Responses to Kristof’s call for a detente

In last week’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof touted the books of Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright (as well as that of his colleague Nicholas Wade) as a welcome relief, “less combative and more throughtful”, from books by the “new atheists”:

I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are evolving toward a higher moral order.

In the letters section of today’s Times, Lawrence Krauss disagrees with Kristof’s mealymouthed call for some nonexistent “middle ground”:

. . .“God” has gotten more moral over time because even organized religions have been dragged forward, often kicking and screaming, by human reason, which itself has been pushed forward by our discoveries about nature — discoveries that belied obviously false notions about superiority of one race over another or the need to impose divine vengeance to respond to simple, explicable acts of nature.

While it is surely true that faith itself may exist beyond the bounds of rationality, what Mr. Kristof should be praising is reason and not faith.

If one wants to find transcendent examples of pushing reasoning to its limit and stretching language to the end of its tether, one could do worse than to read the books of my colleagues Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Of course the Times has to palliate such an atheistic letter, and so they’ve published another criticizing both “the fervently faithful”  and the “militant atheistic” for their lack of humility — humility that the author finds necessary for serious engagement.

I may be mistaken, but I think we’re already doing serious engagement.  It’s fatuous to think that if only both sides became more “humble,” we’d arrive at some welcome compromise.  And what would that be?  Presumably, atheists would stop their vociferous criticism of religion, while religion could continue business as usual.  In other words, the status quo.

Atheists have been “humble” for centuries (who was more humble than Spinoza?) and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s that crop of new atheist books that have finally created a climate in which atheists need not feel like pariahs. Like my confrères so maligned by Kristof, I think it’s time to try Mencken’s way:

The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.

23 Comments

  1. Posted December 2, 2009 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    From the letter below Krauss’s:

    A nuanced view is necessary from both sides before any serious engagement is possible.

    A nuanced view of what, exactly? When 95% of Christians don’t have a “nuanced view” of the issue, and simply think that atheists are wrong no matter what, how log would we need to wait before we engage. Do we think that evo-fundie churches are going to take a “nuanced” view any time soon? No, they are afraid of pissing off God so close to the end times. Are Catholics going to take a “nuanced” view of abortion, stem cell research, gay rights? Are we going to get a nuanced view of the issue of Separation of State from Church?

    I don’t want to wait.

  2. Occam
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Enfin!
    Logically, there cannot be a middle ground between reason and belief.
    Rabbit fossils in the Precambrian would force biologists to reconsider the basic premises of the theory of evolution. There can be no equivalent in the realm of religious belief. Logically, faith precludes proof, and all that ensues.
    This is what Jacques Monod, a humble, engaging, courteous man, meant when he stated that a scientist who believes in god suffers from schizophrenia.

  3. Posted December 2, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I dunno, I think maybe this guy has a point about how people would take atheists more seriously if only they would be more humble.

    Also, I think people would take feminists more seriously if they weren’t so bitchy all the time.

    (Hint to the clueless: Comment not meant to be read at face value)

    • Tulse
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and those wanting better relations between the races would get a lot farther if they weren’t so uppity.

  4. Jer
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    “God” has gotten more moral over time because even organized religions have been dragged forward, often kicking and screaming, by human reason, which itself has been pushed forward by our discoveries about nature

    I would disagree with this. It isn’t science that is making religion more moral, except indirectly. The increase in morality of religion is directly related to how much over time we humans have been breaking down barriers between ourselves and others. The more the tribal/cultural barriers break down, the more we see the “other” as just as human as we are, and the more that moral shift gets “back-fitted” into established religion.

    The breaking down of cultural barriers tends to come hand in hand with affluence for a society – the more affluent societies trade with their neighbors, and it’s hard to see a trading partner as an “other”. That spreads through society gradually and forces change generation by generation. Though this is all simplification – look how long it has taken women to convince men that they aren’t “other” and deserve the same rights as men – but in general that’s how it seems to work.

    Technology aids in affluence, and technology is a product of science. But the increase in what we call “morality” over time isn’t because a bunch of “natural philosophers” over the centuries made observations about the world that convinced people via argument that they should treat their neighbors as human beings. It’s the other way around – people started treating their neighbors as human beings out of their own self interest and then try to justify that action after the fact. Eventually treating your neighbor as a human being becomes expected behavior by the entire culture and not just something you do because it benefits you. And then the definition of neighbor expands again and the cycle continues.

    The observations in Robert Wright’s own book even back this up, and if he could get himself away from the idea of trying to explain human “morality” by postulating a god of some sort at the root of it all and start looking at the underlying psychological and evolutionary rationales for why human behavior has adapted over time (and forced its power structures – like religion – to adapt as well), his book would have been a helluva lot better.

    (This has been going on for a very long time too – about half of the Old Testament is nothing but political screed against people who want to treat neighboring tribes/countries/cities as human beings instead of as scum to be exploited or killed. A number of chapters are just isolationist rhetoric demanding that the Israelites stop treating neighbors as if they were real people and get back to treating them as enemies.)

    • Occam
      Posted December 2, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Spot on.
      The evolution of our civilisations, especially since the Renaissance, has gradually ‘civilised’ our common cultural perception of god, from a blood-thirsty paranoid tribal deity to the present notion, half stern grandfather, half benevolent Santa Claus, that we are being currently sold. Phenomenologically, Wright’s observations (unlike his conclusions) are correct. Had it been otherwise, the fragile equilibrium of our societies would have collapsed.
      Unfortunately, contrary to the Whig view of history, the equilibrium is getting even more fragile, the edifice can still collapse.

      The paradox of the success of science-based technology: since it seems to work on its own, a majority of people don’t feel compelled to think rationally about the rational premises of the whole.
      ‘Deus providebit.’ What if he doesn’t?

    • mk
      Posted December 2, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I have to say that I think the quote you mention and your comment fit rather nicely together. I don’t see a conflict. In fact the quote says “reason” not “science”. I don’t think he intended to suggest that science alone made us more moral.

  5. mk
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Nuance? Humility?

    The scientifically minded/skeptical/freethinking are, when necessary, constantly and freely saying “I don’t know.” They would like to know and will soon get right down to business trying to learn and discover the answers to a problem… but until then they have no problem with “I don’t know.”

    The religious by contrast, through their faith, “know” the answers. No matter the evidence or lack thereof. Humble indeed.

  6. Posted December 2, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Mencken’s way. It’s like Carlito’s way.

  7. PGPWNIT
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Be as forceful and non-accomidationalist as you want. but, in my opinion, it’s important to be civil. I think, for the most part, hitchens and dawkins are very civil, and some of us can take something from that.

  8. Don
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    A religious friend who is fascinated by Dawkins, listens to him on the radio and internet, and has actually read him, commented spontaneously to me that she felt that he is a “very humane man.” She has gone on to say that his comments about benevolent Christians are among the most insightful that she has heard recently. She said recently that he is “kind.” Kristoff is attacking the fundamentalist caricature of Dawkins. By the way, she does not like Hitchens.

  9. Somite
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I tried reading Robert Wright’s book and found it extremely infuriating. Half the time I don’t know what he is on about or when I do, he informs me we have both been wrong. These books are an appeal to the middle of the road for the middle of the road’s sake.

  10. newenglandbob
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    The “militant atheist” comes from nowhere, but is a strawman used so that they can lie and maliciously accuse.

    Humility is overrated. It rarely accomplishes anything. There is nothing wrong with being assertive and vocal to stand up for non-believer’s rights and against the millennial length oppression. Lawrence Krauss got it right.

    I really enjoyed Jer on comment #4 and Occam’s response comment.

  11. tomh
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    It is so tiresome to hear religionists whining about incivlity, or general offensiveness of atheists. There is an interesting paper, recently posted on SSRN, on this subject, “Is There a Right not to be Offended in One’s Religious Beliefs?”, by George Letsas, University College London – Faculty of Laws.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1500291

  12. Posted December 2, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance.

    Yeah yeah yeah – always pretend the two are symmetrical, always pretend discussion is the same thing as warfare and disagreement is violence, always blather about “irreligious intolerance” without bothering to explain what that’s supposed to be, always pretend there are these Two Extremes and then there’s the humble good safe virtuous Middle where everyone really ought to end up.

    Honestly, how mindless, how banal, how warmed-over, how snatched from yesterday’s newspaper to fill space in today’s newspaper.

    Just call me Tizzy.

    • Occam
      Posted December 2, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Oh, but there is bound to be a Middle Ground, just as there is bound to be a Middle Earth.

      Example:
      We ‘lesser breeds without the Law’ reckon that
      π = 3.141592653589793…
      Assume that, to the Faithful, π were revealed by Divine Word as exactly 3.
      Obviously, by engaging in fruitful dialogue, exercising humility, restraint, and tolerance, a Middle Ground could be attained:
      π* = 3.0707963267948966…

      (* denotes the Star of Bethlehem; the new, heart-warming, Middle Ground value of π* should henceforth be known as Pi in the Sky.)

    • scott
      Posted December 2, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put!

  13. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    From the following letter by Bill Morris: No. The simple truth is that the deeply religious have a basket full of clearly defined answers for everything from gay marriage and abortion rights to what is taught in our science curriculums.

    He forgets to mention that their answers are wrong.

  14. SLC
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure that the readers here will be delighted with Prof. Coynes’ favorite oceanographer, Sheril Kirshenbaums’ paean to Mr. Kristof.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/12/02/an-armistice-in-the-religious-wars/

    • SLC
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Correction, Ms.Kirshenbaum is actually a marine biologist, not an oceanographer.

  15. Ray
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Christian: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no god.”

    Atheist: “I’m sorry, but I disagree.”

    Christian: (Gasp, splutter) “How dare you! You are being arrogant and disrespectful, and mocking my beliefs! You have no right to be such a militant fundamentalist!”

  16. Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    I know it sounds crazy, but without even looking very hard, I found four instances in the news of atheists and religious folk being decent to one another, and I thought, what if we can really all get along?

    Then I thought, naah. (sigh) But it was a nice thought while it lasted.

  17. roger schmeeckle
    Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Spinoza, from his lifetime on, has been accused of atheism, an accusation which he denied. He has also been described as intoxicated with God. And, probably, closer to the mark, he has been labelled a pantheist, because he equated God with Nature.

    As for his humility, I am not a judge of that.


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