Now Kleiman digs his hole a little deeper; normally, this would warrant a reply in the comments, but I’m afraid his site doesn’t allow commenting. Basically, all he has done is make an invalid analogy and make a gross error in interpreting my thinking.

Take the atomic theory of matter, for example. Most Americans no doubt “believe” that matter is made of atoms; they were told as much in school, and fortunately the Religious Right hasn’t decided to deny it as un-Biblical.

But if you ask them what an “atom” is, most of them will tell you (if they can tell you anything) that it consists of a nucleus ? a mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons — with still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a miniature Solar System. That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.

Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

On Myers’s reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory; sure, a few egghead professors have sensible ideas about the constitution of matter, but the atomic theory as an actual belief of large numbers of people is arrant nonsense, and we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply), and atomic theory as a superstition imposed on the populace.

First, you might be surprised: most people wouldn’t have a clue what an electron, proton, and neutron are, or how they fit into the atom at all. But OK, let’s go with the flow — they’d be woefully out of date, at the very least.

Then, this isn’t a counterargument to my assertion that all those people are ignorant, deluded, misinformed, etc., at all. If people have a poor grasp of physics, my response would be to say they have a poor grasp of physics, and hey, maybe we ought to correct their misinterpretations. Mr Kleiman’s attitude seems to be that we ought not to challenge their misunderstandings. That doesn’t make any sense. That they are echoing a faded version of a valid theory doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong.

Where the analogy breaks down further is that in the case of religion they don’t have an echo of a valid theory at all: they have a bad version of an invalid guess. He is saying that people have a flawed knowledge of the atom, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of the atom, therefore you can’t throw out the atom concept, which is perfectly correct. But what he can’t do is form a parallel construction: people have a flawed knowledge of god, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of god, therefore you can’t throw out the god concept. Without that middle statement, the logic doesn’t work. I am saying precisely that belief in god is wrong because there is no empirical or theoretical support for it; there is a concatenation of myths leavened with post-hoc justifications for them, which is not the same thing.

And no, on my reasoning, you don’t discredit ideas because lots of people don’t understand them. I’m saying 1) that the bad rationalizations of the majority are no worse than the bad rationalizations of the theologians, and two falsehoods don’t make a truth, 2) that there are no bases for belief at any level, either on the popular side or that lofty hypothetical metaphorical side he touts, and 3) the problem with religion isn’t obscure abstractions invented by theologians, but that popular form of religion that actually has real world effects, shapes elections, colors prejudices, etc. If a fad of building home nuclear reactors swept the nation and people were collecting radioactive materials and storing them in their basements, then I’d also say that the popular misapprehensions about atomic physics were a pressing problem that needed immediate correction, and there’d be professional physicists damning those dangerous idiot amateurs on their blogs and in books and on TV and radio. You don’t get to argue, “Well, physicists agree that there are atoms, therefore Joe Sixpack is right that he can build his own nuclear reactors.”