evil sinners. Such framing can be highly effective. In the case of atheism as reason v. idiocy, this confrontational framing can be especially effective as the people you are seeking to convince, the nominal theists, are not going to be especially offended, at least not once you gotten their attention with the initial shock and they start thinking about it. You’re never going to convince the hard-core faithful, so don’t worry about offending them.

  23. #23 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    paulh:

    Not so much Neville Chamberlain as Philippe Petain or Vidkun Quisling.

    It’s interesting to ponder what the term “Philippe Pétain atheist” would imply. Pétain was the “savior of Verdun,” a hero when France fought the Germans in World War One. Then along came part two, and Pétain became a collaborator and Vichy France’s chief of state.

    I am not fond of the Churchill and Chamberlain label-tossing, partly because they’re disgustingly over-the-top and partly because, as Orac has pointed out, one can make a good case that Chamberlain’s gotten a bad rap. (If speakers of British English use “Chamberlain” in a generic sense, as synonymous with “appeaser” without regard to historical niceties, then it’s not so big a deal — or at least understandable for Dawkins to use the phrase — but I have no confirmation of such a dialect-related claim.) Still, if Chris Mooney backs Nisbet on this, then it’ll be difficult not to look back at The Republican War on Science and sadly whisper, “Encore après Pétain. . . .

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    June 29, 2007

    Caledonian: Right. But the thing is, Atheists are not allowed to frame, apparently.

    In any event, Framing is against Atheistic “beliefs.” It may cause us to deny our rationality. That would just make us like any other group of delusional yahoos.

  25. #25 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    DaveW,

    I have often found the claims that Dawkins is a problem because he antagonises moderate religious people to be a laughable. If Dawkins was quite as polarising as his critics claim why would moderates be willing to engage with him ? How come Anglican clergy will appear alongside him on discussion panels ? How come he was able to sign a letter to The Times calling for the government to ensure creationism/ID was not taught in state-funded schools in the UK and for his co-signatories to be leading figures in the major religions in the UK ? I doubt any of those agree with Dawkins on religion but I suspect they would not deny his arguments are worth of addressing. I also suspect that on issues about how people should be treated there would be far more agreement than between the moderates and their fundamentalist co-believers.

  26. #26 plunge
    June 29, 2007

    “manifestos for an atheist world view. ”

    The problem I have here is the difference between “an” atheist worldview and the “the” atheist worldview. Theists commonly, almost instinctively, see Dawkins and Hitchens and others as propounding the latter, which fucks up all my work in promoting the idea that the former is the proper understanding of things, since us not believing in god is not something that makes me have all the same opinions as Richard Dawkins. We both don’t live in Ulster either: that doesn’t mean we meet for tea every afternoon.

  27. #27 CalGeorge
    June 29, 2007

    In terms of civil rights, to me:

    School prayer is oppression.
    God on bills and coins is oppression.
    Swearing oaths on a Bible is oppression.
    Daily prayer in Congress is oppression.

    Civil rights is about achieving equality. Injecting god into government through prayer, swearing on Bibles in our justice system, putting “in god we trust” onto the primary symbol of our capitalist system, these are fundamental insults to a lot of atheists. They help to paint America as a Christian nation, make atheists seem un-American to many, and help to make it nearly impossible for atheists to achieve high political office.

  28. #28 Scholar
    June 29, 2007

    Can I have some jam with that milquetoast?

  29. #29 Norman Doering
    June 29, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet is using Barna Group data. I used it in this post on my blog and a reader found this distortion in the data:

    Is this who we really are, socially disengaged loners? Or is that just what it takes to stand up to the social pressures imposed by religious communities? Will it change as our numbers grow? Maybe the impression this survey wants to leave us with isn’t correct? A commentator reminded me that the Barna Group, whose goal is “to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States” toward fundamentalist Christianity, were comparing atheists/agnostics/no-faiths with “active faith” Christians. The key word here is “active.” “Active faith” was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey. There were 20 million no-faith adults and 58 million active-faith Christians and that leaves a big gap full of “non-active” Christians. That means that there’s a strong selection bias working here, those who go to church are more engaged in the community than are others who call themselves Christian.

    If a survey were to compare atheists who are actively engaged in with groups like “American Atheists” to all those who call themself Christian they might have gotten similar but opposite results. This might represent an element of dishonesty in the design and analysis of their survey.

  30. #30 Duae Quartunciae
    June 29, 2007

    This time, I’m with PZ. Matt’s latest post has shown that it’s not really about framing science at all. It’s bigger than that: he seems to want atheists to hold their peace in all kinds of contexts, for fear that people will find atheism itself upsetting. It won’t happen; and that’s a good thing.

  31. #31 Glen Davidson
    June 29, 2007

    One of the common claims that has been amplified by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that “atheism is a civil rights issue.” (For an e

    I can’t remember hearing this previously.

    As I recall, mostly it’s been “framed” as an evidence issue. Nisbet failed this one spectacularly by that standard.

    Nisbet:

    What’s this that came out of my ass? Why, it’s the truth.

    This false spin serves as a very effective frame device for radicalizing a base of atheists into an ever more militant “us versus them” rhetoric, an interpretation that is used to justify sophomoric and polarizing attacks on religious Americans.

    Attacks on sophomoric and polarizing religion are turned into attacks upon the religious themselves, in this bozo’s clumsy hands. OK, so maybe some of the latter happens as well, but again if Nisbet cared about evidence he’d note that it isn’t frequent, and the examples he gave in that context do not support his otherwise unevidenced claims.

    Classic Nisbet garbage.

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  32. #32 Glen Davidson
    June 29, 2007

    My previous post formatted wrongly, with a faux quote and a real quote appearing under the name “Nisbet”. To be sure, it should be obvious that “What’s this that came out of my ass? Why, it’s the truth,” is not from Nisbet in so many words (implied by his disregard for truth and evidence, however), while this:

    This false spin serves as a very effective frame device for radicalizing a base of atheists into an ever more militant “us versus them” rhetoric, an interpretation that is used to justify sophomoric and polarizing attacks on religious Americans.

    is from his own hand.

    Anyhow, I didn’t want to leave anything lying around that he could attack over a simple mistake.

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  33. #33 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Glen Davidson:

    Attacks on sophomoric and polarizing religion are turned into attacks upon the religious themselves, in this bozo’s clumsy hands. OK, so maybe some of the latter happens as well, but again if Nisbet cared about evidence he’d note that it isn’t frequent, and the examples he gave in that context do not support his otherwise unevidenced claims.

    I’ve noticed that many of the writers who don’t go to Myersian extremes in criticizing religion itself are damn willing and eager to critizize specific religious groups and individuals who do stupid things because of their religious beliefs. To me, the latter sounds hostile indeed.

  34. #34 nal
    June 29, 2007

    A tactic of the religious right is to attack their opponent’s strength and claim it is a weakness. The PR campaign of atheists is going great, so they claim it isn’t going well. Dawkins is an excellent advocate, so they claim he’s harming the atheist cause. Since their supporters don’t access opposing opinions, they don’t know any different. These kind of articles are for their followers consumption.

  35. #35 mjfgates
    June 29, 2007

    I like to frame the atheism vs. religion issue as one of, “Don’t bug the atheists, or PZ Myers will come in the night, and gather you up in his innumerable, razor-suckered tentacles…”

    Yeah, yeah, I know. But they’re ALREADY delusional, so I might as well have a little fun with them.

  36. #36 Glen Davidson
    June 29, 2007

    I’ve noticed that many of the writers who don’t go to Myersian extremes in criticizing religion itself are damn willing and eager to critizize specific religious groups and individuals who do stupid things because of their religious beliefs. To me, the latter sounds hostile indeed.

    For myself, that sounds like attacking people for saying and doing stupid things. Whether that is nice, polite, even-handed, or whatever, may be an issue. What does not seem to me to be a legitimate issue is that anyone who is religious ought to get a pass for saying and doing specific stupid things, when the non-religious do not receive the same pass for stupidity from these individuals (assuming, of course, that they don’t. I have attacked idiocy by secularists on this forum and been told to save it for the religious, which does seem rather prejudiced. Stupid is stupid, and it’s all bad).

    The point really ought to be that neither religion nor irreligion causes anyone to be safe from criticism for stupidity. I should think that we’d be hostile to stupidity, not pulling our punches at the line of “religion”.

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  37. #37 MartinC
    June 29, 2007

    I don’t think ‘the atheist cause’ is one that Nisbet is particularly concerned with, rather its the cause of science in the USA, two totally different points.

  38. #38 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Blake Stacey said;

    “I’ve noticed that many of the writers who don’t go to Myersian extremes in criticizing religion itself are damn willing and eager to critizize specific religious groups and individuals who do stupid things because of their religious beliefs. To me, the latter sounds hostile indeed.”

    Quite right. I am sure that a particular blogger here at ScienceBlogs comes to mind for both us here. He is highly critical of Dawkins, accusing him of polarising opinion and driving away moderate theists. The same blogger is highly vocal in condemming anti-gay bigotry from religious groups, including the Catholic church. At the same time he will hold up Catholics as an example of how you can religious and still accept evolution. He often cites Ken Miller in this regard. I have no idea what Miller’s personal views on homosexuality are but there is no doubt that he belongs to a church that is active in trying to deny gays human and civil rights.

  39. #39 Loren Michael
    June 29, 2007

    I think there is somewhat of a problem with the whole enterprise, thought I’m not certain it could be construed as a problem with framing, per se.

    The problem with focusing on religion and offering only “atheism” and “secularism” as alternatives is that people can point to, say, communism and declare, “hey, that’s secularism, right? That’s a secular ideology, right? Maoism was an atheistic ideology, right?” and they would, barring some uncommon usages of secularism and atheism that I haven’t come across, be correct.

    A better, more inclusive, more incisive, and more damaging message is to expound on the virtues of reason and skepticism, which is anathema to a great many things beyond religion. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have all touched on this, so it’s not as thought it’s an entirely blind spot for them, but they still cast all of their arguments as being explicitly anti-religious. The books, The God Delusion, An End of Faith, God is not Great, they can’t shake religion as being the motivator, and they lock themselves into GOD=BAD/NO GOD=GOOD, which can be brushed aside with a casual bodycount of secular inhumanities of the 20th century, whether legitimately invited or not. There are just as many immature, ill-conceived, and illogical means to come to the conclusion that there isn’t a god as there is to come to the conclusion that there is.

    Religion is bad, yes. But it’s bad because it’s a symptom of a problem that leads to innumerable other problems as well, and to frame the debate as exclusively religion and non-religion binds the hands of the person who really should be tackling the larger problem.

  40. #40 Loren Michael
    June 29, 2007

    So I guess, where framing is concerned, I feel that the frame is just too small right now. It’s in the right place, but there’s so much more it could and should be covering.

  41. #41 Azkyroth
    June 29, 2007

    it’s a tool for opposing change.

    More importantly, it’s a tool for opposing positive change. Like Nisbet.

    (Cheap shot, but c’mon, you were thinking it too…)

    More later.

  42. #42 Jimmy
    June 29, 2007

    Yiou are right, nal.

    When people say “You guys are just shooting yourslef in the foot with your approach” it usually means they are worried that “You guys are having an effect”.

    Why does Matt Nisbet even care what atheists do and say?

    The fact that he feels inclined to so frequently address them would seem to indicate that he feels somehow threatened by them — that they are somehow “ruining things for the rest of us”.

  43. #43 D.J. Grothe
    June 29, 2007

    PZ: Atheists certainly should not surrender, and should never cease being uncompromising on the issues. Rather than surrender, we should work to more effectively win over the culture. But I think that we can only do do so by promoting alternatives to the religious and supernatural worldviews that so plague society, rather than only attacking religion. I think Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and others would agree. Dawkins et. al. do a magnificent job of rallying atheists, and in pronouncing far and wide that it is perfectly sensible to be an atheist. But to win over the culture, more is needed than merely to attack religion and “faith-heads,” making it seem like just a pitched battle between the smart atheists and the dumb religionists. (I think that Hitchens does this beautifully in the end of God is Not Great, calling for a “New Enlightenment.”)

    I should admit that I am just as much an angry atheist as I hunch you are. But speaking strategically, we should also just admit that our moral indignation, our anger, is not on par with those who marched on Washington in 1963 to end public school segregation, and for legal protection against police brutality, and to make it illegal to racially discriminate in public and private hiring, and the like. Our indignation is not about how oppressed we are in society, but about how wrong we think society is to believe destructive nonsense. Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities. The same goes for many Christian activists who are these days talking about Christians themselves being the last oppressed minority in America. Both are wrong. Being popular is not a civil right. It is our job to make atheism and secularism more popular, and wrapping ourselves as a “movement” in the cloak of being an oppressed minority whose civil rights are under attack won’t do that trick.

    As we concluded that first piece on this topic in Free Inquiry:

    “We [as atheists] do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity. Incredible analogies with the plight of the truly repressed will further neither cause.”

  44. #44 Scholar
    June 29, 2007

    http://www.atheistalliance.org/conventions/2007/index.php

    Speakers:

    * Richard Dawkins – Evolutionary Biologist/Author
    * Daniel Dennett – Philosopher
    * Sam Harris – Author
    * Christopher Hitchens – Author
    * Julia Sweeney – Actress/Writer/Monologist
    * Eugenie Scott – National Center for Science Education
    * Matthew Chapman – Author, Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson
    * Edward Tabash – Lawyer and Atheist/Secular Humanist
    * Pastor Deacon Fred – Landover Baptist Church
    * Shannon Cherry – owner of Cherry Communications
    * Lori Lipman Brown – freethought’s first Washington lobbyist and Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America
    * Rick Wingrove – The Assertive Atheist, Capitol Hill Representative for American Atheists
    * Mike Estes – Atheist Coalition of San Diego, civil rights expert
    * Dale McGowan – Author
    * August Brunsman – Secular Student Alliance
    * Neil Polzin – Secular Student Alliance
    * Janice Rael – Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia
    * Dave Silverman – American Atheists

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/index.php

  45. #45 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2007

    Of course. But now your job is to find atheists who claim that they suffer as much as blacks under slavery or women before suffrage, or even as much as either of those groups now. It’s just not a case we’re making, and it’s not a case that you’ll find in either Dawkins’ or Hitchens’ books.

    It does not help to demonize atheists for things they haven’t done.

  46. #46 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    D.J Grothe,

    I am not aware of these atheist activists who put discrimination against atheists on a par with the discrimination faced by blacks, gays etc. PZ explicitly states that he does not see the discrimination as being at that level.

    However posters here, and elsewhere, have provided evidence of discrimination against atheists. Of course atheists are not the only group who face discrimination based on their religious views. Since Sept 11th many Muslims in both the US and Europe have faced discrimination because of their religion. I do not find discriminating against a Muslim anymore acceptble that discriminating against an atheist, and I doubt you do, or PZ, or Dawkins, or any of the other atheists who have been so vocal of late. What we need to ask is this: Is discriminating against someone based on their religious views acceptable ? And to me the answer is an emphatic NO.

  47. #47 Brian W.
    June 29, 2007

    “Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities.”

    Like who? I’ve certainly heard people mention the similarities between our cause and theirs, but i don’t know that anyone is actually saying they’re totally equal.

  48. #48 KevinD
    June 29, 2007

    I agree that Nisbet’s statement is ridiculous. However…

    PZ’s anti-framing statements are just more framing. Specifically they are framing about framing. My understanding of the term, admittedly imperfect, is not that it necessarily ‘dumbs down’ or ‘appeases’ but that it places something in a context that is meaningful to the audience. For example, I recently heard Al Gore’s statements about global warming as a moral issue praised as a masterful piece of framing.

    To me those statements just seemed self evident. They seem relatively unimportant in decision making relative to scientific data. But for a huge proportion of the audience that is the hook that is going to make them care. If they care they might learn more about it. If they don’t care they never will.

  49. #49 Scholar
    June 29, 2007

    “We need Atheist Pride parades!”

    Let’s pool our resources and build a museum which tells the story of creation from the atheist’s standpoint. The Smithsonian just doesn’t seem to do be doing the trick.

  50. #50 Sailor
    June 29, 2007

    I would have thought that Atheism was primarily a REALITY issue. With half a country in the twilight zone it is about time a few people spoke up and preferably got a few poeple to pay attention. Admirably done with out present team.
    As a Civil right issue did anyone look at these videos:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2829599695690924108
    and
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4191917977194347234

    According to Edward Tabash a current member of the supreme court told him the constitutional protection about religion does not necessarily hold for those without any religion. Scary thought.

  51. #51 beergoggles
    June 29, 2007

    You hit the nail squarely on the head there Mr. Myers – this is the same thing they used to tell us homos: stay in the closet and be quiet and no one will beat you up which is about the same thing they told non-whites: be happy with seperate but (un)equal and don’t rock the boat.

    Sorry, it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.

    I just had a deja-vu feeling since I’ve been through this twice now and and atheism will be the third. I guess I could be a woman, and then I could add suffrage to that list and have this be the 4th.

    After a while the trends become really clear and the ‘don’t rock the boat’ people of today just blur with the same folks of the past who spouted the same arguments and had no problem exploiting and repressing us then. The historical outcome will be the same as Ghandi observed it to be: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

  52. #52 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Glen Davidson (#36):

    Well said. I could probably have been more clear.

    Matt Penfold (#38):

    Also well said!

    Loren Michael (#39):

    A better, more inclusive, more incisive, and more damaging message is to expound on the virtues of reason and skepticism, which is anathema to a great many things beyond religion. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have all touched on this, so it’s not as thought it’s an entirely blind spot for them, but they still cast all of their arguments as being explicitly anti-religious.

    I’m glad you’ve raised this point. (Compare my comment #11.) In my judgment, DDH&H have done a pretty good job forcing the issue into discussion; what needs to happen next is not a retreat, but rather a broadening of emphasis.

    You know, given how much Chopra sounds like Egnor, a book which does for neuroscience what Victor Stenger’s Failed Hypothesis does for physics and cosmology might be a good idea.

  53. #53 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    The biggest misunderstanding most people have about the ‘new atheists’ is that they assume that we must be clamoring for attention so that we can promote ourselves with the same vigor and fanaticism that drives the ‘subservient deluded’; that our goal is merely to undermine one belief with another, perpetuating slave mentality.

    Rational thought is so suspect and undermined in this country that it’s not surprising that many people simply don’t get that we have been forced to stand up and state firmly, “enough is enough.” The disease of mythologitus has forced us to. We’ve been backed into a corner by the bible thumper’s push to take over the country, by their attempts to pollute science with religion, and legislate the mandatory worshipping of that asshole god that the ancient Hebrews believed in.

    When we see the ‘religious right’ pushing us ever closer into their goddamned, coveted Armageddon, we have no choice but to express our views and compete to be heard as we try to promote (and explain) rational thought and behavior. This is no time for rational people to be silent and conforming, or to put on a martyr complex and whine about civil rights. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our future is at stake; this country has the technology to blow up the world, and we have all seen what happens when technology falls into the hands of religious fanatics.

  54. #54 QrazyQat
    June 29, 2007

    At last, I get it. I understand what “framing” is. It’s pandering to the status quo, the petty conventions, and the bigotry of the majority. It means don’t rock the boat, don’t be different, don’t stand up for your beliefs. It means CONFORM. You will get other people to support you if you just abandon your principles and adopt theirs.

    Well, in this rant you’ve shown you understand rightwing-style “framing”. Maybe you should consider not being dishonest like rightwingers. Just a thought.

  55. #55 Jordan
    June 29, 2007

    An embarrassing excerpt from a hypothetical history book written 100 years from now:

    In the early part of the 21st century, it was not uncommon for debates about the existence of supernatural forces to center around vague sociological notions of the relationship between the prevalent theistic society and the minority groups of secularists. In many cases, the expensive civil and social penalties paid by the rational few were considered secondary to the image and reputation of non-believers in the public eye. It is not clear how the primitive notions of the supernatural carried so far into the 21st century, but it is even less clear how the emphasis of this seemingly straightforward program of social maturation was so far derailed by irrelevant, adolescent ideas about the amiability of those few who viewed the world through a sensible lens.

  56. #56 coturnix
    June 29, 2007

    What does it all have to do with framing? Matt is not a one-note blogger, like none of us are. Just because Matt mostly writes about his expertise in using language – framing – does not mean he has to be mum on other topics he is interested in, e.g., atheism. He is right on framing and he is, IMHO, half wrong on atheism. His latest post hangs on the definition of civil in ‘civil rights’. After all ML King and Malcolm X faught over tactics in exactly the same way. Remember who (and which tactic) won the day? Both: the good cop, bad cop strategy is what was successful then and will be successful for atheism as well.

  57. #57 Scholar
    June 29, 2007

    “Well, in this rant you’ve shown you understand rightwing-style “framing”. Maybe you should consider not being dishonest like rightwingers. Just a thought.”

    Well, we are allowed to rant, BECAUSE, AS RABID ATHEISTS, we are not worried about the BS that you are!

    (and what about the poor right-wingers, even you are willing to throw them under the bus?)

  58. #58 Scott Hatfield
    June 29, 2007

    “…a book which does for neuroscience what Victor Stenger’s Failed Hypothesis does for physics and cosmology might be a good idea.”

    Yes.

  59. #59 Greg
    June 29, 2007

    You raise a good question – why *do* atheists (like myself) publicly complain about mistreatment, when all we have to do is be quiet and endure it? Why do we dare to compare it to racial or gender discrimination, when it is so easy for us to blend in where others cannot?

    I think I have part of the answer. And it’s pretty simple. We are law-abiding folk. We know that we *can* blend in. We know that there is no difference between us and the believers. And yet, if we make our true thoughts public, we are vilified and discriminated against. I care about racial prejudice, but I’m white. That is to say, atheist discrimination affects me *personally.* And that’s the difference. We understand other minorities’ civil rights issues, but the atheistic ones are our own, and they wound us directly.

    The majority (believers) either sympathize with, or pay lip service to, racial and gender harmony. Why won’t they sympathize with us? Ask your Christian friend how they would feel if the pledge was “Under Horus” instead of “Under God.” Or heck, ask your Jewish friend if he would prefer “Under Jesus” to “Under God.” Until we can at least push the zeitgeist into recognizing theocratic discrimination as a bad thing in the same way other forms are recognized, we cannot be silent, and we must persevere.

    Thanks for the great post, PZ.

  60. #60 Ray S
    June 29, 2007

    Perhaps Nisbet and Grothe live in an environment more conducive to being publicly atheistic than I do. I see it as a civil rights issue if I lose my job because I don’t participate in the office bible study. I see it as a civil rights issue if I cannot put a Darwin fish or even a ‘coexist’ bumper sticker on my car without risking vandalism. I see it as a civil rights issue if an American president contends, as George Bush, Sr. did, that atheists should not be considered citizens. No it’s not the same as the struggles experienced by blacks and women, who could not hide their status as such. It is more like the struggle of homosexuals, still ongoing I might add, where there is no necessary obvious outward sign. Yes we can adopt our own ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ policy, but many of us don’t see that as working as well as it has in the military (where it hasn’t really).

  61. #61 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Ray,

    Not only does it seem the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy does not work, evidence from here in the UK shows that allowing gays to openly serve does not bring about a collapse in military discipline. It is one the things to Blair’s credit that shortly after he became PM the restriction on gays serving was removed.

  62. #62 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Coturnix (#56):

    Remember, MLK was also upset about the behavior of “moderates.” Read Letter from Birmingham Jail:

    I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

    Furthermore, the “good cop, bad cop” model would work much better if the “good cop” were not trying to kick the “bad cop” into silence. See, there’s a point here which I’m not sure people are getting, because I haven’t received much feedback about it: it’s a bad oversimplification to assume that there is only one kind of “moderate”. (Comment #11, above.) Some kinds will be better suited to playing the “good cop” role than others.

  63. #63 Brandon
    June 29, 2007

    I want to ask something. Even though I’m not an athiest, I am sympathetic to your cause. Please answer these questions as if I were your student, not your opponent. I don’t want to change your mind about anything, I’m just trying to learn.

    What, exactly, is it that you want?

    Do you want athiests to be tolerated and respected? If so, then I support you for that. Like you said, you already have that de jure, but not de facto. You need to win respect in the hearts and minds of those who look down on you. But think of it from the religious conservative’s point of view. Would you want to be nice to somebody who was constantly calling you an idiot and blaming you for the world’s problems? You talk a lot about how atheists shouldn’t be meek and take everything lying down. And you shouldn’t. But isn’t there a distinction between being assertive and being aggressive? Can you be strong without being forceful?

    Do you want to get religion out of politics and schools? If so, then again I support you. But athiests aren’t the only people angry with the religious right. I know hundreds of people who go to Church on Sundays and pray to God but struggle endlessly for gay rights, abortion rights, and ending this war. Would it not be more productive to ally with the religious moderates than to also make them your enemies?

    Do you want to rid the world of religion? Frankly, I would be willing to denounce my faith if I believed that would really bring about world peace. But it seems like the real problem is not just faith, but a combination of faith, greed, and hatred. Obviously you can never get rid of greed, it’s too ingrained into human nature. But why is eliminating religion, rather than hatred, a more obtainable or even desirable goal? If we lived in a world with religion, but without war, intolerance, or attacks on science, would you be happy?

  64. #64 octopod
    June 29, 2007

    “If people object to an argument, it might not be because they’re concerned about your cause and think you’ve made a poor choice. It might be because they want to convince you to abandon a winning strategy.”

    Yes. I think, in fact, this is a precise definition of “concern trolling”…

  65. #65 stogoe
    June 29, 2007

    If we lived in a world with religion, but without war, intolerance, or attacks on science, would you be happy?

    Brandon, would that such a reality could actually exist…

  66. #66 A Random Person
    June 29, 2007

    You know, there have been alot of takedowns of Nisbet since he wrote that thing, but I have to say that nothing I’ve seen so far can touch this with a ten-foot pole. I mean, wow.

  67. #67 foldedpath
    June 29, 2007

    brandon:
    Do you want to rid the world of religion? Frankly, I would be willing to denounce my faith if I believed that would really bring about world peace. But it seems like the real problem is not just faith, but a combination of faith, greed, and hatred. Obviously you can never get rid of greed, it’s too ingrained into human nature. But why is eliminating religion, rather than hatred, a more obtainable or even desirable goal?

    Hatred and religion are intertwined, and we’ll never rid the world of irrational hatred until irrational religion goes with it. There is no hatred quite like the tribal, “us vs. them” nature of hatred rooted in religion. It’s enough to make someone fly an airliner into an office building, or blow themselves up in a crowded market. It will lead someone to shoot a doctor at an abortion clinic, or justify hanging people in the public square because they have a “wrong” sexual orientation according to revealed wisdom in a holy book.

    If we could wave a magic wand and remove religion from the wiring of everyone’s brains tomorrow, it wouldn’t remove all reasons for people to hate each other. But it would sure be a start.

  68. #68 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    If we lived in a world with religion, but without war, intolerance, or attacks on science, would you be happy?

    Yes, (speaking for myself, anyways), provided that people weren’t drugged up or suppressed or enslaved in any other way to achieve such a world. But that seems to be a pipe dream, the religion that we are actually confronted with, and in conflict with, is very, very intolerant and persecutive. (persecutory?)

  69. #69 Norman Doering
    June 29, 2007

    Brandon wrote:

    Frankly, I would be willing to denounce my faith if I believed that would really bring about world peace.

    If you really could denounce your faith because you didn’t like its visible results, then I’d say you were one of those people Daniel Dennett says are people who believe in belief, not in the dogmas of their religion. Dennett says some people believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn’t examine religious ones too closely. Belief in belief is the compromise formation of those who can’t bring themselves to evince a naive belief in a supernatural being but think religion is a useful construct that ought not to be toppled.

    For me it wouldn’t matter if religion made people better, the evidence is against all the supernatural claims made by the world’s holy books. I still couldn’t chose to believe something I had no good reason, no evidence, to believe in.

  70. #70 Interrobang
    June 29, 2007

    Framing’s kind of like fire — keep it in your fireplace, and your living room stays nice and warm. Otherwise, you can burn down your entire house. It’s just another one of those rhetorical tools. (Don’t be a rhetorical tool yourself, PZ, seriously. You want me to start getting discourse-analytical on your ass?)

    I actually love the idea of framing tolerating atheism as a civil rights issue. I also love saying to theists, particularly monotheists with sticks up their butts, “We’re just the same — I just believe in one less god than you do.”

    But then again, I actually have a Master’s degree in what amounts to applied rhetoric, so I may or may not be absolutely certifiable…

  71. #71 Brandon
    June 29, 2007

    If you really could denounce your faith because you didn’t like its visible results, then I’d say you were one of those people Daniel Dennett says are people who believe in belief, not in the dogmas of their religion.

    It’s more like, I love my Jewish culture, and if worshipping an imaginary being is the price of admission then so be it. And it is quite possible to convince yourself to believe in something, even if you have any logical reason to do so. I’m sure that sounds stupid, but my religion makes me happy with no real detriment to myself or others.

    I’ll have to look up this Daniel Dennett fellow. Thanks for the advice.

  72. #72 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    Does anyone else feel that this is related to the issue of visibility? I haven’t gone through all of the comments on all of the related blogs, so forgive me if this has been mentioned, but atheists and agnostics are not an obvious group. We don’t walk around with big “A”‘s on our foreheads. And, until recently, we weren’t all that vocal.

    Racial discrimination was blatant and easy to recognize (relatively) because of obvious differences in appearance between the victim and the discriminator.

    Discrimination against homosexuals went virtually unnoticed and certainly unpunished while homosexuals themselves kept quietly to themselves. It wasn’t until they became more vocal and open about their sexuality that discrimination against them became “visible”. Its not that discrimination against them didn’t exist prior to this… but it wasn’t apparent to our social conscience.

    Could this apply to atheism as well? Until recently (and I’m speaking solely of the U.S. as I understand it is different in other countries), atheists and agnostics had experienced sufficient social pressure to simply keep quiet about their non-belief. There was little benefit and plenty of harm in being open about it, and if a trait is difficult to see, it receives less negative reaction to it in the form of discrimination. Now, more and more non-believers are “coming out” and openly discussing their lack of beliefs and their opposition to religion. As we become more conspicuous, more vocal, more of a “threat” to the moral order of things (said with sarcasm), I think we will see the opposition respond by pushing back harder. As a result, I think we will cross that imaginary line, as we did with homosexuality, where we go from an “acceptable” amount of “uncivil” behavior against a few rare individuals to blatant, recognizable discrimination against a particular group of people. I think people like Dawkins and Harris and PZ Myers are helping us work toward this point and people like Matt Nezbit are refusing to learn from our history…or he is choosing to be blind to it.

  73. #73 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    Brandon: You remind me of that ‘South Park’ episode about the Mormon Kid who said pretty much exactly the same thing, and then left them all feeling like idiots.

    It’s hard not to paint all religion (whimsical, superstitious, play-pretend mentality) with the same broad brush, but if religion were comprised of people who realized the whole structure of their beliefs for what they actually are, then they wouldn’t be trying to take over the world, and there really wouldn’t be a problem.

    Hell, everybody likes to play pretend sometimes.

  74. #74 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    As we become more conspicuous, more vocal, more of a “threat” to the moral order of things (said with sarcasm), I think we will see the opposition respond by pushing back harder.

    I think you are right, which is why we must be very careful about not being actually militant. The last thing everybody needs is a huge war between atheists and believers, with us standing all Marvel hero-like in the carnage and mayhem, holding our smoking shotguns of truth and mumbling, “Gee, I suppose we could have handled that better.”

  75. #75 Norman Doering
    June 29, 2007

    Brandon wrote:

    And it is quite possible to convince yourself to believe in something, even if you [don’t? sic] have any logical reason to do so.

    It is? Are we talking about the “willing suspension of disbelief” people use when enjoying a fantasy story? Or are we talking about something that sounds less sane than that?

    I’m sure that sounds stupid, but my religion makes me happy with no real detriment to myself or others.

    How do you act on your beliefs? It probably doesn’t harm kids to believe in Santa Claus, as long as they don’t run away from home and die in their struggle to get to the North Pole.

    I’ll have to look up this Daniel Dennett fellow. Thanks for the advice.

    It’s from the book: “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel C. Dennett.

    Dennett has written lots of books, “Breaking the Spell” is the one with the “belief in belief” concept.

  76. #76 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    RamblinDude,

    Really? Is that what worked for the African Americans and the Gay community?

    Seems to me that Martin Luther King Jr. was often derided in negative, extremist, even militant terms because he was pushing the cause of racial equality forward. Should he have backed off… you know, not offended anyone? Stayed in his place?

    Do you really think that those in the gay community would have made the progress of cultural acceptance they experience today (not to say there is not room for improvement) if they hadn’t gotten in the faces of their opposition in the early years and forced people to see them as human beings rather than the amoral creatures the homophobic community labeled them to be?

    Amoral?… Hmmm, sounds familiar. Aren’t they trying to peg Atheists and Agnostics with that brush now?

    No, being polite and respectful only works with those already open to new ideas. To those minds closed to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their’s ISN’T the only way to live in this world, sometimes you have to be unafraid of expressing ideas that make those people uncomfortable.

  77. #77 Pierce R. Butler
    June 29, 2007

    Brandon –

    You raise too many questions for me to try to answer right off, so I’ll try to focus on one point:

    But it seems like the real problem is not just faith, but a combination of faith, greed, and hatred.

    To which we might add gullibility, ignorance, fear and other negative mental habits. To a first approximation, religion as actually practiced makes all of these worse (with the possible exception of greed).

    No one whom I’m aware of claims that the abolition of religion would end all of our social or physical problems – but it could enable us to address those problems with greater clarity and fewer distractions. For example, we might make much better progress against AIDS if not held back by churches fighting against realistic sex education, condom distribution, etc.

    To achieve this situation would require neither persecution of believers nor bulldozing the Vatican – but it does seem to demand that the voices of the deluded be drowned out by those of the realistic. (Or by the conversion of top theopolitical leaders to medical and sociological reason, but what self-respecting atheist prays for a miracle of that magnitude?)

    So, “what we (atheists) want” is not simply an end to the petty insults of expected obeisance to neurotic fairy tales, but a renewed Age of Reason so that we (humanity) can better face the widespread challenges already threatening our civilization, perhaps our survival.

  78. #78 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    What are you talking about? I meant that we shouldn’t KILL anybody. We shouldn’t be blowing up buildings and strewing other forms of violence about the place. We need to avoid physical confrontation and keep everything civilized because the bible thumpers are quite often a violent lot.

    I am not for backing off and keeping silent. We need to be heard now more than ever.

  79. #79 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    I may be wrong, but when people on these science blogs use the word “militant”, they aren’t referring to killing people and blowing up buildings; its more of an intellectual, academic, “the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword” kind of militantism. Forgive me for the confusion. I thought you were speaking metaphorically, not literally, when you referred to this comic book style “war”.

    I agree. No blood and gore.

  80. #80 RamblinDude
    June 29, 2007

    Yeah, that’s what I figured.

    I got caught up in the whole (shudder) death and mayhem scenario when I envisioned things getting out of hand, and atheists being targeted for violent reprisals in the future from the religious zealots.

    I would hate to think that it ever comes to that but you have to be very careful when dealing with people who focus a lot of attention on being meek and mild, trying to ‘be like Jesus’. They get so screwed up trying to live an artificial lifestyle, suppressing any feelings of aggressiveness and self-motivation, that if you push them too hard they snap. And then, of course, it’s ‘God’s wrath’ that falls on the heads of the unbelievers.

    It’s ironic, and oh-so-predictable, that since they are so used to seeing and hearing violent religious images and allegories, they’re rather indifferent to dishing out violence. All that pent up aggressiveness has to express itself in some way, and if their masters tell them that their religion-way of life is ‘under attack’ you can bet on them becoming hostile. If they believe that God is on their side–they will kill you.

    I do have a melodramatic side don’t I?

  81. #81 Anton Mates
    June 29, 2007

    But athiests aren’t the only people angry with the religious right. I know hundreds of people who go to Church on Sundays and pray to God but struggle endlessly for gay rights, abortion rights, and ending this war. Would it not be more productive to ally with the religious moderates than to also make them your enemies?

    Most atheists are already allied with religious moderates. We vote for religious political candidates, contribute to organizations like the ACLU which also defend the rights of religious minorities, and support well-known religious people who share some of our political or scientific views. You’ll see plenty of atheists giving props to Ken Miller, say, or Bono, or the Dalai Lama.

    The “militant” atheists simply want to be able to vocally disagree when it comes to the issues where we differ. It doesn’t mean we’re not happy to work together in other areas.

  82. #82 LCR
    June 30, 2007

    RamblinDude,

    “I do have a melodramatic side don’t I?”

    Yes, you do. 🙂

    You are right, though, in advising caution. I live next door to a fundamentalist Christian family and some of the ideas I hear from them boggle the mind. When you are guaranteed entry into heaven through your devotion to Christ, it is amazing what can become considered as “acceptable behavior”, all in the name of God.

    I do realize that not all people of faith are like that, but I have met enough in my lifetime (and have some in my extended family) to be very afraid of what they might be willing to do for their faith. Why, just imagine if one should assume a position of power in our government. Think of what they might do… Oh, wait…

  83. #83 Scholar
    June 30, 2007

    “If we lived in a world with religion, but without war, intolerance, or attacks on science, would you be happy?”

    Of course, I would be a Rastafarian Pastafari. But in all seriousness, you ask a good question. The answer is that the world is very diverse place, with over 80,000 DIFFERENT religions. All those DIFFERING ideologies end up cultivating distrust among those (HUGE majority) who are not in your LOCAL sect.

  84. #84 D.J. Grothe
    June 30, 2007

    PZ: (Sorry this is so long. To paraphrase Churchill, I didnt have time to make it shorter.)

    When Austin Dacey and I wrote that piece in Free Inquiry a few years ago, it was amid the heightened rhetoric in the atheist movement at that time likening the challenges posed to atheists in our society to the civil rights struggles of women, blacks and gays in the past. Not only is that comparison over-reaching, it is counter-productive. As a gay man, I find it somewhat offensive to have fellow atheists tell me that what we’re going through now as atheists is similar to what gays and lesbians went through earlier on, or even still today.

    As you asked, here are some quotes from some atheist leaders in America (there are many more; just google it):

    1. First, from my friend Herb Silverman, the atheist activist in South Carolina, :

    “Discrimination against nonbelievers is the last civil rights struggle in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior.” (Herb is the founder of the Coalition for the Community of Reason, and one of the people behind the Secular Coalition for America, an atheist lobbying group in D.C.).

    2. Lori Brown of the Secular Coalition of America says about the atheist civil rights struggle vis-a-vis the gay rights struggle: “Think of where the LGBT movement was 25 years ago . . . That’s where atheists are today.”

    More from that newspaper article:

    Gathered around the plastic red-and-white tablecloths in the back room of a San Francisco hofbrau, 30 of the Bay Area’s “out” atheists were recasting themselves as the protagonists of America’s newest civil rights struggle.

    (See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/20/MNGV3HBONH1.DTL )

    3. Speaking the day before the Godless March on Washington, which was put on a few years ago, Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said “Tomorrow, we are going to take a major step forward in achieving our civil rights.” (Emphasis is hers.)

    She went on to say:

    “Let’s concentrate on issues and ideas, on getting our civil rights. . .”

    (See http://www.americanatheist.org/supplement/ejgamowdinner.html )

    Johnson often gives a talk entitled: “CIVIL RIGHTS FOR ATHEISTS: AN ACTION AGENDA.”

    (See http://www.atheists.org/visitors.center/speakers.html )

    PZ: Will you admit that contrary to these and other atheist leaders’ rhetoric, that atheists actually have civil rights in America?

    Are atheists unpopular In America and elswehere around the world? Yes. And we should change that — but comparing the challenges we face as a movement to the civil rights struggles faced by racial and sexual minorities won’t help in that regard. Being popular is not one of our civil rights.

    Do atheists need to march on Washington to demand their civil rights? I think you and I would agree that since they already have their civil rights, they don’t need to March on Washington to get them. Might a March on Wahsington, in principle at least, be helpful in raising awareness for our cause, and making us more visible? Sure, but such awareness-raising isn’t to attain our civil rights, but to change the culture.

    This is all not to say that the “atheist movement” can’t learn from the organizing strategies of various other social movements (civil rights struggles, and even the abortion rights movement, the vegetarian movement and animal rights movement, union organizing, and the Christian Right.) But learning from their history of the civil rights. feminist or GLBT struggles doesnt mean that we should equate ourselves with them. Again, the fact that we’re unpopular doesnt mean we’re oppressed or that our civil rights are being violated.

    Interestingly, Sam Harris touches a little on this point during one of his Point of Inquiry appearances (I think the most recent one) which are here.

    A couple cautions: don’t obfuscate by trying to make me say things I am not saying. I certainly agree we need to defend our civil rights, like all Americans do. I have worked for over ten years to advance the cause of atheists, secularists and skeptics in America — more broadly, to advance the scientific outlook or worldview as an alternative to the reigning paranormal and supernatural mythologies in society. It is the most important thing I can imagine doing with my time. But I want to be honest about it. As an atheist, I dont see myself locked in a pitched struggle for my civil rights, but in a public education and public awareness campaign, a battle for public support and acceptance. I want to change people’s minds, much like the Christian Right began to do in the early 70s to advance their agenda by founding institutions devoted to their promotion (their agenda was not to win civil rights for Christians, but to win influence in the culture. And look how successful they’ve become).

    Contra your rhetoric, no one ever said atheists should surrender, or conform to the religious culture. If you’re not just reframing Nisbet’s position or the position Dacey and I outlined a few years ago in Free Inquiry in order to score points in your rejoinder to Nisbit’s SciBlog post, then you impressively misunderstand: Of course there are real problems facing atheists and seculars and humanists and skeptics in America, and we should work to address those challenges. We should work to change the culture. We should work to increase our mind-share, and to raise awareness. (Some of our thoughts about how to do this are here.) I’d appreciate if you didn’t argue as if I am saying otherwise. To again quote from the conclusion of the first piece:

    “We [atheists] do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity. Incredible analogies with the plight of the truly repressed will further neither cause.”

  85. #85 Chris
    June 30, 2007

    I may be wrong, but when people on these science blogs use the word “militant”, they aren’t referring to killing people and blowing up buildings; its more of an intellectual, academic, “the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword” kind of militantism.

    The triple standard didn’t originate here, but in the mainstream media (which is composed mostly of theists, and plays to a mostly theist market). An atheist is “militant” if they say something that makes people emotionally uncomfortable. A member of a scary religion is “militant” if they blow up buildings and kill people. A member of one of the approved religions is never “militant”, even when they ARE blowing up buildings and killing people. (How many U.S. media describe the invasions of Iraq and Lebanon as the work of militant Christians and militant Jews?) Which religions are approved is dependent on the prejudices of local society.

    Also, don’t forget that anything any atheist does is the moral responsibility of all other atheists, while the actions of extremist religious believers can’t possibly be taken as representatives of their religions. This is because unlike the free diversity of belief within religions, all atheists believe exactly the same thing.

  86. #86 PZ Myers
    June 30, 2007

    There are a few things being blurred here.

    As I said in the article above, I do agree completely that atheists face nowhere near the opression of women, gays, and minorities; if the authorities you quote were trying to say that they were just as severely afflicted as those groups, then I would certainly repudiate their statements. It just isn’t true. However, while our problems are lesser in almost every particular, that doesn’t mean they are non-existent, or that no comparisons can be drawn to other struggles for equality. If that were the case, then everyone pales in comparison to the black struggle for civil rights, and women and gays should just sit down and be quiet. They haven’t been enslaved and they’ve had far fewer lynchings, after all!

    Now in my earlier discussion of this issue, I drew a very narrow and specific comparison, that we ought to look at what tactics were effective in, for instance, the suffragette movement. It wasn’t to claim that we had to fight for the right to vote, for instance, although a few loons reacted as if that were suggesting. It was purely a matter of tactics: do other groups fighting for recognition or equality need a “militant” faction? And of course they do, and of course there is furious infighting from the more conservative elements.

    So I agree with you on the important stuff. The civil rights thing is a small part of the battle (but not a negligible one) and we are primarily engaged in a public relations campaign. Where I disagree strongly with Nisbet is that I think the loud and proud and ornery and uppity and militant and whatever atheists are absolutely indispensable — far from harming the cause, as he claims, the rest of you might as well go home and sit on your thumbs without people like Dawkins and Hitchens out there to breathe fire for us all, and without us joining in the vigorous fray.

  87. #87 LCR
    June 30, 2007

    Chris said:

    “An atheist is “militant” if they say something that makes people emotionally uncomfortable.”

    Makes us sound like sadistic psychotherapists.

    Good summary of the situation. Very frustrating to think that we are supposed to argue against a “logic” that changes constantly, depending upon which side of the equation you happen to find yourself.

    Killing’s bad! God says so. Unless I am killing in the name of God. Whose God? The real God. Which one is the real God? Mine. Yours if fake so you can’t kill anyone. If you do, you are bad, because killing’s bad! God says so.

    Round and round she goes…

    Another part of that triple standard is that the only way you can apparantly do something morally good, is to do it through an official, religious organization. Therefore atheists, without such an organization, are incapable of performing a moral good. This provides further evidence, according to the twisted, mutable logic of the religious right, that atheists must morally bad.

  88. #88 RamblinDude
    June 30, 2007

    It’s interesting, and rather comforting, that I needed to explain what I meant by- ‘actually militant’. Atheists, people who aren’t screwed up in the head with irrationality, or enslaved by superstitious dogma, are a rather nonviolent lot. We just don’t think in terms of Armageddon, or live in fear of ‘GOD’S HOLY AND BLOODY WRATH!’

    I grew up with that bullshit. I remember feeling the fear gnaw at me when the preachers would ask us to come forward, after their sermons of fire and brimstone, and give our hearts and minds and souls to Jesus. If we didn’t we were doomed to spend all of eternity in hell!

    As far as militancy goes, all of our protestations are rather pleasant in comparison to the real meanies. Flip through channels on any Sunday morning and you see who the real ‘ranters’ and fear mongers are. It’s not atheists who are trying to hypnotize people with an endless drone of violent images and aggressive bombast. Hitchen’s, for all his ‘militancy’, is a model of reasonable dialogue compared with Jimmy Swaggart and his ilk.

    And you are quite right that Christians see Atheists as morally bad. They see us as Satan’s pawns. They can handle other religions, after all, they worship the ‘real’ god, and when he gets jealous you better watch out! But we induce genuine fear and consternation in them because…we don’t worship anything!

    They have been so brainwashed into believing in the sanctity of subservience, that, in their eyes, atheists are the ultimate sinners. They live by the code that those who refuse to acknowledge the ‘Creator of the Universe’ will surely incur HIS wrath and bring doom upon everyone. Sigh…I wish I was exaggerating and being melodramatic.

    I applaud the efforts of P.Z. and Dawkins and Hitchens and all the other ‘militant’ atheists who make people feel uncomfortable with their iconoclastic message that we don’t want to be enslaved and, therefore, we don’t want to enslave anybody else. We just want to explore the universe with intellectual freedom and an open mind–and that is anathema to the fundies.

  89. #89 Chris
    June 30, 2007

    If that were the case, then everyone pales in comparison to the black struggle for civil rights, and women and gays should just sit down and be quiet. They haven’t been enslaved and they’ve had far fewer lynchings, after all!

    Actually, women *have* been enslaved in some societies, right down to being bought and sold. But the general post remains valid – this isn’t the Most Oppressed Olympics. The existence of one injustice doesn’t mean we should ignore all smaller ones.

  90. #90 Anton Mates
    July 1, 2007

    As a gay man, I find it somewhat offensive to have fellow atheists tell me that what we’re going through now as atheists is similar to what gays and lesbians went through earlier on, or even still today.

    Interesting, since another gay man said precisely that earlier in the thread.

    PZ: Will you admit that contrary to these and other atheist leaders’ rhetoric, that atheists actually have civil rights in America?

    Pledge of allegiance? State laws barring atheists from holding public office or giving court testimony? Discrimination against atheists in child custody cases? In what sense are these not civil rights issues?

  91. #91 latenightbrowsing
    July 1, 2007

    LOL thats the opposite of what D.J. said, not “precisely” what D.J. said.

  92. #92 Anton Mates
    July 1, 2007

    I don’t think you’re looking at the comment I was referring to.

  93. #93 Paul A
    July 2, 2007

    Late to the party but well said PZ. Here in the UK the situation isn’t as dire but we still have problems. For example there is the government’s continued funding of faith schools while there is no allowance for any kind of ‘atheist’ school devoid of RE teaching. Not that I’d want such a school to exist, everyone needs a grounding in the history and cultural legacy of religion, but the point is that it couldn’t while faith schools (aka indoctrination institutes) are encouraged to flourish.

    Nisbet et al seem to have some heavy duty blinkers on. Just because the situation isn’t as severe as that surrounding race, sex and sexual orientation does not mean it doesn’t exist.

  94. #94 revvednapper
    July 2, 2007

    PaulA, That is exactly what Dacey/Grothe were saying. It appears no one actually read the original articles. I know both of them personally, and they do not say what P.Z. is making them out to say. Check out comment number 84 above to get links to their original articles.

  95. #95 Trinifar
    July 2, 2007

    Some more thoughts: http://trinifar.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/neither-religion-nor-atheism/

    In which I agree with revvednapper.

  96. #96 Brian Macker
    July 2, 2007

    “We aren’t being lynched or imprisoned in our own homes”

    Women and minorities are being lynched and imprisoned in the US for being who they are? News to me. Maybe you are talking historically in which case atheists have been lynched and imprisoned also.

  97. #97 David Koepsell
    July 3, 2007

    It’s a shame that Nisbet/Grothe/Dacey all use a much-hyped and technically wrong title which has been easily deflated by a plethora of evidence. Of course atheism IS a civil rights issue, with a long complex history of actual systematic deprivations, and current threats and discrimination, as well as a hostile Supreme Court. Had they admitted that and simply moved to their essential point, that we have to wage an effective PR campaign, even while holding our current defensing legal position, and win public acceptance, that would have not provoked the firestorm we are seeing. I know these folks personally, and am sure they don’t want us to back down, appease, etc., but many on our side now only see the headline and not the substance. This is one of those “I was wrong” moments that would certainly quiet things down, if one of them could bring themselves to say it.

  98. #98 Trinifar
    July 3, 2007

    David,

    This is one of those “I was wrong” moments that would certainly quiet things down, if one of them could bring themselves to say it.

    Read Matt Nisbet’s comments following his post rather than seeing a bogeyman that isn’t there. Nisbet’s in your corner, listen to what he actually has to say rather than the way it’s being twisted.

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