Keith Kloor lumps me with Dawkins as sneering, strident, and simplistic

Until yesterday I didn’t know who Keith Kloor was, but I found out when someone called my attention the fact that Kloor, in a post on his Discover blog (yes, it’s a blog), had lumped me together with Dawkins as a “fundamentalist atheist.” I take that as a huge compliment!

Kloor, it turns out, is a science journalist who was once a senior editor at Audubon magazine and now teaches journalism at New York University. And he’s angry.

The aim of Kloor’s post, “The poisoned debates between science, politics, and religion” is to be conciliatory, both between those who support opposite political positions using science (e.g., on questions of climate change or genetically engineered animals) and those who favor or oppose the comity between science and faith.  “Why can’t we all get along?” is his theme, and Kloor hopes to position himself as the protagonist of the famous xkcd cartoon: as superior to both sides.

I’ll leave aside the science debates and reiterate what Kloor says about “fundamentalist” atheists.  It’s the usual “I’m an atheist, but. . ” argument:

The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.

First of all, we’re not making an enemy of the whole world—only those religious people who cannot tolerate the merest criticism of their faith. I don’t think, for instance, that Karl Giberson, whom I go after repeatedly (and who goes after me in turn) is my “enemy.”  We’re both civil enough to know that this is a debate about belief and reason, and we have respect for each other as people.  Let us also remember that those who spearheaded the drives for civil rights and for women’s rights were once “making enemies of the whole world.”  Presumably Kloor would have cautioned the early suffragettes to stifle themselves, as they were making enemies of almost everyone.  Every moral advance in this world begins with a small minority of vocal people.

Further, by saying that people like Dawkins and me are lumping together all religions as equally pernicious, Kloor reveals himself as abysmally ignorant. Neither of us, nor any of the New Atheists, have done that: we all recognize that there are degrees of perniciousness among the faiths.  For example, I’ve often said that I have little beef with the Amish and Quakers compared with Muslims or conservative Catholics.  I decry faith to the degree that its adherents try to impose their views on the rest of us.  Now many of us do criticize the more “moderate” religions for enabling the extremist ones, or for trying to impose their own unsubstantiated views on the rest of us through the political process.

Kloor is creating strawmen here. Has he even read with any care the writings of Dawkins, or what I post on this site? His arguments resemble those of Peter Higgs, which we discussed yesterday. Indeed, Kloor affiliates himself with Higgs.

Further, few of us deny that religion provides consolation or a form of “meaning” for people. It does. It isn’t totally pernicious, and it does inspire charitable works. What I maintain—I can’t speak for Richard here, but believe he’d agree—is that those good acts would occur just as often in societies lacking religion (at least they seem to in atheistic Scandinavia), and, on balance, religion is a harmful thing.  Further, the “meaning” derived from faith is a false meaning, consoling as it may be. It is the consolation of the drunkard. What does it mean to spend your whole life working towards heaven, or avoiding hell, when there isn’t any? Wouldn’t it be better to work at making this life better?

Finally, plenty of nonbelievers have no problem in deriving “existential meaning” from a finite existence. If they’re “not yet ready” to do that, as Kloor argues, we’ll help them.

Kloor goes on to make other ridiculous claims about the the “sneering and strident” approach of New Atheists:

This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters is not just bad manners, it is puritanical. That’s what scientist Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) is getting at with his recent sharp criticism of Dawkins.

Really?  Kloor does not, of course, give any examples of the sneering and stridency, and that’s par for the course. But puritanical? It is the faithful, not the atheists, who denigrate earthly pleasures and take a ludicrously puritanical attitude toward sex. That’s a serious downside to many faiths. Kloor goes on:

In an interview with a Spanish newspaper that the Guardian reports, Higgs said this:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.

This will no doubt incite the equivalent of hockey fights in the various atheist rinks of the blogosphere. Get your popcorn ready. That’s essentially what our big scientific debates amount to these days: Rip roaring entertainment and blood sport.

It’s not entertainment at all, Mr. Kloor. Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion. The stuff about “popcorn” and “hockey fights”—now that is sneering.  So often those who decry us for stridency and rudeness are worse than we are in those respects.

Enfin:

In one of his recent broadsides against religious faith, Jerry Coyne wrote:

Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.

I think that intolerance may also be considered an enemy of democracy. Fundamentalism, whatever its guise, is certainly the antithesis of science.

Whoa, there’s that accusation of “fundamentalism” again!  What, exactly, is fundamentalist about noting the evils of faith? As for my statement being the antithesis of science, I don’t understand that argument at all. What I said about the incompatibility of religion and democracy is not antiscientific in any sense. (If you want antiscientific, look at the real fundamentalists, where the term is correctly used to denote those adhering to the literalism of Scripture.)  There are good arguments to be made that the ideology and dogma of religion are truly inimical to democracy, which, ideally, should be based on free argument, open minds, and rationality. To see such an argument in extenso, read Eric MacDonald’s post from Choice in Dying: “The incompatibility of democracy and religion.

People like Kloor really irritate me in the same way that “moderate” believers irritate me. By sucking up to faith, and decrying those who question its tenets, they are, to paraphrase Sam Harris, “betraying faith and reason equally.”  There’s nothing wrong with standing up prominently for what you believe, so long as you keep before you the goal of denigrating ideas and ideologies rather than people. Kloor has chosen to denigrate the people.

120 Comments

  1. Posted December 28, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    There are some issues here:

    1. I take your writings as an attempt to inject intellectual honesty into the “compatibility” debate. Any religion that posits some sort of supernatural interference into the events of the universe IS at odds with science, and it is dishonest to claim otherwise.

    2. I think that some still have a “PC’ness” to criticism of religion and religious beliefs; I think that common etiquette within the United States is to “respect all religious beliefs”, IN PUBLIC. It is ok to point out how someone else’s beliefs are nonsense when at the pulpit of your own church or in your own circles. But in public, this is sort of like the “isn’t the bride beautiful” or “does this make my butt look big” question.

    It is sort of like this.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Brilliant vid. It could only have been bettered by the late Peter Cook playing the best man. I can almost hear him.

    • Mateus
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Mitchell and Webb :D

      • cannonbeast
        Posted December 29, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Before I clicked the link I thought it might be Rowan Atkinson’s father of the bride speech. Mitchell and Webb is good too :D

  2. gbjames
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t know what stops these gentlemen from showing us in what ways science and religion do not conflict instead of engaging in ad hominem fallacies.
    Religion and democracy aren’t incompatible. Religion, christianity as taught by Paul demands that you be subservient to the leader even if he is a tyrant since he is ordained by god. Kloor should tell us where religion supports democracy apart from those places where religion has been forced to adapt.

    • guest
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      I’m always confused by people saying religion is about subservience. As an ex-catholic and coming from Germany, I’ve learned that being a good catholic means to stand up against tyrans.(like the “Widerstandskaempfer” during the third Reich, some (the well known ones) of them priests). From what I learned, kindness towards others and protecting the weak trumps subservience.(like Jesus did…)
      But then again, maybe that’s why I became atheist.

  4. James Chalmers
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    “The world would be better off without religion.”
    Well, if you get specific, there’s agreement with this proposition where you might not expect it. Ask the world’s Muslims “would the world be better off without Christianity?” Ask the world’s Christians “would the world be better off without Islam?” (It being understood that “without” would be achieved by methods falling well short of murder–by kindly persuasion, say.) My guess is that majorities of both faiths would agree that the world would be better off without one particular religion. (Or maybe not? Maybe believers believe “some faith, even a misguided one, is better than none”?)

    • steve oberski
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      That works very well with the “as an atheist I just believe in one less god than you do” argument.

      As theist you believe that the world is better off with one more religion than I do.

      • raven
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        As PZ Myers said or quoted, “The truth matters.”

    • raven
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      “The world would be better off without religion.”

      Hitchens: Religion poisons everything.

      The healthiest societies are the most nonreligious. The sickest are the most religious.

      Well, if you get specific, there’s agreement with this proposition where you might not expect it.

      What does this have to do with anything? The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. This is a cuckoo and senseless statement, attempting to lump atheists with Moslems.

      In a few Moslem countries, being an apostate to atheism is a death penalty offense. They aren’t our friends at all.

      • jose
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Don’t you think the religiosity of the most disadvantaged countries could be a consequence rather than a cause? Like religion would be something you cling to when you see no other hope, at the times when you could really, really use some help. Religion seems a lot easier to get rid of for well-off people.

        Now this in turn causes more misery, like when those taliban shot dead people giving away vaccines. But I’d like to know if there’s any merit to the idea that religion is a bit like an opportunistic infection, a lot easier to catch if your culture is already weakened due to poverty and underdevelopment.

        • raven
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          It could be both.

          It’s hard to untangle cause and effect some times.

          Dennett: “Religion is the best vehicle for social conflict ever devised.” And social control as well.

          If you look at those societies, like ours and the US south, religion is closely intertwined with the ruling classes and used as a means of social and political control. You must have noticed that the Tea Party/GOP is owned by the fundie xians. That isn’t an accident.

          It started out with the GOP using the religious right wing extremists as cannon fodder and useful idiots. And those useful idiots ate them up.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          I agree; it is a consequence rather than a cause, I think. When people don’t have a support network, or are poor or disadvantage, they turn to faith. In that sense I think Marx got it right. One bit of evidence for this is that when you plot income inequality over the years in America, and also religiosity, they go in tandem, but the increase (or decrease) in religiosity follows the increase (or decrease) in income inequality by a year or so. That implies that religiosity follows income inequality and is correlated with it; and that’s what the “religion-as-a-byproduct-of-societal-dysfunction” predicts.

          • gillt
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            I’m also an atheist. But

            As a science “reporter” you’d think he’d also dislike cliches.

          • gillt
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

            When people don’t have a support network, or are poor or disadvantage, they turn to faith.

            More likely they turn to a faith-based community as their support group as churches and temples are ubiquitous throughout the world. I doubt being poor simply increases ones faith, as you seem to imply, but instead a need for a support group. Typically religious groups are the most accessible option. One way to test this would be to query low income or the disadvantaged on their faith-based group affiliation versus non-affiliation and their level of spirituality.

          • jesse
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            Religion is a form of social interaction in rural parts of the U.S. much more than you might think. Sure, this might be tied to poverty, but it’s also because of how things are so spread out in rural areas, esp. where populations are not dense. The internet brings new ideas and communication, but when you need two feet of snow plowed out of your driveway, you need a physical presence of a helper. In exchange I have to be polite to religious neighbors.

            (I’m not sure an urban person such as yourself can know what it’s like to live 20 miles from a grocery store, or a half mile from the nearest neighbor.) My urban visitors freak out when they experience this.

            Just wanted to stress that in rural areas, church IS the community and the extended family — church is a very important support network.

            I don’t like it, but it’s the way it is.

            • raven
              Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              The USA is one of the most highly urbanized areas on the planet.

              80 to 90% of us live in metro areas.

              That rural church thing depends on where you are. I haven’t seen it on the west coast much. Rural people are just as likely to be back to the land hippies, retired people from all over, or New Agers.

              • jesse
                Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                Yes, it depends on where you are.

                And it’s indeed true that the U.S. is very urbanized. But this is relatively recent… something like 60% were agricultural in the 1940s, and the change didn’t happen overnite. There may be some lag time which accounts for some religiosity of the U.S.

              • Hempenstein
                Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                Go to NW North Dakota. I have land there, in Columbus. The farmer that works it either drives 25mi to Canada for groceries, or 100mi to Minot. (They usually go to Minot because of the hassle crossing the border.) I’ve never felt the presence of any New Agers etc there.

                That said, I’ve never felt any heavy religious sentiment from them. I assume they’re church members, but there doesn’t seem to be any fundamentalist sentiment.

        • jose
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          Very interesting responses both, thanks! I need to look for that data.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          . . . religion is a bit like an opportunistic infection, a lot easier to catch if your culture is already weakened due to poverty and underdevelopment.

          Great simile.

  5. Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    There’s nothing wrong with standing up prominently for what you believe, so long as you keep before you the goal of denigrating ideas and ideologies rather than people.”

    +1

  6. Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I was always brought up to seek out what was true.

    I guess that makes me a sneering, snide, fundamentalist atheist.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Snide University?”

      And so apropos too: “So often these days, sir, we see, don’t we, these so-called ‘clever’ people who just can’t wait to tear down and destroy. But do they ever have anything to put in the place of the things that they destroy? No. It’s wanton destruction.”

  7. Ludo
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    - “People like Kloor really irritate me in the same way that “moderate” believers irritate me. By sucking up to faith, and decrying those who question its tenets, they are, to paraphrase Sam Harris, “betraying faith and reason equally.”” –
    I have the impression that there is a third category emerging (at least in Europe), namely those who emphatically present themselves as ‘Cultural Catholics’. This has nothing to do with the issue of European / Western culture having been influenced by (and bearing the stamp of) Christianity or Catholicism. It is a special group, usually occupying academic positions in cultural science, and driven (I think) mainly by pure opportunism: depending on the situation and their audience, they present themselves as ‘pro-religious’ or as ‘religious skeptics’.

  8. Granny Sue
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    few of us deny that religion provides consolation

    But would people need so much consolation without religiously created fears of heaven and hell?

    • Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      ‘Religion provides consolation’

      The Catholic Church in America has paid out about 3 billion in settlements for sex-abuse claims.

      3 billion gets you an awful lot of consolation!

  9. truthspeaker
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    You know what? We are sneering. We’re sneering at grown adults who believe in magic.

    I make no apologies for that.

  10. onkelbob
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    sneering, strident, and simplistic

    Consider the nomination of Robert Bork to the SCOTUS. Opponents to his appointment had the temerity to use the words and actions of the nominee against him. Likewise, you have the gall to use the beliefs, actions, and words of those you decry against them. That is not fair in the minds of the lazy and cowardly, and as such they to resort to sneering, strident, and simplistic arguments. It is understandable, indeed, it is expected, that they employ projection to protect their fragile ego.

  11. juhavs
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Although I guess I am an Old Atheist, I would nowadays consider it as a compliment, if somebody would describe me as a Gnu Atheist, for this very simple reason: so many “critiques” of the views of Dawkins, Coyne and other “sneering”, “strident”, “fundamentalist” etc. atheists do not contain any articulate argument whatsoever.

    And I suspect that this is no coincidence, it is not the case that I have for some unfortunate circumstance missed the real critiques of these atheists, critiques that would really engage with their real views. It is more likely to me that all this has a simple but lamentable cause: it is all about the “comfort zones” of these “critics”. They simply do not have the intellectual and moral courage to face the implications of their real views (after all, many of them start by telling their audiences that they, too, are atheists) as that might ruffle too many feathers in their polite societies.

    That is not way progress can be made, for as Oscar Wilde put it:”Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.”

    • Marta
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      In the couple years I’ve been reading and thinking about this, I’ve come to conclude that all you have to do to be considered “shrill”, “strident”, “militant” or my personal favorite, “smug” is say you’re an atheist. The proper default position is “shut up”; anything else is stridency.

      • Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        Almost, but not quite.

        Anything less than recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer followed by religious attendance of Catechism in preparation for eventual baptism and confirmation is stridency.

        b&

      • juhavs
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Yes, when you say that you are an atheist and then do not add any apologetic remark such as “but I am not the sort of atheist Dawkins, Coyne et al. are” etc. etc. Now, why would this be the case?

        I think it is because if you do not add that apology to polite society, you are seen to imply that the theists around should try to justify their positions rationally – and that is precisely what is seen as the unpardonable faux pas. Some atheists, agnostics and secularists apparently think that putting the burden of the proof publicly on the shoulders of those who are somehow religious is shaming them and hence something to be avoided at all cost.

        Alas, if this is what they have in their minds, then all I can say is that it is (a) an unbearably condescending attitude towards people who should be able to defend their beliefs and (b) gives support for those who have no inhibitions in trying to influence political, social and cultural arrangements by appeal to faith only, i.e. to those who make claims backed by no good reasons at all.

        All right, when highly educated and socially privileged persons discuss the beliefs of poorly educated and socially underprivileged persons, it often (but not always!) makes a lot of sense to show sympathy, despite the faith-based beliefs. But explaining and exploring one’s atheist convictions at length should not carry any responsibility to make any apologies.

        Indeed, the clear increase in the share of people who now call themselves as “irreligious” in more developed Western countries is probably partly due to the fact that there are now more people in public fora who say clearly, firmly and without apologies that they are atheists. That is one of the main reasons why I regularly come back to this whyevolutionistrue blog. OK, there are other reasons, too: to learn more evolutionary theory from one of its leading specialists, the adorable cats etc…
        Ah, if only Jerry would remind himself on occasion that these discussions on reason, faith, science, freedom, justice etc. are largely philosophical…:)

      • Sastra
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        The proper default position for the atheist is, as juhavs points out, a humble recognition of one’s fallibility and the virtues of faith. “I’m an atheist — but I’m glad you’re not. Who knows what’s true? I so hope you’re right. I’d never try to change your mind. You’re safe with me.”

        This shifts the topic of religion over to personalities — which is right where they want it, since they can’t justify their beliefs on their merits.

        • juhavs
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          This is pretty much what I meant: how to be an atheist in “polite society”…

        • Marta
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Even saying you’re an atheist (regardless of whatever apologies you make after the announcement) is considered rude. There is no possible way, no combination of words an atheist can mutter after the word “atheist” that makes it acceptable. Anything other than silence (and better: secrecy) is treated in a hostile way, frequently, by people who should know better, like Higgs. Or Kloor.

          • johncozijn
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

            If I read Higgs aright (and Kloor), it is not being an unapologetic atheist that they see as the problem, its critiquing “moderates”.

    • gillt
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      In response to one critic’s negative review of Samuel Delany’s new book “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders” on grounds of squeamishness it was said this critic was a vanilla urchin.

      I think that appellation applies here.

    • Posted December 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?
      DNA: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism – both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.

      /@

  12. jose
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    “plenty of nonbelievers have no problem in deriving “existential meaning” from a finite existence. If they’re “not yet ready” to do that, as Kloor argues, we’ll help them.”

    This is why new atheism is so appealing to me. It’s practical, no-nonsense, down to earth, positive. It’s like listen, quit the nice stories and let’s just work this out. Sincere and unapologetic. If new atheism were a form of therapy, it would be Albert Ellis’ REBT. It has the same direct, practical character. And it works, too.

    Bottomline: Go new atheism!

  13. Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Kloor is a gradualist who doesn’t want to rock the boat and dare make anyone realize they are wrong. He’s also a pretty poor liar which makes him quite like the theists. Yep, this is just about right but is no longer acceptable to decent human beings: “As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of segregation. I’m *love* people of color. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world.” Tah-dah.

  14. johncozijn
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia notes: “The Associated Press’ AP Stylebook recommends that the term fundamentalist not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself.”

    This is excellent advice, IMO. Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag (so to speak), and there seems no way of stopping people using it as general perjorative.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      People will continue to use “fundamentalist” as a general pejorative because the those who blindly follow The Associated Press’ AP Stylebook are fundamentalists.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Wikipedia also continues: “A good many scholars, however, use the term in the broader descriptive sense”. Which could be good advice too, it is a useful description.

      Pejorative use is yet another use.

      • johncozijn
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        You left out the sentence in between :) But never mind, I just think if you disagree with someone then you should try to specify the nature of the disagreement rather than resort to lazy epithets.

        I think I first heard RD referred to as a “fundamentalist” in one of the interviews accompanying A Brief History of Disbelief, long before he wrote the God Delusion. It rankled with me then, and still does now.

    • Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Meriam-Webster gives two definitions for fundamentalism:

      “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching”

      or

      “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles”

      In the second sense of the term I guess I am a fundamentalist: ideas have to make sense and there has to be evidence supporting them otherwise I’m going to either ignore them and/or laugh. But of course the label “fundamentalist” when applied to people like Richard and Jerry is intended as a pejorative term, a way of mocking them as holding foolish beliefs no better than those of Billy Graham. But anybody who has read The God Delusion or spent time on this website knows there is a vast gap between the lunacy of Billy Graham and the thoughtful reasoning of these two scientists.

  15. Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Jerry – Congratulations on your defense of science and reason and your success in publicizing our cause. Sigh! If only I could elicit such reaction, I’d know I was making a difference. You efforts inspire us all. As you noted, Dawkins is good company. Thanks

    • raven
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      If only I could elicit such reaction, I’d know I was making a difference.

      Gandhi:

      First they laugh at you
      Then they fight you.
      Then you win.

      Unfortunately, this is way too simple. Sometimes they just laugh and then laugh some more.

      But when they notice you and attack you, it is a sign that they are worried and you are making them nervous.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Until late last decade I had similar views as Kloor. I sometimes think these folks have only read about atheism from secondary sources and have never gone to the actual writings of Dawkins et al.

    Liberal believers irritate me when they buy into postmodernist attacks on science and defenses of faith on the basis of radical cultural relativism. (Some Unitarians are particularly horrible on this, though I remain active in a local UU congregation.) At other times, I enjoy their company.

    • Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      “I sometimes think these folks have only read about atheism from secondary sources and have never gone to the actual writings of Dawkins et al.”

      +1

  17. Ian
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    First, I wouldn’t lump the Amish with the Quakers as ‘no problem’. Amish theology is harmful to its adherents, I’d say, it is politically conservative, anti-egalitarian, and authoritarian. Just because it doesn’t have any political power over our lives, doesn’t mean it isn’t unhealthy for those unfortunate enough to be born into it. Quakers, on the other hand, have been at the forefront of several of the major social justice issues of the last 200 years: freedom for slaves, emancipation of women, LGBTQ rights (the latter with a little bit of a later start than perhaps we’d like, but is followed with gusto now). Quakers, unlike the Amish, are non-credal. They have no official set of doctrines, beliefs or dogmas that members are required to believe (though they have a de-facto set, of course). None of the Quakers I know personally (admittedly a small anecdotal sample) are theists.

    Second, I think atheism comes across as angry and anti to all religion, because the varieties of religion worthy of anger and opposition are those that seek to dominate our political and social life. I suspect a lot of the stridency and antagonism would go away if all Christians were woolly liberals or non-theistic ‘progressives’. Not all, of course: there are plenty of atheists who’s primary motivation is to win. But certainly the political need to combat religion is very specifically focussed, and deserves more stridency and aggression, not less. 9/11 (and the recognition that home-grown religion was tending to the same brainless tyranny) justly radicalised many atheists.

    Thirdly, I think fundamentalism is a justifiable label for parts of atheism. Fundamentalism in Christianity was a reaction to a trend to merge critical scholarship and religion. It was a call back to the fundamentals of the religion, to reject the pollution of scholarly claims. I think it is fair enough to see a kind of scientistic atheism as being a call back to the fundamentals of empirical knowledge, and reject religious panderings. Not all atheists are motivated by that, of course, but I get the sense Jerry and Richard Dawkins are. Obvious the term is meant pejoratively not substantially, but hey, I’m just saying it isn’t totally without merit.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      I kind of agree with your third point!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Point taken about the Amish. They do indoctrinate their kids, even though they give them that vaunted year of freedom in their teens.

      But, exactly, do you mean by “scientistic” atheism? Do you consider Richard and I advocates of “scientism”?

      And which atheists aren’t “fundamentalists” if you define it as “those atheists who rely solely on empirical evidence as a source of truth about the universe.”

      We ALL are.

      Finally, what exactly do you mean by “plenty of atheists whose primary motivation is to win”? What other motivation could there be, save weakening the grasp of religion on the world. If that’s ‘winning,’ then yes, I badly want to win.

      And if you’re gonna be pejorative about the host, perhaps you could go elsewhere, or else make your points without using words that you consider pejorative.

      • Ian
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Jerry, I think you read some level of antagonism into my post that wasn’t intended. No insult was meant throughout.

        “scientistic atheism” – I mean atheism motivated by a total commitment to empiricism. We know there is no God, because there is no evidence, and if the God claims were true there would be evidence. As opposed to say, post-modernistic atheism, where God is a narrative construction, not an objective entity. Or a philosophical atheism which says the notion of God in inherently self-contradictory, or otherwise unwarranted. Or a moral atheism that rejects religion based on its effects. People come to atheism for many reasons, and I’d suggest scientific atheism is a secondary stage for most (e.g. “I never really believed, and then I found lots of stuff online and I realised it was bunk), if they ever get that far. At best, for most atheists, I’d suggest empiricism is at best used to bolster their intuition only.

        “We ALL are” – clearly not, otherwise you wouldn’t have written this post. There are plenty of people who think that an accommodation can or should be made between atheism and religion. If fundamentalism applies to any atheists, it is to those who think it should not. That may represent a lot of Gnu Atheists, and commenters here, but that’s a pretty self-selecting bunch.

        “plenty of atheists whose primary motivation is to win” – well there are plenty of people of all stripes who’s aim is to win. Witness the fiscal cliff negotiations. Others are motivated by mitigating or removing some effect, and would be willing to accommodate to do that. Not everyone wants to dominate the outcome. I don’t want to dominate the outcome or ‘win’, but I’m also not at all convinced that my position is the best or wisest on the issue.

        “if you’re gonna be pejorative about the host, perhaps you could go elsewhere” Sorry for that implication – that wasn’t intended one bit.

        • Sastra
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          I suggest you substitute the term “scientific atheism” for “scientistic atheism” if your purpose is to be descriptive instead of pejorative.

          • Ian
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            Yes, a foolish term to use without qualification. Its more than ‘scientific’ its more of a position that science (or empiricism at the least) is necessary and sufficient for knowledge. A position that I hold, incidentally (with some minor caveats). There may be those who are scientific atheists, but who would not be ‘fundamentalist’ because they think there are ‘other ways of knowing’, say.

            • johncozijn
              Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              But clearly there must be “other ways knowing”. Most human societies that have ever existed did not have science, but clearly their members knew a great many things about the world around them. And once we recognise that, we see that most of what we know in our daily lives is not knowledge generated by science.

              • Ian
                Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                We might be taking this off in a bizarre direction if we talk about epistemology now, not to mention the horror of tiny columns of deeply threaded replies, but…

                There is a distinction to be made between how knowledge is acquired and what constitutes knowledge. It would be a brave philosopher who argued that only the scientific method has ever lead to true knowledge (or that it always does so). But empiricism is a common enough position: that things can only be said to constitute knowledge if they are based on objective (in the sense of person-independent, not in the abstract sense) empirical data. There are problems with this, of course, but it is not obviously naive.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

                You might profit from reading Jerry’s posts on the matter. He defines “science” broadly, roughly as rational empiricism writ large unless I am mistaken. That that has been the only successful way of knowing is of course an empirical matter.

                [For myself, I distinguish between learning from authorities (consensus), bayesian learning and science. Bayesian learning can encompass universal laws of science, but can't know it as such - for that you need testing.

                The two latter empirical methods strives towards absolute as opposed to relative knowledge, but I think that only science can arrive at it.

                When the rejection process of theories narrow them down to a consistent remaining theory, it is knowledge.* This is how we got to know the standard cosmology, which likely will not be replaced but improved on, and similarly evolution, the existence of the universal common ancestor, et cetera.

                *So ironically we know we know, but we don't know how it is we know.]

              • Ian
                Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

                “He defines “science” broadly, roughly as rational empiricism writ large ” That was exactly what I was getting at. But there’s just not enough space in these comments to properly qualify and explain everything one says.

        • Old Rasputin
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          I was initially scratching my head trying to figure out what Ian said that was pejorative. I assume it was the last sentence?

          “Obvious the term is meant pejoratively not substantially, but hey, I’m just saying it isn’t totally without merit.”

          The language is not 100% clear, but if I understood correctly, Ian’s definition of “fundamentalism” was what he considers “substantial” (and as he applies it to atheism, perhaps even complimentary). He’s saying that he knows that when other people use the term, it’s usually in a pejorative sense and nothing more than an insult, but it /could/ be used in a sensible, meaningful way.

          Have I understood?

          • Ian
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

            That was my intent, yes. But it was also my fault for not being clearer, I think.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          These comments are a hard read, since they describe things in an unusual manner.

          “scientistic atheism” – I mean atheism motivated by a total commitment to empiricism.

          I would call that, minimally, “skeptic atheism”, atheism based on consensus empiricism.

          The idea that empiricism is “not the only way of knowing” is inimical to that, see for example Jerry’s posts on the matter. That rational empiricism writ large is the only way of knowing is of course an empirical matter.

          So is physicalism, aka “scientism” or “scientistic atheism”, but it is a specific, testable hypothesis that physics is all there is. Obviously you can do science without relying on it.

          There are plenty of people who think that an accommodation can or should be made between atheism and religion.

          You characterize accommodationists as more religious than I think they are and need to be. Most seem to have “a belief in belief” and haven’t thought the consequences through.

          And of course you can’t accommodate atheism and religion. Accommodationists want atheists to become religious agnostics. Most often by taking the religious position that science and religion is compatible (NOMA), despite so many individual gods can be outright rejected by observation.

          want to dominate the outcome or ‘win’,

          If that is your definition of “win”, then any democracy is someone “winning”. What would be the problem with such useful and conflict-solving secular morals?

          • Ian
            Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

            “I would call that” You’re free to call it anything you like. in the absence of clear consensus terminology, the best we can do is use language to push our hearers towards our intended meanings.

            “That rational empiricism writ large is the only way of knowing is of course an empirical matter.” I’ve no idea how you get this. Other than in its purely tautological sense. How do you show empirically that a non-empirical ‘knowledge’ is unsound, without first assuming that only empirical knowledge is sound?

            “You characterize accommodationists as more religious than I think they are and need to be” I wasn’t aware I characterized them as religious at all. It certainly wasn’t my intent or belief.

            “And of course you can’t accommodate atheism and religion.” For some quite specific definitions of atheism and religion, presumably. I know quite a lot of religious folks who are settled on their non-theism.

            “If that is your definition of “win”, then any democracy is someone “winning”.” Then that is not my definition of ‘win’ :) Some people see conflict as a zero-sum game, others as a co-operative game. Some atheists would be happy were certain effects of theism removed or mitigated in society. Some atheists would only be happy if theism were eradicated.

            Most of your response seems to rely on contesting the definitions of words. And is very dense with unqualified truth claims that depend on them. As such, I find it a little hard to unpack your argument and respond to its substance rather than just the linguistic responses, above.

            • wilzardthespy
              Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

              “How do you show empirically that a non-empirical ‘knowledge’ is unsound, without first assuming that only empirical knowledge is sound?”

              Because you go and physically do the tests, not sit there and think about them. You show that non-empirical ‘knowledge’ is unsound because empirical knowledge is the only one that will always give the same results, even when different people, with different motivations, do the same tests.

              • Ian
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Which is exactly the presumption of empiricism.

                Look, I’m not going to defend non-empiricism, because it isn’t my horse in the race, but it isn’t nearly as naive as you seem to think.

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

                Ian, the point is that empiricism and mysticism are on equal footing on mysticism’s home turf, yes, but empiricism mops the floor with mysticism on empiricism’s home turf.

                Or, as Randall Munroe put it:

                http://xkcd.com/54/

                b&

              • Ian
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                Ben, yes indeed. In fact, I’d be willing to go further, and say that ‘empiricism’ isn’t just better, but that ‘mysticism’ supervenes upon ‘empiricism’ (using “mysticism” and “empiricism” in the way I think you are using them here).

                But I don’t see how one can argue from observation, that there isn’t some unobservable super-natural realm. It seems tautological to me to say that.

                What its supervenice does entail is that, at the very least, such a realm is entirely irrelevant. (I wrote a blog post on this a while back: http://irrco.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/is-god-either-irrelevant-or-non-existant/)

                And, though I think it is probably impossible to rationally go beyond supervenience, I would in fact be very happy to conclude (on the basis of something like Ockham’s Razor) that it doesn’t exist at all.

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

                Ian, the question would be whether or not the supernatural ever interacts with the natural. Every real-world supernaturalist I’ve ever encountered insists that it does: our souls influence our behavior, for example, or we otherwise survive death and are transported to the supernatural world. That sort of thing.

                All such claims we can categorically dismiss. Each and every one would require some sort of exchange of mass and / or energy, and we’ve accounted for all possible exchanges of mass and / or energy. If the claims are nevertheless still true, then they constitute violations of conservation, the most elemental of scientific conclusions.

                Once somebody starts positing a violation of conservation, it’s even safer to dismiss that person as a crank than it is to dismiss the flat-Earthers or somebody who suggest that the Sun isn’t going to rise tomorrow (or some other day in the future on a human timescale).

                But if you want to posit some “other realm” that’s entirely disconnected from ours that never even hypothetically could possibly ever potentially interact with our own…well, what’s the point? Generally none, except as a rhetorical trick to get you that much closer to “ergo Jesus.”

                b&

              • Ian
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                Ben, I think you just said what I did, in different words, with examples :) In any case, I agree.

              • wilzardthespy
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Ian – “How do you show empirically that a non-empirical ‘knowledge’ is unsound, without first assuming that only empirical knowledge is sound?”

                What I meant is that instead of ruminating about it, you do some actual experiments.

                I guess I don’t understand your objection to that, unless you want to keep this discussion to the epistemology of empiricism vs non.

                It is not naive, it is simple, and some things can be just that simple to describe.

        • wilzardthespy
          Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          “We know there is no God, because there is no evidence, and if the God claims were true there would be evidence.”
          I don’t know there is no God – I do not believe in God because there is a complete lack of evidence for God, any God.

          I would consider myself a scientific atheist as one portion of my overall atheism.

          I accept philosophical naturalism, not “a total commitment to empiricism” as you put it. If you know of a better method than Science to determine actual knowledge about our Universe, lay it out there for everyone else to benefit from it to.

          “At best, for most atheists, I’d suggest empiricism is at best used to bolster their intuition only.” On what basis do you suggest this?

          • Ian
            Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            I totally agree with your first two paragraphs (you seem to be arguing the definition of “know” in your first response – depending on your threshold for skepticism of a proposition, I’d be happy to say I don’t know anything, or there are lots of things I know – somewhere in that continuum, my ‘knowledge’ that there is no God lies – so you seem to be arguing really for a slightly more skeptical definition of ‘know’, rather than any actual change in epistemological position).

            Your third paragraph: I don’t understand your subtext. I’ve already said I’m a empiricist. I do have a total commitment to empiricism, and my atheism I think sits firmly on that. So why are you asking me if I have another method to determine actual knowledge? Was I unclear?

            ““At best, for most atheists, I’d suggest empiricism is at best used to bolster their intuition only.” On what basis do you suggest this?”

            Anecdotally. The majority of Atheists I know don’t ‘run the tests’ in anything but an intuitive way. We all use empiricism intuitively in many areas (e.g. we make guesses based on general patterns of evidence). But starting from empirical enquiry (I set out to look at the research to find out if the God hypothesis was supported) is something I’ve only seen reported by a few people online. Most people do it more intuitively (“After I left church and hung around with non-Christians, I realised they weren’t all sex-addicts and stoners”, or “I found all these bits of the bible that were contradictory, and realised my pastor had been lying”, or “I just realised that the God I’d been told about was a fairy story.”).

            Of course, there is a sense in which I think all knowledge is ultimately empirical, so in one way you can say all atheists are so on the basis of empiricism. But I wasn’t trying to debate the meaning of a word, I was just using the term as a synonym of science, in contrast with other ways in which someone can be motivated to choose to be an atheist.

            • wilzardthespy
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

              I had to go (way) back up and read what my 3rd paragraph was in response to.

              You wrote ““scientistic atheism” – I mean atheism motivated by a total commitment to empiricism. We know there is no God, because there is no evidence, and if the God claims were true there would be evidence.”

              What I mean is that I have no dog in the race. I cam not totally committed to empiricism, per se, but accept empiricism as the most accurate way of knowing (so far). If there was a better method, I wouldn’t be the only one nor the first one jumping to it like a rat trying to escape a sinking ship.

              So I suppose, at the most basic level, I objected to your hyperbole about being totally committed to empiricism.

              • Ian
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                Okay, gotya. Thanks for the follow-up.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Amish theology is harmful to its adherents, I’d say, it is politically conservative, anti-egalitarian, and authoritarian.

      And misogynistic.

      I winced to see it lumped with Quakerism. (Though I know that was only in the service of writing economically…)

      • Ian
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Misogynistic, racist, homophobic, sectarian… Yup.

      • Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        The Amish are also big-time puppy mill operators.

    • wilzardthespy
      Posted December 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your third point, but disagree with the word choice.

      We should reject religious panderings and embrace the basics of empirical knowledge – no need to use that charged “f” word.

      • wilzardthespy
        Posted December 29, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        I came late to this discussion…

        *hangs head in shame*

  18. Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    What does it mean to spend your whole life working towards heaven, or avoiding hell, when there isn’t any? Wouldn’t it be better to work at making this life better?

    As I like to put it, if you want to see Heaven, you’ll have to help the rest of us build it here on Earth.

    b&

  19. lamacher
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Those who want to ‘make nice’ with the pablum of most Christians should read, on a daily basis King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’.

    • lamacher
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      comma after ‘basis’.

  20. matt
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    i generally enjoy Kloor when he’s talking about GMOs, etc. this post was pretty off the mark, as noted above. seems odd to me that he’s not bashful about taking a mighty whack at GMO dissenters, only to turn around and apply light pressure to unfounded claims about the nature of reality. i’m glad you addressed this, though.

    • Tyle
      Posted January 6, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, he’s a good voice on GMOs. Too bad he’s so mushy on this. Loses some respect from me.

  21. lkr
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    and to show, once again, how religion makes us moral beings?

    http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2012/12/praying_adolf_hitler_statue_in.html#incart_river_default

  22. Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Kloor’s a journalist and is driven by the need to publish. He has an “angle” on the religion-science debates that probably sounds good to many people, and now he even has a famous scientist making similar criticisms of Dawkins. Had he taken the time to actually read and consider what Dawkins has written and said he probably would have realized he was criticizing positions Dawkins has never taken. But of course that kind of research takes time and shoots your planned article so full of holes that you don’t have an article to publish when you’re done (oh no!). I’ve recently finished reading The Great Bridge by David McCullough and one of the things that made an impression on me is the number of totally off-base newspaper articles published about the Brooklyn Bridge and its Chief Engineer back in the late 1800s. Kloor continues the illustrious track record of journalism…

  23. Sastra
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the dividing line between religions which are properly considered a problem to atheists and those which are not a problem to atheists ought to be drawn according to how the believers answer this question:

    Does it really matter whether God exists or not?

    Those who shrug and say “no, if God’s only a human invention then there’s no problem for my religion; when we figure this out we’d just adapt slightly and go on as before no big deal” … then fine. These religions are no problem for atheists.

    But if they go all serious and say yes, yes it would matter, it makes a difference to the world and it makes a difference to my religion and it makes a difference to me … then we’re allowed to consider them a problem.

    (Addendum: If the people in the first group slip back into claiming and behaving as if God is indeed a “big deal” the moment the atheists have left the room, then their answer doesn’t count and they’re put into the second group. We’re not stupid. We’ve seen that trick. Nice try; no dice.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Make it about magic instead of gods (re buddhism), and I’m sold.

  24. JeremyR
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Why is it so difficult to respect people who are active atheists/humanists but who do not think it’s either accurate or realistic to advocate “attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion”?

    The tone and substance of that statement, by the way, doesn’t seem quite in line with the claim “… by saying that people like Dawkins and me are lumping together all religions as equally pernicious, Kloor reveals himself as abysmally ignorant. Neither of us, nor any of the New Atheists, have done that: we all recognize that there are degrees of perniciousness among the faiths.”

    And those who take the trouble to click through to the xkcd cartoon will see that it does not make the point that people such as Kloor (and me, and thousands of others)claim to be “superior to both sides” but rather that those who want to disparage atheists in general like to refer to us ALL as fundamentalists.

    Personally I’ve just spent the best part of two years fighting against the establishment of a new state-funded Catholic school with a 100% discriminatory admissions policy. The campaign was supported by “moderate” people from across the spectrum, including some Catholics. Eventually we lost to the massive forces ranged against us, with the issue going to the High Court. But there is now a large body of local people who are angry about faith-based discrimination in UK state school admissions, and who are willing to support action.
    One of the things we had to battle against throughout the campaign was attempts by our opponents to dismiss it – and me personally (as a humanist) – as being “anti-religious”, in the (reasonable) belief that that would reduce our level of support.

    It’s fine to argue an anti-theistic viewpoint. But there are plenty of fellow atheists who feel just as passionately about unfair religious privilege – and bad things done in the name of religion, and the baleful influence of key religious institutions and ideas – and who agree just as strongly that most religious beliefs are built on sand, but who also think that finding and expanding common ground and mutual understanding with those with whom we disagree is a positive thing in a plural society, and that, ultimately, leading a good life is more about action (especially action towards others) than belief – or postings on websites!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you see a lot more accommodationists (like Kloor) criticizing “fundamentalist” atheists than the other way around. We respond when we’re called names in the way he did, especially when those names are based on misconceptions. You usually won’t find either me or Richard going after atheists who are working for secular causes but aren’t vociferous about ridding the world of religion.

      Sorry, but the opprobrium here flows mostly from your direction, not ours. We respond when people like Kloor, Chris Mooney, or Peter Higgs gratuitiously insult us.

      But I explicitly reject the notion that there can be common ground when it comes to the supernatural. It doesn’t exist, period, and I won’t coddle it or “respect” people for believing it. But I will respect them for good works.

      • JeremyR
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Who said anything about “common ground when it comes to the supernatural”? Of course it doesn’t exist – at least, that’s what I’ll keep thinking until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary (which I’m confident they won’t). The “common ground” I was referring to is between humanists/atheists and believers not in terms of belief in the supernatural, but in terms of other important things in life, such as treating others as you’d like to be treated, ensuring elderly people are looked after in the winter, ensuring science teaching is fact-based (especially when it comes to evolution), stopping religious discrimination in schools etc.

        No-one really “respects” a belief that they think is wrong. But I do respect the fact (it is a fact) that there are good people who feel that their religion is an important part of their identity, just as there are good non-religious people. And if I like and respect them as fellow human beings, I avoid insulting their beliefs. And I expect the same from them.

        That doesn’t stop me acting for what I think is right, nor does it mean that I’m somehow compromising my beliefs.

        Using terms such as “accommodationist” (which is clearly intended to be pejorative term referring to atheists who are not sufficiently anti-theist), “pernicious” and “evil”(referring, to varying degrees, to all types of religious belief) is aggressive and likely to provoke a reaction. That’s fine, and is presumably what’s intended, but it’s a bit rich then to complain about “opprobrium”.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          Humans regardless of moral system have similar moral reactions. As for moral systems, most religion are immoral at its base, and the abrahamic texts are worse than most. While secular morals such as human freedoms and rights, democracy, et cetera seems supportable.

          I’m not sure why anyone would want to work with religious groups on a basis of assumed common morals. Their moral systems are just incompatible with societal morals at large.

          “Accommodationist” is certainly not referring to level of anti-theism. It is the observation of large groups that want to make an accommodation between science and religion, two fundamentally opposed ways to try to claim to know about the world. The term arose after Mooney et al started to attack atheists because they didn’t STFU on the assumed accommodation, and blamed the problems of US society on them.

          Anti-theism is something entirely else than atheism as such. It would be the observations that religion is immoral at its base, is codependent on dysfunctional societies, et cetera, and acting on such observations.

          • Posted December 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

            We could accommodate them should they just state that many theists find from the side of religion find no incompatibilty with science; I, from the side of science, contemn as blather the compatibility of science with religion as blueollie also notes.
            Sorry for the typos.
            Theists find people….
            We owe no God anything.

        • gbjames
          Posted December 29, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          The “common ground” I was referring to is between humanists/atheists and believers not in terms of belief in the supernatural, but in terms of other important things in life, such as treating others as you’d like to be treated, ensuring elderly people are looked after in the winter, ensuring science teaching is fact-based (especially when it comes to evolution), stopping religious discrimination in schools etc.

          Nobody disputes any of this to my knowledge. It seems to me that you are failing to understand that it is perfectly reasonable (and good) to make common cause with all sorts of people to advance these obvious goods.

          What is in dispute is whether or not it is reasonable to ask those of us who recognize the profoundly corrosive nature of religion to pretend otherwise. There is no reason we should. Religion is not the source of moral behavior in humanity. Why do you expect us to pretend otherwise?

          • JeremyR
            Posted December 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

            I’m glad we’re in agreement that “it is perfectly reasonable (and good) to make common cause with all sorts of people to advance these obvious goods”.

            While supernatural beings are clearly not the source of morality or anything else, as they don’t exist, religions are human creations which in all cases reflect the fact that their key figures DID seek to establish moral codes. The snag, of course, is that too often they get it wrong, and they are invariably inhibited (but not prevented) from improving their moral codes as thinking develops because they’re tied to outdated texts.
            But there is one moral guideline that is found, with varying degrees of emphasis, in almost all religions, as well as in Humanism, which is the “Golden Rule” (“treat others as you would like to be treated”/”don’t treat others the way you wouldn’t like to be treated if you were them”). Of course, most people here would argue – rightly – that that rule arises naturally from the need to live in societies, and from the human ability and instinct for empathy.
            The TED prize was won a few years ago by Karen Armstrong, who knows more about the world’s religions than most people, for a project called the “Charter for Compassion” which was based on her concern of the glaring misfit between the Golden Rule as a feature of all the religions she’d studied, and religions as a frequent cause or enabler of conflict. Her proposal – now in action – was to get people from radically different backgrounds across the world to agree to focus on the common ground of the Golden Rule. It’s happening – see http://charterforcompassion.org/

            Some forms of religion are indeed “profoundly corrosive” as they cause, or threaten to cause, a net increase in human suffering. But is it really possible to claim that’s true of every single example? If not, then (in my view) it weakens the argument against the corrosive forms to make it a subset of a blanket “all religion is evil” stance, as that’s pretty easy to shoot down and isn’t helpful in practice. Do we really want to tell members of “Muslims for a Secular Democracy” that their beliefs are “profoundly corrosive” rather than wish them well?

            What IS true of every example of religion is that you and I think the underlying beliefs are untrue and can lead good people to do bad things. That’s a very different point.

            • gbjames
              Posted December 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

              The Golden Rule is not a property of religion. It is a property of evolved social religions. Crediting religion with it is rather like crediting religion with the fact that we all breath air and drink water. Religion just layers on top and pretends like it invented it.

              Religion is all corrosive because it asks us to believe in things in spite of evidence. This is inherently a bad thing for humanity. It is always bad for adults to do this.

              Nobody I know of is interested in telling “Muslims for a Secular Democracy” that working for secular democracy is bad. However, it would be false to claim that Islam isn’t corrosive to democracy. We should wish them well in their work for democracy. That work is done in spite of Islam, not because of it.

              There are few people, if any, who would dispute the idea of working cooperatively toward good ends, religious extremists excepted. That does not require respecting religion. At all.

              And, fwiw, I find Karen Armstrong to be a profoundly confused person, standard for the theologically inclined.

              • JeremyR
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

                No-one says that the Golden Rule is a “property” of religion, in the sense of ownership. But it’s a fact that it is a feature of almost all religions and ethical systems – see http://www.thinkhumanism.com/the-golden-rule.html from Confucius, Buddha, Leviticus (later quoted by Jesus), the ancient Greeks, up to J.S Mill (apparently not in the Koran, but in a Hadith and therefore part of Muslim teaching). That is a good thing. The trouble is that it’s too often eclipsed by other stuff.

                Of course, I agree that anything that “asks us to believe in things in spite of evidence” is undesirable. The tendency to believe things on the basis of hearsay, religious or otherwise – especially when there is some benefit to us, such as comfort in the face of loss – is a human characteristic, to which we’re all subject to some degree. It’s only “corrosive” if the failure to take evidence into account leads to bad actions and outcomes. Telling people not to vaccinate their children, despite overwhelming evidence of benefit, is a bad action. Telling someone whose husband has just died that they’re stupid to believe they’ll be together again in heaven is also a bad and cruel action. Any desire I would feel in that situation to rubbish the idea of an afterlife would be more about addressing my own sense of irritation at irrational belief than about being kind to a fellow human being. The Golden Rule means I should live with the irritation.

                Given these nuances, and given that the void created by falling belief in religion is in many cases being filled (or at least complemented) by equally irrational beliefs – astrology, new age mysticism, homeopathy – and given that terrible things are being done that are nothing to do with religion (ref the Assad regime in Syria), to say without qualification that religion is one of the world’s greatest evils seems unhelpful.

                Refusing to teach women and men in areas of Africa suffering from the HIV epidemic and over-population about contraception – that’s really evil, regardless of whether it’s based on some daft theological argument or anything else. Supporting Catholics who argue for a change to the church’s teaching is more likely to get a result here than telling them they should give up all their beliefs.

                Karen Armstrong’s own beliefs seem pretty vague, though she’s apparently still a “religious” person in the broadest sense of believing in some undefined deity. I can’t see any evidence that she is “profoundly confused”. I was very impressed when I heard her speak. Her Charter for Compassion project is working in one or two surprising ways, notably in Pakistan, where the fact that she’s knowledgeable about Islam lends credibility to her message about the Golden Rule. That surely is a good thing.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                I don’t really know what your point is, JeremyR. People should do good? Religious people can do good? Nobody disagrees.

                Not telling a grieving religious person that her spouse isn’t really in heaven is a proper thing to do…? Well that depends. Few atheists I know would advocate such a comment to someone who has just lost a spouse. There would be no point in that. But it unreasonable to expect non-believers to avoid saying “there is no heaven and there is no hell” loudly in every-day life. Grief is something all of us experience and demanding a trump card for religion on the basis of religious sentiment is an offensive idea.

                I’ve no idea what your paragraph based on “these nuances” is trying to convey.

                Karen Armstrong’s views are garbled. You said it yourself: “Karen Armstrong’s own beliefs seem pretty vague”. We all own the Golden Rule. I have little hope that her liberal/murky view of religion will have much influence on true-believer muslims.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      JeremyR #24 wrote:

      Why is it so difficult to respect people who are active atheists/humanists but who do not think it’s either accurate or realistic to advocate “attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion”?

      We respectfully disagree with the assessment.

      Consider this statement: “We ought to try to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: irrational thinking.”

      “Is this fair? After all, not all forms of irrational thinking are as bad as other forms. Sometimes people decide to do the right thing or come to the right conclusion even though they follow a poor line of thought. And it’s just unrealistic to think you can get rid of all of it. Maybe it’s just more reasonable to concentrate only on situations where it’s causing specific and clear harm. Leave it alone when it’s harmless — or even beneficial. When you talk about “getting rid” of it, this means you’re militant and talking about some form of violence, coercion, law, or force. Must be what you mean.”

      The point of my analogy isn’t about whether religion IS irrational thinking or the only form of it. It’s an analogy which is designed to help you understand how we’re thinking about the issue.

      I think we both can believe either ‘irrational thinking’ or ‘religion’ is one of “the world’s greatest evils” and still be capable of recognizing degrees, nuances, distinctions, pragmatic limitations, and so forth. We can make the statement without locking ourselves into a dogmatic refusal to work with the irrational/religious — and yet not dismiss the overall problem or fail to see the value of striking at its root.

      Making another analogy, working with friendly homeopaths and naturopaths to promote vaccination has an up side — but it also has a down side. It legitimizes pseudoscience. We ‘scientific atheists’ do not see religion as primarily being like an identity, community, moral commitment, or personal taste. We see it as being like a pseudoscience. If there are the religious equivalents of “science-friendly homeopaths,” then the ultimate goal is not to drop criticism of the niggling little issue of homeopathy and figure it’s good enough for practical purposes. It’s to up the criticism and eventually get these folks to a real medical school.

      Especially if they argue against “allopathic western medicine” (or “atheism”) as one of the world’s greatest evils.

      • JeremyR
        Posted December 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps the most interesting thing about this post is the use of “we” as in “…designed to help you understand how we’re thinking about the issue”. I hope “we” can bear in mind that we’re all on the same side here, just in different positions on the spectrum.

        Anyhow, I’m afraid your analogy about irrational thinking didn’t really help me. On the other hand, the one about homeopathy is more useful in the discussion about working on common causes with those with whom we disagree. The defining issue here for me is whether – in your example – the vaccination programme is used to promote or legitimise homeopathy. If it isn’t, but simply involves homeopaths telling their clients that vaccination is a good thing, then fine. If it involves homeopaths giving vaccinations under the guise of a homeopathic treatment and then laying claim to the benefits, then probably not fine.

        Homeopathy is a good analogy in another way (and one that has led me to change my views on it): some people argue that, if it makes people feel better, then the fact that any effect is simply placebo doesn’t matter, and it could be a safe way to deal with people who go to see their doctor when there’s nothing significant wrong. The argument is that it’s safe because it’s only water (or sugar), so even the mainstream doctor could prescribe it. The thing that changed my mind was the report that some homeopaths were happy to offer to “help” someone who asked them for an anti-malarial to take when they visited a malarial zone in Africa.

        • Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

          Homeopaths have shown us that primary care physicians need to spend a lot more time with their patients (or, at least, those who ask for it, whether they “need” it or not). Simply taking the patient seriously, even when all that’s worng with them is their paranoia, is often all that it takes to cure them. Doctors can then assess whether perhaps a placebo would help, but the key is a two-way discussion with the patient, wherein the doctor does not dismiss any of the patient’s concerns and instead attempts to teach the patient everything the doctor knows about the subjects involved.

          There are lots of ethically sound ways for a physician to administer a placebo. One is to simply tell the patient that they’re getting a placebo; surprisingly enough, that actually often works as well as a blinded placebo. Another is to find something unrelated that the patient suffers from that could benefit from some harmless low-dose drug, and hint that the prescription will help both conditions. Vitamins and dietary supplements also offer great opportunities for placebo administration, especially the B complex which often creates a skin flush (which can help convince the patient the drug is doing its thing) or vitamin D, which is almost impossible to overdose on and most people are chronically deficient in anyway.

          Cheers,

          b&

      • Posted December 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Excellent.

        /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      And again (and again (and again (…))), we note that there are many viable tactics to get rid of religious privilege and/or religion, and that we don’t dismiss any out of hand. But we do note that accommodationists rarely if ever succeed.

      But what we oppose is the attempt to STFU us. “This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters”. Also, we don’t see that it helps accommodationists or other atheist as much as it makes a problem larger. “One of the things we had to battle against throughout the campaign was attempts by our opponents to dismiss it – and me personally (as a humanist) – as being “anti-religious”,”

      • johncozijn
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        “But we do note that accommodationists rarely if ever succeed.”

        Not sure to whom “we” refers, but I would note that in the most important court battle since Edwards, the “accommodationists” scored a resounding victory (with a thoroughly “accommodationist” judgement) that was not only important legally but politically. It exposed the IDiots to public ridicule in the full glare of the international press.

      • JeremyR
        Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, don’t understand the point about making the problem larger. The fact is that aggressive rhetoric directed at what are seen as mainstream beliefs, simply alienates most people.

        And, at the risk of seeming over-sensitive, I completely reject the implication that, had the campaign I was leading adopted an aggressive anti-religious stance, we would have been more successful. Wrong. Apart form the fact that I would not have run it, we were up against a local Council with an electoral mandate for a new Catholic school, a Council Leader with a strong personal commitment to push it through, national government on his side, national legislation that permits faith-based discrimination in school admissions, local Catholics who wanted their school, the Catholic Church and a judge who sought to support the decisions of national and local government. The chances of success were, we knew, extremely low. The alternative was to do nothing. As it was, this became the largest local issue for many years.

        By the way, what’s “STFU”?

        • johncozijn
          Posted December 28, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          STFU = “shut the fuck up”

  25. MadScientist
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Kloor: yet more evidence that those Atheist Buts stink to the heavens.

  26. js
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    So, the gnu atheists are strident fundamentalists because they are no longer going to shut up about the evils of religion.
    Would it mean then that a woman who has been constantly beaten by her husband and decides to speak up about it is a strident fundamentalist?

  27. MNb
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    “What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists.”
    I agree with this. We atheists shouldn’t let liberal believers get away either. Jesus was not such a great guy to our standards and Mohammed less. The values propagated by Indian movies on mythology, with women completely subordinate to men, make me sick. Etcetera.

  28. Posted December 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    “Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.“

    The claim that this is antiscientific is, itself, antiscientific:

    “What they suggest is that continual exposure to religious ideas and messages results in a kind of life-long priming. Religious socialisation encourages group cohesion, which might affect support for democracy. Religious beliefs trigger thoughts of traditionalism, security, conformity – which might act to reduce support for democracy.”

  29. g2-d34147f3f4e571d41cd1577a51e70a35
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    These two contradictory arguments, if left alone in space together, would annihilate each other in a burst of energy:

    “What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists.”

    “What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic.”

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  30. Posted December 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    People can get the benefits of religion and any scriptures otherwise. I find the apologetics irrational bits of beady blather.I contemn them for the most part.
    I fathom the existential angst of theists and those atheists whom haughty Haught find to be thorough-going atheists.I urge psychology to enter this scene,because ti’s a psychological matter for such people to have that anguish.
    No,ti’s not they are neurotic or psychotic but that they hold onto beliefs for which they self-brainwash! It’s an emotional matter.
    Lamberth’s non-genetic argument refers to theists themselves arguing for their arguments from angst [ Augustine] and from happiness-purpose such that those arguments express implicitly our naturalist critiques of why they want to believe ,so that we then are not making any genetic fallacy!
    Francisco Jose Ayala,strident opponent of creationism,holds that most people need God to overcome existential angst and need divine purpose and divine love and the future state, whilst we naturalists say get counseling for that angst, and human love and purposes and this one life suffice.
    Theist find people to be just things for which God goves purpose! We need no God for being purposeful, and they make that non sequitur that as science finds the Cosmos purposeless, then we have none without Him.
    This gnu atheist goes to the crux of the matter: We own no God anything- no obedience and no worship! Putative God would have no rights over us as the potter and none to judge or punish us as Lamberth’s argument from autonomy claims. He’d face that one-way street of having to put us into a better place as Fr. Meslier’s the problem of Heaven astutely claims!
    No divine right of divine rights exists!
    Blueollie, thanks for the point about that interference-that contradiction!

  31. Posted December 28, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Off the subject. Today the mother of Noah Posner, the first child victim of the recent school shooting to be buried, said an amazing thing about her beautiful and precocious child.
    He inquired “If God exists, who made him.”

  32. Dominic
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    I am sneering & strident – religion is a garbage bin of lies duping the credulous.

    There, I said it.

  33. Botanylife
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I had Discover Magazine on my daily Pulse news scrolls, until I read the numerous articles they posted from the hack Keith Kloor. His articles have nothing to do with science, they are essentially a marketing scheme for GMOs and nuclear power and every other shitty and destructive idea from the rightwing. He provides no evidence for any assertion, he just has a quote basically saying GMOs and nuclear power are great for everyone and everything. End of argument anyone who disagrees with that is anti science. Maybe he should talk to Japan about the settled science on nuclear power, and about every conservation biologist on earth about GMOs.He can start with me. I would bet a lot of money that the sell out KK is funded by invested interests in GMOs and nuclear energy. As long as they publish KKs inflammatory bullshit, they will be Discover the Anti Science Magazine in my eyes.

  34. Frank Keefe
    Posted March 24, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “Really? Kloor does not, of course, give any examples of the sneering and stridency, and that’s par for the course”

    Look I haven’t got all day to give you all of the examples of the sneering stridency you say Kloor hasn’t given you..here is just one to start you off by your man Dawkins…saying that teaching children about to religion is a form of child abuse….will be back to supply you the rest…mind you please take a look at P Z Myers website aaaah such intelligent arguments it brings this Christians tears to my eyes.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 24, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      You are not correct regarding your complaint about Dawkins. He is very much in favor of teaching children aboutreligion religion. He says that indoctrinating children into a religion is a form of child abuse. And I agree with him. If your “teaching” is intended to inform children about the huge variety of religious ideas that humanity has held over millennia and if you give honest time to why some people don’t believe a lick of it, then Dawkins would be fully supportive.

      This position is not sneering. You may think it is strident, but stridency is in the ear of the beholder. So weep if you like, christian person, but please try to be accurate in your statements.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Science/Religion Step One. Atheist Scientist (often a prominent one) says (honestly): “science and religion are not compatible”. [...]

  2. [...] In his rejoinder to me, Jerry Coyne writes: [...]

  3. [...] Coyne responds ably to Kloor here: [...]

  4. [...] out Jerry Coyne’s comments, as well as P.Z.’s blog. Both are interesting reads, and I will add my own [...]

  5. [...] “Keith Kloor lumps me with Dawkins as sneering, strident, and simplistic.” Turns out, not unsurprisingly, that Kloor is the one being particularly simplistic. We have now reached the 28th December, but the story is far from over, because [...]

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