Over at Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau vigorously disputes a post by Ophelia Benson on the success of Gnu Atheism. The topic at issue was Americans’ declining church attendance coupled with their continuing tendency to exaggerate to pollsters how often they go to church. Benson suggests that some of this effect might be due to Gnu Atheists success at eroding the respectability of being religious.
What’s Rosenau’s beef? That he sees no evidence for this Gnu Effect:
The problem for me is that, despite all of the claims that gnu atheism has done this and is doing that, no actual evidence has (ever, to my knowledge) been advanced that gnu atheism has had any effect whatsoever on public perceptions of religion.
Well, yes, there are no formal surveys about the effect of Gnus on popular perception of religion. But it’s curious for Rosenau to criticize this claim on the basis of a lack of evidence, when for several years he’s been claiming that accommodationism weans people from creationism much more easily than does vociferous atheism—on the basis of even less evidence! In fact, the only thing Rosenau has ever offered in support of accommodationism is a study showing that people tend to trust experts more when those experts share more of their cultural values. In offering this as evidence for the superior efficacy of accommodationism, Rosenau was taken apart not only by his commenters, but also by Jason Rosenhouse in a long and critical post. Jason has no hard data either, but does say this:
In defense of the New Atheist strategy of creating tension and making atheism visible we have a body of research on advertising that shows that repetition and ubiquity are essential for mainstreaming an idea. We have the historical examples of social movements that changed the zeitgeist by ignoring the people urging caution, and by working around the people whose value systems put them in opposition to their goals. We know that hostility towards atheists was at a fever pitch well before the NA’s arrived on the scene, a time during which accommodationist arguments were common but vocal atheism was not. And we have the all-important verdict of common sense, which says that you don’t mainstream your view by getting down on your knees and pleading with people to treat you nicely.
Are there any data bearing on this? Well, mostly anecdotes, which is why many of us Gnus won’t argue that there’s only one good way to bring the faithful to Darwin. But let’s look at the anecdotes. Here’s what we have supporting each side:
1. On the accommodationist side: The Anecdote of Tom Johnson, which has been discredited.
2. On the Gnu side: dozens and dozens of public assertions that Gnu Atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens helped wean people not only from religion, but from creationism. Check out “Converts’ Corner” at Richard Dawkins’s website, for instance, which has 23 pages of such testimony. I myself have gotten several dozen similar letters, a few of which I’ve published here.
So where are all those public assertions of the faithful that they resisted accepting the theory of evolution because of those horribly strident Gnu Atheists, but then became converts to evolution when accommodationists came to town? Maybe there are a few such claims, but I haven’t seen any. And there’s certainly no accommodationist equivalent of Converts’ Corner!
Rosenau demands the highest standard of evidence from Gnus to support their tactics, but feels that bald and unsupported assertion suffices to support his own. In this way he resembles the creationists he battles so arduously. Regarding those creationists, Herbert Spencer once said this:
Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.
But Rosenau goes further: he not only sees no evidence that Gnus have helped erode the respectability of religion, but sees no decline at all in that respectability, Gnu-induced or not:
Absent some sort of evidence that religion is less intellectually respectable now than it was 10 years ago, this first step in Ophelia’s logical chain fails, and the conclusions go with it. And the paragraph above suggests that intellectual respectability has not been necessary or sufficient for its social desirability in America’s past, so the second link strikes me as dubious and unproven as well.
Well, I don’t have the statistics at hand, but I suspect there’s plenty of evidence for this. One is the decline of church attendance in America and the increase in the number of Americans who characterize themselves as nonbelievers. There are the bus campaigns, which didn’t exist a few years ago. There is the fact that all of the Gnu books have been best sellers, while counter-books by people like John Haught and David Berlinski have sunk without a trace. There is the growth of secular, humanist, and skeptical societies, both in society at large and on university campuses. I suspect that if you surveyed the number of colleges who had such societies a decade ago, and compared that to what we have today, you’d see a striking increase. Perhaps somebody can supply this information.
Now whether the Gnus have contributed to this trend is a different matter, but surely there’s evidence for an increased respectability attached to being agnostic and atheist. Can you imagine bus-slogan campaigns 25 years ago? Or a President who asserts the rights of non-believers in his inaugural address?
And if we do find evidence for the decline in the respectability attendant on being religious? What would Josh say then? He gives a clue:
Maybe the evidence is there. If it is, I don’t know what it shows.
I don’t know what it shows? We’re talking about evidence in favor of a thesis! It must show something!
He goes on:
. . . I’m saying I don’t know, and I tend not to trust people who confidently assert empirically measurable facts without actually offering data to support the claim.
Josh, two words: pot, kettle.