Quote of the day redux

I published this quotation (and its larger context) over two years ago, but it bears repeating. It’s part of an essay by ex-liberal-Protestant pastor Mike Aus, “Conversion on Mount Improbable,” that was published on the old Richard Dawkins website. The part I’ve put in bold should be tattooed on the arm of every person who promotes “other ways of knowing.”

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world. Religion, even “enlightened” liberal religion, is generally not interested in the facts on the ground. Religion is really not about “knowing” anything; it is about speculation not based on reality.

Here’s a video of Mike Aus “coming out” as a nonbeliever for the very first time—on MSNBC, a national television station. He shows the slow attrition of faith described by other former pastors like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt. Note also that he gives credit to Pinker and Dawkins for his “deconversion.” So much for the claim that vociferous atheists are ineffective in bringing believers to science (and nonbelief).

 

 

 

 

44 Comments

  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Excellent! Duly posted on Twitter and then reposted via my account.

  2. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

    Same with belief.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Believers use the two words interchangeably.
      I remember some preacher slagging the ‘fairy tale’ of evolution while holding up his ‘book of fact’

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        It’s a bit of a grey area sometimes, I reckon.

        For some the definition of knowledge is merely faith in facts and they think the static belief in religion is a virtue. Depending on the circumstances of course. The idea that you can choose your own facts is ripe within all sorts of “spirituality” matters….Chopra and Tanza comes to mind.

        I can’t remember the exact moment I lost faith in gods, but neither was there a time when I believed a little bit in a god.

        Some claim it can be done, I just don’t see how.

  3. Dominic
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    ” There is knowing and not knowing”
    Now I know many will disagree, but that is why I think no one has the ‘right’ to be ‘wrong’ – that is asserting something counter-factual without evidence.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      I agree. When I was younger the platitude “whatever you want to believe is fine with me as long as you don’t try to inflict it on others,” seemed to me to be just fine. More recently I have come to have some serious reservations about that point of view.

      For that point of view to actually make sense assumes the premise that reality really does work that way. That people do, to a significant enough degree, go through their lives without their religious beliefs (and similar counter-factual beliefs) affecting other members of society. Going by the evidence, reality does not work that way.

      So now instead of such statements being more or less literal, to me they have become a sarcastic way of saying that “no, I am not okay with your ridiculous beliefs.” No, I don’t think people with such beliefs should be put in reeducation camps. But I do believe that it is ethically sound to tell people with such beliefs that their beliefs are ridiculous, and that they are “cramping my style.” In other words they are holding us all back and it is not impolite of me to not give them license.

      • Dominic
        Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Exactly!

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Certainly no one has the right to expect their wrongs should go without excoriation.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” W. K. Clifford

  4. Scote
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    “So much for the claim that vociferous atheists are ineffective in bringing believers to science (and nonbelief).”/

    I don’t think this follows. Anecdotes aren’t sound evidence of a trend.

    I think Dawkins and you should do what you do the way you are doing it. I think it does change the mind of some believers. And you are both fun and informative to read. But I’m wary of declaring “effectiveness” based on anecdotes. I think it is important to not use the kind of arguments we would criticize if used by the other side.

    • Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      How many anecdotes do you need to have a “trend”? Why not have a look at Dawkins’s Converts Corner, which have hundreds of such testimonies. Is that a trend? Do you know of that site? And surely you know of the many “anecdotes” of believers converted by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

      And if it’s not a trend, where is the equivalent site of believers saying, “I’d only accept evolution if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism”? I’ve never found a single example of that. Not one. But we have hundreds on the other side.

      That’s enough for me to declare, provisionally, that accommodationism isn’t supported by evidence and vociferous atheism does work.

      Now if you’re saying that not criticizing religion is a better way than criticizing it honestly IN CONVERTING PEOPLE TO ATHEISM, well, I don’t know how that would work.

      • reasonshark
        Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        I think he means nation-wide statistics, like the Gallup ones for public views on evolution vs. creationism;

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/new-gallup-poll-acceptance-of-evolution-rises-slightly-creationism-falls/

        one for the negative correlation between religiosity and well-being:

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/a-new-poll-on-the-politics-religiosity-and-well-being-of-americans/

        and the ones for public views on the divine authenticity of the bible:

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/do-believers-see-scripture-as-literally-true/

        There was also that article a way back on the increasing percentages of irreligious people and secular groups:

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/american-unbelief-on-the-rise/

        That stuff is always a clincher.

        That said, Convert’s Corner has a decent number.

        http://richarddawkins.net/category/community/letters/converts/page/144/

        I estimate 1432 letters here, and 1323 on the old site here:

        http://old.richarddawkins.net/letters/converts?page=45

        Dating from 2010 to present, totalling 2755 testimonies.

        “And if it’s not a trend, where is the equivalent site of believers saying, “I’d only accept evolution if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism”?”

        Well, I don’t recall if there were any “strident atheist” critics or abusers of the Hollywood Atheist trope that weren’t already entrenched in their pro-religious views, I know that much. If Dawkins has converted agnostics, apathetic people, or atheists into believers, I can’t think of any.

      • reasonshark
        Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        “How many anecdotes do you need to have a “trend”?”

        As the saying goes, the plural of anecdotes is not “data”. It’s a good illustration of the point that one side is carrying all the cards, but it’s no statistics.

      • Scote
        Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        “Now if you’re saying that not criticizing religion is a better way than criticizing it honestly IN CONVERTING PEOPLE TO ATHEISM, well, I don’t know how that would work.”

        Nope. Not saying that I know of the perfect way to convince people to set aside their identity and deeply held, and convincing, beliefs in favor of following the strictures of science. And I don’t think there is a universal answer to that, anyway. I’d posit that different things will work for different people, and that I your approach is the best balance I know of. My point was more one of whether to make claims based on anecdotes. I’m being a bit pedantic, but I’m also trying to be consistent in how to treat claims based on anecdotes.

        Unlike some skeptics, I do think anecdotes are evidence, just generally not sound evidence. So I do think you can support the idea that Dawkins approach does convert some people. But that doesn’t tell us the *net* does it? Nor if it works better than some other approach. It is possible (though I think/hope unlikely) that he turns off as many or more than he convinces to accept science. So I remain wary of making broad claims based solely on anecdotes. Science was created, in part, because anecdotes aren’t a reliable way of knowing.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

          “Nor if it works better than some other approach.”

          The absence of evidence to the contrary is instructive if not conclusive. There is evidence that the “gnu” approach works. There is little to no evidence that the alternate (people don’t “convert” because of the approach) is the case.

          Now, if you were going to place a wager on which one of these two was correct, where would you place your money?

          • Scote
            Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

            I prefer sound data.

            I think multiple approaches are valid because different ones will likely work (if at all) for different people. I am not an accommodationist, as my posting history bears out. Nor am I a Chris Mooney fan, however, I don’t dismiss things like framing out of hand, either. While I find the trickery involved in political framing to be annoying, I think that framing tricks like calling the Estate Tax the “Death Tax” can be effective. And I don’t want to do what theists do when it comes to approaches to take. They often go with their moral stance rather than the evidence-based one, as with their vociferous demands for abstinence only sex ed, even though the facts show it doesn’t work overall. I don’t want to ignore the possibility that approaches other than mine may work just because I’m not, personally, an accomondationist.

            So, does the Dawkins/Coyne approach work best? I’d like to think so because it is my favorite, but I really don’t know. And in science admitting you don’t know is A) really important and B) an opportunity for sound methodological study rather than an invitation to merely accept anecdotes at face value. The anecdotes lead us to a testable hypothesis, but I wouldn’t consider anecdotes sufficient to declare it a working hypothesis, and were you to do so you’d be lowering your standard of evidence to “anecdote”, which is a problem going forward when theists do the same thing.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

              We have data. We just don’t have conclusive data. But this is true of most things social. We operate in a universe with uncertainty and (should) base our actions on the data we have. Do you refuse to vote because you can’t conclusively demonstrate that your preferred candidate won’t turn out to be a skunk in office?

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          “Nope. Not saying that I know of the perfect way to convince people to set aside their identity and deeply held, and convincing, beliefs in favor of following the strictures of science.”

          Are you being sarcastic or sincere here? It’s hard to interpret.

      • Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        And if it’s not a trend, where is the equivalent site of believers saying…
        That’s enough for me to declare, provisionally, that accommodationism isn’t supported by evidence

        That isn’t the sort of evidence you’d expect if accommodationism works. Accommodationism is pretty much the default position for theists that value science. Most people in the US who accept evolution are accommodationists.

        That doesn’t mean that more accommodationism is even better; there are doubtless diminishing returns for any particular strategy. Accommodationism and atheism are probably complementary strategies, rather than competing ones.

        • darrelle
          Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          “Accommodationism is pretty much the default position for theists that value science.”

          Going off on a bit of a tangent here. I agree that this is accurate, but accepting some close facsimile of evolution that neverless includes god somewhere, is not the goal. I don’t think it does society much good to be science friendly if you only accept certain distorted aspects of science that don’t seem to conflict to badly with your religious views.

          Some good perhaps, but you still haven’t been convinced that your religious beliefs are wrong. At best you are at a place were it may be a bit easier to convince you. And yes, more liberal believers seem to be less of a problem for secular society than less liberal ones, but a significant portion of them still vote the same as the less liberal ones.

          And the goals of Accommodationists and Gnu Atheists are not the same. Accommodationists do not want to convince people to give up Faith, so what comparisons can be made? That accommodationism is more effective at getting people to say they accept (with the following exceptions) Evolution than Gnu Atheism is at moving people to give up Faith? That one or the other is better at advancing our society?

          I have always been confused by this line of argument on this issue. I’d like to think other people are too, and that that is why it is confusing to me.

          • Scote
            Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            “Going off on a bit of a tangent here. I agree that this is accurate, but accepting some close facsimile of evolution that neverless includes god somewhere, is not the goal.”

            Yes, the real benefit to science in the long run isn’t the facts of science but in learning to utilize the epistemological *tools* of science.

            It is hard to ignore your own intuition in favor of provisionally accepting the data and conclusions of science, especially since science on the leading edge is a messy process fraught with initial error. This is part of the reason I’ve pushed back on the anecdotes of Dawkins conversions. They are heartening, and are evidence, but relying on anecdotes is not sound science. I’m not saying the conclusion is false, only that we don’t *know* if it is true, and shouldn’t espouse confidence without sound evidence and methodology.

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Dawkins can be vociferous but he is also a master of clarity and organized exposition.

    IMO, vociferousness is a vice largely when accompanied by rambling unstructured rants that are sprawled all over the map, something Dawkins doesn’t do.

    As such, I suspect that the of RD’s stridency comes up more often among people who largely experience him in short sound-bites, whether in the form of media clips or twitter comments.

    (The host of the show, Chris Hayes, says he doesn’t like RD’s rhetoric, but as a news anchor, I suspect he is more likely to experience Dawkins this way.)

    -=-=

    The rest of the panel on the clip included Lawrence Wright, author of “The Evolution of God”, a book I found very conceptually confused.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      The ubiquitous use of the term “strident” in reference to Dawkins shows that a lot of people don’t understand what the word means, and that a lot of people are biased sufficiently that they don’t bother to give Dawkins a fair hearing, or any hearing at all.

      I have seen / heard / read plenty of Dawkins, though not nearly all. So I am sure that he has on occasion warranted being described as “vociferous.” And I can believe that on occasion he may have been so without good reason. He is only human after all, and he is a very common target for provocation. But I have never witnessed him being “vociferous” without provocation that most people would consider sufficient warrant.

      It is really simple. People talk smack about Dawkins because they dislike him merely for not giving what they think is due respect to religious belief, or because they are conditioned to based soley on the encouragement and example of their peers.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted July 16, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        Dawkins is I believe the formulator of the concept of a “meme”, and so ironically bashing Dawkins has in fact become a “meme” as you say.

        I have personally met a strong atheist activist who met Dawkins and found him excessively curt, abrupt, and difficult. I myself however had a very pleasant extended exchange with him at the Q&A of an appearance of his in the Bay Area promoting “The God Delusion” at which I found him charming and amiable. So we all have our good days and bad days.

  6. GBJames
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I found myself wondering what became of Mike Aus. It seems he’s building a community of non-believers in Houston.

  7. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I remember the moment when I became an atheist, and Richard Dawkins gets the credit for me too. I was watching a Dawkins documentary and I saw the light. I suddenly realized that not only was I an atheist, but I had been for years. It was like an enormous weight was lifted from my mind – I no longer had to continually try to reconcile what I considered was ethical behaviour with what was taught by religion, for example.

    • Ken Elliott
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      This is exactly the same as what I experienced. For the majority of my adulthood I had not associated with any religion, intrinsically knowing early on that no religion made sense in any way, but not until I read “The God Delusion” was I able to fully embrace the truth of atheism, as well as of religion. The hardest part now is in interacting with the delusional religionists of my life. Like anything . . . smoking, exercise, healthy eating, etc. . . . one must come to realizations on their own, but, boy!, I want to force feed my family and friends in the worst way! For many people I feel the biggest hurdle to seeing the truth of things is one of assumptions, such as the assumption morality comes from Jesus, that god created the universe, etc. Those assumptions are set in a mile of concrete!

  8. jerrold12
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Thank you for posting this! Aus’s statement is concise, clear and right on the money.

  9. Scientifik
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    “When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world. Religion, even “enlightened” liberal religion, is generally not interested in the facts on the ground. Religion is really not about “knowing” anything; it is about speculation not based on reality.”

    Preach!

  10. Jonas Phillip Lee
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Dawkins galvanized my atheism, although that’s not exactly the right word. Before reading the selfish gene, I didn’t think religion made any sense, but I kept looking for why I was wrong. After reading Dawkins, I realized there were other explanations for the way things worked; I had been trying to climb a ladder that was on the the wrong wall. I was like a supercooled liquid that was ready to change state–just needed a little push.

    • Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      “Dawkins galvanized my atheism”

      I think that’s his most useful role, and would have provided a great service even if he had never converted a single person to atheism or science.

  11. Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I was disappointed with Susan’s complaint at the end of the segment. She lamented that we have no contemporary equivalent of Ingersoll or even Darwin with his “There is a grandeur in this view of life” quote.

    I’m sorry, Susan, but that is exactly what Richard is. “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” The basic premise behind unweaving the rainbow. Countless more examples, far too many to catalogue.

    And Richard is hardly alone — at the same table with her was Stephen Freaken’ Pinker! And there’s Dennett with Darwin’s dangerous idea, the too-soon-dead Hitch, even Tim Minchin at his piano.

    What more could she possibly want?

    b&

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Agree completely. Tim Minchin is a great example…as well as the others you mentioned. She obviously hasn’t read these authors. Don’t know why she said that. Perhaps just trying to get in the last word.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      A common human failing, to view the past as some sort of golden age from which we have fallen. Kids these days, music these days, Leave It To Beaver, the noble savage, xianity. Few seem to look to the future.

      Me, I don’t want to feel superior to my kids. I expect my kids will make me look like a piker, and I demand that they stand on my shoulders to take the advantage. That way I can kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labors as I slip into my dotage.

      • Posted July 15, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        That’s just because you’re a selfish and lazy old fart!

        b&

        • darrelle
          Posted July 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Exactly!

    • GBJames
      Posted July 15, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I agree, too. But I’ll give Susan this… her recognition of Ingersoll’s brilliance is what let me to appreciate him.

      There’s not been an Ingersoll clone. But there never are clones. We had Hitchens. And there will never be another Hitchens. We have other brilliant voices, but the voices are their own and not just repeats of a past brilliance.

      • Posted July 15, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Yup. Before Hitchens there was Twain, but Hitchens was no Twain.

        It’s the same in any field. Before Pavarotti there was Caruso, but Pavarotti was no Caruso. Before Einstein there was Newton, but Einstein was no Newton. And so on.

        b&

  12. Mark R.
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this insightful and inspirational piece Jerry. I’m glad you republished it as I am fairly new to WEIT and hadn’t seen it before. It’s the honesty of thought that Mr. Aus displays here that is very difficult to refute or be taken as disingenuous. Describing his slow evolution away from religion and towards atheism, secular understanding and meaning was moving. I could empathize completely.

  13. nilou ataie
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    There is knowing and not knowing, and there are people that want to know and those that don’t. If you are a person who wants to know, religious or not, there are people fighting for you. What a shame to spend an only life blinded by indoctrination to all the beauty that is real.

  14. Joe
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    Membership in the Clergy Project has more than tripled since that aired, now at 607. 27% are still active. Most of these are desperately seeking an exit strategy; a few feel compelled to hold on a few more years until retirement.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 16, 2014 at 4:23 am | Permalink

      It must be a shitty place to be in. Trying to preach “truth” to an audience when you don’t believe the lie.


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