I don’t know if that’s helping

The nice thing about being an agnostic is feeling comfortable saying “I don’t know” when there’s not enough evidence to say yes or no.

I mention this because I want to be clear that I mean no criticism by saying that I don’t know if Ophelia is right about the positive effects of New Atheism. She’s picking up on a study which yet again demonstrates that Americans overstate their church attendance. The latest is based on a study comparing churches’ attendance figures with people’s self-reported church attendance. Earlier demonstrations of this effect included researchers counting cars in parking lots in one county (in Ohio, IIRC) on Sundays, and have always found that people say they go to church more often than they do.

Ophelia seems to accept, as I do, the researchers’ explanation that this overstating of church attendance reflects Americans’ equation of church attendance with religiosity with moral stature and respectability. People say they attend church not because they necessarily do, but because they want to identify themselves as the sort of people who go to church (respectable, moral, religious, possibly a bit conservative, respectful of traditions and values, and so forth).

Ophelia says that this points up a positive benefits of New/Extreme/Affirmative/gnu atheism; to wit, it shows “how gnu atheism can Help”:

gnu atheism … is relentlessly pointing out that religious belief is not altogether intellectually respectable. That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity. It means the identity aspect is more mixed.

She quotes Shankar Vedantam’s report on the research:

When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots.

And answers:

Yes, but now it’s also getting to be like asking them whether they believe in Santa Claus. It’s getting to be like asking them if they’re somewhat too credulous for a grown-up.

This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today.

The problem for me is that, despite all of the claims that gnu atheism has done this and is doing that, no actual evidence has (ever, to my knowledge) been advanced that gnu atheism has had any effect whatsoever on public perceptions of religion.

This point is separate from a conversation about whether reducing religions’ perceived importance to society is a valid goal (it probably is!). But there’s a long-standing dispute about how the gnus’ arguments and tactics and tone actually influence people’s perceptions of religion, of atheism, and of science, and simply asserting various positive effects as having already happened without offering data to back them up seems illegitimate. But I don’t know, maybe not.

If she’d said that these effects might well follow, I’d have no real argument. They might (and also might not, I don’t know). The initial claim that gnus have already rendered religion “not altogether intellectually respectable” strikes me as the weak point in this argument, though. Religion hasn’t been intellectually respectable (as I understand the term) since the 1940s or ’50s, probably since the ’20s, and quite likely not since the late 19th century or even earlier (this was central to the tensions of the Scopes era, for instance, and fundamentalism rose out of a backlash against scientific and technological hegemony in late 19th century America, as well as an effort to co-opt scientific language and respectability in service of that backlash). Indeed, the appeal of religion is often given by both fundamentalists and by liberal and moderate theologians as its counterbalance (or even opposition) to a perceived excess intellectualism in the broader society.

Absent some sort of evidence that religion is less intellectually respectable now than it was 10 years ago, this first step in Ophelia’s logical chain fails, and the conclusions go with it. And the paragraph above suggests that intellectual respectability has not been necessary or sufficient for its social desirability in America’s past, so the second link strikes me as dubious and unproven as well.

Maybe the evidence is there. If it is, I don’t know what it shows. Smallish psychology experiments could probably give some useful data to test the hypothesis (assuming they bring in a representative demographic: levels of education have a strong effect on religiosity, so college students alone would not be a representative experimental sample). If they’ve been done, I don’t know the results. Maybe someone did that experiment, and some other people confirmed it independently. If so, I don’t know about it. The result isn’t utterly implausible, and I’m not saying it’s false. I’m saying I don’t know, and I tend not to trust people who confidently assert empirically measurable facts without actually offering data to support the claim.

Comments

  1. #1 Gurdur
    December 25, 2010

    It’s pretty easy to draw some most probable conclusions, no? After all, actual church attendance has been dropping for decades in the USA, no? When did the six original New Atheists and later the Gnus get really famous at all? After all, one study cited was in rural Ohio, where they don’t exactly hang on every word the chattering classes utter. Oh, only around ten years ago the New Atheists really started taking off, and the Gnus, they haven’t even made the stage really, have they? Not in any significant public way at all.

    So we’re only talking about the original New Atheists, and they only took off 10 years ago, and actual church attendance had been dropping for a long time before that. So goodness, the New Atheists had nothing or very damn little to do with it.

    As for the Gnus, and Ophelia’s obvious want to appropriate some credit, *grin*. The Gnus don’t count, not on any public stage at all, not in rural Ohio, not even in New York.

    Atheism is on the rise, and so is vocal agnosticism, but both those rises correlate very weakly with the dropping in church attendance (see Putnam et al’s latest research showing quite a few atheists attend church regularly for community reasons).

    “This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today.”

    Just be grateful that it wasn’t accompanied by the usual howls of how the “stupid stupid stupid evil stupid accommodationists” are betraying the Class Struggle and grinding the boot of oppression into the hapless face of the poor, poor Gnus.

  2. #2 Dave W.
    December 25, 2010

    Josh Rosenau wrote:

    If she’d said that these effects might well follow…

    Well, she did consistently use the future tense when talking about those effects. She may have used words that are too certain about the future, but she’s not attributing the current religious climate to the effects of Gnu Atheism.

    The initial claim that gnus have already rendered religion “not altogether intellectually respectable”…

    But she didn’t claim that. She said that the Gnus relentlessly point out that religion is not altogether intellectually respectable, which is true: the Gnus do that. That’s very different from claiming that the Gnus have “rendered” religion as such.

    Whatever it is you’re criticizing, it certainly isn’t Ophelia’s post.

  3. #3 RBH
    December 25, 2010

    There are some ideas here with at least some empirical backing.

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    December 25, 2010

    Of course, the question the Fundamentalist Atheists (a far better term, in my view) don’t seem to want to address is the degree to which they are harming the public perception of *atheism*, or even the cause of science education.

    The Clergy Letter project, which is a great thing– religious leaders speaking out vociferously in support of evolution– in a recent e-mail have added another sort of attack that they want to defend against: the new atheists. PZ Myers is mentioned by name. The Clergy Letter project is a group of folks that those who really care about good science education and acceptance of science should embrace as their first allies, the people who can really speak to the religious. Yet, fundamentalist atheists attack them too. Somehow, I guess, this is supposed to help the cause of atheism.

  5. #5 HP
    December 25, 2010

    If you look back over the last 400 years or so in North America, you see that public religiosity has always been cyclical — First Great Awakening, Enlightenment Deism, Second Great Awakening, Pragmatism, etc., etc. And each cycle has always been accompanied by triumphalist claims of a great new era. So, any empirical attempt to evaluate the impact of the Gnu Atheists has to account for the boom-and-bust nature of American religiosity.

    It’s important to remember that when books like The End of Faith and The God Delusion shot to the top of the bestsellers’ lists, it’s because they had a ready audience. One could argue that the Dawkinses of the world are not leaders, they are followers.

    If anything, I would argue that the current climate is a result of the one-two punch of 9/11 and the Bush Administration, just as the earlier generation of Ingersoll, Dewey, James, Twain, and Bierce were fallout from the Civil War.

  6. #6 Saikat Biswas
    December 25, 2010

    @Rob Knop : The Clergy Letter project is a group of folks that those who really care about good science education and acceptance of science should embrace as their first allies, the people who can really speak to the religious.

    The Clergy Letter Project is a group of folks that those who really want to adhere to and uphold their Judeo-Christian faith should embrace as their sole ally.

  7. #7 Ophelia Benson
    December 25, 2010

    You mean no criticism, Josh? Really? When you say “This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today”?

    Here’s the rest of the post in its entirety:

    Yes, but now it’s also getting to be like asking them whether they believe in Santa Claus. It’s getting to be like asking them if they’re somewhat too credulous for a grown-up.

    The “identity” is under pressure from that direction in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time, and the pressure will only increase. The internet has given argumentative atheism an ideal tool of persuasion, so it won’t just fade back into the woodwork in a few years. Gnu atheism will just go on chipping away at theistic epistemology, and the longer it does so, the less obviously desirable the religious “identity” will be. People will no more think it vaguely socially desirable to profess churchgoing than they will think it vaguely socially desirable to profess genuine belief in Santa Claus.

    That’s it. I don’t see the vigorous sugary saccharine back-patting.

  8. #8 RBH
    December 25, 2010

    Ophelia wrote

    I don’t see the vigorous sugary saccharine back-patting.

    You have to have the right decoder ring.

  9. #9 Ophelia Benson
    December 25, 2010

    You mean no criticism, Josh? Really? When you say “This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today”?

    Here’s the rest of the post in its entirety:

    Yes, but now it’s also getting to be like asking them whether they believe in Santa Claus. It’s getting to be like asking them if they’re somewhat too credulous for a grown-up.

    The “identity” is under pressure from that direction in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time, and the pressure will only increase. The internet has given argumentative atheism an ideal tool of persuasion, so it won’t just fade back into the woodwork in a few years. Gnu atheism will just go on chipping away at theistic epistemology, and the longer it does so, the less obviously desirable the religious “identity” will be. People will no more think it vaguely socially desirable to profess churchgoing than they will think it vaguely socially desirable to profess genuine belief in Santa Claus.

    That’s it. I don’t see the vigorous sugary saccharine back-patting.

  10. #10 Ophelia Benson
    December 25, 2010

    On the substance:

    1. It was a follow-up post; the first one included an “if that’s true” about Vedantam’s interpretation; I didn’t bother with that in the second one, and probably should have.

    2. I didn’t assert that various positive effects had already happened, I said some effects were in process and others will happen. I didn’t say anything as stupid and dogmatic as you’re implying.

    3. As for evidence that gnu atheism has had any effect whatsoever on public perceptions of religion – well what about this post for instance? What about chapter 8 of Unscientific America? What about countless articles and blog posts and even entire books on the subject? All of those are part of public perception, after all. It’s not as if public perception is some special substance that is sealed off from specific items like blog posts and articles and books, before we even mention the readers of all those. All this writing about “new” atheism is itself evidence that “new” atheism has affected public perceptions of religion. The writing is an effect.

    I certainly don’t mean that “new” atheism has pushed things in such a way that it has sole possession of the field. I mean what I said – it has put pressure on religious belief. It has, in other words, made some believers defensive; it has revealed that there is not unanimous agreement that theism is entirely reasonable. That’s all. That’s not a very dramatic claim.

    And if Vedantam is right and people really do feel social pressure to say they’re religious when they’re not…is it a bad thing to lift some of that pressure? I think it’s a good thing.

  11. #11 Ophelia Benson
    December 25, 2010

    Drat! Sorry about double post. I checked first – I swear it wasn’t there when I checked.

  12. #12 Improbable Joe
    December 25, 2010

    The nice thing about being an “agnostic” of your ilk is that you can sit on the fence, make no contribution while criticizing people who actually take a side, and somehow feel superior for your lack of usefulness and spine. You aren’t just saying “I don’t know”, you’re also claiming to know better than everyone else because you think your nonsensical non-position is the same as wisdom.

  13. #13 Saikat Biswas
    December 25, 2010

    The nice thing about being an accomodationist is feeling comfortable saying “everyone might be wrong” when there’s enough evidence to say “I don’t know.”

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    December 25, 2010

    Gurdur: I agree with your basic chronological argument, but maybe trends have accelerated since the rise of the gnus (more like 6 years ago than 10, which is also not long to detect effects on broad public polls).

    Dave W.: The following are not future tense: “no longer offers” … “the identity aspect is more mixed” … ”it’s also getting to be” … “It’s getting to be” … “is under pressure” … “has given” Furthermore, she goes from “gnu atheism is point out” to “That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity.” You can’t just claim that her post was about what gnus are attempting, she’s claiming that there are present and empirically measurable effects. That’s what I’m responding to.

    RBH: The “just world” research is interesting, though hard to interpret. Their sample sizes are small and their definition of “dire threats” is not what I expected before reading the methods. I’m not sure how well it informs the confrontationalist/accommodationist spat.

    HP: I tend to agree (and I think Gurdur does too) that the increased prominence of gnu voices probably reflects more about pre-existing shifts in public consciousness than they are a cause of those shifts. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ve yet to see any compelling empirical research on the effects of gnus on public opinion.

    Ophelia: As to the backpatting, I’m mainly thinking of the epic hyperbole of phrases like “under pressure … in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time,” “the internet … an ideal tool of persuasion,” and over-confident assertions like “it won’t just fade back into the woodwork in a few years.” Maybe it really won’t. I don’t know. But neither do you! And I thought we grew out of grand pronouncements of the internet utopia-to-be in about 1998. What about the digital divide? What about the fact that the most influential religious voices are older, and therefore less likely to read blogs? What about the fact that the internet makes it easier to avoid contrary voices and views, thus making it harder to have a broader social impact? These are the sort of things people could ignore in the ’90s when everything was shiny and Nicholas Negroponte and Wired and Slate could all be techno-utopian and it was fresh and fun. We know a bit better now. The internet doesn’t change everything (but it does change some things, and not always for the better).

    Anyway, that’s all hardly on topic, and yet another reason I didn’t quote it above.

    So we get: “All this writing about ‘new’ atheism is itself evidence that ‘new’ atheism has affected public perceptions of religion.”

    How many people read my blog? How many people read Unscientific America? How many of those people were undecided on this topic to begin with? If, as I assume, most of my readers and of UA’s have already got firm opinions, how likely is my discussion of your post, or UA’s chapter, changing the public discourse? People who talked about these things before are still talking about them.

    Your quotation marks around “new” are telling. Because as you imply, it isn’t that new. There were always atheists. Dawkins didn’t come out of the closet in 2005. His fight with Michael Ruse over Chamberlain and so forth goes back to the ’80s, IIRC. These points have been part of the dialogue for a long time, at a fairly consistent rate for the last century (ticking up somewhat in the last decade, though I think the last decade is supposed to be unreliable in the ngrams dataset).

    How can you simultaneously claim that gnu atheism isn’t new, and that it is also a radical change in the public discourse? I see a contradiction there.

    “I didn’t assert that various positive effects had already happened, I said some effects were in process and others will happen. … [gnu atheism] has put pressure on religious belief. It has, in other words, made some believers defensive; it has revealed that there is not unanimous agreement that theism is entirely reasonable. That’s all. That’s not a very dramatic claim.”

    I see a tension between the lines before the ellipsis and those after. The lines after are about present effects that have already happened.

    But I agree with a bunch of those last lines, even though I don’t see any evidence linking them to gnus specifically. Lots of believers were already defensive (the rhetoric of the Christian Coalition, FRC, Focus on the Family, etc., is fundamentally defensive, however offensive it might be). There was never a unanimous agreement on theism, and I don’t think people have claimed one in the last century. Indeed, the rhetoric of culture warriors in the century (well before Scopes) has all been directed against atheists, and vocal atheists including Emma Goldman and Madelyn Murray O’Hair and Mencken have long played a prominent role in American politics.

    If, as you say, nothing’s new about gnu atheism, then why do you say that it’s having this transformative effect (however modest)? And if there is something new about it, what empirical evidence backs even the modest claims that you advance?

    Improbable Joe: Leaving snide, pseudonymous blog comments doesn’t count as picking sides, it doesn’t count as being useful. I have a side, and I do plenty. Your profile says you’re a student in Florida. Awesome. I worked with activists in Florida who added evolution to your textbooks and science standards, and who stopped laws which would force creationism into them. I helped make sure your state superintendent of schools wasn’t a raging creationist. You’re welcome.

  15. #15 articulett
    December 25, 2010

    Given the lack of evidence, I think the title of this post is more fitting of the accommodationist position.

  16. #16 John Morales
    December 25, 2010

    Josh:

    The nice thing about being an agnostic is feeling comfortable saying “I don’t know” when there’s not enough evidence to say yes or no.

    You think the Christian god might be real?

    Heh.

  17. #17 Ken Pidcock
    December 25, 2010

    no actual evidence has (ever, to my knowledge) been advanced that gnu atheism has had any effect whatsoever on public perceptions of religion.

    Well, it’s had an impact on my perceptions of religion. Ten years ago, I was happy to be a Christian nonbeliever, with all of the social respect thereto appertaining. I was led to hold this unconscionable by cogent new atheist arguments, particularly Sam Harris’s convincing dismissal of moderate religion as a counter to fundamentalism, and Richard Dawkins’s discussion of childhood indoctrination, which I was forced to realize I was abetting.

    The church I was attending (PC-USA) is filled with closeted atheists, and so are many others. It won’t be easy for these people to choose intellectual integrity over comfortable deceit, but I hope that they do, and I’m convinced that the gnus will help them.

  18. #18 Improbable Joe
    December 25, 2010

    Josh, this is not going to go well for you. Both because of the negative response you are going to get, and more importantly because you look very VERY silly claiming that you can see no effect of “Gnu Atheism”, followed by an immediate double-helping of comments from people who were inspired by the very thing you say has no noticeable effect. Oops!

  19. #19 Jerry Coyne
    December 25, 2010

    No, Josh, it isn’t going to go well for you, as is usual when you write this kind of post. No evidence that Gnu Atheism is changing minds? Why don’t you check out the 23 pages of letters at Dawkins’s “Converts’ Corner” (http://richarddawkins.net/letters/converts)? And then multiply that by the number of Gnus who have written bestsellers (Hitchens, Harris, etc.).

    And those people aren’t just being converted to atheism, they’re also converting to accepting evolution.

    Oh, and as for your accusation of “vigorous back patting,” well, you’re being just what Phil Plait told us not to be.

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    December 25, 2010

    Dave W.: “But she didn’t claim that.”

    If someone claims, “One thing gnu atheism is doing is relentlessly pointing out that religious belief is not altogether intellectually respectable,” and immediately follows up with, “That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity,” the obvious implication is that gnu atheists have made a dent in the desirability of a religious identity.

    Coyne: “No evidence that Gnu Atheism is changing minds? Why don’t you check out the 23 pages of letters at Dawkins’s ‘Converts’ Corner’”

    That’s useful if somewhat imperfect evidence that Gnu Atheists have changed individual minds. (I shouldn’t have to tell you that the imperfection has to do with the evidence being anecdotal.) As evidence that the respectability of religion has declined in the eyes of the public at large, let alone that the Gnu Atheists are responsible, it’s almost worthless, since not only is the evidence anecdotal, but the letters from converts constitute a horribly biased sample.

  21. #21 Ken Pidcock
    December 25, 2010

    That’s useful if somewhat imperfect evidence that Gnu Atheists have changed individual minds.

    Yeah, goddamn it, how come he doesn’t understand that we’re talking about aggregate minds?

  22. #22 Josh Rosenau
    December 25, 2010

    Ken: Thanks for sharing. I don’t mean to suggest that you are alone in having “come out” as a result of the gnus. I’m curious why you didn’t come out earlier, and why you think other atheists in the pews haven’t come out yet? My hypothesis, and I’m curious about your take on it, is that they identify with religious communities for various non-theological reasons (e.g., social, cultural, identity, even political association). I suspect that some, at least, also prefer not to identify as atheists because of the negative perceptions of atheism, negative impressions not necessarily allayed by the gnus.

    Jerry: Oh FFS, you’re too smart to make that kind of argument. No number of pages of conversion tales and altar calls constitutes evidence. You know this because you’re a scientist, and even if you weren’t a scientist, you aren’t a dolt. Self-reported, unverified, unvetted, personal testimonies are staples of many religious traditions, lots of churches have them on their websites, and no one thinks they mean a damn thing.

    Looking at the raw number of altar calls and claimed conversions gives meaningless results. This is obvious to anyone who has studied basic demography (no one looks only at births and immigration without also looking at deaths and emigration), it’s obvious to anyone familiar with survey design and statistics, and it should be obvious to anyone who (like myself) thought the Tom Johnson story smelled funny.

    Ken’s story is interesting, and I don’t doubt there are others like him. But as he says, he was already an atheist, and if it wasn’t Sam Harris, I have no doubt some other event would have brought him out of the closet. I know I don’t need to tell Jerry, but Improbable Joe may benefit from the observation that these sort of complexities are why aggregate data and statistical or randomized controls are so important. It’s why the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data.” It’s why I don’t take those 23 pages seriously.

    As Gurdur points out upthread, religiosity has been declining for some time, and the rise of the gnus has not changed that trajectory (it is closer to plateauing than to accelerating). That’s the sort of data that might be informative, though a controlled experiment would probably tell us more, for reasons I explained long ago.

    To summarize: no one has yet said anything that should make me revise my assessment that there’s insufficient data to justify the claims at hand. This does not mean things are going poorly for me. I think people presenting collected altar calls and testimonies as anything resembling evidence come out looking pretty awful, though.

  23. #23 gillt
    December 25, 2010

    I don’t get it. If Josh is so concerned about the evidence behind pronouncements why has he gone to great lengths suggesting Gnu Atheists hurt science literacy, a close-minded position considering–as everyone involved in the matter knows–it isn’t based on any actual evidence? Oughtn’t he be silent on the matter? Maybe we’ll be entreated to a future coming-out post on his own biases on the matter.

  24. #24 gillt
    December 25, 2010

    John

    …and it should be obvious to anyone who (like myself) thought the Tom Johnson story smelled funny.

    Was this an inside your head thought at the time?

  25. #25 Josh Rosenau
    December 25, 2010

    Gillt: “Was this an inside your head thought at the time?”

    Yes. I didn’t care about it then enough to actually try to investigate, and don’t really care about it now. Anecdotes, however juicy, aren’t data.

  26. #26 Dave W.
    December 26, 2010

    Josh Rosenau wrote:

    Dave W.: The following are not future tense: “no longer offers” … “the identity aspect is more mixed” … “it’s also getting to be” … “It’s getting to be” … “is under pressure” … “has given”

    And none of those, that I can tell, are references to the effects of Gnu Atheism. The subject of the last one, “has given,” is the Internet, forcyingoutloud.

    Furthermore, she goes from “gnu atheism is point out” to “That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity.” You can’t just claim that her post was about what gnus are attempting, she’s claiming that there are present and empirically measurable effects.

    No, she was obviously claiming that there is presently a cultural climate that the Gnu Atheists should take advantage of (using tools like the Internet) to achieve certain effects. Her verb tenses were all correct in all the right places, even if she’s too hopeful about the future. You (for reasons I won’t begin to guess) seem intent on painting her post as if she were trying to have Gnu Atheism take all credit for the current state of affairs, which she clearly was not.

    That’s what I’m responding to.

    And as I said, you’re not responding to anything she wrote, since you think that Ophelia thinks that the Internet or its utility in advocacy is an effect of Gnu Atheism.

    J.J. Ramsey wrote:

    If someone claims, “One thing gnu atheism is doing is relentlessly pointing out that religious belief is not altogether intellectually respectable,” and immediately follows up with, “That means that religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity,” the obvious implication is that gnu atheists have made a dent in the desirability of a religious identity.

    You’re going to have to graph the sentences or something to convince me that what you’re saying is obvious. Perhaps I’m just not reading between the same lines that you are.

  27. #27 articulett
    December 26, 2010

    You, have claimed that gnu atheists “hurt the cause” while accommodationism somehow makes things better. You had no evidence for your slurs against gnu atheists and you had no evidence to support your contention that accommodationism helps the cause of scientific literacy. Others provided loads of anecdotal evidence showing that for many people, the gnu atheists are the voices that bring them to reason. This makes sense. So long as folks are deferring to religion, people get the inane idea that faith is something scientists should defer to. The gnu atheists make it okay to goof on religion– to treat it like any other pseudoscience or superstition. For many people this is an eye-opening experience; they’ve never thought to question their indoctrinators. They’ve never thought about faith being a liability rather than an asset.

    The gnu atheists are the NCSE’s allies, but you have already developed this opinion that they “hurt the cause” and so you keep trying to confirm your biases such as you did with this piece; You have zero evidence that this is the case. I doubt that you are more responsible for spreading understanding of evolution than those gnu atheists such as Coyne, Dawkins, and PZ that you imagine are hurting the cause! A number of gnu atheists (such as Eric McDonald) have been fundamentalists, and so they could give you a clue as to what works with the most intractable. But you don’t want to count their stories as evidence because it negates your bias about gnu atheists hurting the cause. Instead, you are just going to assume your method works even though we have nothing on par with “converts corner” from the accommodationist camp– and we also have known lies from the accommodationist camp (TJ) as the ONLY anecdote for this idea that atheists “hurt the case”. For many people, it’s letting go of faith that brings them to a love of science and a subsequent understanding of evolution– not making excuses for faith and bad mouthing those who are bold enough to say that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Besides, for gnu atheists, the goal isn’t just an understanding of evolution; it’s about about knocking faith of the pedestal so that it can be scrutinized like every other claim that is supposed to be about reality. I think the gnu atheists make your job easier in the long run, so maybe you ought to keep your biased opinions about them to yourself (unless you like engaging in backslapping with Gurdur, of course, while claiming others are engaging in backslapping.) In any case, it sound like you’re a wee bit jealous of the gnu atheist because they have a bit more fan support than you (and a bit more intelligent,humorous, and scientifically educated fan support at that!) Perhaps you are trying to blame your own method’s failures on the voices of gnu atheism. But I’d suggest there is another reason that the number of YECs isn’t budging while atheism and those accepting unguided evolution are growing.

    Face it, the only people who don’t accept evolution, don’t accept it BECAUSE of religious reasons. This is not the fault of atheists. When polled, these true believers flat out say they would not accept science that conflicts with their faith. The whole problem is faith. Many people are afraid they will go to hell if they accept science. The accommodationists offer no solution to the problem– you give credence to the idea that hell might be real and try to guide people to a scientifically acceptable form of superstition. But you can’t just be “agnostic” about gods– you’re agnostic about demons, hell, supernatural events, etc. After all, you can’t prove these things don’t exist any more than you can prove gods don’t– and you speak of “agnosticism” as if it means “on the fence”– so your religious supporters end up thinking that you think that their superstitions have a 50-50 chance of being real! And then you pat yourselves on the back imagining that this means you are open minded! While this may work to convert some (and this might be what “agnostic” means to you), I think it would behoove you to understand why many find this method dishonest. All people (including theists) must be agnostic when it comes to invisible undetectable beings– but that doesn’t mean that we “believe in” all or any such beings or that science suggests there is a 50-50 probability that they exist! Moreover, who are you to say when the magic stops? If god exists and is magic then he can make an old world look young, right? What makes you think science can draw the line on which miracles god did do and which ones he didn’t do?

    In any case, you may wish to show some evidence that your method of mixing science and religion are “helping” before you come to the conclusion that the gnu atheists are not.

    I think it’s obvious that the gnu atheists are shifting the Overton window. I’d like to see some evidence of regarding the accomplishments of accommodationism. What sort of comparison can we do to see who furthers the cause of scientific literacy more?

  28. #28 Ken Pidcock
    December 26, 2010

    Josh: As to why I identified as Christian for so long, I could have, then, given you a litany, but I think now that it all came down to a perception that, in the community with which I identify, good people are understood to be people of faith, and I was responding to that. It was when I realized that I was contributing to that perception that I could no longer remain in that position. As I said previously, new atheist arguments provided some impetus, but let me add that I was also goaded by the reaction to new atheism, the unfair invocations of “atheist fundamentalism” (think Terry Eagleton) that seemed, to me, a kind of sneering at honesty.

    I suspect that some, at least, also prefer not to identify as atheists because of the negative perceptions of atheism, negative impressions not necessarily allayed by the gnus.

    I think it’s fair to ask from whence such perceptions arise (other than from bald-faced lies, as we’ve all discussed ad nauseam). Obviously, the most important source is religious writers who understand, with good reason, that such perceptions are useful to them. But I would submit to you that they have allies here among us.

    And how might such perceptions be allayed? I would think by continuing to speak honestly and reasonably, and not fearfully.

  29. #29 Josh Rosenau
    December 26, 2010

    Articulett: “maybe you ought to keep your biased opinions … to yourself”

    No.

    “I think the gnu atheists make your job easier”

    No. I appreciate your expertise in my job, though.

    “The gnu atheists make it okay to goof on religion”

    Yes, at last Monty Python can release The Life of Brian. Maybe some day we’ll be able to see the unreleased “Last Supper” and Spanish Inquisition scenes from Sid Caesar’s History of the World, and the Last Supper scene from M.A.S.H.

    You keep talking about “anecdotal evidence” as if that were not an oxymoron. It’s disappointing. I offer peer reviewed literature, dozens of studies, and get dinged for not being more anecdotal. But if I just talk about the many people I’ve interacted with at NCSE and before I started at NCSE, the successes that my strategy has brought, that gets me nowhere. Whatevs.

    “we have nothing on par with ‘converts corner’ from the accommodationist camp”

    Maybe the accommodationist camp respects evidence too much to truckle in that sort of nonsense? We don’t do altar calls.

    “you speak of ‘agnosticism’ as if it means ‘on the fence’– so your religious supporters end up thinking that you think that their superstitions have a 50-50 chance of being real!”

    There you go mistaking me for Richard Dawkins again. It is Dawkins who wrongly claims agnosticism is an assessment of 50-50 probability. I consistently say that it is the conclusion that there is inadequate evidence to make a probability assessment, and especially that in some cases it is impossible to get evidence. I don’t speak about it as if it means “on the fence.” Again, that’s Dawkins. I’m the one with the beard.

    I also don’t give credence to the idea that hell might be real. Have you any evidence to support that claim?

    Yes, the reason people reject evolution is (primarily) religious. But lots of people are religious and also accept evolution. Which means that it is not necessary to have people reject religion in order to get them to accept evolution, and getting people to reject religion is hard. So if the focus is on evolution acceptance (and that’s my focus), then it makes sense to emphasize the shift toward evolution within a religious context, to defuse the belief that accepting the science of evolution will consign someone to hell. The rest we can deal with later.

  30. #30 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    Yes, the reason people reject evolution is (primarily) religious. But lots of people are religious and also accept evolution. Which means that it is not necessary to have people reject religion in order to get them to accept evolution, and getting people to reject religion is hard.

    But it also means that weakening the social power of religion will help to make the religious rejection of evolution less powerful, influential, pervasive, etc. And getting people to reject religion is not all that hard in all cases. It’s defeatist to exaggerate how difficult it is (just as it’s silly and risky to exaggerate how easy it is). So even for people whose focus is on evolution acceptance, the longterm weakening of religious influence is obviously useful.

  31. #31 Bruce Gorton
    December 26, 2010

    It’s pretty easy to draw some most probable conclusions, no? After all, actual church attendance has been dropping for decades in the USA, no? When did the six original New Atheists and later the Gnus get really famous at all?

    Christopher Hitchens’ The Missionary Position was released in 1995 and Richard Dawkins’ first best seller was The Selfish Gene in 1976.

    Aside from that the so-called “New Atheism” actually has part of its roots in Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s activism in 1960.

    It is a mistake to say that the big six started the “New Atheist” movement, if they had they wouldn’t have been best sellers. They simply expressed a zeitgeist which had been building for decades.

  32. #32 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    Bruce – well there’s a mix of continuity and discontinuity. Dawkins wanted to write The God Delusion about ten years before he did, but his publisher and agent said it would flop, so he didn’t. The situation changed – partly because of 9/11.

    Better examples of preceding conditions for the US would be Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World in 1996 and the writing of for instance Wendy Kaminer. There were definitely stirrings in the 90s, but they got tornado-like in the oughties.

  33. #33 Egbert
    December 26, 2010

    The statistics show a swing from religion to non-religion over the last thirty years (at least in the UK and USA) but there is also a discrepancy between claiming to be a church goer and actually going to church.

    It is possible that the great ‘fluke’ or anomaly that America is highly religious is in fact not true. Americans, for whatever reason, lie about being religious, possibly because claiming to be religious gives you positive social status and success.

    And so the real problems appear to be the low opinion that atheists have had within America (which is not present here in Europe), something for which Accommodationism does nothing about. What the highly influential and respectable gnu atheist writers have done is bring a popular respectability to being vocally atheist. Millions of sales is evidence not of an effect, but of a demand to read/hear.

    Atheist billboards and bus ads are just more atheist rhetoric that is most definitely not accommodationist, but part of the mainstream Zeitgeist and momentum that is the rise of non-religion.

    Accommodationism appears to be making no contribution within the mainstream debate whatsoever. It’s not having an effect and there is no evidence it’s having an effect. Something is changing in the mainstream, but it’s certainly not down to accommodationism. I would guess that Richard Dawkins has contributed to the Zeitgeist, there is no direct evidence, but he is definitely contributing something.

    Gnu atheism is only atheism but more mainstream and visible, and therefore it’s out there and doing something and challenging religion, which is something accommodationists certainly can’t claim.

  34. #34 Debater Mouse
    December 26, 2010

    Josh, as I mentioned at WEIT I am perplexed by the whole discussion. There is an overwhelming amount of virtual ink being spilled here, though I seriously wonder what the fuss is.

    Regarding New Atheism, could you please succinctly state what your thesis is? Not regarding Benson per se, but generally what you’re getting at. I would suggest that the voluminousness of the discussion is a symptom of the amorphousness of the claims. I would greatly appreciate if you would distill your thesis into a paragraph (or two), if possible.

  35. #35 Saikat Biswas
    December 26, 2010

    @29 : …to defuse the belief that accepting the science of evolution will consign someone to hell.

    You really think those who reject evolution predominantly do so because they really think accepting it would consign them to hell? What about those who reject evolution simply because it is impossible for them to accept the idea that a merciful, benevolent god (and they will have absolutely no doubt whatsoever on this) can direct a process that is manifestly cruel and wasteful? What strategy would you suggest employing in such cases? You think getting people to reject religion is hard? Try getting them to reject the idea of a personal deity who loves them no matter what. Many choose to resolve such dilemmas by invoking tired and weasely nuggets like ‘God is mysterious’ or ‘We are not supposed to know everything He does’ but many faithfuls will have none of that. They know all too well which side to lean on when dilemmas raise their horns. Even in adhering to delusional beliefs, they at least show some admirable consistency.

  36. #36 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 26, 2010

    Yes, at last Monty Python can release The Life of Brian. Maybe some day we’ll be able to see the unreleased “Last Supper” and Spanish Inquisition scenes from Sid Caesar’s History of the World, and the Last Supper scene from M.A.S.H.

    OMG. OMFG. Of all the things you’ve ever written that have bothered me this has to be the worst. Truly there is no end to your treachery. The movie was History of the World, Part One. And it was Mel Brooks, not Sid Caesar, though Caesar did have a small part as a caveman.

    The classics are not to be trifled with.

  37. #37 DRK
    December 26, 2010

    Gotta tell you that until this post, I had never even heard of “gnu atheism”, and I’m pretty well read. Is it possible that you people are are all kind of, excuse the metaphor here, preaching to the choir? I mean, I think many Americans are either “religious”, but never bother going to church; or just vaguely agnostic. Not sure if atheists, New, gnu or old school have had any effect on this whatsoever. I know many more non-churched people that are that way because they are incredibly repulsed by religious fundamentalists, than because they are persuaded by atheists of whatever variety. Y’all just don’t get all that much ink, frankly….

  38. #38 Ken Pidcock
    December 26, 2010

    Y’all just don’t get all that much ink, frankly….

    A most welcome observation. You see, one of the themes around these parts has been that frank atheists have been materially harmful to the mission of promoting scientific literacy. Don’t laugh; that’s actually been claimed.

  39. #39 supratall
    December 27, 2010

    I know many more non-churched people that are that way because they are incredibly repulsed by religious fundamentalists, than because they are persuaded by atheists of whatever variety. Y’all just don’t get all that much ink, frankly….

  40. #40 ernie keller
    February 5, 2011

    Well done, Ken. We don’t get much ink so maybe we smell bad.

    Personally I don’t get too upset about the magnitude of Gnu influence at this point. It’s likely that some are super offended and others are inspired. Perhaps we’ll get a survey some day that will give us an idea of the overall effect.

    One thing to keep in mind is that making our case for one reader might be worth arousing the fury of several less promising ones. Also, we may be in the “it’s an outrage!” stage and “It’s obvious” may be down the road a bit. Who can tell? In the meantime we should make the best case we can and hope some of it sticks.