Pharyngula

How not to write an atheist book

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse are coming out with a book called Reasonable Atheism, and they argued for some form of accommodationism in a recent blog entry. I left a brief comment in which I pointed out that they had misrepresented the Gnu Atheists in one section. This has prompted a rebuttal to various atheist arguments against their position, which is fine, except…well, let me show you. Here’s an excerpt of their long post.

Our claim, to be clear, is that the epistemic evaluation of beliefs is a task that is conceptually distinct from the epistemic evaluation of believers. Of course, the two tasks are not unrelated. But the aim of determining the truth of a statement is distinct from that of assigning epistemic blame or praise to a cognitive agent. The former is simply a matter of determining what the best evidence suggests. The latter is inherently a matter of assessing what the agent believes in light of the evidence she has, and her grasp of the evidence.

Our identification and analysis of that conflation, has gone almost entirely without comment. And where there has been mention of it, the comments confirm the need to make the distinction explicit.

To cite one example, P.Z. Myers includes in his response the claim that we have overlooked “the possibility that we’re dealing with bad ideas held for irrational reasons.” (Feb 7, 2011 10:36:49 PM) He thereby places his foot firmly in the bucket. The terms he italicizes in the phrases “bad ideas” and “irrational reasons” admit of the ambiguity we described. To explain, Abby’s idea can be bad for at least two reasons: (1) it is false, or (2) it is unsupported by the evidence Abby has. Myers’ term “irrational reason” is difficult to parse, since, typically it is agents and their actions that are assessable as rational or not; however, we suspect that Myers’ intended meaning is this: an irrational reason is one that an agent ought not endorse (or cite, or employ when drawing inferences, etc.). Thus clarified, “irrational reasons” similarly involves the imprecision we identify. Abby’s reason can be “irrational” for being (1) based on a false assessment of the relevant facts, or (2) unsupported by Abby’s own conception of the relevant facts.

Dear sweet goddess of academic loquaciousness, is the whole book written in that style? Is anyone going to be able to read it? Those three paragraphs nearly killed me with their preening opacity! And, near as I can tell, all they’re doing is fussing over the conjunction of two words that they found incomprehensible.

I have now lost all interest in reading their work, because 1) it looks like it will put me to sleep, and 2) since I value truth, I have to point out that the third, fourth, and fifth words in the quote above are damnable lies. Lies, I tell you! Lies so perfidious that they’re probably planning to sneak off your screen and bugger your cats behind your back, while telling you that they’re praying to the saints above. Don’t trust them, not one bit. You might want to scroll them away so they don’t cause trouble.