A modest proposal (not mine): how do we get Americans to accept evolution?

No doubt about it, Richard Dawkins was “stridency” in his Reason Rally talk in D.C.  You can find the transcript of his speech here, which include the following controversial call to arms:

So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!  Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits.

Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

There’s a time for stridency, and I have no objection to these remarks, which will undoubtedly be seen by faitheists and believers as a call to mock people, not their ideas. (Another example of an unclear antecedent!).  And, indeed, at a piece at 3 Quarks Daily,Should we address the controversy?“, Quinn O’Neill interprets this as an obvious call to make fun not of peoples’ beliefs, but of people themselves:

Ridicule can take many different forms, including well-crafted satire and cartoons like South Park, but Dawkins is suggesting that we make fun of people face-to-face. “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” he instructs.

And she goes on to make the obvious point—a point so obvious that no evidence is ever adduced in its favor—that one must coddle the faithful to bring them to Darwin:

Being a well-known advocate for evolution, Dawkins’ advocacy of hostile anti-theism may have an undesired effect. For some people, he may be reinforcing an association between evolution and a threat to something that they value. From a marketing perspective, this would be an obvious blunder. It’s like reminding people that Coke promotes tooth decay when you actually want them to buy Coke.

That reminds me of what the geneticists J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobiska’s theorem,” which is “It’s a fact the whole world knows!” (Ergo, no need for evidence: it’s what Alvin Plantinga calls a “basic belief.”  When accommodationists come up with some evidence that telling the faithful that Jesus and Darwin are compatible will turn more of them to evolution than straight-out critique of religious belief, then I’ll sit up and take notice.

But there’s no doubt, at any rate, that “strident” critiques of faith do make converts to both atheism and evolution. I keep pointing people to Dawkins’s “Converts corner,” in which people testify to a Dawkins-induced conversion, and accommodationists keep ignoring it, saying that it’s only anecdotal evidence.  But there are 44 pages of conversion tales. In contrast, I haven’t seen a single anecdote in which an evolution-denier finally accepted evolution after an accommodationist convinced them that Jesus and Darwin were friends.  Where is Kenneth Miller’s “Converts corner”? Whence Francis Collins’s “Converts corner.”  All these people produce is arguments rather than evidence, and then dismiss 44 pages of evidence as “anecodotes.”  Pardon me if that’s not a good enough reason to abandon my critique of faith!

But I digress.  O’Neill’s point in her piece, beyond dissing Dawkins, is to propose a new way to convince people of evolution.  Her inspiration, apparently, was a class I taught at the University of Maryland, in which I lectures to students on Monday as an evolutionist (discussing, for instance, the fossil evidence for evolution), and then as a creationist on Wednesday, knocking down all the evidence I’d adduced two days before. On Friday I monitored a discussion among the students, trying to sort out the conflicting views and come to a conclusion.  As Quinn notes, the class was pretty successful in bringing creationist students around to evolution. (The turning point was their realization of how ridiculous “flood geology” was: that a simply hydrodynamic sorting of organisms caught up in the Great Flood could never have produced the fossil record we see.)

From this Quinn suggests a series of debates:

So here’s an idea, partly inspired by Coyne’s classroom success. It may be ridiculous and completely unfeasible. I’m offering it here in the hope that it might generate some ideas beyond either ridiculing or coddling religious people.

I propose an evolution vs. creationism debate with representation for each side that would be deemed worthy by proponents of each view – perhaps representatives from a national science organization like the NSF or the NCSE, and from a creationist institution, like the Discovery Institute. The debate wouldn’t be public or in person and the time frame would allow for careful formulation and revision of arguments and rebuttals. Respective parties would be free to formulate their response in groups or appoint people they deem up to the task. The number of back-and-forths permitted should allow the entire process to be completed in a reasonable time frame, maybe a few months. The end result would be a formal debate which presents each side’s views and let’s students decide what to think, just as proponents of “teaching the controversy” claim to want.

I envision this debate being part of a booklet that might also contain brief deconstructions of common evolutionary misconceptions and maybe a section on the nature of science. I would have copies in science classrooms and school libraries. Teachers could mention the resource to students and encourage them to read it but still refrain from discussing religion in the classroom. It would be a supplemental curriculum resource not intended to replace coverage of evolution in the curriculum.

In addition to schools (science classrooms and school libraries), perhaps this booklet could be distributed to public libraries and museums and available online for order and/or download. It might be nice to have copies available for handout at various events, like Darwin Day celebrations. . .

I think this could be helpful for a number of reasons. I personally found a transcript of an evolution vs creationism debate to have a sizable impact on my own thinking about the issue. The debate was between Isaac Asimov and Duane Gish. It was only a few pages in length, but it sealed the deal for me in high school.

I think she’s envisioning the kind of written back-and-forth that occurred on the internet between, say, Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan.  Her suggestion is well motivated, but I don’t think it’s feasible for several reasons.

  • Do we really want to waste time in biology classes with a long segment on intelligent design?
  • Intelligent design is only one aspect of creationism; indeed, there are probably just as many, or more, young-earth ex nihilo creationists as ID creationists. And even ID creationists differ among themselves: Michael Behe, for example, accepts a limited form of common descent, while others like Paul Nelson (and probably Dembski) don’t.  Who will represent creationism?
  • A debate that devolves into details like malaria resistance and the flagellum will quickly exhaust the patience, interest, and mental resources of students.
  • You can’t “refrain from discussing religion in science classrooms” so long as you talk about ID, since an integral concept of that brand of disredited thought is a supernatural designer.
  • It wouldn’t work without a monitor to guide discussion.  In my own class, described by Quinn, I was able to guide discussion (but not force evolution down kids’ throats) by making them stick to reasons for their beliefs.  But that was an entire course, and not a biology course (it was a “general ed” course).  Perhaps this idea could be part of a general course on critical thinking rather than a huge segment interpolated into a biology curriculum.
  • Such a procedure would be of limited effectiveness given that most people’s rejection of evolution comes from their religious beliefs rather than their comprehension of or rejection of biological evidence.

To truly rid the world of creationism, weakening religion is, in my view, the more effective tactic—and has all the other benefits that come with the disappearance of faith.  Here are some poll results
that I cite often:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

Quinn doesn’t realize that the goal of people like Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and myself is not simply to get students to accept evolution.  It’s to weaken those forms of uncritical thought, born of superstitition, dogma, and revelation, that create many worse harms than teaching creationism in the public schools. So, while Quinn’s conclusion sounds good—

Additionally, I think it’s generally more important for people to think for themselves than to think like I do. For this reason I think focusing efforts on promoting debate, providing facts and arguments, and appealing to reason is a superior course of action than face-to-face mockery. While the former approach enhances the critical thinking process, the latter punishes the conclusion. It’s possible that mockery may induce some people to examine their views more critically, but we don’t have any idea what percentage of the time this happens.

There’s much better evidence for the effectiveness of debate and appeals to reason than there is for the effectiveness of face-to-face ridicule. There also seems to be greater potential for harm with ridicule. Ridicule is like the homeopathy of available approaches and fundamentalism like a cancer.

—remember that she adduces no evidence for what she says.  We do have some idea that mockery does work (and what Richard does is far more than mockery: it’s a critique of irrational and unevidenced ideas).  We have no idea “what percentage of the time” accommodationism unites Jesus with Darwin in peoples’ minds.  If Quinn wouldn’t mind, I’d love her to give evidence for her statement that criticizing religious views is much less effective than coddling the faithful in bringing acceptance of evolution.  All we have are a few studies showing that people are more mentally receptive to views that are consonant with theirs than opposing critical views.  But do remember that we’re aiming not at the faithful themselves, but mostly at those people on the fence, especially young people.

I would like accommodationists like Quinn to give some evidence that, in the long run, it’s easier to bring people to Darwin by fostering public debate than by criticizing religion.  And remember, I said “in the long run.”  In the long run, we’ll always have the brushfires of creationism since they’re ignited by the match of faith.

167 Comments

  1. Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

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  2. gbjames
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Sub

  3. Voltaire 2
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Perhaps things are different in the UK, but I live in a region of the USA where if I did what he suggested, I would be lucky if I were still alive after openly ridiculing the faithful.

    Debate is nice when it is between two reasonably rational, intelligent, and decent people or groups. But this not the case for most of this country and probably won’t be for generations to come.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      But the irony is that if a Catholic really believes in transubstantiation and really has good reason for doing so then Dawkins’ question provides an ideal opportunity for said Catholic to confirm what they believe. The reason this is seen as mockery and not honest inquiry into somewhat astounding claims is that most Catholics do not actually believe what, according to the Pope, they are required to believe.

      Similar things could be said for other religions.

      • Anthony Paul
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Maybe it will work, but you should still proceed with caution or else be prepared to lose a few friends, a few family members, or a few teeth.

        • Steve
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

          Oh yes there it is the ugly specter of violence in response to hearing something contrary to your personal theology.

          • Voltaire 2
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            Yes and in Muslim countries doing what Dawkins said would be a literal death sentence.

  4. eric
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    It’s like reminding people that Coke promotes tooth decay when you actually want them to buy Coke.

    Exactly wrong, Ms Quinn. Being confrontational about religious belief is like reminding people that Coke promotes tooth decay when you want them to stop drinking Coke and they want to keep drinking it. Yes, some will likely resent you for bursting their bubble. And yes, if many people tell them the same thing over and over again, some Coke-drinkers may start to just ignore the message due to over-repetition. But even with those problems, overall its a pretty effective strategy.

    And, I’d add, the analogy works better with Kool-Aid. 🙂

    ***

    Her debate idea does not sound much like your class at all, Jerry. As you point out, you moderated the discusson on both sides. Another important difference seems to me that your students were encouraged to ‘think science’ and then ‘think creation.’ I.e., all student participants had to take both sides in turn. An academic debate does not require the audience to ‘take’ both sides in turn. Its a more passive experience. And it pretty much discourages the debaters from pointing out problems with their own position or concede when the opponent has a strong argument.

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, her idea is unfeasible for one simple reason, Creationists are willing to lie out of their teeth just to convince people, either by ignoring contradictory evidence, or by misrepresenting evidence. And by and large, most of the ID arguments I’ve seen are more concerned with taking down evolution than in making their own case, and they consider themselves to win by default if even their overall Theory (the Bible) isn’t correct. They’re also not going to admit they’re wrong.

      So while Coyne creates a teaching moment by addressing their arguments, if you actually let the creationists speak for themselves, at best you’d have a deeply frustrating experience with someone who will say *anything* to get you to doubt evolution and believe in the Bible. While some students might see through it, I think others might just be taken in by their confidence, enthusiasm, and showman ship, rather than the actual arguments (which are rubbish).

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      The analogy works even better with Flavor Aid </pop-culture pedant>

  5. eric
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Another thought: why is asking someone “do you really believe x” considered mockery?

    If someone asked me if I really believed F=ma, I would have no problem answering with a plain and simple yes. It wouldn’t cause me any offense or embarrasment.

    It seems to me that the only time this question could be considered mockery is if both questioner and questionee knew beforemand that the questionee was embarrased about their belief.

    IOW, to call it mockery you have believe everyone in the conversation already knows its an irrational belief.

    • Sunny
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      What is more remarkable is the implicit claim that there is some method to differentiate among such revelations. For example, Tebow’s claim about divine intervention should not be mocked but it is okay to question Bush’s claim that God asked him to invade Iraq.

      • Steve
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        “It’s a fact the whole world knows…” there are somethings that God will do and somethings that He won’t. Helping Tebow out: yes, telling Bush to invade Iraq: no.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      I’m reminded of a video I watched: Dawkins was on a panel discussing (I think) science and religion and he brought up the fact that one of the panelists believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He was immediately accused of bigotry. “But isn’t that what you believe?” Again, bigotry and disrespect. “But can’t we look at this and discuss it?” No.

      They think Faith is a question-free zone. We’re supposed to look at them, coo, and admire. “I see that particular belief is very special to you. My, you must be such a strong, wise, sensitive person to believe that. I don’t believe it myself, but I’m very impressed that you do. So I won’t try to take it away.”

      O’Neil thinks we can draw a line. Sometimes faith beliefs are wrong — but faith is a very valuable thing.

      • eric
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        They think Faith is a question-free zone.

        Slight correction – they think faith is a question-free zone for atheists. They wholeheartedly endorse their right as religious people to question other faiths. As someone pointed out on another thread, protestants have been challenging/mocking the concept of transubstantiation for 300+ years. Its only when atheists do it that everyone decides its off-limits.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      +1

  6. Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Religious Observer.

  7. Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    How to get people to believe in evolution? Textbooks need to be rigorous and hardcore in their presentation of the evidence for evolution. Using a syllogism, as Frank Zindler does here would be valuable:
    http://atheists.org/content/creation-science-and-fact-evolution

    Textbooks now will sometimes just talk about a couple of fossil finds in their discussion of the evidence for evolution, but that is not very convincing, because any good scientist knows that the case for evolution does not rest on one or two fossils. Entire fossil sequences ought to be shown. Textbooks should not simply say, “Embryos are similar, this is best explained by common descent, case closed,” Rather, they should discuss the argument that Darwin gave about how common descent actually predicted the similarities between embryos. Discussions about observed examples of evolution creating complexity would be great. And, I think, it would also be good for these books to have a discussion on the history of flood geology and the reasons that flood geology was falsified in the 19th century. Knocking out the boogie monster of young earth creationism would solve the problem, for the most part.

  8. J
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I do like the idea of a compulsory critical thinking class. In my school we had to take General Studies for 1 year but it wasn’t taught all that effectively & it was in the first year of A-levels (ages 16-18), so some people had left school altogether by that age.

    • Egbert
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      It seems a no brainer doesn’t it? An explanation of scientific methodology, scepticism and critical thinking should be essential skills to learn before even beginning to understand science theories and how evidence supports them.

  9. Steve
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Why do we care if people accept evolution as the Truth, other than it serves to show a flaw in their theistic belief?

    I mean there is always a certain motivation to refine our believing to that which is actually true, for the sake of maximizing the truthfulness of our world views. But, aside from the appeals to get people to see evolution as the truth because it really is the truth, what else does it matter?

    It only seems to matter the most as a replacement to all creation myths.

    Example:
    Zeus can’t be the child of Titans and creator of man, because man was not created by Zeus but evolved naturally instead.

    PS (Oh for sure there are certain professions that depend on knowing the proper answer to the question, but I am talking about the rest of the individuals on the planet.)

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Because religious people who don’t accept evolution are constantly and never endingly trying to get their version taught in schools as the equal actual science. And they want to take away the right of other people’s children, and their own, to hear an unbiased assessment of it. People’s beliefs don’t exist in some sort of vacuum where they don’t bother anything else in society.

      • eric
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Steve,

        I care about the religious beliefs that impact serious social and political actions. The sort of belief that denies antibiotics to one’s children, or tries to make some act a crime for no other reason than because their holy book says its a sin.

        I don’t care all that much about beliefs that believers pragmatically treat more like a hobby or a game. If Prof. Miller wants to get together with like-minded people and ritually chant on Sunday mornings, more power to him. I do the same thing at the same time – only my activity focuses around football. As long as we can both put that aside when we walk into the laboratory or office, he’s as welcome to his hobby as I am to mine.

        Though full disclosure, I’m pretty sure folks like Coyne and PZ and Dawkins would disagree with me on that. They might say something like this: the folks with hobby-type religion have same disease (as the folks with more serious religion). The hobby-types just show weaker symptoms. Its that underlying disease of uncritical belief that we should fix.

        • Tulse
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

          I don’t care all that much about beliefs that believers pragmatically treat more like a hobby or a game. […] I’m pretty sure folks like Coyne and PZ and Dawkins would disagree with me on that.

          PZ wouldn’t disagree at all — he’s said that he’d be fine if people treated their religious practice like knitting, something they enjoy doing in private but aren’t serious about. (See also this clip from Expelled, where he says the same thing.)

      • Steve
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        Because religious people who don’t accept evolution are constantly and never endingly trying to get their version taught in schools as the equal actual science.

        Sajanas,
        So the way to stop them from trying to foist their theistic views onto the public schoolroom is to convince them that evolution is true? I mean, sure, if you can accomplish this, no doubt then then they would stop, but I don’t think this is objective of getting Americans to accept evolution.

        • Sajanas
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          Well, its certainly one of the ways. I’ve only met a few creationists in the flesh, and most of them labor under fraudulent data and lies that they’ve not bothered to look further into. So, giving a good, through explanation of evolution in school (and early in school) is a way of combating that.

          But I think ultimately, religious thinking as a whole is a problem, and one that needs to be addressed in education. Sure, it doesn’t matter what Grandma does on her Sundays if she keeps it to herself, but I think its a disservice that we should take that general desire to give people freedom to believe what they want as a license not to educate people at all.

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      sub

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      It breeds a kind of anti-intellectualism. If a person can reject something so soundly supported as evolution, they lose confidence in ‘Science’, and can easily reject other findings. While evolution might not have too many immediate impacts on people’s lives (keeping in mind that even creationists accept bacterial resistance as microevolution), other scientific findings point to phenomena that will have huge impacts, such as global climate change. Remember that we live in a representative democracy, so people’s personal beliefs do affect public policy.

      Anti-intellectualism also opens the door to those people being taken advantage of on a personal level. Have you ever heard of HHO generators to supposedly improve fuel mileage, or other scams that separate people from their money? What about the far more dangerous alternative medicine proponents, or the anti-vax movement?

      So no, acceptance of evolution itself isn’t terribly important to most people. You can live your life and get by in most jobs without knowing that we’re distant cousins of mushrooms. For that matter, history, geography, literature, art, and a well rounded education in general aren’t that important to most people’s daily lives. But that whole anti-intellectual mindset that leads people to rejecting evolution is a big problem, both opening up those people to being taken advantage of, and hurting society in general when those people vote.

  10. randy
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with the argument you present. Having a “rational” debate with a creationist is an oxymoron. Treating creationsists with kid gloves only gives them credence and validation. Most creationists come to their beliefs through a lifetime of brainwashing that starts very early. This brainwashing has to be interupted with scorn and mockery for it ever to be defeated.

  11. Tulse
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    do remember that we’re aiming not at the faithful themselves, but mostly at those people on the fence, especially young people.

    Exactly. Religion is like smoking — it is far easier to keep people from starting than it is to get them to quit. The goal of ridicule is not necessarily to get the target to change their mind, but to get the onlookers to see what a silly and mock-worthy notion such beliefs are.

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget the young age at which theistic instruction begins. As soon as a child is capable, they are taught to say their “Now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleeps”…
      Shucks babies are christened into some theologies even before that point in their life.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

        The idea isn’t so much to target kids, but to prevent the currently wishy-washy adults from slipping into fundamentalism.

  12. litchik
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    There is a bias error here. Selective attention pretty much guarantees that only those ready to accept evolution are reading or listening to Dawkins. (Most “conversions” seem to come from reading him, not hearing him on TV or YouTube.) They may have required the cogent arguments he supplies and even his withering criticism may be important for them to break off with the teachings of their childhood (though, I’d be wary of True Believer syndrome, here.)

    The place Dawkins does not work is in rallying disparate supporters of evolution and science teaching in general to work together to promote science education as a matter of public policy. Nor can his suggested tactics of asking a candidate to explain the resurrection of Jesus (or any other figure) or the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith help unite pro-science groups including liberal theologians (whom, I agree, must spend much energy combating the cognitive dissonance.) It isn’t even so much that all these folks have support the religious ideas under scrutiny, but that the perception that people are being attacked for their “privately held beliefs.” That a Republican, and many Democratic candiates, can’t seem to keep any of their beliefs private other than how much they believe they owe to K street is a part of of this, yes, but as you can see, it is a long and complicated debate/discussion. In the meantime I’d like to keep ID out of science classrooms and evolution in.

    I’m all for comprehensive world religion classes, and even more so for history of religion classes. Perhaps if folks traced the history of their beliefs they’d realize how much originates in what they freely admit to being myth. It’s only a step on to the next realization.

    Mind you, I’m home schooling my 2E son right now and we are reading Dawkins “Magic of Reality.” I do like Dawkins and he and Dennett did help me use the word atheist to describe myself and to stop hedging around religious folks the extent of my skepticism. They didn’t convert me to atheism though, my Catholic school education did that.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      “The place Dawkins does not work is in rallying disparate supporters of evolution and science teaching in general to work together to promote science education as a matter of public policy. ”
      Well that’s not entirely Dawkins fault. The standard way for accomodationists or moderate religionists to show that they are ‘faith friendly’ supporters of science is to contrast themselves with the ‘strident, militant, extremist atheist’ Richard Dawkins.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      You know, Dawkins may actually be very good at motivating moderate and liberal religious people to rally together for the cause of science literacy.

      They already accept that evolution happened. No big deal, no threat, no concern. Then, along comes an atheist telling people that the theory of evolution undermines the hypothesis that God exists. Hey, he’s trying to claim evolution for atheism!

      Can’t have that! In the long run, reality wins out and the atheists own it. So the moderates and liberals have a fire lit under them: they have to come out in public and start insisting that no, no, no — evolution is not only consistent with belief in God — it should STRENGTHEN faith in God! Yes! It’s ours! Science and evolution are good things because they support US! And we support THEM! Watch us!

      They’re motivated now, all right. Without Dawkins, they’re sitting around on their butts when it comes to the cause of scientific literacy.

      • Sajanas
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        I wonder if part of the problem with the “don’t offend liberal religion” argument is that it seems clear that the liberal religious aren’t necessarily thinking about the whole implications of God creating the world through a murder machine. Which makes me think that the acceptance of evolution of liberal religion is often times more of an avoidance of the issue, rather than an actual understanding of it.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          You could be right. There’s a suspicious hint of “Shhhhhh” when it comes to dealing with the religious liberal.

  13. Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that “debates” between advocates of creation science and real science do more harm than good, by leaving the audience (and especially school-age audience) with a feeling that there is something to be said for both sides.

    After all, how many schoolchildren (or schoolteachers) know enough to refute, say, the creationist objections to radiometric dating, based as they are on the notorious RATE study, the misrepresentation of the care that must be taken to avoid errors as evidence that the methods are error-prone, or the special behaviour of one particular isotope at temperatures of 15 million K presented as evidence that radiometric decay rates could be much faster during Noah’s Flood?

    All of these are actual examples from recent creationist literature.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I agree. Unless you’re talking about serious university level interest, most people in an audience more or less ‘zone out’ when the issue gets too science-y. They try to get the gist — which is hard to do when the area is technical. All they really remember is that both sides seem to sound like they have their shit together. It comes down then to who appeals more to their intuitions. Which of two otherwise equivalent viewpoints seems to have “common sense” on its side?

      Creationism usually wins that one, because creationism draws its ideas from the way small children and the scientifically illiterate naturally tend to look at the world. Plus, you get to stand up for faith in God — even if it’s not mentioned, you know where it’s going. You pick the side which is in your tribe.

      • Tim
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        …and then there’s the fact that creationists just lie. They have no scientific reputation to protect, so they just make shit up. They’ll say anything that they think will appeal to the audience, even if the point they’re making was demolished in another dabate last week and even if the outright lie was exposed and their was been debunked in a news report of last week’s debate.

        • Tim
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          sigh:

          …their lie was debunked…

  14. Sigmund
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    If I recall correctly, surveys have shown that a significant percentage of US science teachers are creationists. Has anyone here ever heard a creationist present a fair picture of the evidence supporting evolution? What do you think will happen in those classroom if those teachers think they have free rein to teach creationism (and the ‘problems with evolution’.)
    On the question of mockery I think it’s fair to point out that accomodationists are not above strident mockery themselves – so long as the targets are not the religions with political clout.
    It’s OK to laugh at creationists or scientologists but hands off the Catholics.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Much to my astonishment, I met a creationist High School biology teacher, who taught at religion-based private high school in Walnut Creek California. She said they gave lip service to teach the “Theory” (and, ‘”..only a theory”‘ of course was said by her). There was no retreat by her in our conversation, only a retreat from me, personally, with a maintenance of her emotions, head-shaking (to signal to me, “You’re stubborn, you just don’t get it..”) and a refusal to converse any further.

      Any attempt to “have a debate” or “teach both sides” will never be attended by true believers of creationism. They would gain nothing, and know this a priori.

      I endorse Dawkins methods, if that’s how you feel effective. Personally, I don’t get into ridiculing the trappings of Islam or Catholicism. I bypass all that. First destroy the notion of meeting god in an afterlife: your memory is a physical thing, and just like your nose, toes, tongue, teeth and hair, it stays in your skull. Cite references if you can to studies. Once mainstream religion is properly housed with Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Roman religion, then the slate is cleared, and a proper discussion of evolution begins.

  15. DrBrydon
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I just keep thinking about the story Dawkins quoted before about his Australian colleague who was invited by a creationist to debate: “That might look good on your CV, but not so much on mine.” As PZ and others have said, all debates do is give unwarranted prestige to the creationists.

    I have to say I was a little disappointed in Dawkins’ Reason Rally speech. I don’t object to stridency, or to the idea of mocking belief. Beliefs must be challenged, and ridicule can be a shock that starts people thinking. (This is another difference between science and religion: science includes mechanisms for challenging assumptions and conclusions.)

    I am just sorry that Dakwin’s didn’t qualify that based on the audience and the setting. If I am on a plane, and the person next to me is reading a Bible, I am not going to launch into a monologue on the inanities of religion. Likewise, if one of my children’s friends said their prayers at a sleepover, I wouldn’t say anything. Nor would I say anything directly to a person in a professional situation.

    However, if someone confronted me with their religion — say Jehovah’s Witnesses — I’d feel free to let fly. Likewise, in a public setting where someone was intruding religious beliefs as evidence or justification, I would feel it appropriate to challenge them. There is a time and place for everything.

    Personally, I think that the famous “militant” atheists observe rules like this. I just cringe at the thought that some not-so-contemplative person left the Reason Rally and bothered some lady on the Metro reading her Bible.

    • xuuths
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      DrBrydon, you missed the most important part of the Dawkins quote, which I’ll bold:

      So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious,…

      Note he didn’t say to interrupt people who are sitting and reading, minding their own business. But he is clearly responding to people who are making a claim — someone who is telling you they are religious. Someone who is evangelizing, preaching, reading scripture out loud, quoting their holy book, etc.

      That’s entirely different. If someone else brings up the subject (and the religious have a mandate to do so), then you can ask the pertinent question.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. I guess I was looking for a more positive injunction, and didn’t hear that for what it was. Thanks for correction.

  16. Robert Bray
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    At some point we have to say it: willful ignorance is stupidity; and stupidity is a characteristic of a person. Hence, to mock views that are ignorant –unalterably ignorant–is indeed to mock the person. And I see nothing wrong with this as a way of opposing ignorance’s cancerous spread in the body politic.

    • Egbert
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      And then, you get into power, and start rounding up all the stupid lazy people into the ovens.

      It doesn’t take long before we’re practicing eugenics and mass sterilizing fundamentalists.

      It may seem amusing until you actually have the power to do it.

      • xuuths
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        And then, you get into power, and start rounding up all the stupid lazy people into schools and educate them — with a focus on critical thinking.

        There, fixed that for you.

    • Yiam Cross
      Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      This is an important problem which requires a serious solution.

      If we thought in the way christians historically have then we would be rounding them up and burning them, but publicly on stakes. As an aside, we could probably make a few bob from the ticket sales. Tempting as it is with some of the more irreversibly self-damaged minds I frequently encounter on the internet (most freqently in LinkedIn, and it’s supposed to be a professional networking tool???) we need to come up with an accessible and effective strategy for dealing with them.

      Abuse is certainly tempting and it can be great fun. The way they leave themselves so open to it and come back time and time again for more is astounding but quickly becomes tiresome. It doesn’t matter how effectively their stupidity is highlighted and shown up for the crap it is, they just don’t care.

      More importantly, many of this type actually want to be abused. They need to feel they’re fighting a battle for their god and want to be seen to be suffering to defeat satan in one of his many guises. They are gagging for a beating more than any masochist quivering in hope of a good whipping. So I feel abuse is not so much counter productive as giving them exactly what they want.

      The question is, what can we do that would be effective?

  17. Rebecca Sparks
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    There are all sorts of conversations that helps one change their mind on deeply held beliefs, both harsh and friendly. I’m not aware on any research that proves one method is more effective than the other.

    However, the last time I had a debate on what makes an atheist, I found this really interesting study on new atheists:

    “Perhaps on of the most interesting items that appears is the apparent influence of belonging to a minority religious group. At the time they dropped their religion, twice as many were living in places where their own faith was a minority group, as were living where their own faith was the dominant one. Typical is the Catholic becoming an Atheist while living in Salt Lake City. ” (Vetter 1932: 190)

    If anyone knows of any relevant research, I would appreciate it if you post it here 😀

    Vetter, G. B.; Green, M. “Personality and group factors in the making of atheists. “The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 27(2), Jul 1932, 179-194. doi: 10.1037/h0075273

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      “The study is based on 350 replies from members of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. The most common “causes” given for anti-religious attitudes were: wide reading of history, science and religion (75 times); disgust with religious hypocrisy (60); influence of particular author or book (55); a byproduct of Socialist materialism (30); effects of college education (25); effects of study of sciences (25); and others in lesser numbers. Less frequently emotional factors were mentioned, such as: illness and death in family, the horrors of war, the futility of prayer, the evils and unhappiness in the world, etc.”
      A byproduct of Socialist materialism?
      Damn commies!

    • FastLane
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      From:
      Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 6(3), pp. 46-70 http://www.ejop.org
      Is It You or Is It Me? Contrasting Effects of Ridicule Targeting
      Other People Versus the Self

      Leslie M. Janes – Brescia University College
      James M. Olson – University of Western Ontario

      Abstract
      In this paper, we describe a program of research on the topic of ridicule, which explored the differing effects of observing either ridicule directed at other people or self-disparaging ridicule. In three studies, participants listened to humor that either ridiculed another person, ridiculed the self (the person expressing the humor), or involved no ridicule. Results in two studies showed that observing ridicule that targeted another person led participants to conform more to the alleged attitudes of others and to behave in ways suggesting a heightened fear of failure, compared to self-ridicule or no ridicule. In contrast, results in a third study showed that observing self-disparaging ridicule led participants to generate more creative ideas, compared to other-ridicule or no ridicule. The implications of these “inhibiting” effects of other-ridicule and “disinhibiting” effects of self-ridicule are discussed.

      I don’t have the expertise to critique this paper, but it is some research.

  18. Whiskey Lima
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    This may be only a matter of semantics, but when I encounter criticisms of Dawkins’s stridency specifically, it seems to be trained on the perceived disdain, the contemptuousness of his remarks. I don’t think people mean steadfast when they refer to atheists’ stridency. There is an important difference there, and, again, it may be simply a matter of interpretation.

    As an atheist, I take no issue with Dawkins’s manner. I don’t think he is disdainful at all. But I do think many of us fail to appreciate just how well confidence wears the disguise of contempt. This is why I think Jerry offers, albeit not deceitfully, a false choice in this post.

    It isn’t as if engaging believers is a matter of simply iron fist or kid gloves; or, more specifically, a choice between the relentless ridicule of someone’s core beliefs and all-out accommodation. There is a neglected middle ground, albeit a tough one to find. Sometimes I think we need to spend more time looking for it.

    And it’s not that I don’t appreciate just how entrenched believers are. In fact, I find that their entrenchment is what makes stridency so ineffective. And although there have indeed been scores of accounts of conversion memorialized on Dawkins’s site, such accounts only tell one side of the story. What these testimonials don’t demonstrate is just how many potential converts have been repelled by Dawkins’s no-holds-barred approach; potential converts that retreated only deeper into their irrational beliefs in the face of “temptation.” I’m confident most of us have had experiences with this kind of believer. They’re the ones that upon encountering rational arguments that challenge their worldview see not an opportunity for change, but dark and nefarious forces yearning to corrupt them. Logic and reason are merely the devices of whatever demon they believe in. And the more sense you make, the greater the test they’re being given, and hence the more important they feel they are in the eyes of their beloved god, e.g., “God is really testing my faith, he must have big things in store for me.” It’s a nifty defense mechanism built into many religions, and it works best with those who need conversion the most; the zealots and true-believers.

    Perhaps, and given that there are always exceptions, it may be helpful to consider the people that respond to aggressive atheism as low-hanging fruit: people who were never truly committed to their beliefs—no matter what they say to the contrary—and thus the least likely to pervert their beliefs into justification for harmful behavior. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that these converts didn’t need the bitch slap in the face that we take such pleasure in dealing (no matter what we say otherwise, we all know the stridency is comes from a bit of repressed hostility—who can blame us?). Maybe there is a way to tone it down just a notch or two.

    After all, there is a fine line between cocky and confident; and between honest and mean-spirited—especially when your opponent wants nothing more than for you to cross it.

    • xuuths
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I disagree that the line is so fine. It’s just that the religious are incredibly “sensitive” — unrealistically, and disproportionately to the situation.

      They don’t want any response other than blind obedience, and total acceptance. Anything else is deemed inflammatory, viewed as a direct and personal attack on them. Mostly this is done in the attempt to shame the other person into silence, and prevent it from happening again.

      We must not be deterred in ignoring the requests for special preferred treatment by the religious. They deserve to be treated the same way we treat people claiming to see Elvis, or the Flat Earth Society.

      So they call us cocky, strident, mean-spirited. Big deal. Considering how they scream about us being evil, hell bound, sinners, perverts, and all manner of other things, I can handle being called cocky! (And they never seem to accept that they are being hypocrites when you point out the nasty language they use to describe atheists.)

      • Whiskey Lima
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        They may, in fact, be sensitive. But, I don’t find ridicule bolsters the persuasiveness of any argument.
        Now if your goal isn’t to convert, to get them to “see the light,” so to speak, then have at it. Mock, ridicule, and degrade all you want.

        Otherwise it just isn’t enough to be right, or to simply make sense. Not when desires and identity are involved. And the fact that some of them are just as nasty means nothing if, again, you are trying to achieve a goal.

        Atheists have every right to be nasty if they so choose. But let’s not pretend there’s a practical advantage involved. It’s just venting. Plain and simple.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          “The gift of gab” so the old Irish expression goes, “is telling a man to go to Hell, and leave him looking forward to the trip!”

          The point of a conversation that mocks certain aspects of a particular religion is not to slay that religious thinking in a single confrontation, but more to wound, and perhaps fatally wound, that religious thinking, so it eventually is discarded as “dead”. The Mongol hordes, invading the Steppes and moving into Europe, effectively used wounding as a main weapon. All their arrows were dipped in a deadly mixture. A fetid blend of feces, blood, milk, and other organic matter would be concocted in a bowl, and, once a deadly maturation of the desired bacteria was signaled (by smell) all arrows and blades were dipped in it. Any wound inflicted on an enemy would lead to the enemy’s eventual death by a gruesome bacterial infection (which no prayer ever reversed, if it reached a stage of fever and illness.)
          In effect, no one drops religion by a single encounter. But every encounter need leave a mark.

          • Whiskey Lima
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

            Mockery is a double-edged sword; one must yield it gracefully lest he wound himself.

            A little more grace from our side may go a long way.

            • Occam
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

              When Churchill urged him to be more accommodating, De Gaulle replied:
              “I am too poor to stoop, and too weak to bend.”
              There is a time for grace; this is not it. This is a time for resolute defiance.

              • Whiskey Lima
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                Beautiful, truly. Defiance is indeed crucial in the face of an aggressive, genocidal, and tyrannical force.

                Now if only we could storm organized religion’s beaches and kill its generals. Actually, that’s not bad. Someone should get working on a plan for that.:)

                For now, though, I think we should stick to trying to win people over. Mockery isn’t helping.

              • xuuths
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                Whiskey Lima, quite the contrary. Dr. Coyne has pointed out the evidence that refutes your belief that mockery is not effective.

                It is.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          Whiskey Lima wrote:

          But, I don’t find ridicule bolsters the persuasiveness of any argument.

          Consider the possibility that the ridicule is not really aimed at the possible convert, nor at the audience which is watching, but is directed more towards the culture itself. Mockery and ridicule are used in an attempt to change the climate — the air of privilege in which “matters of faith” currently bask.

          As long as it’s assumed by the ubiquitous “everybody” that faith is a virtue, a personal choice which brooks no harsh criticism and deserves immediate respect, no attempt to persuade is going to get through. Persuade people to change what? Their virtue? Their good qualities? Their identity? The sacred? You can’t challenge the sacred. It’s … sacred.

          But if this sense of the sacred begins to break down because nobody can count on the common agreement to defer to civility on sacred matters, then perhaps persuasive arguments have a place to start from. And this breakdown has to start somewhere.

          What do you think?

          • Whiskey Lima
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            I get that, I really do. But I think deferring to civility tends to be a good thing. Besides, you seem to use “civility” as if it means “acquiescence.” Civility isn’t forgoing criticism. Civility isn’t abandoning attempts at persuasion.

            One can challenge bad ideas and maintain civility. One can systematically disrupt the balance of a logically incoherent belief system without resorting to smug condescension at every turn. It really doesn’t matter how strong your argument is if you’ve alienated your audience beforehand. That is, in my view, what many atheists do. We already know believers are willing to reject reality in favor of whatever they find more pleasant. Do you really think they find disdain pleasant?

            But as I said before, if the goal isn’t to lure people away from the comfort of religious delusion, to get them to think rationally, then be as nasty as you want. I just don’t think it gets us very far.

            • Steve
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

              I think I am leaning towards your pitch… imagine if you will, you undertook to engage a 5 year-old in honest frank talk of reality. Now, concerning the topic of Santa Claus, do you want to mock that 5 year-old for their belief in St. Nick? Sure it might be a piece of cake to reduce such a believer to a crying whimpering puddle on the floor, and for what? All you need to do is in a gentle and civil manner, just state the facts of the matter, and… oops, the 5 year-old just had a meltdown anyway. Oh dear.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

              One can also mock bad ideas and remain civil. You can be disdainful — and do it politely. It all depends, of course, on exactly what we mean when we talk about civility, and what the range and scale of behavior is.

              The purpose isn’t so much to alienate the audience as put them on the defensive. They shouldn’t start out thinking there’s no genuine controversy or disagreement over the idea that ‘choosing’ your beliefs puts you on a more secure foundation than you’d stand on had you arrived at them using the sort of evidence anybody else could follow. As others have pointed out, we have to attack not the believers, but the idea that the belief IS the believer.

              I think it would be so useful in these discussions if we would all use specific examples of what we mean when we criticize people for being counterproductive. I’m not sure we’re always that far apart.

            • Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

              @ Sastra

              It all depends [on] the range and scale of behavior is.

              This is it, exactly. Two points (already made by several others, elsewhere if not here):

              1. Behaviour regarded as civil in arguments about, say, politics or academic research is often regarded (by whom? see #2) as uncivil in arguments about religion.

              2. In arguments about religion, behaviour regarded as civil by freethinkers is generally regarded as uncivil by believers, who tend to see it as ill-mannered for others to even think about challenging their beliefs in the first place.

              /@

    • gbjames
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      So, an accommodationist advocates a position half way between “strident” atheism and religion. And you advocate a position half way between accommodation and atheism. Perhaps progress is being made.

      No. I decline your offer. I value honesty more than etiquette. There is no justification for “toning it down”. What you term “mean-spirited” I call direct. Religion deserves no respect as far as I’m concerned and if some people are uncomfortable with that then they need to handle it. They need to learn to deal with this. It is part of being an adult member of a civil society.

  19. Tulse
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Considering how they scream about us being evil, hell bound, sinners, perverts, and all manner of other things, I can handle being called cocky!

    Exactly. What is more “strident”: saying someone is stupid for what they believe, or saying they will be tortured for an eternity for what they don’t believe?

    • Whiskey Lima
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Again, “but they did it first” doesn’t win people over. It’s all the justification you need for being intolerant, in my book. But that doesn’t mean intolerance is good for sales.

      • Cheron22
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Yet intolerant and strident Prof.Dawkins has 40+ pages of people who seems to have been won over.

        As Prof Coyne pointed out, we’re still waiting to see even a small data sample of people won over by the nice and soft crowd.

        • Whiskey Lima
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          As I stated in my fist comment, what Dawkins’s 40+ pages don’t tell us is how many people have been turned off by the mockery and ridicule. The 40+ pages don’t tell us how many people hear or read Dawkins (one of the more polite atheists, mind you) and think: atheist=asshole, I’m outta here.

          Most people rather be wrong than be an asshole.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            Umm. . .perhaps if there were an “Accommodationists converts corner (WHICH THERE ISN’T), we would see some letters from people who said that Dawkins turned them off on evolution until they read the soothing ministrations of Ken Miller and Francis Collins. Sadly, no such letters appear to exist. All we have are the assertions of faitheists who can’t point to a single case like the ones you say are theoretically possible.

            • Whiskey Lima
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

              Yes, the notion that anyone could think you guys are a bunch of smug malcontents that make everything you espouse unappealing is purely theoretical. Let me don my lab coat and go collect some evidence. Also, while I’m at it, I think I’ll gather some hard empirical data that supports my highly controversial claim that the sky is blue.

              (Is the mockery winning you over yet?)

              But seriously, when did the eschewal of mockery or disdain become the same as accommodation? You can keep mischaracterizing my argument but it won’t help.

              • H.H.
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

                Yes, forthrightness and a refusal to respect nonsense does anger many theists. But that’s not the claim we’re questioning. We’re asking you to support the idea that angering theists is a unproductive.

                Many theists will just ignore our challenges, but many others will accept them head on. A great deal of former theists say it was their attempt to refute the new atheists rhetoric that actually exposed them to how weak the case for theism actually is. Anger impels people to action. They would love to take the “smug” expression off our faces. That causes them to try to debate us, which forces them to do research, which can ultimately cause them to doubt or abandon their faith.

                So your job is to demonstrate that the negative consequences you dread actually outweigh the tangible results we see confrontational ridicule produces.

              • xuuths
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                Whiskey Lima, not to be a pedant, but you do know that the sky isn’t blue, right? So, if you really do believe it is, then that would be controversial.

                We are clear that theist beliefs do not deserve respect, and you are saying that we should respect them (treat them with civility and not ridicule) in the attempt to demonstrate that their beliefs do not deserve respect.

                That is that actually what you’re arguing for, which is why we correctly label it accommodation.

              • Whiskey Lima
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                H.H.,

                Ah, the “show me the money” response. How about this, H.H., your job is to Google “atheists” + mean, nasty, militant, drive away, etc. Pick and negative adjective or term you want. See what you find. See if you find anything that contradicts the many oh-so-powerful testimonials from all of those converts. Because we know the mere notion that ridicule tends to turn people off is so hard to grasp that we need to employ S.M. to prove it.

                Oh, but wait, the idea is to go one step further. I have to prove that the negative effect of relentless ridicule outweighs the positive effect, ona global scale. I’ll get my instruments and get right on that.

                Now that I think about it, I wonder how all those polite Western-European cultures came to eschew religion so decidedly? Those Swedes sure are nasty, huh?

              • H.H.
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Whiskey Lima, I realize many people say horrible things about atheist. But they were saying these things long before the New Atheists ever came along. So you still haven’t demonstrated how the New Atheists are making the problem worse. Show me how church membership is growing as a response to new atheism. Show me all the new recruits. So long as disdain and ridicule is producing less theists, then it’s working. I realize you are having trouble comprehending this, but if you want us to abandon a successful strategy then you must demonstrate a better one.

                Snark is only useful when you can back it up. You can’t.

              • Whiskey Lima
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                H.H.

                You show me how “disdain and ridicule is producing less theists.” Do you have more than 40+ pages of testimonials? Or do those testimonials say “although I found Dawkins’s logic to be airtight, it was the disdain and ridicule that really won me over.”

                Have you considered the possibility that these people abandoned theism despite the ridicule?

                BTW, it’s fewer atheists. Not less. I hope pointing that out in a snarky way helps you better understand that.

              • H.H.
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                You show me how “disdain and ridicule is producing less theists.” Do you have more than 40+ pages of testimonials?

                It’s 40+ pages more than you have.

              • Whiskey Lima
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

                H.H.,

                “It’s 40+ pages more than you have.”

                I’ll take that to mean you haven’t considered the possibility I proposed.

                Thank you. My work here is done.

              • Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

                @ WL

                BTW, it’s fewer atheists. Not less. I hope pointing that out in a snarky way helps you better understand that.

                In what way was “BTW, it’s fewer atheists. Not less,” snarky?

                Some might think it unnecessarily pedantic, but it hardly seems sharply critical to me.

                /@

          • bernardhurley
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

            The biggest asshole is the person who is willfully wrong.

  20. Jim Jones
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    http://www.amazon.com/Fat-Dumb-Ugly-Decline-American/dp/0743249453

    Note the word ‘decline’ in the title. Studies have shown they are getting worse:

    Quote: “To see the problem in stark form, look at what’s happened to college graduates in the past decade.

    .
    .
    .

    But the biggest slip is at the proficient level: Only 31 percent are at this highest level, compared with 40 percent in 1992. That’s a nine-point slip in mastery of complex activities such as critically evaluating information in legal documents, comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity.”
    —————————————-

    Remember, this is for college (university) graduates and the ‘standard’ for the proficient level is set quite low (IMO) – and the decline continues.

    So what are the chances that you’ll convince the masses that ‘religion’ is equivalent to ‘flat earth’ as a belief?

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Then shouldn’t it be the “rise” of the average American? 😉

  21. DrDroid
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I like the version of mockery that is propounded at

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/04/01/in-defense-of-dawkinss-reason-rally-speech/

    You start by asking the (supposedly) religious person or politician if he/she really believes Dogma X (say transubstantiation) associated with their religion. If the answer is yes, then you ask why one should believe such an absurd thing. If the answer is no then you ask them why they identify themselves as followers of that religion (if they don’t believe its tenets).

  22. Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t care that much about how atheists treat other people, it’s up to them, although I do wonder in the anecdotal examples, how many people may have been on the fence already and also if they were treated as idiots or spoken to with respect while still effectively mocking faith.

    I guess what sort of bothers me is the implication that in order to be rational, you must be an atheist. I don’t especially think Christians are in tune with science, however non-religious people should not be forced to proclaim the title of “Atheist” to be thought of as rational.

    Now scientists are somehow in the media being intractably associated with Atheism. The ‘ism’ makes it a belief, when really, scientists should be neutral. (i.e. un-religious but not having to proclaim association with a label).

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Are you saying one can be rational and be a theist (and know what is generally known about the universe)?

      • Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        No, as I said, scientists should be non-religious. But like it or not, “atheist” is a label. non-religious does not have to mean atheist. For example I am secular (see my link for the details, but perhaps debate me on the semantics there instead of here so I don’t over-comment my welcome on Dr. Coyne’s blog).

        People can enjoy stuff like the Easter (I prefer Ostara) bunny and figurines of Santa Clause, but it should be understood as a fun symbol, not to be taken literally. So bonfires and Buddhist chants etc are fine with me in that context.

        http://inthebarberry.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/my-secular-life-part-2/

        • gbjames
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, non-believers can enjoy Christmas. Ostara egg hunts. And Friday fish fries are quite tasty to this atheist.

          When December rolls round my daughter sets up the menorah and we burn candles, but not too near the Xmas tree. We’ve done all of this for decades in our gnu atheist home. None of this is in any sense religious.

          I don’t know what your point is, other than that you like bunnies and other nice things.

          • Posted April 4, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

            Well, my point is that people can enjoy symbolically religious rituals and even casually imagine deities (such as Ostara) for comfort but not actually be deluded into confusing it with evidence.

            And that sounds like a nice season with your daughter.

            • gbjames
              Posted April 4, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

              I’d want to replace the word “comfort” with “fun”. Watching 4 year olds trundle after colored eggs in the park and burning candles while joking about religion and house fires of my grandmother’s childhood isn’t done for comfort.

              • Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                That does sound fun. 😉

        • gbjames
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, non-believers can enjoy Christmas. Ostara egg hunts. And Friday fish fries are quite tasty to this atheist.

          When December rolls round my daughter sets up the menorah and we burn candles, but not too near the Xmas tree. We’ve done all of this for decades in our gnu atheist home. None of this is in any sense religious.

          I don’t know what your point is, other than that you like bunnies and other nice things.

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Certainly someone can be rational about science and still be religious, but I don’t think they’re applying rationality to their whole lives. Look at how much skepticism that scientist who did the Arsenic life paper got, or the faster than light neutrino people got. Scientists scoff at Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and UFOs (well, most of them), but believing in dozens of angels singing praises of the parthanogenic birth of a Man-God is okay?

      When scientists start believing that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, that Vitamin C cures cancer, or that they’ve invented room temperature fusion, we poo poo them for their lack of rationality. But religious beliefs get a free pass because why? Because they grew up with them, and they make us feel good? Meh.

      • Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        See my previous reply to Steve (if it gets approved), I’m pretty sure I made it clear that belief in a diety equals anti-science. The example I gave involves people who perhaps attend church, and maybe pray, but they know that they are praying to no one yet it simply makes them feel better. I ut my hands in a prayer position when I do yoga and reach up to the sky, but it’s pretend and I know that. That’s the kind of spirituality or symbolic religion to which I refer.

        Loch ness is fun for campfire stories, movies, science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with pretending and having fun. We could even look for “evidence” of Nessie, as long as we recognize that without evidence, it’s pretend. The exception is God – looking for that kind of evidence is harmful to education and should be mocked. I agree with that much. The Bible is a fiction book, just like Grimm’s fairy tales (but Grimm is way more cool).

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          I find Nessie more probable than God. In the sense that there *could* be a very large animal, so far never caught, in the Loch. IIRC it’s 23 miles long, 3 miles wide and 700 feet deep. Anyone want to convince me there couldn’t be a LNM living there?

          So I find your ‘We could even look for “evidence” of Nessie’ to be a bit – false. We could certainly look for evidence – real evidence – of Nessie, and I believe people have. I don’t think they’ve found any, but it’s no more illogical than looking for evidence of, say, neutrinos.

          I do agree though, that if doing yoga makes you feel good, fine. I prefer listening to Pink Floyd, myself.

          • Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

            I actually think evidence would be disappointing. Nessie could never be as grand as what most of us had in our imaginations as kids. Thus the popularity of science fiction. Sometimes it’s good to keep it that way.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

              I don’t think that answers my point that one could certainly, as a scientific exercise, look for evidence of the LNM. If (as has been suggested) Nessie turned out to be an altogether new species of huge marine animal, I think that would be extremely exciting. I don’t think it’s very probable, more likely it could as you say be disappointing, but that’s never been regarded as a reason not to look.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

                It is not true that “that’s never been regarded as a reason not to look”.

                There are an infinite number of things that could be done as a scientific exercise. One does the things that make most sense to do. Looking for Nessie or Sasquatch would fall low on most scientific priority lists. There is little reason to think such a creature exists even though it would be exciting if one did. It would be exciting if there was a cave bear living in my basement. But I don’t have much reason to go looking for one.

                This is not true of neutrinos for which there is good reason to think they exist. Physicists have a substantial body of theory and fact that points toward their existence and gives a reason to search.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted April 9, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

                @g b james

                ‘It is not true that “that’s never been regarded as a reason not to look”.’

                I would disagree. The unlikeliness of success may be a reason to give an investigation a low priority, but there is no logical or scientific reason why someone (provided they can command the resources) shouldn’t look for it. By chance, I’m reading ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’, one would have thought 300+ years of failure to prove it were as good a reason to give up as could be found, yet a mathematician spent years looking for a way to prove it.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

                How much time did you spend yesterday looking for mice under your refrigerator? How much effort went into your search for a new species of turtle living in your back yard?

              • gbjames
                Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

                @infiniteimprobabilit: The point is that there was a reasonable chance to think that Fermat’s Last Theorem was provable. There is no reasonable probability of finding Nessie or Sasquatch. The value of a scientific effort is partly determined by how well it fits into what is already known about the universe. Otherwise it would make sense to spend large amounts of cash searching for trivially probable insights. It is not worth the effort.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted April 10, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

                @g b james
                “The point is that there was a reasonable chance to think that Fermat’s Last Theorem was provable. There is no reasonable probability of finding Nessie or Sasquatch. The value of a scientific effort is partly determined by how well it fits into what is already known about the universe.”

                I would have thought, after 300+ years of no success, the chance of proving FLT was extremely slim.

                As for the probability of finding some sort of large animal in the loch, how can you say there’s no reasonable probability? I would think the discovery of a new species (maybe!) would be extremely interesting for biology. And it would certainly fit into what is already known, since biological theory would just jolly well have to accommodate it.

                But this is just going round in circles.

              • Posted April 10, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

                @ infiniteimprobabilit

                I concur with James here. You may be going round in circles, but the difference is quite clear.

                By what theorem does the probability of a mathematical theorem being proven diminish with the time it has remained unproven?

                OTOH, when considerable efforts (and money) have already been made to discover the LNM, with zero success, investing more in this pursuit is extremely likely to give no return on investment. Better to study carefully your back garden and discover four new species of ichneumon wasp.

                In what ways would discovery of the LNM actually advance zoology? Just because Sir Peter Scott whimsically paints a plesiosaur dubbed Nessiteras rhombopteryx* doesn’t mean that the reality would in any way be so astonishing or at all significant. In fact, ecological considerations would argue against a breeding population of any “monstrously” large creatures surviving in such an isolated lacustrine environment. Fish stocks would be appreciably different from other lakes, for example, and afaik they’re not.

                /@

                * Monster hoax by Sir Peter S (anag.)

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted April 10, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

                @ ant

                “By what theorem does the probability of a mathematical theorem being proven diminish with the time it has remained unproven?”

                If many capable people have tried and failed to find a solution, I would think that suggests that success is unlikely. Either for Fermat or Nessie.

                That may be a practical reason not to look further, but I don’t think it’s a scientific reason not to look further. Sorry, I don’t want to run this thread into the ground.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 10, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

                The thread ran into the ground long ago when you failed (refused?) to recognize the relevance of plausibility in the conduct of science. Your case, at bottom, seems to be that the search for Nessie and Sasquatch is as reasonable as the search for the Higgs Boson. It is, frankly, a preposterous argument, possible only if one is ignorant about how science actually works.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted April 11, 2012 at 12:42 am | Permalink

                Strawman! My comparison was with Fermat’s Last Theorem, which was sought unsuccessfully for centuries and does not have huge consequences (except for number theorists), rather than the Higgs boson which has major implications for physics (so far as I understand it).

                Your strawman argument is indeed preposterous. I am aware of ‘how science works’. And I think this is getting a bit acrimonious. Enough already.

  23. religionenslaves
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    There may be a significant difference between the US and the UK in this respect, but in my limited experience of exchanges with students I found that by far the most effective path to break the spell of superstition is humour. I have lost count of the number of people who refer to Ricky Gervais’ hysterically funny ridiculing of Genesis (Google “Ricky+Gervais+Bible) as a watershed.
    I would suggest that a DVD on “comedic techniques” comparing the different styles of, say, Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard (another very funny atheist comedian/actor), etc. thought as part of English language/literature would have wider and longer-lasting effects than any debate on evolution vs. creationism. Of course, I have no data to back up my hypothesis, but are experiments not supposed to provide data?

    • religionenslaves
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      taught as part – not thought as part!

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      And there is always the story of Brian.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        Both are great examples of the value of ridicule.

      • Jim Jones
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        And also “The Invention of Lying” with Ricky Gervais again.

        After his character invents lying, he invents religion to make his dying Mum happy. He is overheard, and since humans can’t lie others assume it is all true. Much trouble ensues.

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Oh, we have a name for that in the US, its called George Carlin.

  24. OldFuzz
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    For me, two issues hinder progress. First, the theory of evolution is a scientific fact with its appropriate attendant uncertainty. Second, Americans who don’t accept evolution include some religious and non-religious, but not all.

    In my experience, the Americans who don’t accept evolution cover a wide range of religious or non belief.

    Couple that with an insistence, here and elsewhere, on a narrow religious characterization and the debate narrows, excluding the religious who accept the science of the day with no more reservation than the non-religious.

    These folks, the religious scientists and advocates, could be the driving force behind a move to change the situation as was the case in the Dover trial when Miller vs. Behe revealed the truth.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      In my experience, the Americans who don’t accept evolution cover a wide range of religious or non belief.

      Really? In my experience, the Americans who don’t accept evolution cover a wide range of religious belief — from Born Again Christian to New Ager — but doesn’t include atheists. At least, not if the definition of “God” is stretched out to include things like a Creative Principle Energy Force.

      I suppose there might be a few extreme postmodern relativist atheists who think science is only “one way of knowing” and believe all views are valid, but that’s pretty rare. There’s the gentleman from the Discovry Institute whose name I forget (he testified in Dover), but I’d be a bit surprised if he is a part of your own experience.

      So who do you mean? How do these evolution-denying atheists argue? No pointy-head ‘expert’ gonna tell me what to think? What?

  25. Miss May
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I once had a conversation with some co-workers about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They were completely dumbfounded at my straight-faced delivery of The Gospel, but at the end of our conversation they accepted my belief that He created the universe and there was a beer volcano and stripper factory in heaven (although I was unsuccessful in converting them). NO! They should have mocked and ridiculed me-it’s silly. I expected them to laugh at me and question my beliefs, but it was all good with them. Religion remains the one area where criticism in unwelcome and unacceptable.

    Btw, I have now cast aside the false god the FSM in favor of Ceiling Cat. We must have a Coyne’s Converts Corner

    • DrDroid
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Amen, sister, and praise be to Ceiling Cat!

  26. Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Truthspeaker made an interesting point – that supporting science is one goal, and abandoning religion is another. I worry that the obsession of religion in how it relates to science may give too much air time to Christianity and keeps the “debate” alive. Not that I have a better solution, if I were in charge it would be immediately illegal to allow faith or denial into the science classroom.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Ignoring the conflict of religion and science will not make it go away.

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        I certainly don’t recommend ignoring it, but obsessing on it, in my mind, makes believers and the public think there is still a controversey. There isn’t.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Obsessing is in the mind of the beholder.

          One person telling another to “stop obsessing” it is a variation of “shut up, you talk too much.” Gnus hear a lot of this from the accommodation side. I, for one, have little patience for it.

          • Posted April 4, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

            Oh, I’m way too much of a free-speeches to tell anyone to “stop saying” anything. I was merely offering my opinion. For example, many atheists compare believing in God with believing in spaghetti monsters or The Easter bunny. Well, can you imagine arguing with an adult who believes the Easter Bunny is real?

            Maybe some theists are enough on the fence that they’re not completely deluded. But let’s face it, so many are completely deluded that it’s like debating the Easter Bunny. Kind of Insane.

          • Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            These debates would indeed go well with a nice cold brew.

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Granted the debate is a bit too shooting-fish-in-a-barrel fun to give up. 😉

  27. couchloc
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the proposal to create a “booklet” which contains “opposing sides of the debate” is a good idea, but it already exists. Introduction to Philosophy courses throughout the country include this sort of approach already. A good example of this is the text by Nils Rauhut, Readings on Ultimate Questions (search for it on Prentice Hall’s website). This includes articles by Behe and Kitcher debating ID, among other issues. It doesn’t seem to me that biology faculty are all that interested in teaching these issues anyway. In contrast philosophers teach this issue all the time (I have taught the science/religion controversy one semester for the last five years). The proper place for these discussions would be in a philosophy classroom where logical argumentation is the basis of the course. It seems to me the “gen ed” course Jerry describes which includes “critical thinking” is the sort of thing philosophers do as a matter of course. Don’t forget that philosophy majors are the only students at the university required to take a “Logic” class, and are usually exposed to discussions of atheism in their programs.

    I realize that for some the mention of philosophy will be anathema. But the issue should be considered in its broader context. Note two facts: (1) A recent study showed that a larger number of philosophers (72%) than scientists (50-60%??) were atheists. It seems there is a strong association between the study of philosophy and atheism. This is not surprising, since students are commonly exposed to readings from Hume, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche in their history of philosophy courses. People here seem to be assuming that reading more science texts or something is the best way to proceed, but this assumption should be examined.

    (2) Second, there is a further fact that deserves discussion. Why is it that western Europe is largely secularist? What is the difference between the “American” educational system and the “European” system that might help explain this fact? Is it that Europeans read more science texts? Do they read more Darwin? This hardly seems like the right explanation. Although the issue is no doubt more complex, I would suggest that Europeans are exposed to more philosophy. Early on they read the great authors from their culture (Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, etc.). Is it any wonder then that they are less likely to take religion seriously after having been exposed to these authors?

    So let me offer the following, radical suggestion: some people here and elsewhere think that philosophy is part of the problem, and prefer instead to link philosophy with “theology and all that fluffy stuff.” I would suggest this gets things *precisely* backwards. If you are interested in moving more people towards atheism, then you should be encouraging them to take classes in philosophy.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      If you are interested in moving more people towards atheism, then you should be encouraging them to take classes in philosophy.

      I agree. Science is, after all, one of the outcomes of applied philosophy.

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:37 am | Permalink

        Yes it is. But many philosophers then fail in the next step: to feed the science back into their philosophy.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      I agree too that more philosophy is needed. The issue of complaint often seen here isn’t about the broad benefits of philosophy, but about the poor philosophy produced, by of all people, some philosophers. Sadly many philosophers fail at critical thinking, that most beneficial contribution from philosophy, because they are entwined in the history of philosophical metaphysics with all its archaic jargon that contributes to more misunderstanding than clarity; and many fail to grasp the extent to which some science makes some philosophical metaphysics redundant.

  28. Steve Smith
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

    Assuming no one has yet quoted Jefferson:

    In the middle ages of Christianity opposition to the State opinions was hushed. The consequence was, Christianity became loaded with all the Romish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery & even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.
    —Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October, 1776). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 256.

  29. James Morris
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    In reply to several comments. When did it become the purpose of atheists to convert the religious to atheism. Even the hint of such, degrades the individual atheist to the role of true believing evangelist.

    I conceive my role as an atheist is to speak the truth as I believe it to be to untruth using whatever works, and to give to the speakers of untruth the same respect they give me.

    I am an atheist because I see no reason to believe in gods or the supernatural, not to proselytize. But I am willing to discuss the matter of my unbelief with those who wish to do the same, but will not tolerate the ignorant who simply wish to bash me with the bible.

    • Jim Jones
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      You might want to apply the rule of three to such ‘bible bashers’ – give them back three times what they give you.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      “When did it become the purpose of atheists to convert the religious to atheism.” (missing the “?”, I think).

      That becomes the purpose the moment you open your mouth and say, as you attest, “speak the truth as I believe it to be”. The only reason you do this is to convince someone of your point of view. You are acting like what you claim to detest.

      IMO, there is nothing shameful in that. You are saying exactly what you think and refusing to tolerate ignorance. This is no different than what the rest of us “strident” types are saying here.

      Prepare to be accused of all manner of obnoxiousness for your position.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      “and to give to the speakers of untruth the same respect they give me”

      Which doesn’t really happen. Apart from being condemned to the fires of hell for our unbelief by the more enthusiastic faithful, we have to put up with the imposition of religiously inspired ideas in the application of science. So, as long as the religious make everybody else’s business their business I think it perfectly legitimate to evangelise.

      So, “degrades the individual atheist to the role of true believing evangelist” may be your perspective, but it’s not mine. And, you may not have meant it, but just to be clear, being evangelical about an idea does not require belief in it to the extent of religious blind faith.

  30. tomh
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Sigmund wrote:

    If I recall correctly, surveys have shown that a significant percentage of US science teachers are creationists.

    And they don’t just believe in creationism, but actually teach it in US public school science classes. Accordingto a survey published in Science, 15-20% of high school biology teachers teach creationism as valid science, and 13% spend at least an hour a day of class time on it. All the courtroom battles that evolution has won don’t mean much if people won’t follow the law.

  31. Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Are videos of the class you taught available?

  32. Gluon
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I suppose I’d like to understand better why it is that the U.S. is so religious? There must be a reason. How was religion weakened in Europe and why didn’t the same thing happen here? How did Scandinavia become so irreligious? It does not seem likely that it came about through a series of debates or other activism.

    • couchloc
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Good questions. I offered one possible explanation for this in my post above (see #27).

      • Gluon
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I obviously didn’t read your post carefully or I would have noticed the question had already been raised.

        It is not hard to imagine that your explanation is part of what is going on. There is a more general anti-intellectual bias in the U.S. that is part of this question. This bias itself keeps Hume, et. al. from being widely read or discussed.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      I suggest that a good part of it is the U.S. secular constitution. This was designed as a peace treaty between the various religious factions that had left Europe to get away from religious war and religious persecution. It, in effect, protects religions and only opposes them in ways that are essentially trivial. Thus I don’t care if my local court has a plaque containing the ten commandments but I do care if the judge is a religious nut who thinks that a woman’s evidence is worth half of a man’s. But your secular constitution bans the first of these but protects the second. Similarly I don’t car how many crucifixes adorn the walls of my local hospital but I do care if the surgeon who operates on my heart is a creationist. Again your secular constitution outlaws the first but protects the second. Your wall of separation gives too much protection to religion.

      • Gluon
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been trying to think of how to express a point like this. In some strange way, not having an official religion is sort of a handicap. If there is an official religion, then everyone is in on the project of trying to neuter it in various ways. By making a show of having a plurality of religions yet no official one, we sort of give license to each sect to be as crazy and extreme as it wants to be because, after all, it’s their own private matter. Of course, it does not stay private, but that is the fiction that sort of insulates religion from any kind of public examination. Places with an official religion can not so easily sweep the whole question of the authority of religion under the rug.

        Obviously, if the official religion is sufficiently strong, so as to crush dissent (think Saudia Arabia, or various points in Christian history), then having an official religion may do little to foster unbelief. But once the process of watering down religion starts, I can’t help but feel that having an official one accelerates this process.

        For that matter, it is simply easier to satirize and criticize one religion than 100. If I mock the Mormons, the Baptists are unfazed. If I mock the one religion of the country, everyone is affected.

        • Gluon
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          In the U.S., we give representation to empty land via the Senate. Alaska, which has about the same population as the city of El Paso, TX, has the same number of senators as the entire state of New York. Same number of senators for about 1/30th of the people. This gives rural areas an outsized influence in American politics. I think this tends to skew many aspects of America in a direction that is more like that of a rural mindset than a cosmopolitan one. Or at the least it is one kind of feedback that enables the continued persistance of a rural/frontier mythos that disdains everything foreign, intellectual, and so on.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        “Your wall of separation gives too much protection to religion.”

        Our “wall” is not sufficiently enforced. IMO, THAT is the problem.

        But, you do have an important point. Many (most?) religious people in the US don’t understand that THEY are protected by the wall.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      Could the religiosity of America be anything to do with the fact that several groups of religious cranks left Europe because they were persecuted by the incumbent religious cranks of the time? Having got to America and found that you can believe any damned crazy thing you like, and that eventually that freedom was enshrined into the Constitution, it’s no surprise they go on uninhibited. And America is a big place. Plenty of nooks and crannies for individual crazy ideas to bloom without competition.

  33. Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Maybe what we should ask ourselves is if our behavior matches our level of intelligence. Sure, a fiery debate can be useful and change minds. But there’s a line that can be crossed into acting like a 4 year-old with a chip on his shoulder. I don’t care how intense someone is, but rational people need to be more mature than the Creationist, not less. An adult “rationalist” having a tantrum makes us all look bad.

    • Gluon
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I know this was a big aspect to my coming out of faith. The atheists I was aware of were calm people, soft spoken, and not easily worked into a froth. They said what they knew clearly without overreaching and admitted when they didn’t know something. The religious leaders I knew were exactly the opposite. They spoke in absolutes, never admitted limitations or mistakes, frothed at the mouth, yelled, cried, appealed to every kind of emotion, lied, distorted, and showed a general disregard for accuracy. Even the faithful knew this, a “preacher story” was akin to a “fish story”, a story whose actual truth was deemed irrelevant if it served a rhetorical purpose. Long before I knew enough to really evaluate the scientific evidence and philosophical arguments against religion, I had developed a feeling that the atheists were in many regards better, more evolved, people. And, importantly, this obvious “good fruit” undercut one of the most potent fear-mongering arguments leveled at atheists, that atheism is equivalent to moral anarchy and bad behavior.

      Nonetheless, I think many of the supposedly strident New Atheists still fit this mold as being obviously more even keel, calm, and kind, than their religious opponents. I watched that roundtable on MSNBC with Dawkins on it that was posted a few days ago. Even as he mocked religion, he did so with what I thought was a friendly tone that invited people who disagree with him to speak up and make their case. Maybe elsewhere he really comes across as a Tent Revival Preacher for the Atheist set, but I have not seen it. So, by all means, let us be polite, let us not resort to name calling, let us show by our deeds that, surprise!, even without God we are good people. But let us not confuse merely stating criticisms of religion or asking questions of it as being mean spirited or ugly.

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:37 am | Permalink

        I think many of the supposedly strident New Atheists still fit this mold as being obviously more even keel, calm, and kind, than their religious opponents.

        Concur.

        I’m reminded of a well-known video clip of Dawkins telling a believer in the audience of one of his sessions that he (the believer; was that antecedent unclear?) was “deluded” and “hallucinating”; Dawkins was blunt (not “cruel”!), but very matter of fact, very calm, very civil, very respectful (“I don’t doubt your sincerity”).

        /@

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Gluon, thanks for your personal story. I was lucky to grow up in a completely non-religious household, and I try to remind myself that not everyone has been that fortunate. I have seen a mix of behaviors among atheists. It occurs to me that some believers are taught to be sincere and quiet when someone is talking, so maybe they’re not as rattled by insults as someone else would be. That would explain why they might convert more easily than someone else. But when I’ve seen Dawkins and others act childish, it makes me a bit ill. When discussing science we must be a bit more mature.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

      An adult “rationalist” having a tantrum makes us all look bad.

      And which adult rationalists (why the scare quotes?) have had tantrums?

      tantrum |ˈtantrəm|
      noun
      an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration…
      [NOAD]

      Can you provide a link to a video recording such an uncontrolled outburst?

      I any case, I dispute that such an outburst would make the rest of us look bad: “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” (Strange to be quoting Mormons to support my pov!)

      /@

    • David T.
      Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      I think I prefer a calm questioning approach, perhaps get them to think. Confrontations get people worked up, the adrenaline starts flowing and their listening stops. I just can’t imagine that ridicule is really an effective strategy, but I don’t claim to know everything. I just know in most cases it wouldn’t work with me.

  34. H.H.
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    For hypothetical purposes, imagine a group of 10 Christians. After listening to a talk from Dawkins, 7 of them say he only reinforced their belief that atheists are rude and not worth listening to. 3 found the talk interesting but not enough to change their views. 2 people went on to do further research and of those 1 one of them goes on to become an atheist.

    An accommodationist would probably look and that and say, “See? You turned off over half your audience! That’s a failure!” I see that and think “One less Christian. That’s progress.”

    In order to consider these results a failure we would need to see a method that actually produces better ones. Perhaps those 7 people who found Dawkins rude and insulting would be reachable using a different approach. Or maybe they’re just close-minded and nothing will reach them, as I suspect.

  35. Whiskey Lima
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    re xuuths’s comment way up there:

    It’s not my position that their beliefs deserve respect. And do you see how you neatly conflate respecting someone’s beliefs with civility? One can have utter contempt for another’s beliefs yet maintain civility during an engagement. I argue, that as a practical matter, perhaps a little more honey–and little less vinegar– is in order. But I’m sorry I didn’t make the argument you wanted me to make.

    I’m still wondering how all those nasty Europeans overcame religion. Must be the ridicule.

    • couchloc
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      This seems pretty much spot on. As to the question of how Europeans overcame religion, I have offered one possibility in my post above (see #27). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

      • Whiskey Lima
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Thank goodness. Yes, yes, yes to #27.

        In my opinion, it’s a matter of instilling a fundamental appreciation for rational inquiry, logic, philosophy, etc. at a very young age. I believe the relevant(to this discussion) European cultures do this remarkably well.

        I think we can all agree that genuine abandonment of religion is relatively rare. We can be nice or mean to believers all we want, but to really put a dent in religion, we need to get to the human mind before it espouses any form of theism. In essence, we need to teach young people how to think.

        Your suggestion in #27 would work wonders toward that end.

        Have a good one.

        • couchloc
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          Agreed about the need to target the young. My understanding is that they teach more philosophy at the high school level in Europe, while such things are largely absent here until students get to college.

  36. MadScientist
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Oooh … those Militant Atheists will have “unintended consequences”. I’m tired of hearing that crap from the suck-ups. The problem is that the religious are not afraid of Evolution alone but of all reason. The attack on evolution and cosmology are only the start of their “wedge strategy” to eradicate reason. The religious want us to be ‘nice’ and look the other way when we hear them spouting their lies – after all, who cares if someone poo-poos evolution? When you look around the world in other civilized nations, you see such nonsense as a demand for blasphemy laws or a movement to allow Sharia law to trump the laws of the land in cases which involve muslims. The religious want to get rid of sensibility and have everyone just nod and say “that’s ok because it’s part of your religion”.

  37. Adam M.
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t seem to me that she’s proposing interjecting any long discussion into biology classes, but rather avoiding a long discussion (while still “teaching the controversy”) by having a resource at hand — the written debate — that she could point any students to if they were interested in the “controversy” or if the law actually required teaching it.

    In fact, it could save time in biology classes by giving teachers a quick response to those who raise creationist objections. Instead of having to refute them in detail, the teacher could say “There’s a book all about this in the library. Go read it and if you still have questions, then we can discuss them.”

    (I base this observation on this quote, “Teachers could mention the resource to students and encourage them to read it but still refrain from discussing religion in the classroom. It would be a supplemental curriculum resource not intended to replace coverage of evolution in the curriculum.”)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Actually there are tons of books and websites devoted to refuting creationist claims. I had a book on this once, whose name I can’t recall, but here’s one website:

      http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html

      We don’t need much more than this and other resources that are already available.

      • Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:01 am | Permalink

        I had a book on this once, whose name I can’t recall…

        Was that book Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show On Earth? I have that book still… 

        /@

  38. Nathan
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I was trying to think of a good analogy for the typical anti-evolution type. No college, maybe got a C+ in Biology in 10th grade (their only exposure to science 20 years ago). Yet “they know” that evolution is false and a scam without even giving it the respect of looking at the details.

    The best I can come up with is for me to overhear a group of native Mandarin speakers having a conversation…With me, not speaking a lick of Mandarin trying to barge into the conversation and tell them they are speaking it wrong.

    It is really a bizarre phenomenon.

  39. Nathan
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    But one thing that really pains me is that the same people that are so skeptical and afraid and unwilling to accept science do not apply the same critical thinking towards religion. They look for any excuse to not accept science.

    Take my cousin, global warming is a hoax, evolution is ‘just a theory’, radiometric dating is ‘just a formula’, scientists tell you what they want you to hear, it is government propaganda and the scientists are paid by government…

    Stuff that is really embarrassing. Yet doesn’t have that skepticism towards the myth of Noah’s Ark, the burning bush, walking on water, Sampson and his super powers with long hair but weak as a child with short hair, Jonah in the whale, Adam/Eve/Talking Snake, etc.

    So my first hope is for the same (ignorant) thinking that they use to deny science to be applied to their religious teachings.

    The rest will follow.

  40. Nathan
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    [img]http://a2.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/s320x320/547969_121890311267948_105787829544863_14549_1958407751_n.jpg[/img]

  41. Posted April 4, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    But I don’t want them to drink “Coke”.

    And “Coke” does promote tooth-decay. Why do accomodationists despise truth?

  42. David T.
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    ” But there are 44 pages of conversion tales. In contrast, I haven’t seen a single anecdote in which an evolution-denier finally accepted evolution after an accommodationist convinced them that Jesus and Darwin were friends. Where is Kenneth Miller’s “Converts corner”? Whence Francis Collins’s “Converts corner.” All these people produce is arguments rather than evidence, and then dismiss 44 pages of evidence as “anecodotes.” Pardon me if that’s not a good enough reason to abandon my critique of faith!”

    I find this line of reasoning a little odd. I’m not sure there is a Sam Harris convert’s corner either, but that doesn’t mean that he have plenty. In the same way I guarantee that there are some converts to evolution from Kenneth Miller, I know because I personally came to accept evolution after reading Finding Darwin’s God, same thing for 3 other people I personally know whom I convinced to read his book. I’d recommend watching the last episode in the PBS series Evolution which discusses faith and evolution, in this documentary you’ll see interviews from Christians who were conflicted between faith and reason yet after listening to Miller they realized they didn’t have to reject god to accept evolution (otherwise most would have rejected evolution). I think these examples have as much weight as Dawkins’s Converts Corner (especially considering how just famous/infamous Dawkins is).

    As for Dawkins, I know that during my theist days, I wouldn’t know his opinion on the subject because there was no chance I’d read one of his works, it was only after Miller got me interested in Evolution and your book furthered my obsession that I finally opened my first book by Richard Dawkins, by then I was already on my way towards questioning things from my instilled faith.

  43. David
    Posted October 12, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    This article was very inspiring and true. It reminds me of why I left faith in the first place. People like Richard Dawkins are letting me down with their ridicule approach; letting emotions overpower reason. Thats not what my apostacy was about.


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