There are lots of reasons why Josh Rosenau is one of the few writers blogging about science-and-religion issues that I still read. This morning’s post on what you ought to do to determine effective approaches is an outstanding example:

Rather than looking at national polls, which are crude instruments and can miss shifts within small subpopulations, I’d think that it would be more useful to do lab work, and to look at the broader literature on communications. Daniel Loxton did a nice roundup of a few useful studies in this realm, and Mike McRae looked at a wider sampling in the context of the “don’t be a dick” discussion.

Someone grounded in that body of research could develop some testable hypotheses about how folks might respond to NAs. Then you could do lab work, bringing in a large and representative sample of folks with views across the c/e spectrum. Do a pretest, then have some of them read a selection from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, others read from Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and a control reading something unrelated to creationism and evolution and theism. Then do a post-test. Follow up a month later, and see how their views on science generally, evolution specifically, and on the relationship between science and religion have changed. Follow up a year later. What sticks, and what doesn’t? What do people remember? What do they convey to their friends? Then follow up the study with treatments that vary the extent of contact with New Atheist writings, to see whether people who read all of TGD, or watch a 2 hour talk by Dawkins, react differently than those with more fleeting contact with NA ideas.

That’s science, and I’d be interested in the results.

Really, this seems obvious enough that I’d be a little surprised if somebody out there wasn’t working on this sort of study (the books in question are recent enough that I doubt anybody would have had time to finish such a study yet). On the off chance, though, that this isn’t in progress, let me add my voice to Josh’s: Please, somebody, do this study.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich
    July 17, 2010

    Why those particular books? Why not choose a different Dawkins book such as The Blind Watchmaker instead, one that really doesn’t deal with Creationism. The God Delusion is not about evolution, Chad. Finding Darwin’s God is about finding an accommodation between religious beliefs and science.

    I have a better idea: Why not add a third group who read a book that is just about evolution and doesn’t add the necessity of reconciling with or discussing religion at all?

    What other scientific theory besides evolution has to continue to deal with the meddling of religious belief?

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    July 17, 2010

    Why those particular books?

    Because that post is part of a larger argument about the effectiveness of “New Atheist” books and arguments.

    What other scientific theory besides evolution has to continue to deal with the meddling of religious belief?

    Cosmology. Most of medicine. Quantum physics, if you use a broad enough definition of religion.

  3. #3 Larry Moran
    July 17, 2010

    I have two points that I’d like to make.

    1. The “New Atheists” (I am one) are opposed to superstition of all sorts. Religion is just one aspect of the problem in our societies. It doesn’t really matter to me whether my stance against irrationality and superstition is turning off some irrational and superstitious people. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it? The studies that you and Josh propose might be interesting but the results won’t have any effect on the position of the so-called “New Atheists.” You’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.

    2. Will the studies be done in many different countries? What would you say if the “New Atheists” are having a major positive effect in turning people away from superstition in Europe but not in America? Should the books only be published in countries where people are more tolerant of criticism and more willing to question their beliefs? Surely that doesn’t make any sense?

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    July 17, 2010

    The studies that you and Josh propose might be interesting but the results won’t have any effect on the position of the so-called “New Atheists.” You’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.

    This is part of why the term “fundamental atheists” is better than “new atheists”.

    Confusing “rationality” with “philosophical materialism”, and believing that anybody whose religious views are different from yours makes them superstitious and irrational, is not too far from fundamentalist christians who confuse religious dogma with morality, and think that anybody whose religious views are different from theirs are damned.

    The studies would definitely be useful. If, for instance, they showed that the efforts of the fundamentalist atheists were in fact harmful to the cause of encouraging better science acceptance, then the “accomidationists” would gain more clout. Those who are on the fence would realize once and for all that they could ignore the new atheists. You and PZ and the rest of you guys could go off and shout in your echo chambers, and the more moderate atheists wouldn’t have to bother listening to you any more– they’d have evidence that there’s no reason to listen to you, and that it’s OK not to hate all religion.

    (Likewise, if the studies showed that new atheism *was* effective in encouraging better public acceptance of science– a result I strongly doubt would happen, but if it did– I’d have to reexamine my position, and consider swallowing the bitter pill that I shouldn’t complain so much about loud, annoying, and wrong people shouting their hate of religion all over the place.)

  5. #5 Chris Granade
    July 17, 2010

    (Foreword: sorry, Chad, I know we disagree about this, and I don’t mean to turn your blog comments into a flamewar, but I feel I must respond to Rob Knop this time.)

    Confusing “rationality” with “philosophical materialism”, and believing that anybody whose religious views are different from yours makes them superstitious and irrational, is not too far from fundamentalist christians who confuse religious dogma with morality, and think that anybody whose religious views are different from theirs are damned.

    That’s the thing… if I am as rational as I strive to be, then I cannot believe in something absent evidence to support that belief. Given that I have no evidence for any religious claims, nor even evidence that someone else has such evidence, and given that we have a pretty damn good understanding of the social role of religion, what am I to conclude but that religious belief is an irrational belief that may or may not serve useful social purposes? If there is anything that I am “fundamentalist” about, it’s that being rational about one’s own views is important and that irrational beliefs should not be kept. If you want to call that fundamentalist, then I reject your definition of the word, as it is qualitatively so far removed from every other use of the word that it is no longer a useful definition to me.

    (Likewise, if the studies showed that new atheism *was* effective in encouraging better public acceptance of science– a result I strongly doubt would happen, but if it did– I’d have to reexamine my position, and consider swallowing the bitter pill that I shouldn’t complain so much about loud, annoying, and wrong people shouting their hate of religion all over the place.)

    As good as it is to see that you would consider changing your views in the face of evidence, I must take strong exception to your characterization of vocal atheists as “loud, annoying and wrong” and as hateful. First off, that characterization implies far more similarity amongst vocal atheists than I have found is reasonable to assume. Second, what in particular is “wrong” about being vocal about one’s own views and advocating on behalf of such views? Third, I am particularly appalled to see you paint with such a broad brush so many wonderful advocates of human rights as being motivated by “their hate of religion” simply because they don’t shut up when religion comes up in conversation. Why should religion enjoy a more special status than, say, politics, where we encourage people to be open about their views and where we take no shame in denouncing views based on racism, sexism, nationalism and other such forms of prejudice? It is not hateful to denounce hate, hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness when we see it, and nor is it hateful to speak our minds.

    To expand on that last point a bit, religion currently enjoys a completely unique position in our society of being completely protected from any sort of rational analysis based on some perverted idea of “respect.” I would think it far more respectful of someone with whom I disagree to engage them in intelligent discussion than to automatically assume that any discussion at all is inherently hateful. That kind of insular approach to religion isn’t respect of any form that I can recognize.

  6. #6 Larry Moran
    July 17, 2010

    Rob Knop says,

    Confusing “rationality” with “philosophical materialism”, and believing that anybody whose religious views are different from yours makes them superstitious and irrational, is not too far from fundamentalist christians

    Hi Rob. Can you identify some examples of real religious beliefs that unequivocally qualify as completely rational and non-superstitious? How about the belief in an invisible supernatural being who cares about the species Homo sapiens living on a minor planet in an insignificant galaxy? Do you really think that’s an example of rationality? Wouldn’t you call such a belief “superstition” if it were anything else but religious?

    And, just out of curiosity, do you think that all religious beliefs are rational and non-superstitious, or just certain ones that need special protection from criticism?

  7. #7 Zach Voch
    July 17, 2010

    Ok, so to be clear:

    It’s not, and has not been, justified for anybody to say or imply that atheist books have hurt or helped the cause of science acceptance overall?

    Somebody go over to The Intersection for me…

  8. #8 Dave Strickland
    July 17, 2010

    Chad, I am not as impressed as you are with Josh’s suggestion for at least two reasons:

    1. He fails to include the obvious in testing what drives people away from science: readings of non-accommodationist anti-science and anti-evolution works. How about some Behe or Phillip Johnson.

    2. This, and the whole recent accommodationist agenda, ignore the existing evidence that rejection of evolution and modern cosmology correlates positively with overt religiosity, not with high levels of atheism. If overt atheism drove people away from science then shouldn’t Europe and Scandinavia be more anti-science than the US?

    Rob: enough hyperbole. Calling atheists fundamentalists is hardly a good example of the supposedly superior civility of you believers, nor a great example of the quality of your reasoning.

    Just because we apply the same standards of thinking, criticism and argument to religion that we are expected to apply daily to our science does not make us equivalent to the abortion clinic bombers or the 9/11 hijackers. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Dave

  9. #9 Moshe
    July 17, 2010

    You know, the extract you liked did not look like something a social scientist would write. I just don’t think social scientists tend to look for “smoking gun” evidence for a single hypothesis, the way most physicists or biologist frame their experiments (that view is naive in that context as well, but that is a different discussion). Real social science would have interesting things to say about this phenomena, I’m sure, but those looking for ammunition is some argument about a binary proposition may be disappointed.

  10. #10 Zach Voch
    July 17, 2010

    Dave,

    This, and the whole recent accommodationist agenda, ignore the existing evidence that rejection of evolution and modern cosmology correlates positively with overt religiosity, not with high levels of atheism. If overt atheism drove people away from science then shouldn’t Europe and Scandinavia be more anti-science than the US?

    If I understand it, the argument is that new atheist writings alienate religious moderates who otherwise would have accepted evolution. So no, it’s not just more atheism = less evolutionism, and a highly atheistic country like Sweden would not help. Also, I don’t think that the correlation between religiosity and creationism hits anybody here as a surprise.

  11. #11 Rob Knop
    July 17, 2010

    Chris — I don’t know why you assume I’m painting with such a broad brush. I don’t object to atheists. I don’t object to atheists saying why they’re atheists and sharing their views. I do object to the fallacious statement that being religious is incompatible with being a good scientist, or that religion is incompatible with science. More than that, I object to the blanket characterization of all religion as being the opposite of reason and being ignorant superstition. When folks like PZ Myers or Larry Moran go and say (effectively) that all religious people are either deluded or stupid, I object to that. That’s what I’m talking about– that’s the loud and annoying hate of religion that I really don’t like.

    if I am as rational as I strive to be, then I cannot believe in something absent evidence to support that belief.

    Must the evidence be scientific evidence? If by rational we mean through the careful use of thought, or by the application of reason, that certainly applies to a lot of the theology that’s done. No, it does not apply to all of religion, and there’s an awful lot of religion that’s irrational. But it’s not necessarily rational.

    An example of religion that’s not inconsistent with reason? Anything that doesn’t claim to explain things that have been explained through science. Yes, this sounds like “God of the gaps”, but it’s deeper than that. The notion of the existence of God isn’t a scientific notion at all; science can neither prove nor disprove that. (If science proved the existence of something we might decide God, it wouldn’t be the same thing that a lot of the religious are talking about.) The notion that God created the Universe in 7 days is clearly disproven by science. Religion that holds the latter is counter to reason. But religion that’s not contradicting what we know — really know — about the Universe from science may well be completely consistent with rationality, and the faith of people who hold those religious views may well be a reasoned faith.

    Are all religions created equal? No. Once you’ve thrown out the ones that contradict evolution or the like, there are a lot left. Which ones are better? You’re not going to decide that scientifically; at that point, it’s a theological (and perhaps psychological and sociological) matter. And, some religions areif I am as rational as I strive to be, then I cannot believe in something absent evidence to support that belief. going to be better for some people than other religions. Religion isn’t science, so the methodology and process of science isn’t going to apply necessarily to differentiating religions.

    Dave — a tiny, tiny fraction of the fundamentalist theists are abortion clinic bombers or 9/11 terrorists. *You* should be ashamed of *yourself* for implying that. Once you get past that, why do I like the term “fundamentalist atheist”? Practically speaking, what makes a fundamentalist Christian such is his insistence that he has the One Truth about the nature of God — that his Bible is absolutely true, and anybody who does not agree with his ideas about religion is Wrong and damned. That is exactly the attitude that the “New Atheists” take– that they have the One Truth about the existence of God, and that anybody who disagrees with them is wrong and ignorant, deluded, or stupid. It is this insistance on the monopoly on absolute truth where there is not direct evidence to support your position that makes the analogy apt.

    I have nothing against atheists. I do have objection to fundamentalist Christians. And I do have objections to fundamentalist atheists.

  12. #12 Zach Voch
    July 17, 2010

    Rob,

    Maybe this is the source of disagreement between you and many commenters that I have seen, so maybe this will clear it up: find an example of a new atheist claiming that all religious people are stupid. Find an example of a new atheist claiming absolute certainty or absolute truth. Find a new atheist that claims that all religion is completely unreasonable.

    I can think of many counterexamples, including PZ Myers and Dawkins. Dawkins, like many other “atheist fundamentalists,” does not equivocate between a deism or pantheism and modern religious fundamentalism. He has explicitly said otherwise. PZ Myers absolutely hates the use of IQ correlates to smear the religious as stupid. I really don’t feel that New Atheists fit the sort of fundamentalist frame you assign to them.

    Also, the implied moral equivalence between New Atheists and fundamentalists is objectionable, just as it would be objectionable to assign a moral equivalence between abortion clinic bombers and theists broadly.

    Do new atheists equivocate? It’s very possible, but I haven’t seen many convincing examples from prominent NAs. Take the labeling of theistic evolutionists as a type of creationist, for example (something not unique to NAs, by the way. This is a definitional matter). This is a technical case which follows by definition from the stances of some TEs, but this has been taken as equivocating between a Miller and a Ken Ham across the board. Of course the political differences are tremendous, and I do not believe that this is lost on NAs. Personally, I think that NAs should emphasize (even more) that they are not drawing moral equivalences, but this is to preempt what is a misinterpretation.

    Let’s look at more specifics:

    I do object to the fallacious statement that being religious is incompatible with being a good scientist, or that religion is incompatible with science.

    For the first, new atheists have constantly stressed that there are good religious scientists. I have seen some idiotic commenters to the contrary, so I second your objection whenever somebody like GM, a rather thick fellow who describes himself as a new atheist, says that religious scientists are guilty of intellectual dishonesty and deserve to be fired. But this is not representative of the views of prominent New Atheist writers, who, if anything, stress the contrary.

    For the second part, this obviously depends on the type of religion in question, something which has not been lost on New Atheists. As you agree, a factually contradictory stance, like YEC, is obviously incompatible with science.

    New Atheists have been arguing something a little different, namely the treatment of faith as an acceptable basis for making claims about the natural world. The concern here is epistemological. Of faith-based claims, YEC kitsch presuppositionalism and most forms of TE are special cases. Notice what you’ve said here:

    You’re not going to decide that scientifically; at that point, it’s a theological (and perhaps psychological and sociological) matter. And, some religions areif I am as rational as I strive to be, then I cannot believe in something absent evidence to support that belief. going to be better for some people than other religions. Religion isn’t science, so the methodology and process of science isn’t going to apply necessarily to differentiating religions.

    The point is that this demarcating line is arbitrary. Creating a “domain for faith” beyond consensus science is the same error, up to epistemology, as allowing faith-based claims against — or for that matter, in agreement with — consensus science. Why?

    An argument from personal experience is still an argument from personal experience.

    An argument from tradition is still an argument from tradition.

    An argument from authority is still an argument from authority.

    The problems with these are not restricted to science, they are broadly logical fallacies. So, if somebody makes one, either in agreement or not in agreement with known scientific results, they are still contradicting scientific methodology. Does it make it OK if they do not call it science?

    Not necessarily. Labels are not excuses for stances. Even if you call homeopathy alternative, it’s still junk medicine. Science does not exist in a neat little conceptual box.

    Now, this does not imply that “science is all we know.” It does not imply certainty. It does not imply that the religious are idiots. It does not imply that Miller and Ham are hivemind. It just means that it is not consistent for somebody to reject arguments contradicting accepting science that have the same basis and justification as arguments they make which happen to be consistent with science.

    You might disagree with this (and that’s ok, this has been a matter of contention far older than new atheism), but I don’t think that it deserves the “fundamentalist” label.

  13. #13 Paul
    July 17, 2010

    Yes, such a study would certainly be a good thing. Or to put it slightly differently a study identifying an approach most likely to persuade believers to see the drawbacks of religion would be a good thing.

    It might incite quite a storm in religious circles however since it would be seen as an attempt to convert believers to atheism. Not saying that is necessarily a bad thing.

  14. #14 Rob Knop
    July 18, 2010

    find an example of a new atheist claiming that all religious people are stupid.

    From http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/07/im_surrounded.php

    Isn’t this a lovely map? It shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed. Oh, it’s labeled as the frequency of religious adherents, but it’s the same thing.

    As Chris Mooney says in this thread: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/07/12/on-toleration-not-accommodationism-and-templeton/

    I haven’t seen Dawkins call anyone an “idiot.” However, talking about religion as “delusion” surely doesn’t make believers very happy. And as we discuss in Unscientific America, Dawkins does refer in The God Delusion to “the weakness of the religious mind.” It’s not using the word idiot, but…

  15. #15 DuWayne
    July 18, 2010

    Honestly, I really don’t see much of a point to such a study, because it presupposes rather a lot.

    First it assumes that those writing all these different books have the same goal in mind, when it is obvious that they don’t. When I write about my experience with religion and shedding my religion, I am not trying to convince anyone that I am right. I am trying to simply share my experience with theists who might be where I was, most of my life and with people went through a similar experience with religion and were damaged by it. The other reason I write about it, is simply to make it clear to the world that it is ok to be an atheist.

    Second, this approach also assumes that whatever the goal of a given writing might be, there is only one way to achieve that goal – that the target demographic is a singular entity, all thinking alike. For my own part, in the final analysis, I have to say that what finally brought me to shed my faith was a combination of tacts. In large part, it was my own thinking – but that was strongly influenced by this very debate and by both “accommodationists” and “new atheists.”

    To be blunt, the implication that religion is something to be embarrassed about was just as useful to this process as knowing there are a lot of atheists who really don’t care what I believe. I think it was also useful to know that there were exceptionally few people from either “camp,” who didn’t base their respect (or in a few cases lack of) for me on whether or not I was religious. Many may have no respect for what I believed – but that didn’t translate to the personal.

    It is absolutely absurd to claim that there is something wrong with people being themselves. We have diverse goals and are trying to reach just as diverse a demographic. While one thing may help some folks accept science more easily, it is going to take a completely different approach to reach others. Just as one tactic may be particularly useful for helping some people get over the fear that is keeping them imprisoned by their *faith, while others might react better to something else.

    *Please don’t take that to imply I think that is what holds all religious people to their faith. I spent plenty enough years around various religious people to know better. I am talking about a specific religious demographic to which I used to belong.

  16. #16 smitty
    July 18, 2010

    “Confusing “rationality” with “philosophical materialism”, and believing that anybody whose religious views are different from yours makes them superstitious and irrational, is not too far from fundamentalist christians who confuse religious dogma with morality, and think that anybody whose religious views are different from theirs are damned.”

    This ideological characteristic distinguishes the New Atheists from the classical atheists who have thoughtfully arrived at their world view by applying the skeptical process.
    The vast majority of people, throughout history and culture, embrace a spiritual dimension to life. This certainly doesn’t qualify as scientific evidence for God. However, it is solid and extraordinary evidence that spirituality in some form, is a characteristic of the human experience. The fundamentalist mindset, whether religious or atheist, is caught in the same trap. It’s not that they merely cannot subscribe to any other way of thinking, it’s that they cannot conceive of alternate way of thinking. They share the same irrational fear that all other philosophies lead to dangerous implications. However, history has demonstrated that the real world atrocities occur when society embraces either purely fundamentalist viewpoint. The regimes who sought to establish utopia by exterminating all traces of religion committed horrors of even greater magnitude. Perhaps this is why in the US, we elect leaders who believe in God, not leaders who believe they are God.
    Dr. Steven Novella, host of SGU, explains how faith exists outside the boundaries testable by science. Although, the majority of self-identified skeptics conclude on atheism, it is inappropriate to require it as part of the definition.
    http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1811. He rightly agrees with Michael Shermer that skepticism is a process, not a conclusion.
    Right or wrong, people find meaning, purpose, and the ability to take a step back to gain insight into the bigger picture by way of faith. The ancient civilizations did not conceive the concept of dignity and value to all human life. The penalty for murdering a rich man was much greater than killing a peasant or servant. The institution of slavery was just a fact of life. Infanticide was the acceptable routine to deal with newborns who were deformed or not of the desired sex. Human sacrifice and genocide were sensible. Modern atheists who contend that religious faith is unnecessary to live a good and moral life, usually fail to recognize that they enjoy the luxury of being born into a society shaped by Judeo-Christian principles. Atheist apologists will cite social Darwinism, rather than concede the beneficial influence Christian philosophy has had to our modern society. While employing the “God of the gaps” is considered intellectually weak, it also is a bit too simplistic to use evolution to explain everything. But atheists tend to do this unconsciously.
    It frustrates scientists when religion interferes in the process. If advancing the science education is honestly the goal, why insist on using it to promote atheism? This whole agenda turns people off, every bit as much as teaching creation in science class turns people off. Recognizing the key role that personal experience plays in establishing a theistic world view, understand that people value the advantages of their faith over obtaining some seemingly obscure scientific knowledge that doesn’t appear to apply to anything in daily life. Is the explanation for the diversity of life going to strip them of the deep and meaningful experiences that has given them both joy and the ability to survive personal crisis? If science is truly what matters, leave the religious implications out. What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.

  17. #17 Zach Voch
    July 19, 2010

    Rob,

    Your first example wasn’t an example of labeling all religious people stupid. Your second example was explicitly a counterexample. And in case this needs explaining, delusional =/= stupid.

    Now, with this in mind, I want you to locate examples of New Atheists saying something approximately the opposite of “all religious people are stupid.”

    Then, I want you to compare your results and tell me whether or not it is accurate to claim that New Atheists say, in a consistent and representative of the group, that religious people are all stupid.

    If it is not representative, don’t say it. Else, let me know.

  18. #18 Rob Knop
    July 19, 2010

    Zach — lots of Tea Partiers also deny that there is racism in their movement, so I shouldn’t be surprised by your response.

    I see absolutely no further point in engaging with you. I think things are pretty clear now to anybody else reading.

  19. #19 Chad Orzel
    July 19, 2010

    I don’t want to bust on you too much, Zach, as you’ve been remarkably civilized, but this:

    Your first example wasn’t an example of labeling all religious people stupid. Your second example was explicitly a counterexample. And in case this needs explaining, delusional =/= stupid.

    is a good example of one of the least attractive (to me, anyway) features of the “New Atheist” crowd, namely the tendency to spin patently offensive statements about religion as harmless, usually by way of incredibly literal readings of word meanings as if English words do not have any connotations. Combine that with the tendency to hysterically overreact to relatively mild comments about atheists, and, well, it gives the impression that the whole thing is more of an extended temper tantrum than a serious intellectual enterprise.

  20. #20 Dave Strickland
    July 19, 2010

    Rob @#11,

    I’m so sorry. I’d somehow thought that you were using fundamentalist in the pejorative sense. I wonder how I got that idea?

    I hadn’t realized that you were merely referring to our adherence to the five fundamental doctrines of all right-thinking atheists, e.g. the inerrancy of the texts of the great prophet Dawkins, that we adopted after the defrocking of that Agnostic heretic Huxley.

    As an atheist, I don’t think I have access to absolute Truth. But I do know for sure that you, and every any other religious person of all the myriad contradictory myths humanity has created, has never presented any credible evidence of having access to it either.

    If you want to redefine words to call me a fundamentalist for saying that then I can’t stop you. We’re going to have to agree to disagree. If a god of the gaps is what floats your boat as “reasoned faith”, please go ahead. But don’t label us atheists as extremists when we point out the flaws in that approach.

  21. #21 Zach Voch
    July 19, 2010

    Rob@18:

    I see absolutely no further point in engaging with you. I think things are pretty clear now to anybody else reading.

    Yes, things are clear. You refused to find any examples to support your characterization of New Atheists, choosing instead to continue using smears which you refuse to substantiate.

    I’m not demanding that you like or respect New Atheists, but please, don’t lie about them.

    Chad@19:

    No worries, Chad. No matter how civil I am, if I am wrong, I am wrong.

    namely the tendency to spin patently offensive statements about religion as harmless, usually by way of incredibly literal readings of word meanings as if English words do not have any connotations

    Certainly, terms like “delusional” are not harmless and of course the connotations are negative. Similarly, calling religious labeling and teaching of children “indoctrination” or “child abuse” is strong. For Dawkins, he explains this as deliberate in order to change social opinion on two matters: religious belief as socially taboo to question and religious indoctrination as more socially acceptable than brainwashing.

    I’m not claiming, nor would I claim, that New Atheists use sunshine and roses language. Stronger, they often use harsh language and language designed to make a memorable point, just like most social movements. However, what they do say is still distinct, and explained to be distinct, from casual “religious people are all idiots” remarks. Again, I can only speak for the public figures in New Atheism, not all of the commenters, but it’s just not what I see.

    So, given this, I do object, and you might call overreact, to the labeling of atheists as “fundamentalists.” It is designed to be equivocating between two very different things. No, if somebody uses that pejorative, as Knop did, I’m going to ask that they support the usage or else retract it.

    On a final note, it is be one thing for a religious person to see The God Delusion on a shelf and think “well gosh he’s calling me stupid for being a Christian,” but it is quite different for those reviewers and critics supposedly familiar with Dawkins to imply it as well. For the way New Atheist language has been taken, agree or disagree, you have far more people to blame than New Atheists. On a small scale, Knop is one of them.

    So, we can discuss the use of “delusion” and the strong and weak points of it’s usage, but that would be a different discussion from “atheists are fundamentalists.” These should not be conflated.

  22. #22 MRW
    July 20, 2010

    @Zach

    “And in case this needs explaining, delusional =/= stupid.”

    Which would probably be why Rob said “When folks like PZ Myers or Larry Moran go and say (effectively) that all religious people are either deluded or stupid, I object to that.” [Emphasis mine] Rob’s quote is a good example of what he was referring to.

    At best, it’s careless of you to ignore the “deluded” part of Rob’s initial claim and then use the inclusion of “delusion” in the quote to argue that the quote doesn’t support that claim.

  23. #23 Zach Voch
    July 20, 2010

    MRW,

    I ask Rob to do this: “Maybe this is the source of disagreement between you and many commenters that I have seen, so maybe this will clear it up: find an example of a new atheist claiming that all religious people are stupid. Find an example of a new atheist claiming absolute certainty or absolute truth. Find a new atheist that claims that all religion is completely unreasonable.”

    Because he said this: “More than that, I object to the blanket characterization of all religion as being the opposite of reason and being ignorant superstition. When folks like PZ Myers or Larry Moran go and say (effectively) that all religious people are either deluded or stupid, I object to that. That’s what I’m talking about– that’s the loud and annoying hate of religion that I really don’t like.”

    The “or” in that sentence did not eliminate the implication that “folks like PZ Myers or Larry Moran” imply that religious people are stupid. The other items were to do with stereotypes associated with “fundamentalist,” stereotypes which Knop refused to substantiate. Though I should note that there’s more background here than this comment… his comments around here are usually of the “stinky new atheist fundamentalists” variety. If you want, you can look them up.

    For example, if I say that you are going to eat dinner or beat your spouse today, then it’s (likely) true, but if I said this to somebody, you probably wouldn’t appreciate it (assuming that you’re married).

  24. #24 josh
    July 20, 2010

    Chad,
    This:
    “This…is a good example of one of the least attractive (to me, anyway) features of the “New Atheist” crowd, namely the tendency to spin patently offensive statements about religion as harmless…”

    is just beyond the pale to me and a clear sign that you are not intellectually engaged in the discussion.

    PZ, Dawkins and others are actually pretty smart individuals and capable writers. When they choose their words they usually do so with some thought as to exactly what they mean. PZ in the above example listed FIVE different explanations for religious adherence. That’s not because he was looking for five bad synonyms for “stupid”. “Delusion” is used by Dawkins to mean, roughly “a persistent, irrational belief”. Not something the religious want to hear of course but not an insult in the least. I will say though, that there is also legitimate room for hyperbole and rhetorical flourishes that can be understood as such.

    You meanwhile describe your opponents as “hysterically” throwing “temper tantrums”, neither of which even remotely applies to middle-aged professors who write coherent blog posts and books laying out their criticisms. You are the one spinning and it looks very dishonest to me.

  25. #25 Chad Orzel
    July 20, 2010

    You meanwhile describe your opponents as “hysterically” throwing “temper tantrums”, neither of which even remotely applies to middle-aged professors who write coherent blog posts and books laying out their criticisms. You are the one spinning and it looks very dishonest to me.

    Actually, I didn’t say it was a temper tantrum, I said it “gives the impression… of a temper tantrum.” Which is an altogether different thing, and it’s completely unreasonable for you to be offended.

  26. #26 josh
    July 21, 2010

    Chad,
    Thanks for replying. I’m not offended. I think you’re being a bit hypocritical to condemn others for being insufficiently deferential while you engage in (in my view) a rather worse example of unearned condescension. Let me stress though, that hypocrisy doesn’t make your tactic right or wrong. I don’t have a problem with occasional exaggerations, I just don’t think you have any valid point when you strip them away in this case.
    If your actual point was that something “gives the impression” of a temper tantrum but in fact isn’t, shouldn’t your first order of business be to dispel the false impression rather than promote it? Of course, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here with an “incredibly literal reading” of your words. The fact remains that I don’t see a basis for your comment. Unspecified reactions by unnamed people to uncited “mild” criticisms give someone an impression which gives you an unfavorable view of “New Atheists.” I admit I can’t refute that statement.
    The concrete example which prompted your comment however is a case of atheists consistently saying something quite reasonable, having explained their meaning in detail multiple times and choosing their language to suit that meaning. Honestly, I would think if someone trawls the internet for something to be offended by they could do better than this.
    The fact is, atheists think theists are wrong. Someone who is wrong is necessarily ignorant, dumb, lying, deluded or coerced. Doesn’t mean they don’t redeem themselves on other topics, but there is only so much sugarcoating one can do, and that’s a courtesy, not a responsibility.

  27. #27 MRW
    July 21, 2010

    @Zach “The “or” in that sentence did not eliminate the implication”

    And what makes the “or” in PZ’s statement different?
    “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed”

    Are you really trying to argue that calling someone foolish is effectively (another word from Rob’s statement) different from calling them stupid? You’re reaching.

  28. #28 Rob Knop
    July 21, 2010

    The fact is, atheists think theists are wrong. Someone who is wrong is necessarily ignorant, dumb, lying, deluded or coerced.

    Only if you absolutely insist on painting the world in extremely high-contrast black-and-white terms.

    Look, back in 1998, I was convinced that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, and that the cosmological constant was non-zero. Nowadays, most people who have really looked at it would agree. However, back in 1998, there were a lot of people who were very dubious, who believed that this evidence for a cosmological constant would eventually go away, be shown to be another systematic effect.

    I thought there were wrong. I did not, however, feel the need to think that they must be one of those perjorative things that you list simply because of their wrongness. They reached different conclusions based on the available information. They had a different opinion about the weight and value of different things that led to the decision. They had different opinions about which pieces of information were valid to consider and which were misleading or spurious. They were not ignorant, dumb, lying, deluded, or coerced at all, even though 12 years later it appears that I was right and they were wrong.

    This attitude that if somebody else disagrees with you on something it indicates that they have a horrible personal flaw (lying, deluded, coerced, whatever) is the attitude that I find very irritating and ultimately irrational. It’s also an attitude I associate with fundamentalism.

  29. #29 josh
    July 22, 2010

    Rob,
    Being ignorant, foolish, deluded, etc. (I wasn’t trying to make a definitive list up there) isn’t a horrible personal flaw. It’s a state people are often in with respect to one thing or another.
    As for your example, I would say in 1998 both you and those you disagreed with were ignorant in the sense that further information largely resolved you differences. This is obviously common as there are always questions we don’t yet have solid support to answer. You all may have been in an equal state of ignorance at the time and it would be foolish for anyone to proclaim themselves right in that situation.
    Rather, you say you were convinced of your position so the question is why. If you had evidence your colleagues didn’t they were ignorant. If you had a fool-proof argument then they were dumb, blind, misguided, pig-headed, what-have-you not to acknowledge it. You say they weighed things differently, but you must have a reason for preferring your weighting to theirs, otherwise you had no basis to be convinced.
    Now realistically, I realize you probably weren’t “convinced” in an absolute sense. You thought your position was stronger but not definitive. You had a hunch but couldn’t argue it conclusively. But if you thought your opponents arguments were simply terrible, absolutely unsupported by any evidence, refuted by the most basic considerations, etc., you would think some flaw explains their obstinance. Also, bear in mind that you could support your position with the caveat that further evidence might overturn it, and still think people convinced of the opposite position were foolish if they based their belief on bad reason and no evidence.
    You may of course wish to argue at this juncture that atheists shouldn’t be as certain of their position as they are or that theists arguments haven’t been refuted, but that is a different debate which doesn’t detract from the point I’m making here. You can’t win this latter debate by complaining that atheists honestly say their antagonists are flat out wrong.

  30. #30 Fannie
    July 22, 2010

    Jeez. Some atheists need to check up on Atran’s heavy criticism of the new atheist nonsense. He smacked Harris and Dawkins down at one of the Beyond Belief conferences.

    If anyone is curious, research shows atheists are more likely to scapegoat then religious folks. And no, you can find the research yourself, you well-informed super-rational new atheists.

    Funny this article was posted this week, at the same time scientific america did a post on how dangerous religion is to science.

    to the author of the above article: thank you.

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