Uncle Eric once again goes after scientism and New Atheism, touting “other ways of knowing.” I. The supposed failures of New Atheism

The good news is that, as most of us know, Eric MacDonald, the Official Website Uncle™, reinstated his website Choice in Dying after a very short interlude at Freethought Blogs and an announcement that he would write no more. I’m glad he changed his mind.

The bad news is that Uncle Eric is banging on again about the failures of New Atheism, the dangers of scientism, and the vindication of Other Ways of Knowing.  He and I have had this argument several times, and it saddens me that it’s still going on, for I think that Eric, for all his wisdom, is palpably wrong here.

But into the fray. Eric’s latest pair of posts, How several misunderstandings led Megan Hodder to faith,” and “On not replacing one system of doctines [sic] with another” are related, and espouse all three themes: the failures of New Atheism, especially its inability to replace what religion gives people; the dangers of scientism, which Eric apparently sees as a pervasive and destructive attitude; and the fact that there are Ways of Knowing other than science.  I’ll take quotes from both pair of essays, and to avoid making this response too long, I’ll divide it into several parts. Let’s take Eric’s first claim:

New Atheism has been a failure. The failure is apparently twofold: first is the common accusation—and I’m surprised to see this from Eric—that the New Atheists don’t come to grips with the “best” arguments for religion, proffering instead a simplistic caricature:

Megan [Hodder, a new Catholic driven to faith by reading the New Atheists] didn’t understand that. Nor do many of those who have read the new atheists, and who think that it is enough to field simplistic arguments that amount to no more than caricaturing religious believers as intellectual lightweights who argue from simplistic premises to definite conclusions, which often take the form of “Such-and-so, ergo Jesus.”

To be fair, note that the next sentence is “And some people’s religious faith is indeed simplistic in precisely this way.”  But he goes on to say:

One of the unfortunate results of P.Z. Myers “Courtier’s Reply,” is that it has actually discouraged people from looking more closely at the arguments themselves. As an immediate response to a kind of popular demolition of religious belief it has much to commend it, but if it is taken as a careless refusal to consider the religious case more deeply, then it can be found, as Megan Hodder found it, self-defeating.

I find this strange, because in my correspondence with Eric and in his comments on my website, he has always maintained that the arguments of more “sophisticated” theologians are simply a bunch of verbose twaddle, no more substantive than those of less refined believers. When I read more deeply in theology and found it wanting, Eric basically said, “See, I told you so!”

In fact, the “such-and-so, ergo Jesus” argument—which I take as a direct criticism of me, since I’ve said that often—is often close to the mark, even with Sophisticated Theologians™.  Take Alvin Plantinga, who sees Christianity and the divinity of Jesus as “basic beliefs.” That’s precisely the “ergo Jesus” argument above.  Likewise with all the New Natural Thelogians like John Haught, John Polkinghorne, Karl Giberson, and the like, who claim that the existence of certain unexplained phenomena, like the “fine tuning” of physical constants, or instinctive morality in humans, is direct evidence for God.  That’s surely an “ergo Jesus” claim. So let’s leave this “we don’t understand the deep religious case” behind because, even by Eric’s admission, it’s bunk.

The other claim, which has lately become quite popular, is that New Atheism is a failure because it demolishes religion without putting anything in its place.  That is, people are religious for social as well as epistemic reasons, and we simply haven’t considered that deeply enough.  And when we do, then we’ll know that to efface religion from our world we must also assume the burden of replacing what we take away. As Eric says:

Nevertheless, I would go further, and point out that, as a cultural product, religion still provides for millions, probably billions of people, a cultural context within which to go about the business of creating a life. It does not seem to me that atheism has really grappled sufficiently with this problem, though humanism has certainly begun to make inroads here. Still, even so, the context within which most young people are expected to go about shaping their lives, and examining them as they go, is still largely the product of thousands of years of religious believing, where it has not been eroded completely. We should be in the business of replacing some of this religious context by one that can actually stand the test of real world experiences. Until then religions will continue to pull up the slack for a lot of people who are looking for cultural contexts within which they can live and seek to understand the significance of their lives.


But the more comprehensive ideal, that shaped much education until very recently, of providing the materials out of which individuals in community could shape worthwhile and meaningful lives, has fallen on hard times. New atheists take little interest in this because, at root, the solution is thought to be quite simple. The answer is simply more science. For if science is the only route to the truth, then science should be an educational panacea that needs no further insight or support.

No, the answer is science combined with humanism, a humanism that comes from adopting Enlightenment values.

With all due respect, Eric is erecting a strawman here. Who among us thinks that science, at least conceived as the acquisition of truth by professional scientists, will tell us how to replace religion? First of all, it’s not clear the religion needs replacing with anything other than a caring, just, and egalitarian society—the purview of humanism. Second, it’s not clear that when religion disappears because its tenets can no longer be supported rationally, the replacement of what it gives to people can’t be achieved by a natural process of cultural evolution. If people don’t believe in God, they will find other ways to fulfill their social needs. I don’t see that it’s up to us to tell them what to do. For one thing, it’s patronizing: think of the failed “atheist church” suggestions of Alain de Botton, and how ludicrous and unnecessary they were.

I see the dispelling of religion as a good in itself. As Steve Gould used to say, getting rid of bad science—which in many ways is like getting rid of religion—is a good things, for it clears away misconceptions that are harmful. There’s no need, when criticizing a bad paper or a mistaken result, to also provide the correct result.  Without religion, many horrible things would vanish from this world: persecution of gays, much persecution of women, persecution of people of other faiths, invidious control of sexual behavior, warping of young lives by instilling guilt, and so on.

Finally, empirical methods can indeed help us build a better world, despite Eric’s claim that

We can only determine what constitutes human flourishing by finding out what human beings value, or, perhaps, more correctly, what they ought to value; and if we want to think of value as somehow “out there” in the world, we must find out what things have value. It is not clear that the new atheism, which tends in a determinedly scientistic direction, has an answer to these questions, and it is not clear that it is altogether aware of the consequences of this failure to provide an answer.

Well, science can’t tell us what we ought to value, for that’s a subjective judgment. But it can help us determine what we do value, simply by surveying people or examining their behavior. That can be done empirically, and constitutes “science” if one construes the term as meaning “the use of reason, logic, and observation to determine what exists in the universe.” And once we know what we do value, or want to value, science can help us achieve it.  If, for example, we find that humans value health, then we can simply develop better treatments and drugs and get those to as many people as possible.  All of that rests on empirical observation, even the claim that free health care for everyone won’t destroy our economy.

I often say that when societies become godless, and do so naturally, their members simply develop other vehicles to meet their needs for communality, comity, and so on. After all, that’s what happened in Scandinavia, where belief in God has largely disappeared yet society is flourishing. Eric has an answer for that, but it’s not convincing:

Sometimes new atheists point to Scandinavia as the place where religion is merely the formal background to a largely irreligious culture. But this is, to my mind, a misunderstanding of the role that religion still plays in the region, even where very few people take part in religious celebrations or observances. I think of the small town in which I live. I have no idea what percentage of the population actually attends church or practices some other religious observance, but I suspect that it is less that 50%. Yet it would be hard to say what life in this town would be like without the resources of the churches themselves, and the invisible cultural framework that they provide for the lives even of those who do not participate in them. Neglecting this dimension of culture is, I believe, a serious misunderstanding by those who do not or can no longer believe. Places that were officially, if not actually, atheist, did not simply abandon the kinds of cultural observance which in North America or Europe are often provided by the religions. They created rituals and celebrations of their own which provided a kind of cultural cement giving individual lives context and meaning.

Well, perhaps some Danes and Swedes can weigh in here, but I simply can’t see how the presence and resources of churches have been the framework for social flourishing in Scandinavia.  Really? Atheists in Denmark derive great succor from the presence of churches nearby?

What Eric neglects here is that churches and rituals that used to exist in Scandinavia haven’t been supplanted by secular venues and rituals. Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians celebrate “rituals” exactly the same way that religious people do: funerals, birthday celebrations, weddings and the like.  Those will occur on their own, and New Atheists don’t have to say “we need more weddings,” or, à la Botton, “we need atheist ‘churches’ and rituals.”  Water will seek its own level.  People will find what they need. No, religion in Scandinavia has been replaced not by other rituals, but by developing the kind of socieities that make religion unnecessary: societies that provide health care, succor for the aged and poor, and a sense of being cared about.

But, as I said, I don’t find it necessary for New Atheism to replace religion with other stuff that people need. Getting rid of faith itself is an inherent good, and will go far to ease the world’s troubles. If one wants to go further, well, there’s humanism, but that’s a separate issue. Regardless of Richard Dawkins’s supposed ignorance of theology, his “simplistic” arguments against religion, and his failure to suggest replacements for faith, he’s done the world a lot of good.

I was going to discuss in this post the other two aspects of Eric’s criticisms—for when they come from our side they’re certainly worth considering—but this is already getting long, so I’ll deal later with the twin issues of scientism and “other ways of knowing.” But I’m curious to know why Eric has lately donned the mask of R. Joseph Hoffmann.


  1. Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Eric’s first post is based on the “conversion” story of Megan Hodder. There is evidence that this story is fabricated, that Megan Hodder always was a Christian, and that her story of rejecting “New Atheist” writings is just the well known apologetic tactic of inventing a claimed atheist past.

    See http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2013/06/saved-by-ratzinger/#comment-560902

    • Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Even if that was not the case, MacDonald is using a single conversion story as a basis for a complex conclusion which is what exactly someone trained in/attracted to the priesthood would do. He can leave the priestly world, but the priest remains, brandishing his point of view that he knows what is best, that he cares the most, that he has the answers. Contrast his invasive attitude to Jerry’s, where if a decent societal structure is provided, people will find what they need.

      I have never been able to warm up to any of MacDonald’s stuff. Most of the time, I can’t even understand his ramblings points. Yes, this is harsh criticism, and I am sorry if I offend, but this guy has a history of waffling, and it continues…

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 12, 2013 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        WordPress is fighting me; not accepting my comment & subscription request, but when I try again giving me the most annoying “you’ve already said that” message.

        So here I’m adding a bunch of words to make it look different.

        All I’ve been trying to reply is, “I couldn’t agree more.”

        (Apologies if my earlier attempts are showing in some alternate universe from mine.)

    • Filippo
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Assuming it not a fabrication, why did she become a Catholic, as opposed to becoming one of the numerous varieties of Protestant, not to mention donning the burqa? Why not become a Mormon or Scientologist?

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        Could it have been the attitude to child molestation? The catholic church is far more upfront about it than those other organizations.

        • Filippo
          Posted June 8, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

          We know that there has been a tsunami of outrage about certain Catholic priests raping children, and the hierarchy trying to keep it under wraps. The rage has been from the Catholic laity. That portion of the Catholic laity raped as children and their relations have been the ones most “upfront.”

          I certainly agree, or at least perceive, that the media have not covered similar atrocities in the Protestant realm. Being a child of the pure-as-the-driven snow “Bible Belt,” I’m just as if not more inclined to be informed of similar atrocities there.

          To purely speculate, perhaps she is drawn to the vast visual and aural, spatial and material, opulence of cathedrals (humn, CATHedrals, CATHolic, CATHode?), as compared to much more austere Protestant trappings.

  2. Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink


  3. Alex Shuffell
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I think that new atheism can almost directly replace religion. Scientists are usually the most listened to new atheists. Their lectures, talks and documentaries are far more meaningful than anything a priest (or their equivalent) can talk about. With the internet we almost have direct access to talk or argue with them. Hello sir! Hospitals, universities and pubs provide the rest of what religion tries to offer.
    The only thing we can’t directly replace is a rationale for hatred, a right to suppress others and various methods for over inflating your egos. Where religion will say “yes there is a monster under your bed, but it’s ok because He loves you, He is responsible for your good dreams and allows you to wake up.” Atheists will look under the bed, tell you there is nothing there, the only love you felt came from you. Some others will spend their lives studying the work of others who have spend theirs finding out why we dream and why we sleep, then improving on that knowledge, while fighting off the religious who keep telling us there is a Loving Monster under your bed, while they fight off those who tell you the Loving Monster is actually in your closet.

  4. Stan Pak
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I think that Eric was so deeply soaked by his former faith that now while sober (metaphorically) he still keeps warm the memories of his religious past and may have troubles to imagine that people who were sober all their life do not need religion at all to be entirely happy and fulfilled.
    And while I think that he is wrong, I am not surprised by what he wrote. I sense that he just liked ceremonies, congregations, preaching, attention of others and mentor’s status. And this is projected in what he writes. We humans cannot turn off the switch of our past easily.

  5. BilBy
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I’ve never really liked the ‘different way of knowing’ trope – I have had students throw it at me. It’s often just a ‘different way of explaining’ – and ‘explaining’ is all too often ‘explaining away’ – not the same as ‘knowing’. I can ‘explain’ the cycles of the moon by saying it is a green cheese that is nibbled away by an invisible cosmic mouse each month. But I’d be wrong.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Do your students ever trouble themselves to specifiy the mechanisms for these different ways of knowing?

      E.g., a “revelation” or “dream” or “vision” or “private communication”?

  6. gbjames
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink


  7. eric
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    as a cultural product, religion still provides for millions, probably billions of people, a cultural context within which to go about the business of creating a life. It does not seem to me that atheism has really grappled sufficiently with this problem,

    Prof. MacDonald, just take a look at western europe. Whatever religion provides, it certainly dosen’t appear to be necessary for healthy, happy, prosperous human communities. Its probably like coffee: to a die hard coffee drinker, live may seem inconcievable without it. They wholeheartedly think they need it to be happy in life…until they go without for a few years. And the existence of non-coffee drinkers seems to belie their claim.

    • Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Prof. MacDonald, just take a look at western europe.

      I think he lives there, so may look at it quite often. 😉

      • steve oberski
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        He lives in Canada.

      • gbjames
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        I’m a great fan of Eric’s blog although I argue with him on this subject.

        BTW: Eric lives in Nova Scotia and, while very scholarly, has never been to my knowledge a professor.

    • Stan Pak
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      I like that analogy.

      • windy
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        The Nordic countries are at the top of coffee consumption charts globally… maybe we’ve simply replace religion with coffee??

        • windy
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink


          • brianbuchbinder
            Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

            That brings to mind an old joke: An arsonist is setting fire to houses of worship. When the synagogue catches fire, the rabbi saves the Torah scrolls. At the Lutheran church, the pastor saves the Bible. At the Unitarian church, the minister saves the coffee maker.

  8. eric
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    More on Scandinavia/Europe:

    Yet it would be hard to say what life in this town would be like without the resources of the churches themselves, and the invisible cultural framework that they provide for the lives even of those who do not participate in them.

    Heh, maybe religion is like homeopathy: the less churches there are in a region, the more happy and stable it is.

    I am not sure what his point here has to do with atheism. Nobody’s talking about revising American history books to eliminate any mention of puritans or censoring English turns of phrase that happen to be biblical. The cultural influence of Chrisianity on western culture will remain regardless how how many people stop believing. So if he’s concerned about the ‘invisible cultural framework,’ he needn’t be. Atheism is no threat to that – never has been, never will be, and probably doesn’t want to be (a threat to it).

  9. Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I agree with most of what you write here.

    I did want to remark on something you said, though:

    Well, science can’t tell us what we ought to value, for that’s a subjective judgment. But it can help us determine what we do value … [emph. orig.]

    We may agree here as well, but this may also be where Eric has an important point.

    Religionists, at least, will say that their religion does tell them what they ought to value, or in other words what it’s overall rational to value, and that’s pretty important. (Really, what could possibly be more important? Even saving lives is much less important if it’s irrational to value one’s life.)

    I don’t think religion is very good at answering that question, especially compared to ethics. But I don’t think we can say that there’s simply no important or real answer to the question, ‘What ought we to value?’ For example: What’s more important, freedom or security? What’s more important, economic power or freeing the slaves? What’s more important, respecting people’s traditional religious beliefs, or extending the right to marry to same-sex couples? It’s dangerous to say that no belief about these questions is the right one or the wrong one.

    • Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      It’s dangerous to say that no belief about these questions is the right one or the wrong one.

      Regardless of whether or not it is “dangerous”, I think it is entirely correct to say that there is no objectively right or objectively wrong answer to those.

      Is there really anything wrong in accepting that our subjective opinion on such questions is what matters?

    • lkr
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Well, it’s certainly the case that each of these “ethical” debates — is there truly an ethical base for slavery or for fussing about gays living their lives — was fought out with Bible verses on both sides, and the preponderance of the Bible on the side of slavery and bias.

      Ethics is regularly abused, religion is regularly abusive.

    • Tulse
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Religionists, at least, will say that their religion does tell them what they ought to value, or in other words what it’s overall rational to value

      The issues is not with the “telling”, but with the “rational”. In other words, religion does indeed provide values that is says are ethical, but almost by definition such religious values are not “rational”, but based on non-rational faith.

    • Gary W
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      It’s dangerous to say that no belief about these questions is the right one or the wrong one.

      No it isn’t. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong answer to the question ‘What ought we to value?’.

      • Jimbo
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. I come down on the side of Harris with this one. Technically, you are correct that there is no right or wrong answer to ‘what ought we value” but there are absolutes that are common to being a functioning human being. All humans in all societies ought to value good health. Why? Because the alternative is de facto suffering. Here’s a challenge: why ought someone who is bed-ridden and incapacitated by excruciating neuropathic pain value relief from it? It’s self-evident because life itself (walking, thinking, eating, sleeping, conversing, reading, etc) is substantially diminished in that state. People contemplate ending their lives when experiencing constant pain with no reprieve–life becomes ‘not worth living’–because all aspects of living have ceased to be. The ability to “live” is not synonymous with “just being alive.”

        • Gary W
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          All humans in all societies ought to value good health. Why? Because the alternative is de facto suffering.

          No, the alternative to good health is bad health. How do you know that “societies ought to value good health” is “right” (i.e., a true proposition)? You don’t know that. Valuing good health is a preference, not a fact.

  10. Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    The “other ways of knowing” trope is confused. What does that mean? Does he think that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or that beliefs should be proportionate to the amount of evidence available for it? That logical fallacies and cognitive biases are to be avoided? That authority is not always to be trusted? That we should rely on Occam’s Razor for deciding between competing explanations? If he believes all of that stuff, then there aren’t other ways of knowing; all of that stuff is “scientism”.

    If he doesn’t believe all of that, then I’d like to see some examples of knowledge gained while violating any of those heuristics, e.g. when extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Did you read the two posts by Eric? Eric gives examples of “other ways of knowing” in his two posts [or at least one of them ~ I can’t bear to go back & tell you exactly where]

      From what I can see Eric is claiming that aesthetics [for example] is outside scientific knowledge, but is STILL knowledge. But, Eric’s claim is forced… using wordplay he’s framing a mere observation that human mind/brain processes are too complex for science to quantify [or predict] as “other ways of knowing.”

      • Jeff D
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        I detest that “other ways of knowing” phrase. It’s a non sequitur and a red herring, because neither aesthetic experiences nor moral judgments are “knowledge.”

        Works of art are not always or inevitably a source of “knowledge.” A photograph, a motion picture, a representational (non-abstract) painting, a song with lyrics, or a written document can be a source of “knowledge” if the viewer, reader, or listener can conclude (from context or other external information) that the content of the work is not fictional or mythical. E.g., the Chumbawamba song “El Fusilado” is about a real individual who survived being shot by a firing squad; most paintings by the Hudson River School artists depict actual physical landscapes; Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman is (I hope) mostly accurate.

        It seems to me that art offers experiences and invites emotional responses or judgments. These experiences, emotional responses, and judgments — in reaction to art works that are partly, mostly, or entirely fictional — may motivate us to seek real knowledge from other sources that are not aesthetic (Was “The Raft of the Medusa” based on a real shipwreck incident? Did William Tell and Robin Hood exist as historical persons?) But art does not inevitably give us a different “way of knowing.” We get ways of experiencing and responding.

        My readings in modern morality and ethical philosophy (especially Ronald Dworkin and his Justice for Hedgehogs) have persuaded me to conclude, with some confidence, that moral judgments and values are the result of interpretive actions, not empirical or scientific actions.

        Observation, testing, and experiment may well help us reach conclusions about what our values are, and about what moral and ethical rules are most consistent with those values. But empiricism doesn’t give us our values, and empiricism alone doesn’t tell us how to do the interpretive work of reaching sensible moral judgments. No matter how reliable, robust and “right” I think my moral judgments are, I don’t consider them to be bits of “knowledge” like the atomic weight of aluminum or the number of teeth in the skull of an adult Old World monkey.

        I don’t consider my positions to be an attack on “scientism.”

    • eric
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Whether its confusing or not, its a red herring. Let’s say for sake of argument that there are, in principle, other ways of knowing. Does that mean religious revelation is an accurate or precise way of knowing anything about the world? Answer: no. We have really good empirical evidence that it’s neither accurate nor precise. So if there are other ways of knowing, that ain’t one of them.

      The way I see it, ‘Ways of knowing…ergo religion’ has the same huge gap in the middle of its logic as ‘causa causans…ergo Jesus.’

      Now, Dr. MacDonald may not be implying “…ergo religion.” But I think that’s what the vast majority of theolgians who bring up the ‘other ways of knowing’ argument are really trying to do; sneakily get you to accept that divine revelation could be credible. When it isn’t even if there are other ways of knowing.

  11. Occam
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    …I simply can’t see how the presence and resources of churches have been the framework for social flourishing in Scandinavia.

    No, religion in Scandinavia has been replaced not by other rituals, but by developing the kind of societies that make religion unnecessary: societies that provide health care, succor for the aged and poor, and a sense of being cared about.

    I’m wondering whether the focus on rituals and formalia is not distracting attention from an obvious point: the protestant roots of social policies (and, to some extent, Social Democracy itself) in Scandinavia. A significant paper by Sigrun Kahl (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies) has come to my attention: The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared.

    The author asks, among other questions:
    Why do the United Kingdom and the United States hold individuals responsible for their own poverty and its escape, while the Scandinavian countries and Germany see it as a societal responsibility?
    Why is the idea of “doing something in return” for social assistance so strong in the Anglo-Saxon countries and Scandinavia, yet virtually irrelevant in France and Italy?
    Why is Anglo-Saxon welfare-to-work policy exclusively focused on getting the poor into jobs, while Scandinavian policy puts them into work programs and “social activation”, and French integration functions as integration into the benefit system?
    Why are benefit cuts due to unwillingness to work much more frequent in the United States and the United Kingdom than they are in Scandinavia and Germany?

    Strong echoes of Robert Bellah’s “American civil religion” are inevitable.

    If we can wean ourselves from the obsession with “Ersatz”, (whether we are for or against it), maybe we can focus our attention on the historical, economic and social conditions that allowed Scandinavian societies to transcend and evolve their erstwhile religious imprint. Maybe, in view of recent riots in Stockholm, we should also consider in detail what happens to affluent societies after they lose their societal and ideological backbone, becoming fragmented along ethnic, socio-economical and cultural boundaries. Can the Scandinavian model durably succeed, or is it doomed to a sui generis failure, like the Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean-Catholic models?

    • Occam
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      😦 Another WordPress HTML format failure: list tags are evidently not supported. The questions in the middle paragraph should all appear in list format and be preceded by bullets.

      • Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        You have to:
        ⚫ Fake
        ⚫ It
        ⚫ Like
        ⚫ This

        Possibly related, one of the concerns I have about British politics is Cameron’s “Big Society”, which is delegating social provision to local, non-governmental organisations, which means, in practice, largely (back) into the arms of the churches &c.


    • Gary W
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure why you think the “Anglo-Saxon model” has failed. Of course, all of these “models” have changed over time, but the industrialized democracies in general, including, the Nordic countries, have moved more towards the Anglo-Saxon model in recent decades — more privatization, more free trade, more flexible labor markets, weaker unions, less government regulation, lower tax rates, greater economic inequality.

  12. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    This is pretty much spot on; people have a driving need for social acceptance and will find it if religion were not there. Civil society can get along just fine without overbearing fictions to convince the “ignorant masses” (patronising indeed) to be nice to one another.

    However I would think this part is not quite right:

    Without religion, many horrible things would vanish from this world: persecution of gays, much persecution of women, persecution of people of other faiths, invidious control of sexual behavior, warping of young lives by instilling guilt, and so on.

    Religion is an enabler, in that it provides an authority (be it a mythical overlord and master, or an organisation) that allows people to justify to themselves and others these bigoted actions. Removing religion would not remove these terrible things, but it might result in people being more honest about their horrible behaviour by having them own it.

  13. Robert Bray
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    ‘Well, science can’t tell us what we ought to value, for that’s a subjective judgment. But it can help us determine what we do value. . . .’

    I wonder whether this is so. As an example, animal rights. Science, operating reasonably, has clearly determined that Homo sapiens is one animal among many thousands of kinds of animals. That’s all we are: social animals, but evolved to have developed the dominating culture we have today. Now suppose, pace felid (sorry for the bad Latin: I don’t know the objective or dative case endings here), that d-gs are indeed ‘man’s best friends.’ (I know: consternation at the top!) They learn, they feel, they perhaps act and of course they have attached themselves firmly to human culture.

    Our society conventionally grants its members rights, though hardly of the ‘inalienable’ sort. We value these principally because they derive from Enlightenment reason; and we ought to so value them! Should we extend the protective shield of rights to other animals that cannot demand them for themselves? And should we not do so for the straightforward reason that rights have been tried in the Court of Enlightenment and found truly valuable, for ourselves and for our ‘dear companions,’ d-ogs?

    Let’s call this approach to ethics normative-by-reason.

    • Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      We value these principally because they derive from Enlightenment reason; and we ought to so value them!

      Do we? I’d have thought we value these principally because they derive from our values.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      But the scientific discovery of the common origin of all life surely raises questions about our treatment of other animals not raised by the assumption that we are created by God uniquely in his/her image?

      I think that the question of whether to extend legal rights – as opposed to protections – to other animals, is tricky. Perhaps for other great apes and perhaps in a more limited form than in the case of humans. Perhaps.

      I believe we should use other species for medical research, for example, if there is a reasonable chance of acquiring vital information which could not otherwise be known.

      • Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        Peter Stringer seems to be the go-to philosopher on that issue…


        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

          Peter Singer, you mean?

          There’s a Chris Stringer who’s quite knowledgeable on Neandertals, if I recall correctly.

  14. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    As Schopenhauer said:
    “Children should be kept from all kinds of instruction that may make errors possible until their sixteenth year, that is to say, from philosophy, religion, and general views of every description; because it is the errors that are acquired in early days that remain, as a rule, ineradicable, and because the faculty of judgment is the last to arrive at maturity. They should only be interested in such things that make errors impossible, such as mathematics, in things which are not very dangerous, such as languages, natural science, history, and so forth; in general, the branches of knowledge which are to be taken up at any age must be within reach of the intellect at that age and perfectly comprehensible to it. Childhood and youth are the time for collecting data and getting to know specially and thoroughly individual and particular things. On the other hand, all judgment of a general nature must at that time be suspended, and final explanations left alone. One should leave the faculty of judgment alone, as it only comes with maturity and experience, and also take care that one does not anticipate it by inculcating prejudice, when it will be crippled for ever.” (via Biblioklept)

    and, as Richard Dawkins remarked at Sean Carroll’s AHA talk:

    “Morality should be intelligently designed.”
    (ie, we don’t have ‘moral molecules’)

    And then, I still believe religion should be taught;this:


  15. tedkeys
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Religion has been called the ‘opium of the people’. I think the analogy is apt. Like a narcotic, it provides comfort and relieves pain without helping the underlying reality. And both can be abused, causing untold suffering in the world. But because of the relief they both provide, there are times when I have been glad they exist. I am not a drug pusher, either with narcotics or religion, but neither am I willing to take away the drugs (by that I mean religion) from my grieving friends, as atheism seems to offer nothing to replace the narcotic effect that religion has. And, as with real drugs, such attempts often lead to great unpleasantness.

  16. Sastra
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    We should be in the business of replacing some of this religious context by one that can actually stand the test of real world experiences. Until then religions will continue to pull up the slack for a lot of people who are looking for cultural contexts within which they can live and seek to understand the significance of their lives.

    So reality cannot be enough to form a ‘cultural context’ without guidance from the experts above? Like Jerry, I think Eric lacks ‘faith’ in the resilience and adaptability of ordinary people. That sort of confidence would be reasonable, given how far we have come from authoritarian superstitions — and how far we have left to go.

    All the critics who point to the valuable things religion and churches have to offer which ‘new atheism’ doesn’t seem to be missing the ipso facto necessity that anything we atheists CAN consider “valuable” must already fall under the category of humanist values. You can build buildings and rewrite rituals and reframe heroic narratives. What grounds them all are the values beneath them.

    However, the significant value which the religious hold which religions lack is a love for the truth and its honest and humble pursuit. Anyone who argues that the gnu atheists don’t GET that for the religious it’s not about what’s true, it’s about what’s useful is not GETTING that the religious don’t believe this themselves. Ask them and listen. If and when they do accept this argument, their piety crumbles into a form of performance art. “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves in to.”

    Yes you can … because they believe very sincerely that their position is more reasonable than ours. That places us on common ground.

    “Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.” (Sam Harris)

  17. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I may be completely naive as I was raised a heathen so I not only do not pine for religious comfort, I actually feel intensely uncomfortable in most religious settings. I’ve always found it equally unnerving to leave caring for people to the religious as their prime motivation is not to care for the ill, etc. but to convert them to their religion (a sort of preying (pun) on the disadvantaged. I don’t remember where I read it but countries with stronger social networks (universal healthcare, etc.) tend to have less religiosity which is no surprise since the desperate no longer need to turn to a religious group who in turn converts them to a religious way of thinking.

    In order to get more atheists, the best approach is to help destigmatize what it means to be an atheist. Recreating church institutions comes off as awkward and forced.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      don’t remember where I read it

      Almost certainly on this blebsite, where Prof Ceiling Cat has frequently cited Gregory Paul’s work which found that correlation and argued for causal connection.

  18. Paul S
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I think part of what Eric says about religion vs. atheism is true to a certain extent. What religion provides in some neighborhoods like Chicago’s Englewood, just south of UofC, is not only community cohesion, but also direct opposition to violence and economic despair. Neither education nor atheism provides the immediate relief that religion can, even if that relief is imaginary or comes with horrible baggage of its own. Everyone has needs and if a church is the only one offering a solution to a particular problem, even if it’s a bad solution, that’s where people will go for support. While atheism can point out that religion is bogus, it’s humanism that should replace religion.

    • Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      That’s really a “God of the stopgaps” argument: Religion offering a solution to (really, just alleviation of) a problem that a properly humanistic society should tackle at root cause.

      While I don’t think (gnu) atheism as such needs to address those issues, perhaps atheism should align itself with social justice issues… (Why has no-one else thought of that?)


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        That’s the whole Atheism+ movement: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Atheism_Plus

        • hankstar
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

          Exactly – some atheists have indeed been suggesting for a couple of years an explicit and positive alignment with broad social justice goals. The response from other atheists has been, well, anything but positive, with critics up in arms over atheism apparently being “redefined” from on high or some such paranoid fantasy (I guess they didn’t notice the “plus”?). It’s ignorant histrionics for the most part; it also unfortunately seems to attract some very unpleasant people.

        • Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:32 am | Permalink

          Ah, my attempt at humour was too subtle or oblique…

          As discussion of A+ can become, um, heated it tends to deprecated here. However, it does seem very relevant to the topic in hand.


        • Gary W
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          A+ is an attempt to link organized atheism to a narrow political agenda that has nothing to do with atheism.

          • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            @ Diana: See!!


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              Ha ha you mean I started something? Muahahahaha!

            • Gary W
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

              You have a rather unorthodox understanding of the meaning of the word “heated.”

              • Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                Flat contradiction (esp. when it’s patently wrong) is usually a pretty good leading indicator… 


              • Gary W
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                I’m not sure what supposed contradiction you mean, but there was nothing “heated” about my comment.

              • Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                1. You asserted that A+’s “political agenda” “has nothing to do with atheism”, thus flatly contradicting A+’s defining claim (which you characterised as “an attempt to link”).

                2. I never actually said that your comment was ”heated”.


              • Gary W
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

                1. I expressed disagreement with the premise of A+. The expression was not “heated.”

                2. Then I have no idea what your comment “Diana: See!!” was supposed to be referring to.

              • Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

                1. Yes, you did, but I didn’t say that was “heated” either. I said it was flatly contradictory (and patently wrong).

                2. Diana, otoh, does.


        • Paul S
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          And the lightbulb goes off in my head. Thanks, I’m slow sometimes.

          • Paul S
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

            ^^Meant for Diana.

  19. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    “religion still provides for millions, probably billions of people, a cultural context within which to go about the business of creating a life.”

    I gotta call BS on this claim, at least in the West. My day-to-day life now, and the way I navigate it, is not significantly different from when I considered myself a member of a religion. The religious folks with which I’m surrounded don’t seem to navigate their day-to-day lives in any way that is significantly different from the way I do.

    They may think their religion plays a huge role in their lives, but I’d wager that those for whom religion really does inform their day-to-day “life-creating” activities are in the minority (again, at least here in the West).

    The differences I care about, and very problematic differences they are, are the ones that pop up when a theist steps into the voting booth.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      That is a good point as I think many religious people attribute a whole whack of things to their religion usually centering around ethical behaviour. I argued this with a Christian once who attributed goodness to her Christianity. I told her that I’d be terrified to live in a place that truly espoused Christian values since there would be some pretty awful behaviours (deuteronomy etc.) and I suggested that she instead behaved as she did because she was a good person that embraced enlightenment values. I don’t know if I convinced her, but she was a very liberal Christian so I’m sure she considered it.

      • Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        Yep. A lot of theists get stuck in a big cum hoc fallacy: “I’m a good person and my life has turned out pretty well because I love Jesus.”

  20. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    In killing God science has killed a supposed supreme, objective value, and in doing that has killed objective meaning. Meaning is personal, relative. If at all.

    We are all Hamlets now. Science has revealed humans to be of no more significance than dust – in cosmic terms. Meaning can only be non-cosmic, now.

    Atheists are not obliged to do more than point out the stupidity of belief in God. Some people are always going to need to believe. Most people are not going to be able to believe, as science unravels how the brain produces the totality of consciousness.

    There is no ultimate value, Uncle Eric. There is only natural selection.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Meaning has ALWAYS been non-cosmic — even when anchored in a religious world view. God and its purpose only matters because it has to matter to us. Try getting the religious to mess around entertaining hypotheticals of what they’d consider an ‘unappealing’ version of God and watch their heads asplode.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        If there was a God there would be a cosmic value. It fits that societies have used the idea of God or gods above us as social glue. What, if any glue, can do the job in our science-transforming world is an open question.

        • Sastra
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Leigh Jackson wrote:

          If there was a God there would be a cosmic value.

          No there wouldn’t. Imagine that this God exists — and you don’t like it. Maybe others do, but you don’t and you have your reasons and you think them very good reasons.

          Cosmic values just went to hell — whether you follow them there or not.

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Cosmic value would not go to hell – but I and my anti-God values might do so if God so desired.

            This is rather silly, though. The whole point of God is that he is supposed to represent the supreme value. By definition if God exists so does a supreme value and therefore the cosmos too – since the cosmos is created by the supreme value.

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            Cosmic value would not go to hell, but I would if I was shown it and turned my back on it.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

              Strange, my first attempt didn’t seem to go through, then it appears with my second try…

        • hankstar
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

          Human compassion, solidarity, shared experience and empathy – you know, the things we as human beings tend to value without being told to.

          • Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:40 am | Permalink

            Ah, but how far do those things extend? To just my family, my tribe, my football team’s other supporters, my class, my country, my race, my gender, my species … ?


          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            For each of those qualities human beings have an equal and opposite tendency. Neither set comes on tap.

  21. Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I like the concept of religion I read in an Interview from New Scientist, April 21, 2012, written by E.O Wilson, I portraits religion as a divider for humankind;



    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Quoting a religious biologist and a group selectionist* to boot?

      Don’t swear in church. =D

      * And here he seems to be claiming selection without having the evidence for it. So no.

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    There are more ways MacDonald disappoint. There is nothing new or problematic in here.

    One of the unfortunate results of P.Z. Myers “Courtier’s Reply,” is that it has actually discouraged people from looking more closely at the arguments themselves. As an immediate response to a kind of popular demolition of religious belief it has much to commend it, but if it is taken as a careless refusal to consider the religious case more deeply, then it can be found, as Megan Hodder found it, self-defeating.

    It seems that MacDonald makes the claim of theologians, that religion has a case, and something that isn’t obvious but needs further investigation.

    Religion has a case.
    Famously theologians can’t answer the obvious question that need to be answered in order to get started.

    That question is simply: “what observations would convince you that magic doesn’t exist, in order to formulate what magic is“. In other words, “what is your evidence”.

    And theologians can’t answer that after several millenniums of attempts. Empirically we must consider the case of theology as unlikely and the area barren of content.

    Contrast that to science. It could give a very good answer to the same question after 2-3 centuries of study. And that after a study not of what magic is but what it isn’t. Thermodynamics gave us the following answer: “the energy of isolated systems is conserved, and if something breaks that non-magic isn’t working but other forms of action exists.”

    The consequence is that science knows theology better than theologians.

    If something isn’t obvious and needs further investigation, it is “deep”.

    Our experience of empirics tells us it is the other way around.

    Let us start with science itself. The question if it has a case is really easy to answer. It suffice to see that it works.

    And to further see why it has a case, why it works, we can simply look at facts. Measurement theory tells us observations are repeatable, with accuracy and precision. Or we can widen the model and apply statistical hypothesis testing, to put observations with theory as characterized by a predicted value (the heretofore observed average) and constraints (its statistical distribution).

    I am the first to admit that the necessary statistics isn’t easy. Probability theory is a wondrous mix of simple and complicated results.

    But that is the detail, the overall subject is simplicity itself. Obviously, if you demand detail of science and its methods it will return more complexity by the nature of the demand.

    But the empirical principle stands: “Science. It works, bitches.” If that fact hadn’t become obvious and had needed further investigation, science would have been left barren sooner or later.

  23. coyotenose
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Why would anybody argue against an evidence-based worldview on the basis that it doesn’t provide all the social bonding found in religious behavior? This is akin to the arguments often seen from a particular U.S. political party that are, at their heart, “We can’t prevent all deaths. therefore there’s no point in trying to prevent a few more.”

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Well, perhaps some Danes and Swedes can weigh in here, but I simply can’t see how the presence and resources of churches have been the framework for social flourishing in Scandinavia.

    As a Swede, I can confirm that churches are irrelevant to most of society. Of course we have exceptions in the form of old and new cults such as JW, televangelicals and mosques. They don’t recruit the vast majority though.

    More common is magical belief in everything from abstract monoteism to reiki. That is what has flourished in the absence of churches and the presence of basic education.

    But mostly I think MacDonald and others are mistaken on this:

    as a cultural product, religion still provides for millions, probably billions of people, a cultural context within which to go about the business of creating a life.

    The same could have been said of slavery for example, and can still be said on misogyny for another. Yet no one asked democrats then and now to produce a replacement of “some of this […] context by one that can actually stand the test of real world experiences.”

    Support for freed slaves, certainly, that lacked for capital and in fact had been robbed of opportunity.

    Would liberated, empowered religionists need something different than empowered women would? I doubt it.

    Getting rid of religion is a societal opportunity to become socially active, more moral and what not, not a deprivation. For every church there is a secular organization to organize context (lifelong learning, say) or support work (Doctors without Borders, say).

    That is how it worked out in Sweden. As people left the churches, all sorts of organizations were instigated by themselves or opportunists (the unions had a heyday at the time). Lifelong learning is a popular “cultural context”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure there was much hand wringing over letting women vote or go into the workforce as well – a fear that society would completely collapse so your comparison is apt. I think there is something in that human brains have a tendency to believe but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to indicate that once this is overcome that leaving those institutions causes a huge civil disruption.

      • Occam
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Diana, I’m pretty sure you are aware that in pre-WWII France, and to some extent in Italy, some of the most determined and consistent opposition to women’s suffrage came from the laic, anti-clerical, moderate, Masonic-inspired left. Especially after 1919, when pope Benedict XV spoke in favour of women’s right to vote, the extension of suffrage came to be regarded by self-styled ‘progressives’ as a popish plot to extend the influence of the Catholic church, as women were generally deemed under the influence of the clergy.
        Once again, a Whig view of linear progress in history is not warranted.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t attributing suffrage opposition to political left or right but pointing out societal resistance on a whole with the underlying fear that this would disrupt society in a deleterious way (shift power, change how things worked).

          It’s here today in the idea that “women and men have roles” – the underlying fear that something is terribly wrong with the larger society that blurs these roles: http://bit.ly/15kACqH

          In the US, some opposition to women suffrage in the south was motivated by the fear that (gasp!) black women might vote!

          So all in all, large societal change (even when it already happened given some of the odd attitudes about the equality of males and females that persist today) is frightening to the people who are privileged enough to run the society. I suspect these same fears are relatable to atheism – if we don’t have religion, something will go horribly wrong or is horribly wrong with the societies that don’t have it.

  25. Roo
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I think (although this is just my interpretation) that Eric is touching on the idea that religion has, historically, served as a sort of scaffold or mold for our consensus reality. And at this point the clay has hardened enough that we can remove the metaphysical propositions without things falling apart (a person living within the structure of a civil society has, to my mind, many more practical reasons not to shoplift than a nomad wandering through the desert with other nomads, for example.) But whose to say that original mold was the proper one to begin with?

    Do any of the value judgements / philosophical measurements in a person’s life, in this day and age, change much upon declaring “You know, I don’t believe Jesus was literally resurrected.” To my mind most people in that position would still frame the world, essentially, the same way. But maybe that’s because I’ve been thinking about Nietzsche lately. I kind of see Uncle Eric as addressing this – the importance of philosophical frameworks above and beyond the truth value of literal statements like “There is a personal God.” I think he’s saying you can throw out the latter and change little about the former, or have little to say about how it should change.

  26. Pliny the in Between
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    What bothers me a bit about his positions is that they seem to illustrate a common thread that I have encountered before – individuals who retreat from theology into more general philosophy without shedding many of the problematic basic characteristics shared in common.

    For example, substitute ‘god’s workings are beyond our comprehension’, for ‘alternate ways of knowing’ and you arrive at roughly the same place. And it doesn’t advance us one bit to do so.

    If the argument was reworded to separate those elements of our existence that can be objectively assessed from those elements driven by human perception it would provide a useful framework.

  27. Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Uncle Eric is starting to sound a little bit like *Crazy* Uncle Eric, who believes in various conspiracy theories and says embarrassing things about minorities during Thanksgiving dinner. Hopefully he will come back with cogent response rather than “Get off my lawn!”

    • gbjames
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      For my part, I think this comment is unwarranted and a tad insulting.

      I read Eric’s blog regularly and while I vigorously dispute issues like this one, he is far from “crazy”. His attacks on Christianity and Islam are among the “gnuist” you will find. Even harsh, shrill, and strident enough for this harsh, shrill, and strident atheist.

      • Posted June 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I agree with gbjames; the remark is out of line. We may not agree with him, but he is certainly compos mentis! Let’s lay off adjectives like this one, okay?

        • pacopicopiedra
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, I didn’t mean it to be so harsh, but nuance is difficult on the interwebs. Consider it retracted and stricken from the record.

  28. Michael Fisher
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Eric has put up a new post today entitled An explanatory note for those interested

    The part that interests me is this part ~

    …Oh yes, and one thing more (added later): I do not speak in terms of “ways of knowing.” That, I think, is the wrong way to frame this issue. There are different methodologies, but these do not constitute ways of knowing. To know something we must be able to provide reasons or evidence for our beliefs. Sometimes the reasoning will be scientific, but at other times we may use different types of reasoning. In morality, for example (and this I understand imperfectly for now), there are ways of reasoning to fairly stable moral conclusions that depend upon providing reasons for action, which may have to take empirical aspects of being human into consideration, but are not determined by that evidence. But this is just a blank cheque for now.

    I have no clue what this means nor how it explains his position** that:-

    “For the scientistic position also fails to account for other things we may justly claim to know. For example, Mozart was a greater composer than Hummel, even though some of Hummel’s compositions are quite charming. We cannot demonstrate this scientifically, but we can know it with a fair degree of assurance.”

    ** Taken from the first of his two essays:- How Several Misunderstandings led Megan Hodder to Faith

    • Roo
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      This is entirely my interpretation so it may well be wrong, but I think it essentially means – how can you talk about the morality of something like torture without taking first person subjective experience into account? It’s only our personal experience, that part of us that we can’t directly transmit to anyone else (see the Brain In A Vat argument, or solipsism for a better explanation than I can give) that informs us that torturing someone with hot irons is somehow worse than flicking them with your index finger over and over again in an annoying manner – and, to some extent, how much worse than any alternate scenario you might be considering in your argument.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I may be reading into it but I think he was saying there are other methods (critical thinking) to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. If this is the case, I tend to agree. Validating historical claims for instance may involve checking for bias of the claimant, checking prime sources but there aren’t experiments, etc.

      • Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        The role of experiments as a characteristic of “real” science is greatly exaggerated.

        Is palaeontology not a real science? (OK… now someone tell me that there are experiments in palaeontology after all…)


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          There might be models…there would probably be no models in history. There could be but not necessarily.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          There certainly are experiments in taphonomy, which is that important part of palaeontology concerned with how remains come to be buried and preserved. For example, leaving a dead animal in a fishtank and noting when it floats, when it sinks, and the order in which bits drop off; or depositing a sample of marked bones (or artificial substitutes) in a stream channel to see how far they are carried downstream.

          And every time you crack a rock it can be considered an experiment, in that it provides a test of prior understanding (theory, in a broad sense) of how, when and in what environment the rock formed. Rabbits in granite would be just as shocking as rabbits in the Precambrian.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

            Ah and just when you thought palaeontology didn’t deal with dead things that smelled bad. 😉

          • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            Ah! See!

            I guess I’d see the later as more a “further observation”, which is what I was really thinking of. I guess “go digging in a certain area with certain strata” is the limit of the “experimental” set up.

            But certainly that approach has been used to confirm predictions; e.g., with the discovery of the predicted ur-ant, intermediate with ancestral wasps.


      • Sastra
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        The real dispute is not over whether morality, art, or history are categories in which knowledge and learning must be approached by non-scientific methods, but which category “religion” belongs in. If you’re comfortable with taking the supernatural claims out of religion and still calling it religion, then the gnu atheists will seem shallow to you.

        I think taking the supernatural claims out of religion and still considering it to be ‘religion’ is shallow, though. Hasty.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        That may be so Diana, but look at the two quotes from Eric in my post & try to explain to me how they jigsaw together.

        Suppose you went to southern Siberia with recordings of Mozart & Hummel.
        While you’re there let’s suppose you polled a bunch of Tuvan throat singers & they hated Mozart & went around humming Hummel all day.
        You would have just found a counterexample to Eric’s cultural assumptions.

        You discovered something now using empirical methods ~ you did science.
        You might not ever to be able to settle why certain aesthetic preferences are the way they are, but Eric’s cultural assumptions are not another *way* of knowing in any sensible way that I can see

        Or am I missing something?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          Well I think I need an operational definition of “good” with the understanding that “good” is probably going to be culturally subjective. It would be rare to arrive at a universal definition of “good” in the sense of music appreciation.

          I’d be interested in hearing more from Eric on this particular example but his latest does suggest that there needs to be other methods in our toolbox in addition to the scientific method to make rational decisions. If that’s the case, I can buy it. If it’s something else….well we’ll have to see.

        • Clive
          Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink


          Surely the point he’s making is that the cultural assumption, about Mozart and Hummel, is not a random, arbitrary assumption just because it’s cultural. And it’s not *just* because you can put up arguments (whatever they might be, about form, harmonic complexity, or something) which justify the claim that Mozart is better than Hummel. There is something in some sense true about the claim that Mozart is better than Hummel; once you try to pin the claim down ‘scientifically’ in the proper sense, or reject it as meaningless because (basically) it’s just an opinion after all, you’re being obtuse and proving the point.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            I think that is critical thinking though and not just “scientific method” stuff. I mean sure, I tend to try to figure a way to quantify “better” between the two to arrive at a calculation that would show me I was right but isn’t that just a means of critical thinking in that you determined this quantifiable criteria were determined “better”? Is it specific to science?

          • couchloc
            Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

            Let me insert a few comments about “critical thinking” here since it’s relevant. I think it’s important to see that critical thinking is broader than “science”. To confuse them would be misleading. Science is based in things including experimental procedure and empirical verification, but there’s more to critical thinking than that. I’m thinking of “meaning analysis,” “fallacies,” “logical reasoning,” etc. I’m in philosophy and teach the logic course at my university and it goes beyond scientific procedure itself. Logical reasoning does not belong to scientists, but occurs in philosophy, history, sociology, biology, math, etc. etc.

            Here is a website on critical thinking, and notice that “science” is only one of the subjects listed at the top.


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

              Okay, good. So my pointing out of using critical thinking is not off base then especially in that scientific methods are not always useful in every situation.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

                “…..especially in that scientific methods are not always useful in every situation.”

                This reminds me of an old joke in this vein that was used during the days of behaviorism to point out the limitations of scientific method as applied to human behavior.

                “The first behaviorist says to the second behaviorist after making love:

                It was good for you. How was it for me?”

            • gbjames
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 5:13 am | Permalink

              Critical thinking is a very important skill. But if you want to end your day knowing more about the universe than you did in the morning you will need more than critical thinking. You will also need to check to see if the results of your critical thinking can be confirmed against the real world.

              In the list of things across the top of that page are only three that have any “reality” to them. We can skip “home” and “intro” for obvious reasons. “Argument”, “logic”, “fallacies”, and “strategy” are skills that help you think about something. They are generally subjects of investigation only in a self-reflexive sense. “Resources” is kind of like “home” and “intro”, a page on a website.

              “Meaning” and “values” can be argued to exist in the sense that we humans construct these ideas and can examine them… sort of. But to me they is a bit like “argument” and “logic”, cognitive tools… necessary products of the thinking machines we gave in our skulls.

              So from that list only science is a way to generate any real knowledge about the universe. The rest of the list is valuable, even critical! (intended)

              • couchloc
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                This is the kind of silly science-is-the-only-way-of-knowing-anything comment that isn’t very helpful. I suggest you go over and talk to your colleagues in math and logic and explain to them that they don’t know any truths about the universe. There are truths of logic and math. There are also truths about argumentation that exist as well (deductive arguments are stronger than inductive ones and should be preferred where possible), etc. etc. If you want to white wash these away by means of some contorted conception, you can try. It just doesn’t sound persuasive at all.

              • gbjames
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                Mathematicians use reason to rigorously construct elaborate mental models. They do this based on axioms which they assume to be true. They understand this quiet well (unlike theologians who don’t recognize that this sort of assumption is what their elaborate theological worlds are built on).

                The truths of math and logic exist within the confines of the models themselves. If there is no way to independently confirm their existence outside of the models, they tell us nothing about the universe we live in.

                Sorry if you don’t find it helpful.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                Hmmmm well historians and archaeologists use critical thinking. I maintain critical thinking is the broader method and science is part of critical thinking used in specific instances.

              • gbjames
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

                That’s not quite right, Diana. Think of it like a Venn diagram. You’ve got this circle called “critical thinking” and you’ve got another one called “verifying against reality”. They overlap. The overlapped area is science.

                Archaeologists (I’m a former one myself) are doing science when they are doing good archaeology. The same is true for historians, who are very much like archaeologist except they lack trowels and have much cleaner fingernails.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

                If we keep changing the definition of things it muddies the water. Sure, you can argue that is science, in my experience it isn’t. It’s like saying suddenly we’re going to call carrots “peaches” now. To me it’s semantics and it’s confusing to broaden what “science” is.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink


                You have merely changed the subject with your way of characterizing the issue. The issue is not whether there are nonscientifc “ways of knowing the universe.” The issue is whether there are nonscientific “ways of knowing” (period). And I would claim that there are such ways. Take the claim:

                2+2 = 4

                Is this claim true? Yes

                Is this claim known to be true? Yes

                The fact that this statement is not “about the universe” is neither here nor there. In ordinary contexts the way we use the term knowledge is that we have knowledge just in case we have a justified, true belief, and we have that with this statement. Your account simply assumes from the beginning that all claims to knowledge must have empirical reference. But surely we know that some mathematical statements are true even if their not about anything physical or whatever. They still are genuine claims to knowledge.

              • gbjames
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                “2+2=4. Is this claim known to be true? Yes”

                Have we not verified this in the universe of reality? Seems to me that we have.

              • Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                Numbers and arithmetic are reifications of counting, thus empirical. 😉


              • couchloc
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

                “Have we not verified this in the universe of reality? Seems to me that we have.”

                The issue is not whether you can “verify this in the universe of reality.” The issue is whether you can verify it in some other, nonempirical way. And clearly you can since its truth depends on the axioms of arithmetic, as you yourself noted. Knowledge of the axioms of arithmetic is sufficient to justify our knowledge that 2+2=4 alone. Whether there may be another way to verify this statement doesn’t negate this fact. is) then there’s nonempirical knowledge of some kind. This is all that’s needed to justify my claim that there are nonempirical sources of knowledge.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                To me the issue isn’t empiricism, I just think there are other ways of getting to empiricism that isn’t always science if you accept the narrow and most commonly understood definition of science. Yes I can accept an operational definition that science has a wider context and can be applied to the humanities but the narrow and generally accepted definition excludes non-scientific disciplines which rely on critical thinking to realize truths. Yes it is as quibble but I think important to understand what we are talking about because this can be confusing to the greater public.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, omit the second-to-last sentence that got garbled. It shouldn’t be there.

              • Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                @ Diana

                I think the crux is that any reliable way of knowing is continuous with science in its narrower, everyday sense, in its application of certain critical thinking and problem solving skills to observations of the real world and physical evidence that are available (in principle) to multiple people. (And it is this continuum which Jerry labels as “science, broadly defined”.)

                That is, science is only an extension or refinement of approaches that have been proved reliable in everyday endeavors; it doesn’t introduce anything novel. David Deutsch, for example, explores this idea early in The Fabric of Reality.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think it’s helpful to equate knowledge with science broadly understood. People knew things about themselves and the universe long before “science” officially came on the scene in the 1500’s, and it is only misleading to the ordinary person to call everything we know about the world science. Why are we starting over anyway. This whole subject has been examined by philosophers for years, who have considered the issue carefull. Here is a good example which distinguishes among:

                1. Logic
                2. Semantic
                3. Mathematical
                4. Empirical

                I think there are more kinds than this (e.g., introspection, memory) but this suffices to make the point. The differences in these types of knowledge makes calling them all “science” unhelpful.


              • gbjames
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

                Sigh. Or should I say “sighence”?

                When someone thinks that memory is a “way of knowing” anything I simply don’t know how to respond.

                Memory is a stored description of some bit of reality. It may store a perfectly accurate description of reality (or it may be a corrupted or entirely fabricated record) but what it isn’t is a way to acquire the description in the first place. Similarly, logic is a critical method of thinking about things, but the things may be real or imaginary. I can construct perfectly logical arguments for why unicorn diets are so colorful, but that won’t make the unicorns real. If I expect to convince you of their peculiar foodstuffs I’ll need to (I hope) provide you with some evidence that the creatures actually exist.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink


                Each time we discuss this issue you refer to your same thought–that anything that counts as “knowledge” must refer to something that “actually exists.” But you are merely assuming that knowledge is by definition connected to empirical knowledge. As I’ve said, though, there are propositions we accept in math and logic that we claim to know that don’t have empirical reference. This is how we use the term knowledge in ordinary contexts. We can know that “2+2=4” or that the “law of contradiction” is true. I believe I know both of those things (it is not an opinion). The term knowledge is not restricted to entities that are actually existing and it’s rather parochial to insist that it is.

                As for memory being a way to know something, read here (sect. 4) and stop pretending to “sigh” since I’m trying to be patience with you too.


              • gbjames
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                Believe me, couchloc, I’m not pretending to sigh.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

                That’s unfortunate you feel the need to be patronizing, since I was trying to discuss these issues with you in a reasonable way. It shows bad manners. If you don’t have an intelligent response to make to my counter-claims, you should just say so.

              • gbjames
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

                I sigh, couchloc, because there seems to be no way to move you from your position. Not even the URLs you instruct me to read support your position. Where can we go from there?

                Read the first sentence of the passage you linked to. Now read the last sentence of that passage. Now… How it is that you can expect me to do anything but sigh when you say that memory is a source of knowledge about things in the universe?

              • couchloc
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure what part you are referring to. You will need to be more specific than this.

                And note that, again, you mischaracterize the issue. Nobody says “memory is a source of knowledge about the universe.” The claim is that “memory is a source of knowledge.”

              • gbjames
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think there is such a thing. (knowledge in the absence of the universe)

                Please don’t tell me, again, that 2+2=4.

              • couchloc
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                I hear you keep saying that. What I’m looking for is an argument for your view, not merely your assertion. I’ve given you evidence that the way you are using the term “knowledge” does not match our ordinary ways of using the term. We commonly use the term to describe our beliefs about a range of propositions, only some of which concern matters “of actual existence.” These include math, logic, semantics, memory, and others. Can you do something more than merely repeat your point that the term know applies only to beliefs about the universe. Can you point to any dictionary definition (anywhere) that agrees with this? A wikipedia article? An author somewhere? I’m just looking for something more than mere assertion on your part, or your suggestion that your thesis is just obvious. Is that too much to ask?

  29. pulseteresa
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    Please delete both the above mistake and this post as well, Jerry.


  30. pulseteresa
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    There already are plenty of atheist replacements for the community aspect of religion, which is probably the most important and only useful aspect of religion. There are now tons of atheist, humanist, skeptic conferences held on a regular basis all across the country. People who could not otherwise find any other atheists to interact with in real life are able to do so for the first time at these conferences. They can make contacts and via these contacts they can sometimes find a local atheist, humanist, or skeptic group. The limiting factors with the conferences are that some are an inhibitory distance away from where one lives and most of them are not free (but some of them are, Skepticon for instance) and some are absurdly priced (I think TAM is the worst). That said…

    That leads me to what has been, for me, a life-changing experience: finding and becoming involved with a local freethought group. It was simple: I typed in “atheist groups” and the city I live in (Dayton, OH) and it turned out that such a group existed and that several others like it exist all across the country. While not all of these groups are as active or have the variety of different meetups that Freethought Dayton does, there are a lot of them out there to choose from. As for FD, it’s provided me with multiple new friends over the course of 4&1/2 years and continues to do so as new members join and become active. To some degree it gives me a sense of purpose. It probably helps that I’m a board member as well as a very active attendee (318 meetups). If this sort of group can exist and thrive in the medium sized city in which I live, I’m sure that many other such groups provide at least some of the community, education, fun, and friendship that my local group does. I don’t think of it in any way as a substitute for religion, but if someone wanted an example of said substitute I’d point them in the direction of my group (not that it’s actually mine).

  31. Dominic
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    I see nothing wrong with scientism. I embrace the term.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 12, 2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink

      I’ve been saying that for some time.

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