Being Polite and Being Right

By Sean Carroll | January 4, 2010 9:04 am

It’s been simultaneously amusing and horrifying to read through the comments on my post about the misguided atheist holiday display in Illinois. This is still the Internet after all, and “reading comprehension” is not a highly valued skill, even among subsamples self-selected for their logic and reasoning abilities.

In brief: thinking that atheists shouldn’t be needlessly obnoxious doesn’t make me a “faithiest” or an “accommodationist” or someone without the courage of my convictions. Those would be hard charges to support against someone who wrote this or this or this or this. I just think it’s possible to have convictions without being a jerk about them. “I disagree with you” and “You are a contemptible idiot” are not logically equivalent.

Phil just pointed to a good post by Steve Cumo about precisely the same issue, with “atheism” replaced by “skepticism.” A lot of skeptics/atheists are truly excited and passionate about their worldviews, and that’s unquestionably a good thing. But it can turn into a bad thing if we allow that passion to manifest itself as contempt for everyone who disagrees with us. (For certain worthy targets, sure.) There’s certainly a place for telling jokes, or calling a crackpot a crackpot; being too afraid of stepping on people’s toes is just as bad as stomping on feet for the sheer joy of it. But there’s also a place for letting things slide, living to dispute another day.

We atheists/skeptics have a huge advantage when it comes to reasonable, evidence-based argumentation: we’re right. (Provisionally, with appropriate humble caveats about those aspects of the natural world we don’t yet understand.) We don’t need to stoop to insults to win debates; reality is on our side. And there are many people out there who are willing to listen to logic and evidence, when presented reasonably and in good faith. We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise. (Cf. the Grid of Disputation. See also Dr. Free-Ride.)

That’s very different than “accommodationism,” which holds that science and religion aren’t really in conflict. The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

It’s also wrong to fetishize politeness for its own sake. Some people manage to forfeit the right to be taken seriously or treated politely. But that shouldn’t be the default position. And being polite doesn’t make you more likely to be correct, or vice-versa. And — to keep piling on the caveats — being “polite” doesn’t mean “keeping quiet,” at least as a general principle. We all know people who will resort to a cowardly tactic of claiming to be “offended” when you say something perfectly reasonable with which they happen to disagree. There’s no reason to give into that; but the solution is not to valorize obnoxiousness for its own sake.

The irony is that the pro-obnoxious crowd (obnoxionists?) is ultimately making the same mistake as the accommodationist crowd. Namely: blurring the lines between the truth of a claim and the manner in which the claim is presented. Accommodationists slide from “we can work together, in a spirit of mutual respect, with religious people on issues about which we agree” to “we should pretend that science and religion are compatible.” But obnoxionists tend to slide from “we disagree with those people” to “we should treat those people with contempt.” Neither move is really logically supportable.

A lot of the pro-obnoxiousness sentiment stems from a feeling that atheism is a disrespected minority viewpoint in our culture, and I have some sympathy with that. Atheists should never be ashamed of their beliefs, or afraid to support them vigorously. And — let’s be honest — there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be found in being part of a group where everyone sits around congratulating each other on their superior intellect and reasoning abilities, while deriding their opponents with terms like “superstition” and “brain damage” and “child abuse.” But these are temptations to be avoided, not badges of honor.

Within the self-reinforcing culture of vocal non-believers, it’s gotten to the point where saying that someone is “nice” has become an insult. Let me hereby stake out a brave, contrarian position: in favor of being nice. I think that folks in the reality-based community should be the paragons of reasonableness and even niceness, while not yielding an inch on the correctness of their views. We should be the good guys. We are in possession of some incredible truths about this amazing universe in which we live, and we should be promoting positive messages about the liberating aspects of a life in which human beings are responsible for creating justice and beauty, rather than having them handed to us by supernatural overseers. Remarkably, I think it’s possible to be positive and nice (when appropriate) and say true things at the same time. But maybe that’s just my crazy utopian streak.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Religion
  • Skeptic Tim

    Bravo Sean!
    It is long past time that your sentiments were articulated. The entire new atheist movement is in danger of becoming just as tiresome as the creationists; not because the new atheists are wrong, but because of their juvenile behavior.

  • BrianR

    I’m with you Sean … well said. Unfortunately, blog comment threads (and forums) attract obnoxiousness, it’s like a competition. I’ve grown quite tired of it all.

  • Adam

    Well said, and I couldn’t agree with you more. The anonymity of the Internet I think gives some a reason to throw all manners out the window. I’m afraid it is a great mystery what has happened to civil discourse.

  • Tony

    Sean, you illustrate succinctly what keeps me from interacting with other atheists. Being right, for some, is not enough – they must also feel superior.

    As a child, I was raised catholic. Fortunately, the faith didnt stick but some of the better lessons did (and yes, there are good lessons in the bible as well as bad ones). The primary one, and this is one atheists and theists alike should follow a little more closely, is that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. If you start a discussion from an antagonistic position, your going to compel others to take the same tact and dig their heals in similar fashion.

  • Tom

    Extremely well said. This is one of your better posts on the subject: clear, brief, logically ordered and consistent.

  • Bd

    I was glad to see your original post & I expected as much from the comments. I’m also glad to see this post.

    However I’m not certain I follow exactly why you’re “accommodationists” are wrong in the first place (I’m unfamiliar with the word, hence the quotes). I may be wrong here, but it seems that your position is that religion is fundamentally incompatible with science.

    It would seem to me that whether or not a religion is compatible with science would depend on the claims it makes and the interpretations of those claims. For example, Zen Buddhism doesn’t seem to have any creation story or make any claims to explain the physical world through myths. Or in the case when a person interprets the myths of his particular tradition as allegory, not historical fact; this person’s religion does not have to be at odds with science ab initio.

    Of course I agree wholeheartedly that the worldviews of many people who claim a religion are not in accord with physical reality.

    Thanks for your post.

  • nix

    religion: a particular system of faith and worship.

    The definition holds true for Atheism as much as for Religions. To believe you’re right when there can be no right or wrong is faith. And while the evidence for Atheism is strong, it isn’t complete and so there’ll always be room for opposition. To criticize anyone for opposing Atheism, especially in the realm where there can never be strong evidence in either direction, is arrogant. In this sense, Science and religion are not at odds.

    For science to say nothing about religion too easily makes the religious defensive. While science obviously doesn’t attack, evidence against anything can be perceived by those with opposing views as an attack. The last thing science needs is to turn its back on people that question scientific methods based on their belief. It’s important to express that science isn’t trying to attack religion. Attacking religion is an attack on people that we most need to believe in science (because they are the ones making it hard on science). We are at a place where we need religious believers to understand that science is just science and isn’t an attack on anyone’s beliefs. So to acknowledge religion within science is important. It’s unfortunate that we’re at this stage but it’s where we are.

    Another point is that being accepting of others’ beliefs shouldn’t be something religions claim as their own. I believe in being all the good, and more, the religious are (or claim to be) but without the need for religion.

    nada nunca

  • James Sweet

    Disclaimer: I have not read the comments to the previous post.

    I partially agree, though not as strongly. When I read the text of FFRF’s sign in Illinois, I also kind of cringed, especially the part about “myth and superstition”. A message that should be shouted from the rooftops, for sure, but perhaps a little jarring for a holiday display (unless the display is on the roof of a building? hmmm…)

    At the same time, I see where FFRF is going with this, in that they are pushing the boundary as hard as they can to expose the hypocrisy of sanctioned religious messages in public displays. I don’t find FFRF’s sign any more offensive or inappropriate than e.g. “Remember the reason for the season!” Two wrongs don’t make a right, but when framed as a legal test case (because they obviously knew that’s what was going to happen) it makes a little more sense.

    I think reasonable people could differ over the strategic wisdom of FFRF’s choice of language on the sign. I’m not sure how I feel. Where I do agree with you, though, is that in a perfect world, that kind of rudeness would be unnecessary and clearly undesirable.

    Sean, you illustrate succinctly what keeps me from interacting with other atheists. Being right, for some, is not enough – they must also feel superior.

    Heh, Tony, does this also keep you from interacting with other people? In my experience, there’s a healthy proportion of people in all categories who must be superior in addition to being right.

    I’m not trying to attack you here… and you can interact with whomever you like, I just think that’s sort of a piss poor reason to avoid interacting with atheists. For whatever that’s worth…

    Reading some of the other comments, there’s just a little bit too much of “I’m an atheist but”-ism going on here. “I’m an atheist, but not like those ones who are arrogant.” Why do people only feel the need to say this in regard to atheism? “I’m an engineer, but not like those Creationist engineers!” “I’m a dad, but not like those abusive ones!” “I’m a man, but not like those misogynist ones!” heh…

    I just wish that people could be like, “I disagree with the FFRF on this one” without tying it in with some kind of pronouncement on bad atheists.

  • Chrysoprase

    I’d like to second the point that some forms of Buddhism are not at all at odds with science, wich is why Buddhism is the only religion that has ever appealed to me. Of course, some would argue that Zen doesn’t really fit the definition of religion…

    One doesn’t necessarily need to beleive in magic to be spiritual, or need religion to love all of reality, or loose their sense of wonder to be an athiest. A little more understanding, patience and humility from everybody involved can only serve to advance the discussion and could even take some of the negativity out of the internet.

  • Patrick

    Science can only take belief so far. Beyond science you have faith. While the dividing line may move in one direction or another it is never set in stone, as some opinions are.

    If you have faith science doesn’t matter. If you have science, faith doesn’t matter. Neither of these arguments allow for free will or freedom of expression if this is the only context that one side or the other recognizes.

    Atheists should stop trying to decide who is right and who is wrong and accept that there is a difference in opinion which will never be resolved. The faithful should do the same. Most other actions fall into the category of “Bully Tactics” and shouldn’t be accepted by anyone.

  • MikeR


    No, really. Why isn’t stuff blatantly obvious?

    On the one hand, it is unfortunate when someone has a belief system that will not change even in the face of the strongest evidence. On the other hand, being a jerk to people that do not see things the way you do is mostly without benefit. Well, it might make you feel some sort of internal satisfaction, but it will not change their beliefs or provide other tangible benefits. Further, having others view you as a jerk can do you real harm.

    Excellent post!

  • Gabby

    Well, I’m glad I didn’t go to the comments section of the last post.
    I’m with you all the way on this one and I’m a world class smart-ass who isn’t known for being particularly gentle to opponents. My feeling on the sign was that it was needlessly rude. It’s a lot more fun to put up a harmless and polite sign just to have the same hatred and scorn directed at it.
    That’s when the difference in approach is easiest for the fence-sitters to see. We can’t help but come off as the more reasonable, even to many on the other side.

  • Tsuken

    Great post. I would say that, as I agree entirely ;) and as it happens wrote something along similar lines just the other day. Being rude and offensive 1. diminishes us personally and as a group, and 2. leads to being ignored (who would listen to a group of people calling them a fool/stupid/irrational?)

  • costanza

    To quote Winston Churchill, “If you must kill a man, it costs you nothing to be polite.”

  • DrBobUK

    Excellent. I’m heartened to read this post. Couldn’t agree more.

  • joel rice

    Sean: it would be nice if you were specific about what you are right about !
    Religion has never been about physics and biology, and pretending that it is
    so one can complain about the Bible is just to set up a straw man. Most people
    are more concerned that their children grow up to be decent, and that morality
    is an issue, and perceive atheism as undermining the basis of morality. So, you
    are right that the earth is older than 6000 years, but it is not relevant to what
    most people care about. Furthermore, to argue that religion is not evidence based
    is to disregard history – people give up on religions that do not work. The obvious
    scientific problem is doing controlled experiments on human beings. If we do not
    get cranked up about Poetry and Art – why get cranked up about Religion ?

  • piscator

    I find some of what gets written here a bit snotty-nosed but this time it is spot on.(*) This is well written and advocates a truth that bears repeating: civility in debate and respect for those who disagree with you is a prerequisite for convincing them of your viewpoint.

    `The man converted against his will
    Remains of his opinion still’

    (*) mostly, our host alas remains in error on all the important issues.

  • amphiox

    The foundational assumption of science is that reality follows a set of rules, and that the nature of these rules can be determined by observing how reality works.

    As such the existence of any supernatural causative agent, of any kind, is incompatible with science, for the simple fact that if such supernatural agents did exist, science will not work. The laws of nature will not be consistent if it is possible for an agency outside of nature to influence them, and if the laws are not consistent, they cannot be investigated with the scientific method as there will be no way to reliably replicate any results. This fundamental incompatibility is practical rather than philosophical.

    Science has no problem with superhuman causative agencies, or such agencies with will and intent, or even the possibility of such agencies not being bound by the same set of rules that govern the rest of nature (or other such agencies), but such agencies must still be bound by some set of rules, whatever they might be, and if they are bound by rules, then the scientific method is capable of investigating what those rules are, and by definition, the agency in question is natural, not supernatural.

    It is the insistence by religion that their causative agencies of choice must be supernatural that make them incompatible with science.

  • uncle sam

    Well, I don’t agree with the framing of the issue here when it comes to ultimate questions, since whether there’s something more fundamental (even maybe “mind”-like) behind the existence of the universe is debatable. For example, there being one specific example of a world violates logical symmetry about actualizing of possible worlds, yet if you go the route of Tegmark there are other problems (of e.g. Bayesian expectations.)

    As for culture and society: I was revolted by Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity so he can be forgiven. What prejudice, on a supposedly “legitimate news” network like Faux. It seems this references a popular right-wing scam: do whatever you want, then ask for forgiveness and it’s OK later. No accountability, right?

  • Gordon

    What does it mean for religion “to work”? You mean fool enough people most of the time?
    You mean create a moral framework useful to society, though based on “white lies”?
    As long as religions egregiously insist on TRUTH, adherence, Hell for nonbelievers,
    inculcating children, then it is actually hard to condemn those atheists for being “rude”.
    How would you feel if the Scientologists rounded up all the children and told them they had
    alien souls inside them that needed to be cleansed? Sean, it is time, particularly in the US, where the need is greatest, to take a stand. Yes, I do not like rudeness, but I dislike religious
    lies and what they do to corrupt society even more; and, yes, I do think you are wimping out.

  • Giotis

    The majority of atheists proclaim their atheism not because they think the world would be a better place without faith. If this was their motive I would sympathize.

    They brag about their atheism to denote their intellectual superiority upon other people. This is obvious by the arrogant way they advertise this atheism. They think that by provoking other people they will stand out from the crowd. Their fanaticism is childish and is really a cry for attention.

    Of course there are serious atheists too, whithout such complex, who really think that the world would be a better place without faith but I think they are the minority.

  • George

    “We should be the good guys. ”

    Let’s not forget that there are fellow freethinkers on the religious side who are struggling to be a part of the polite “good guys” too, freethinkers who are trying to engage the other side in mutual dialogue. Maybe you all will convince us of “reality”, maybe we’ll convince you, maybe we’ll all walk away just having learn something about each other. But let’s not pretend that only atheists can be the good guys, however right or wrong.

  • Cara

    To quote Winston Churchill, “If you must kill a man, it costs you nothing to be polite.”

    Disagreeing with someone isn’t “killing” them, for one thing. And being pointlessly polite sometimes costs a person their integrity. There’s no reason to be polite to someone who’s doing you harm.

    For example, most religion (as it’s currently practiced) is gleefully misogynistic. When the goal of these religions is to impose their misogyny legislatively, why should anyone be required to be polite when saying so?

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  • Ananth

    Great articulation Sean. Couldn’t agree more with your statements.

    I will foist your concluding remarks on those who are caught into the attitude of “I claim the right to mock you and feel superior since I believe you are wrong”

    The size of our knowledge is dwarfed by the size of our ignorance in most scientific fields. Consequently, the best practitioners have developed an innate sense of humility and tolerance for ignorant men. Those who lack that skill, sadden me.

  • Paul Murray

    “The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong.”


  • Brian137

    Vita brevis,
    Convincing people longa.

  • gordon Wilson

    “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. ” -Einstein

    How is the sign quoted by Sean either mocking or superior?? It is not mocking to disagree
    with someone. Religious people do it all the time. Huckabee disagrees with evolution and says so on national TV.
    Listen to some of the sermons on Sunday TV if you are brain dead.
    We have to get beyond giving religion respect and politeness that it, almost exclusively, claims
    for itself. Look at the response of the Western media to the Danish cartoons. They fell all over themselves being “respectful” to the muslims who were, it seems, basically a hysterical car-burning cult. Give respect where respect is earned, not to comforting delusions.

  • Ray Gedaly

    I don’t have a problem finding common ground with religious folks. Put me in a room with 20 people of different religions, and I’ll always be in agreement with 19 of them that the other person’s religious beliefs are flawed.

  • JimV

    I have religious friends and relatives whom I get along with well. There are some things they come to me for advice on, and some things I go to them for advice on. However, I have three channels on my TV which I have blocked because they are all religion, all the time, the greater part of which is … well, nonsense. (Sample: “Send me $50, and I will put my hand on your letter or your email, and ask God to give you the miracle you need.”) Plus, there’s all the cable TV punditry about the “war on Christmas” and that Fox News editorial mentioned above. So when I get on the internet, my snarky side comes out and I vent some of my irritation. To rephrase Rodney King, can’t we all just be rational?

    So some of us are fairly nice guys in real life, who finally have a venue to express these thoughts that have been percolating in us all our lives, and sometimes overdo the sarcasm. Of course, there are also some people who would be obnoxious whether they were on the right or wrong side, and happen to be right. There are plenty on the wrong side too. (I’ve seen a lot of Christians get road rage.)

    But that’s their problem. I’ll try to do better with mine.

  • Bystander

    When I was 13 i was stoned, yes as in with fist sized stones, by two school mates after sharing my disbelief in religion. I was also suspended from my (public)school and then kept in in-school suspension for a week after for wearing a pentacle necklace. When I was 17 I was thrown out and disinheireted by my father and his family for not sharing their religious views.

    Maybe I’ve just run into an abnormally high amount of religious fanatics but they and my gleefully misogynistic(thank you Cara) grandparents who raised me have made it very difficult for me to be sincere and sometimes even civil towards any follower. How can people like THAT demand my respect for their views and faith?

    I wish we could all be as sensible as you.

  • Ray Gedaly

    Hi Sean. I guess there’s just a little devil in all of us.

  • chemicalscum

    I was recently reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essay on Non-Overlapping Magisteria. The problem with this position is that the world-view of any specific religious position and the knowledge set of established scientific theory will overlap. “Like a Venn diagram” as my wife perceptively pointed out when I was explaining my opposition to Gould on this. For some religions this area off overlap will consist of broad agreement, Unitarians obviously fall in to this category. However by and large a majority of Catholics, mainstream Protestants and non ultra-orthodox Jews will also fall into this category.

    However there are a wide range of religious world-views that are in disagreement with some or all of the findings of science in the area of overlap. An evangelical young earth creationist Christian by definition has an area overlap that covers all of science and indicates a disagreement with all science not just the Theory of Evolution but also the other two theories modern science is built on; Quantum Theory and Relativity. The overlap and amount of disagreement will vary with different religious viewpoint.

    Those whose religious viewpoint causes them to reject large parts of modern scientific knowledge are dangerous. Some are merely ignorant and uneducated, but others seek to undermine the Enlightenment philosophy that underpins modern science. They do so from a political and moral agenda that is sometimes hidden and sometimes open. They are a danger to all of us that live in the post-Enlightenment post-Christendom world. Those religious people who fall into the first category of full acceptance of modern science are our allies in this struggle. Our enemies see this and they hate the theistic evolutionist as much as they hate you or me (though they talk a lot about love they are in fact motivated by hate).

    It is consequently vital not to alienate our potential allies by dogmatic and arrogant atheistic proselytizing which is only counter productive. It is vital for atheists to be open and explain why they don’t believe. It is also important to do so in the form of a friendly and constructive debate that builds links with our enlightenment influenced Christian and other religious allies. It is a struggle for freedom of thought.

  • Rick

    I find it interesting atheists all agree on what they don’t believe (certain religious faiths), but exactly what is it they do believe? Is it some doctrine, or does everyone just have their own individual understandings? If the former, is it documented somewhere so all can view and understand?

  • Gary

    Being polite is good.

    Being right is arguable.

    What is the exact QM definition of “Right”?

  • Bee

    The one thing that stuns me is how much time people are wasting on this.

  • bad Jim

    chemicalscum, surely you don’t imagine that Unitarians all agree on anything. Disagreement is our trademark; the founding principle, which goes back hundreds of years to Bohemia, is that there is no creed defining membership.

    There’s a joke that Unitarians sing so badly because everyone’s reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse. My congregation (my parents’, actually) is probably mostly humanist, which is to say atheist, but about a quarter believe in an afterlife. Diversity is considered a feature, not a bug.

  • Kevin

    I’m going to respond to a particular sentence in this blog post, which I think sums up the disconnect between what Sean’s saying and what people are replying to: “We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this, but I don’t feel that it applies to the original situation of the Illinois State Capitol sign. A holiday display is not a venue for discussion, reasonable or otherwise; it’s simply a presentation of a group’s views or traditions. I don’t think there is any way to be “nice,” in the way Sean suggests, via a holiday display (or similar public display). On a personal level, I am quite willing to discuss someone’s religious beliefs with him or her in a respectful, polite manner (and often do), but on the broad level of public displays, such a rapport is unlikely, if not impossible.

    I do feel that the sign itself could have been more _positive_. The last line, rather than out-and-0ut bashing religion, could have said something like: “There is only our natural world, in which we may find more than enough wonder without the attachments of oppressive dogma, if only we take the time to look.” This presents a more coherent alternative to religion as an outlook on life, and would most likely be far more appealing.

    I think that a lot of atheists get caught up in bashing religion without totally understanding the viewpoint of people of faith. Most atheists fall into one of two categories: having little significant religious faith in their upbringing, or having extreme religious faith in their upbringing, from which they then break away. In both cases, I suggest that they have not truly experienced the faith felt by the devout, and it takes a significant effort to understand this without having the experience. I have only recently made this effort myself, and I can say that it makes a big difference in how I contemplate and phrase my arguments “against” religion and “for” atheism, both within my mind and when talking to others.

    The key is that faith is something internal, and it can be ultimately authoritative to the person who has it, but it shouldn’t be the basis of external decisions or policies. I cannot truly deny that someone who has a religious experience has been in touch with God, but neither can that person present me with an objective case that they have. It is perfectly fine for that person to give weight to their subjective experience in his or her own life, but it’s not a reasonable basis on which to apply conclusions externally. Obviously, just as there are many atheists who don’t understand the “truth” about religious faith, there are many religious people who have not taken the time to consider the difference between faith and dogma. It can be a difficult distinction to make, but I think that it’s worth it for both atheists and religious people. The point is not to convince people that God does not exist; the point is to convince them that the subjective bases for God’s existence do not qualify for external decision-making in the same way that other, objective considerations do.

  • J.J.E.


    I don’t have much to disagree with in content, but I think you are pushing a false conflict for it gives the impression (that you don’t intend to convey I think) that advocates of atheism are somehow special. The fact that you find this situation comment-worthy is actually misguided in my opinion.

    First, in agreement with you, I think a case can be made for the following:

    “It is always best to present one’s ideas as carefully as possible and they should be designed such that they engage their audience as effectively as possible. The arguments of some atheists fails in that regard and are as a result less than optimally effective and may conceivably be rude and/or counterproductive.”

    For the moment, I’m conceding the point about whether or not politeness or even calmness is always an asset. We can probably both agree that there are times and places for true rudeness. But I concede that for now.

    What we’re left with is a very pedestrian sentiment that boils down to: “Some atheists are doing it wrong some of the time.” Well, whoopty doo. I almost never see this sort of asymmetrical meta-commentary about sports, literature, music, food, etc. Nobody runs around saying only: “OMG, maybe the Apple fanbois shouldn’t be so durned rude and vocal! They should be more civil!” In the Mac/PC wars, people of both sides have discourse ranging from insightful and fruitful to base name-calling, and calls from both sides for everyone to be civil, everyone to shut up, etc.

    On the other hand, when the topic is religion, most religious people call Dawkins et al. “intolerant” and a substantial proportion of atheists also express reservation about their discourse. What you will rarely find however is the converse. For any controversial topic, you can expect wild west behavior by both sides. But it is only for the atheism/religion debate where Doc Holliday is asking Wyatt Earp to be a good man and use a knife while the Clantons et al. are just firing away willy nilly.

    Some related thoughts:

    1) Just to get this out of the way (I don’t think you really take your impressions from comment threads), characterizing an argument by the arguments of respondents on a thread in general is a straw man fallacy if you are really discussing a larger issue. This is the internet. People in any thread, not just your threads on atheism, will be embarrassments to civility about every conceivable topic and there is a selection bias compounded with an absence of direct social interaction that escalates rudeness;

    2) The original sign in Illinois, far from being an oblivious attempt at rudely insulting the religious, seems to me to be instead a shrewd (if potentially risky) form of reverse psychology. When pro-theists see offensive beliefs by people who don’t share their faith, maybe those people that insist on parading their doctrines in public will opt for a religion neutral policy. For goodness sakes, the entire Christmas holiday rests upon the Christian dogma that the messiah was born in Bethlehem as foretold to sacrifice himself to save humanity from eternal torture by a vengeful and jealous god for the original sin of seeking knowledge. Let everyone proclaim the message of the Gospels from their own rooftops and leave the capitol building clear. The sign was self-evidently not trying to promote atheism, it was trying to communicate the offensiveness of overbearing religiosity;

    3) Atheists are well-represented by articulate rhetoriticians with delicate touches and rapier wits, including Grayling, Stephen Fry, Sagan, and you, to name but a few. Even Sam Harris, who despite the forceful nature of his arguments, is unfailingly patient, polite, and even didactic in his writings. On the flip side, the “uncompromising” atheists (such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers, Coyne, etc.), whatever their failings, are possessed of a forcefulness that would be considered unremarkable in most subjects of interest to public figures like sports, music, food, literature, technology, science, politics, etc. What is really remarkable is how “edgy” and “rude” it is to simply be a cranky detractor to X only when X is religion. But if you are a cranky detractor from Spielberg movies, suddenly it is unremarkable.

  • Farhat

    I am not in favor of niceness. Nice will always be taken advantage of by the religious until atheism is a fringe and we are back to belly crawling and apologizing for not being religious. There was a time in the 70s when atheists were nice. When nice people like Carl Sagan were the prominent atheists. When evolution in schools wasn’t such a hotly contested topic. When presidents didn’t wear their religion on their sleeves. That niceness gave way to today’s time when challenges to evolution are commonplace. When Any elected official has to swear how Godly he is and so on. The results of being nice are not good.

  • Rob Knop

    They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

    See, I disagree with this. There’s an elephant in the country when it comes to science education, and that elephant is religion. Religion as it is presented in some (many? but *not* all) contexts is inconsistent with science. If an organization is all about advocating for good science education, they’re falling down on their job if they completely ignore the elephant. That leaves them with two choices: siding with those Sean claims are right, that religion and science are fundamentally compatible; or siding with those who are really right, that many, many people are able to be good and rigorous scientists AND hold religious faith at the same time. This very clearly empirically shows that you they ARE compatible, at the very least in the sense that somebody need not abandon all religion in order to have a good grasp of the scientific world view.

    I mean, c’mon here Sean… if you’re really about evidence based argumentation, surely the fact that there are huge numbers of us out there who are doing very well in the science field despite not being atheists provides evidence for the compatibility? It may not provide philosophical compatibility FOR YOU, but it does provide empirical, practical, what-exists-in-nature compatibility… and the latter is what scientific observation is really all about.

    I’m completely with you about not being a jerk, and I hope you don’t think I’m a jerk in this comment. (I know some will, but they are the ones who probably think you’re an accomidationist by suggesting that one shouldn’t be a jerk.)

  • Rob Knop

    joel rice @16: Religion has never been about physics and biology, and pretending that it is
    so one can complain about the Bible is just to set up a straw man.

    That’s patently not true. Again, your definition of what religion is may well make this true… but if we go with empiricial, what-exists-in-nature sorts of things, there is a lot of religion that has long been and remains very much about physics and biology.

    Physics : look at (say) the whole Galileo affair, or What the *bleep* do we know?

    Biology : uh, ever heard of creationism and its objections to evolution?

    Many, many, many people make their religion all about physics and biology.

    It doesn’t HAVE to be that way… but denying that it is is just as much ignoring the elephant in the room as thinking that a science education advocacy organization doesn’t have to consider the issue of religion.

  • Rob Knop

    bad jim @37 : How does a Unitarian express rage? By burning a question mark on somebody’s lawn….

  • Peter Beattie

    It’s been simultaneously amusing and horrifying to read through the comments on my post about the misguided atheist holiday display in Illinois. This is still the Internet after all, and “reading comprehension” is not a highly valued skill, even among subsamples self-selected for their logic and reasoning abilities.

    In brief: thinking that atheists shouldn’t be needlessly obnoxious doesn’t make me a “faithiest” or an “accommodationist” or someone without the courage of my convictions.

    I just went back to look at those comments, and I’m wondering. Out of 120 comments, only three were so critical to even use the words ‘fatheist’, ‘accommodationist’, or ‘hypocrite’ (one person each). Not only is that not horrifying, at the same time at least a dozen people wrote very positive remarks. So it’s hardly fair to characterise the comments as “simultaneously amusing and horrifying”. At least that would be very curiously biased.

    What’s more, some of those critical of you made some good points. Why, for example, should one accord religious believers more respect than atheists? Why shouldn’t you argue for atheism at that particular place? Somehow you seem to think that’s not okay, but you don’t seem to say why exactly.

    And speaking of “horrifying”, there were two posts by people who trotted out the well-worn and well idiotic ‘arguments’ that Stalin killed people of faith and that some (unnamed, of course) Commercially Successful Atheists were “just as dogmatic and hateful as many Christians”. I would have thought those much more worthy of a comment by you than someone who says, “I’m sorry, but you sir are being a hypocrite.”

    Lastly, for you then to insult those people by saying that it’s their fault for misunderstanding what you said seems a bit much. And while we’re on the subject of reading comprehension, how does “Religion is just myth and superstition” translate into “You are a contemptible idiot”?

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  • Surferosad

    I think we (meaning we unbelievers) should stay nice as long as they (meaning they the faithful) are nice.

    But see, I can’t stand obvious crackpotery and bullshit, and I tend to take hokum personally, particularly if they it’s connected with my particular area of knowledge. Creationism is an insult to biology, young earth creationism is an insult to biology and geology, and so on.

    Therefore, as soon as the faithful start spouting bullshit, it’s open season. I mean, lets call a spade a spade!

    I think many people tend to confuse tolerance with respect.

  • joel rice

    #42 Rob – I am not aware of any religion that takes cognizance of atoms or cells. I am not
    ‘defining religion’. Preachers do not usually go on about DNA or the Lamb Shift. They do
    go on a rant if the ACLU trashes their traditions, which it does on a regular basis, along
    with plenty of other groups.
    #40 Farhat – please check out the other side.The First Amendment guarantees freedom of
    religious expression, but the court came up with some garbage from a letter from Jefferson
    about a ‘wall of separation’ which was just his personal opinion. Now you can be thrown out
    of a school just for bringing a bible. Now you are seeing a backlash because constitutional
    rights are being trashed. There is wholesale re-writing of American History – that the
    founders were Deists,etc. George Washington declared ‘days of fasting and repentance’.
    If you rewrite my history then I will rewrite yours. No more mister nice guy.
    #34 Rick – your point deserves to be amplified. Religious folks go out on a limb and put
    their beliefs in public, for example the Westminster Confession, where others can snipe
    and heckle. What do atheists believe that is of any consequence to civilization, to the
    upbringing of children, to the form of government. Do atheists have principles, or do they
    put their finger in the air to see which way the wind blows. If you think it does not matter
    well maybe not today, but it did in Russia in 1917. You can see it today in the disregard
    for the moral hazards of ‘securitizing’ mortgage loans and dumping them on those down
    the line – how is your economy doing ????? Ideas do indeed have consequences.

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  • Janus


    you’re not an accomodationist, but you have way too much respect for religious beliefs and those who hold them. Saying “I disagree with you” is appropriate when discussing questions that involve a certain amount of uncertainty, questions like “Who will win the next Superbowl?”, “What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics?”, or even “Will Obama be assassinated before his term is over?” However, it is not appropriate to meekly express one’s disagreement when the remaining uncertainty is so small as to be negligible, such as in questions like “Can witchcraft cure cancer?”, “Did the creator of the universe pick a tribe of barbaric desertmen as his ‘Chosen People?”, or “Did the archangel Gabriel dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad?”

    By publicly treating these laughably ridiculous beliefs as if they were merely _mistaken_, as if this was a debate between two groups of reasonable people, you are implying that these beliefs _aren’t_ laughably ridiculous. This is a lie, and it helps sustain the veneer of false respectability that religious beliefs are protected by. It’s the kind of thing a faitheist would do.

  • Farhat

    I agree with Janus. The idea that religious people would be nice and respect you back if you are nice and respectful to them is a mistaken one. Crawling on your belly in supplication will not get any kudos from them.

  • Janus

    A continuation of my comment above:

    Sean wrote: “We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise.”

    It has been proven otherwise. To admit that your reason for believing a proposition is _faith_ is to admit that you know you’re deceiving yourself. How else could an educated, 21st century adult believe in religious nonsense?


    Your comment doesn’t really correspond to what I or Sean wrote.

  • SS

    I completely agree. While we may not find certain ideas worthy of respect, most people are worthy of being treated with respect. I find that the best time and place for that manner of bluntness is online articles, such as this one recently from Sam Harris:

  • J.C. Samuelson

    @ #44 Peter Beattie:

    Why, for example, should one accord religious believers more respect than atheists?

    Restraint is not the same as respect, and the promotion of an idea need not entail expressing contempt for its competitors.

    Why shouldn’t you argue for atheism at that particular place?

    It does seem odd to complain, as Sean did, that “[t]here is a place to argue for one’s worldview” in the context of public holiday displays. However, I have to ask, is impugning religion an argument in favor of atheism?

    I tend to think atheists often have a lot more going for us than our ability to render harsh critiques of religion, though you wouldn’t know it to hear (or read) some of us. Which, I guess, is really what these posts are all about.

    And while we’re on the subject of reading comprehension, how does “Religion is just myth and superstition” translate into “You are a contemptible idiot”?

    I think it helps if you read the whole quote: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

    Whether such a statement could be said to be true or not, generalizing about an entire demographic and calling them implacable zombies doesn’t seem like a very good way to promote one’s own position as worth listening to by someone who doesn’t already agree. Maybe they’re banking on the principle that controversy sells, but it seems more like gratuitous thumping to me.

  • Kevin

    #41 Rob Knop:
    “Being religious” is not the same as “religion.” All that the success of religious scientists shows is that human beings can live with a certain level of cognitive dissonance; this does nothing to support accommodationist views about the compatibility of science with the actual, substantial claims that religions make.

    #47 joel rice:
    “Now you can be thrown out of a school just for bringing a bible.”
    I highly doubt that this has actually occurred. In the public high school I attended not too long ago, we studied the Bible as literature in Freshman English, and a Bible study group met during lunch like any other club. If anyone has ever been “thrown out of a school just for bringing in a bible,” there’s no doubt that that’s a violation of the Constitution, and single, isolated incidents like that still aren’t the norm. Also, many (though not all) of the Founding Fathers _were_ deists. Those claiming America is a “Christian nation” are the ones rewriting history.

  • Rob Knop

    I agree with Janus. The idea that religious people would be nice and respect you back if you are nice and respectful to them is a mistaken one.

    Farhat — I am religions. I respect Sean. I do not respect PZ Myers. I do not have enough data, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure I’m likely to respect either your or Janus.

    Just a data point against your dogmatic assertion.

  • Peter Beattie

    » J.C. Samuelson:
    However, I have to ask, is impugning religion an argument in favor of atheism?

    In spite of your strawish wording—nobody said the signs had that particular function—I would actually say, Yes, it can be. Some ideas are so ridiculous and so entrenched that can be legitimate, effective, and perhaps even necessary to ridicule or impugn them, as applicable. I think Voltaire’s and Jefferson’s arguments are still valid in that regard.

    I think it helps if you read the whole quote: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

    No it does not help, which is why I left it out, obviously. How would that turn the sentence into “You are a contemptible idiot”? That was pretty much the starting point of Sean’s piece, and I cannot see any logical path from the actual sign that would get you there.

    That an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners approach will get on some people’s tits at least some of the time is beyond doubt and beyond argument. (It isn’t much of argument either, though.) But the need for different strategies is certainly also beyond doubt. Which leaves the only possible bone of contention as the particular venue in question. And Sean hasn’t given an actual argument why the atheist sign was out of place there, when apparently the nativity displays were not. (They surely get on some people’s tits at least some of the time.) I don’t doubt that there could be an argument, but nobody should be convinced just because Sean (or anyone) says so.

  • Liam

    Well written Mr. Carroll.

  • Ray Gedaly

    #34 Rick’s question about atheists now has me pondering about other groups of non-believers, for example:

    People who don’t believe in global warming; what do they believe?

    People who don’t believe in leprechauns; what do they believe?

    People who don’t believe in using their blinker when making a turn; what do they believe?

    People on the subway who obviously don’t believe in bathing; what do they believe?

  • greg

    Being “nice” sure makes you feel good. Feel better now, everyone?

    While evolution is trying to be taught in science class?
    While people try to murder cartoonists?
    While people try to prevent embryonic stem cell research?
    While people think it’s better to die from AIDS than use a condom?

    I beg to differ. I’m into reality and human freedom. And I will say so.
    Is that so offensive? I guess it is in Ireland now with their blasphemy law.
    Now you can go to jail for offending irrationality! Better be polite!

    Why be polite to someone whose views are speed bumps on the road to human progress and happiness? Look where all this politeness has gotten us – nowhere. Except maybe the gradual erosion of the basic tenets of the Enlightenment.

  • Gordon

    Amen, Greg. Someone mentioned Stephen J Gould’s essay “Non-overlapping Magisteria”
    What craven sophistry! Liberal guilt straining not to offend, but very offensive.
    Sure, most religious folks are basically deluded, but harmless—except when it comes to
    indoctrinating their children. But why should stories that were deemed useful in controlling
    folks over 2000 years ago—basically semitic tribes, continue to be believed and followed when
    we should know better and there actually are explanations that did not exist then?
    I do think that your viewpoint is accomodationist, Sean. We atheists need to hang together, or else hang separately. The US is almost as much a theocracy as Iran. From the perspective of a Canadian, it is really hard to believe this arrested development.

  • joel rice

    #58 Ray – when it involves tax money, and people politicize it, and ram it down your throat
    then it matters. Re global warming – What does Lomborg believe ? Read his book. What does
    Freeman Dyson believe – watch his youtube video. I’ve seen some refer to Dyson as an idiot
    but maybe they ought to read his Advanced Quantum Mechanics.
    Frankly, there are lots of idiotic ideas that disappear without getting the underwear in a
    #60 Gordon – the whole point of religion is to ‘indoctrinate’ children so they don’t grow up
    to be obnoxious. Do you think children are enlightenment oriented rationalists ? If you
    leave a window open they will throw their sibling out the window. It takes some pretty
    scary stories to get the attention. Look at all the failed social experiments and you will
    see why it is a matter of what works – imperfect though it may be. Theocracy my foot.
    The kids I remember were throwing spitballs while they were supposedly being indoctrinated. The picture you paint has nothing to do with the reality. And there are
    as many loonies in Canada as down here – viz your idiotic hate speech laws, and political
    correctness run amok.

  • Craig

    Nix Says:
    To criticize anyone for opposing Atheism, especially in the realm where there can never be strong evidence in either direction, is arrogant.

    What would count as strong evidence? Do you need an A priori proof? Does the argument from evil count? Moreover just because there are limits to how certain we can be about things doesn’t mean that we are justified in believing it.
    For what its worth I don’t think most people really believe in god. They just sincerely believe they believe in god. That way they can signal to all their religious friends that they are one of the good guys while limiting the extent of their nutty beliefs. That’s why they don’t celebrate the death of their loved ones. It’s also why they always accuse atheists of being arrogant. They already know there’s no god, but how can they maintain their belief that they believe with all these atheists reminding them that their god doesn’t exist. Its like pointing out to someone that their wife isn’t the most beautiful women in the world. They already know that, but they value the self-deception.
    For what its worth I think that while it might or might not be great if all atheist messages could make people feel warm and fuzzy, in the real world atheists are going to step on some toes. Yeah some atheists can be jerks about it, I am sometimes, but so what? People shouldn’t continue to feel pressured to say there is a god, when they know full well that there isn’t one.

  • Gordon

    Children are indoctrinated with religion so they wont be obnoxious??? Are you kidding?
    And you accuse me of not dealing with Reality….
    Actually there are not as many “loonies” in Canada as in the USA. The US has cornered the
    market on born-again evangelicals. Other than a small Alberta contingent ( which, unfortunately includes our PM) there are proportionately very few born again, or any
    other variety of religious loonies.
    I am actually very tolerant of Deists. Most of your founding fathers were varieties of Deists or
    atheists. It is the Theists who are particularly ignorant and irritating. (The ball players crossing themselves so God gives them a hit…)

  • joel rice

    Gordon – i am repeating what Sister Mary said on the first day of sunday school – so we
    don’t grow up to be animals. It is not guesswork on my part.
    No – most of our founders were not deists – they were rather conventional in
    their views at that time. There are plenty of books on it and plenty of web resources
    for anyone who bothers to look.

  • Gordon

    No they weren’t–Jefferson and John Adams had very agnostic letters to each other. At most,
    they were deists. Yes, there are plenty of web resources on it , for anyone who cares to look. You cannot just say they weren’t and that books say so—that is either deceptive or pig ignorant.(Dont know where that saying comes from–pigs are smarter than a lot of religious folk.)
    And, in case you didn’t know, sshhhh, we are animals.

  • Gordon

    joel, do you even know what a Deist is? Someone with a belief in a God, but not a personal God
    who answers prayers. Find a reference that shows FFs believing in a personal God.
    BTW, I find it personally offensive that biblical literalists actually believe that God gave
    Man dominion over the animals. Also— the religious belief that somehow Man is `special`
    and different from other animals. That belief has led to the erroneous belief in those religious folks who allow for belief in evolution, to believe in the discredited `Great Chain of Being` that
    we are the supreme culmination of evolution.

  • J.C. Samuelson


    In spite of your strawish wording—nobody said the signs had that particular function…

    Of course not, and I was not implying that the sign has the function of impugning religion. Clearly it has more content than that. However, the sign includes the derogatory statement as a part of its content, so the question remains relevant, in my opinion.

    In any case, you had asked “Why shouldn’t you argue for atheism at that particular place,” so I wondered back whether an attack against religion (part of the sign content) is itself really an argument for atheism.

    It’s not that I disagree with the statement as much as I’ve grown tired of negative arguments.

    I would actually say, Yes, it can be. Some ideas are so ridiculous and so entrenched that can be legitimate, effective, and perhaps even necessary to ridicule or impugn them, as applicable. I think Voltaire’s and Jefferson’s arguments are still valid in that regard.

    The question isn’t whether it’s legitimate to impugn bad ideas (of course it is – or can be – though I’d still consider context), but whether it’s effective or necessary to engage in negative generalizations about people.

    No it does not help, which is why I left it out, obviously. How would that turn the sentence into “You are a contemptible idiot”? That was pretty much the starting point of Sean’s piece, and I cannot see any logical path from the actual sign that would get you there.

    No need to be literal, is there? Implying that a religious person must be “hard hearted” (uncaring, implacable, ruthless) with an “enslaved mind” (thoughtless, zombie-like) because that’s what religion in general produces shouldn’t be taken as an insult from a religious person’s pespective? And moreover, what do you think someone who doesn’t have a theological axe to grind would make of it?

    Which leaves the only possible bone of contention as the particular venue in question. And Sean hasn’t given an actual argument why the atheist sign was out of place there, when apparently the nativity displays were not.

    You have a point, of course. And I can’t speak for the author. For myself, it’s not that the atheist sign was out-of-place (it wasn’t, in my mind) but that a portion of its content seems needlessly provocative.

    Most of the message on the sign is great. Why spoil it with filler insults? Besides, I don’t define my worldview by the problems associated with one I oppose.

  • Peter Beattie

    J.C., thanks for the response. We seem to have been at somewhat cross purposes. I’ll try to clarify some of the issues you raised.

    On the “argue for atheism” point, I’d probably have to refer to the working definition of ‘atheist’ as ‘someone who hasn’t seen any convincing reason to believe in a divine being’. In that sense to argue for atheism would include to point to the fact that there are no good reasons for belief and a couple of positively striking ones against it.

    whether it’s effective or necessary to engage in negative generalizations about people

    The sign, however, was about religion, not religious people. It said, “Religion … hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” It’s about the idea, not the people who hold it. And it’s not an undue generalization, either. ‘Smoking causes cancer’ is a perfectly valid statement, even though smoking doesn’t cause cancer in every single smoker—that much is understood. Looking at it from that angle, I think there can’t be much doubt that religion has the properties the sign ascribes to it.

    because “that’s what religion in general produces” isn’t exactly neutral, is it?

    Of course it isn’t, but what’s your point here? Even a mild joke wouldn’t have been neutral, and you wouldn’t have argued against that, would you? In any case, why would you demand neutrality? Because of the venue? Because it was Christmas? Would you have demanded such neutrality towards an astrological display?

    And in any case, Sean specifically said that the sign amounted to saying, “You are a contemptible idiot”. First, as I’ve said, the sign was about the idea, not the people; second, it describes factual aspects and consequences of religion, it does not express contempt. People might read it that way, but that’s a different thing. If you think the consequences are comtemptible, that’s fine, but that’s certainly not the fault of the person pointing them out.

    And as to “needlessly provocative”: who decides? For what goal? Mind you, I agree that it could be. I’d just like to see some actual arguments. If, for example, you could state a worthy goal and come up with a slogan that you can argue to be more effective for that goal, great, then we’re all ears. :)

    But making factual, if uncomfortable, statements in public isn’t being a jerk. Pissing in a holy water font is being a jerk.

  • joel rice

    Gordon – good grief. I don’t see other critters building the LHC. Something ‘special’ is going
    on. I did not say that I believe Genesis – only that those who do have the same right to their
    views as anyone else. Most people do not keep up with science. The more specialized
    civilization becomes the less likely anyone even has the time to keep current.
    Even the wiki page on Founders lists religious affiliation. M Novak has an intereting
    quote from Jefferson. How about Sanderson’s “Biography of the Signers to the Declaration
    of Independence” – see John Witherspoon, for example. Wanna know why we don’t have a
    king down here ? The most popular slogan during the Revolution was “No King but Jesus”.
    You are cherry picking. ‘… it’s what they know that ain’t so.” Will Rogers.
    Do ya think William of Occam was a Deist ?

  • Gordon

    Referring to a past when religion was the norm and ignorance was rampant doesnt wash.
    Whatever those folks really were, they were risking careers and lives if they denied God.
    Also, you are cherry picking. Read any of the great three books, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris—-they quote letters of the FF to each other—-you can hardly credit political public
    views. Look at the US. In Europe, it doesnt matter in a politician if he-she is an atheist or not.
    In the US, you would never even be nominated if you were one. Most likely, you would be burned at the stake. Both Jefferson and Adams made very direct atheistic-deistic statements.
    I suspect that their use of the word `God` was similar to Einstein`s—–ie certainly not theistic, which Einstein later explicitly stated, saying he was misunderstood.
    You prove that the USA is a theocracy, at least, in thought. Obama and Clinton and all the
    pretenders had to make continual reference to how religious they were, just in case they
    might be mistaken for someone intelligent.

  • Gordon

    In case you get the impression that I am sniping at Democrats, the Republicans were
    orders of magnitude worse. I guess I just thought that goes without saying.

  • joel rice

    If Tom Paine wasn’t burned at the stake then your hypothesis fails.
    I have read Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris – again, I am not impressed.
    Nobody is fooled by Obama or Clinton.
    I see that you are into believing things. I prefer skepticism.

  • Gordon

    Here is some Thomas Paine:
    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
    — Thomas Paine, (1737-1809), The Age of Reason, pt. 1, “The Author’s Profession of Faith” (1794), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

    Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.
    — Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine (which contains no pagination or source citations)

    It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.
    — Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine (which contains no pagination or source citations)

    There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those imposters and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.
    — Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine (which contains no pagination or source citations)
    john adams:
    Ben Franklin:
    [1706-1790] American public official, writer, scientist, and printer who played a major part in the American Revolution.

    “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1758

    “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

    “He (the Rev. Mr. Whitefield) used, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.” Franklin’s Autobiography

    “In the affairs of the world, men are saved, not by faith, but by the want of it.”

    �Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle�s Lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect precisely the reverse of what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself. In a word, I soon became a thorough Deist.�

    “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life, I absenteed myself from Christian assemblies.”
    etc etc

  • J.C. Samuelson


    Thanks for the response. Yes, it does seem we were arguing at cross purposes. I also got a chuckle out of your response because you must’ve seen my response within 10 minutes of my posting it, because your quotes are prior to a couple minor, clarifying changes I made.

    Just good timing, I’m sure. :-)

    As far as slogans, I like the atheist bus campaign slogan, for example. You know, the “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and go enjoy your life” or something very close to that slogan. There are other positive expressions that aren’t exactly “slogans” (or even slogan-ish) too, but at the moment I’m pressed.

    And this thread has about run its course for me. I got to spout off, now I can go read my Kindle.

  • coolstar

    I MIGHT be willing to give the Bald Astronomer more BOD if he didn’t do things like make his claim that James Randi’s famous denial of AGW didn’t actually make Randi an AGW denialist. Of course, the BA was still being paid by Randi at the time (which may or may not have been causative, the BA himself probably doesn’t really know but I’m sure he has an opinion).

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  • Marilyn

    Last one, in your way out turn lights off, please.

  • Michael

    The accommodationists are wrong. Why? Because no religion that currently exists is compatible with science.
    That being said, that doesn’t mean the idea of being inspired or of having a feeling of being somehow part of something larger isn’t compatible with science. Many people are religious precisely because they experienced these feelings while attending church. I happen to get this feeling while learning more about the world (& the universe!) around me, and how much a part of it we all really are.
    So, if an accommodationist wishes to reconcile those types of feelings with science, then I’m all for it. Carl Sagan expressed this very same sentiment numerous times, as did Albert Einstein. Unfortunately. modern day accommodationists are trapped in the “holy-book” -driven form of religious dogma, which is fundamentally incompatible with modern science.
    BTW, nice post!

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  • Christopher Johnson

    I actually once saw a man on TV declaring that whenever he hears someone say “Happy Holidays!” he wants to punch them in the nose, because these horrible people are supposedly “taking the Christ out of Christmas”. Unfortunately, in the US, you do not have to go far to encounter this widely-held sentiment.
    People who say “Happy Holidays” are genuinely trying to be polite to people of all beliefs, and yet somehow this act of politeness still incites violence. One despairs.

  • goldie08

    God never made a religion. God is Life.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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