My Latest Podcast At Books And Ideas

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 30, 2009 6:13 am

I recently spoke with Ginger Campbell, host of the Books and Ideas podcast, about Unscientific America. We spent a lot of time discussing the path to a PhD, interdisciplinary education, emerging opportunities in policy and beyond, ScienceDebate, Hollywood, and even why Ginger doesn’t read science blogs. It was an interesting conversation and the audio is now available here.

MORE ABOUT: Ginger Campbell

Comments (89)

  1. Paul W.

    Wow. Same two Big Straw Men about the new atheism.

    Way to stay on message.

  2. Paul W.

    Faith and science are perfectly compatible in the same way that marriage and adultery are. (Hat tip to Coyne.)

    Of course it’s not true that you can’t be a scientist and be a believer—all of the New Atheists have acknowledged that all along. That doesn’t make science and religion “perfectly compatible.”

    Also, nice unsubstantiated claims about how the only effect of the New Atheism is to alienate people.

    Apparently you’ve disproven Overton’s thesis. Citation please.

  3. Paul W.

    You make it sound like the “New Atheists” aren’t interested in political issues or political strategy, and are only interested in flaunting their atheism, so they irresponsibly tie science to atheism to make atheism look better.

    That’s not fair, and I think that you know it, and have known it for quite a while now.

    The “New” atheists are actually interested in a broader range of social phenomena than you are—more than just a little watered-down evolution in schools and environmental policy.

    They also base their position in a broader range of science than you do, and correctly point out that a lot of socio-political problems are rooted in antiscientific ideas fostered by orthodox religion. (Emphatically not just fundamentalism.)

    In particular, science and religion do conflict over a central tenet of most popular religion, especially in the U.S.: the existence and/or nature of the traditional dualistic soul.

    That tenet underpins a lot of intractable political controversy about abortion, stem cell research, and sexuality, e.g., gay rights, distribution of condoms in HIV-afflicted Africa, etc.

    By your reasoning with respect to the New Atheists, apparently you don’t care about millions of unnecessary deaths from AIDS, of brown people on another continent, due to clearly antiscientific religious dogma and its effects on political discourse.

    I don’t actually think that, of course, but I think that you’re grossly misrepresenting what the New Atheists are actually saying and why they’re actually saying it.

    That’s not fair, or even honest.

    It’s not merely accidental that two of the Four Horsemen are mind/brain guys—Harris is a neuroscientist, and Dennett is a philosopher of mind.

    They know that the real threat to religion from science isn’t evolution by natural selection, per se, but the science of the mind—whether cast as evolutionary psychology or just plain old empirical cognitive neuroscience. Evolution provides a nice frame story, but the ber meets the road at the empirical facts of cognitive science.

    What too few people realize—partly because people like you don’t want them to realize it—is that the scientific facts compellingly refute the traditional concept of the soul. There is no soul that is the person in the sense that most people have thought for thousands and thousands of years.

    The mind is mostly, if not exclusively, the functioning of the brain, and what makes you a person, and makes you the person you are, is at least mostly the structure and function of your brain—not some other soul-thing.

    This has staggering theological implications—which is why Francis Crick called it “The Astonishing Hypothesis”—but it’s the received view in cognitive science and philosophy of mind.

    It’s the single most important scientific fact that most people don’t know, and for the sake of your narrow political agenda and short-term strategy, you’re happy to cover it up, so as not to freak out the rubes.

    You are participating in—and even trying to organize—the coverup of what are arguably the most philosophically and politically important facts known to science, because the masses aren’t ready for that.

    We must instead feed them pablum—convenient lies to children, reassuring them that of course, Virginia, there really is a soul and science doesn’t say anything about anything really interesting or important like that.


  4. Paul W.

    By the way, I thought it was really pathetic how Ginger Campbell parrotted your summary of the AAAS statement, and you acted like that was just how it is.

    The AAAS statement, and your summary, are not scientifically valid, do not represent a scientific consensus, and do not represent the views of the relevant experts in the AAAS.

    It’s a hackish PR statement that plays fast and loose with the truth, and actually goes against the closest thing to a consensus among the relevant scientists, both in general and within the AAAS.

    I could practically see Nisbet and Mooney’s lips moving when you used the AAAS as a sock puppet.

    You and the AAAS ought to be ashamed of that.

  5. Paul W.

    BTW, using the AAAS as a sock puppet in such an intentionally misleading way is, to coin a phrase,
    mendacious intellectual pornography. (Hat tip to John Kwok.)

  6. Cari

    Loon alert! Whoa–this dude is nuts!

  7. Paul W.


    Are you actually saying that there is a consensus in the AAAS (or the NAS) that faith and religion “are perfectly compatible” as per the podcast?

    Or are you just making an ad hominem argument?

    That’s supposed to be a no-no around here.

    I’ve got $10 that says you can’t make a logically sound argument against my position. No gratuitious insults, no dismissive ad hominems, no arguments from authority, and no bait-and-switch “fallacies of four terms.”)

    Try it. Make my day.

  8. Pat Hayes

    Just to set the record straight, there are others out here who agree with Paul W. on every point. But he does such a good job, there’s no point in chiming in :-)

    Keep trying to make the world a brighter place, guys.

  9. Jon

    In another thread, Paul W accused “accommodationists” of “cherry picking” because they sometimes omitted arguments for the other side. Using that logic, Paul W. “cherry picks” quite a bit here–although I think this is a sloppy use of the term “cherry picking” which refers to data, and not everything is data.

    In that thread, he challenged me to discuss my arguments against New Atheism. But I already made those arguments with him here. Yes, Habermas is arguing for a separation of secular reason and religious reason, and I’m actually inclined to agree with Habermas against Taylor, that secular notions of ethics and religious (soteriological) notions of ethics should be distinguished. But Habermas also calls himself an agnostic and emphatically says that he’s not ranking Kantian reason over religious reason. Habermas and Taylor disagree, but surely, there’s a huge gulf between Habermas and Taylor’s position and that of the New Atheists. Personally, I’m much more convinced by Habermas and Taylor than the New Atheists, who I think have a very narrow view.

    Paul’s view mirror’s the views of this professor of religion. As the commenters in his thread say, the things this professor says are not self evident and beyond argumentation. I agree.
    Click the link that says “A cognitive revolution?” at the top of the post to see the whole discussion. It’s pretty interesting. (Charles Taylor himself has done some posts on this blog.)

    I think my overall point is that the New Atheists don’t give opposing positions their due. Consequently, their acolytes don’t either, but without the veneer of academic collegiality that you get from Dennett or Dawkins. So you get this Bill O’Reilly-like tone from acolytes who’ve read Dawkins or Dennett and think that any other view must be just ridiculous.

    For instance Dennett outright rejects separation between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. How many New Atheists even know what those mean, or even care? What are the consequences of that rejection? What is the case for not rejecting them? Questions like these are the last things on the mind of “movement atheists.” They’re too busy unreflectively browbeating everyone who disagrees with them.

    More of a liberal arts education beyond the sciences would help to get a sense of what’s on the other side of the gulf from the science-only mindset. For instance, I’d suggest Isaiah Berlin’s *Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities.*

  10. bilbo

    Angry much, Paul? Jesus H. Christ, that was quite the crazy loon rant.

  11. Vindrisi

    “You are participating in—and even trying to organize—the coverup of what are arguably the most philosophically and politically important facts known to science, because the masses aren’t ready for that.”

    Oooo, a conspiracy theory. Yeah, that’s a sign of a rational mind, now isn’t it?

  12. Jon

    By the way, in my paragraph 3: I included this to show that a certain strictly “empiricist”/materialist view of mind is far from conclusive. But even if you agreed with professor Slingerland, it doesn’t need to matter, you could *still* grant merit to a distinction between soteriology and epistemology as I described in my comment from several days ago.

  13. Paul W.

    bilbo, Vindrisi,

    Jeez guys, ad hominem much? Pretty pathetic.

    Seems like anybody who doesn’t pussyfoot around gets tarred as “angry” if you don’t like what they’re saying.

    Vindrisi, do you actually disagree with any of the following?

    1. Modern neuroscience strongly suggests that the soul as traditionally conceived does not exist–i.e., that straight substance dualism is false, and that things previously assumed to be done by the soul (thinking, remembering, emoting, making value judgements) happens primarily if not exclusively in the material brain?

    2. This contradicts most people’s religious conception of the soul?

    3. That’s arguably one of the most interesting facts in science.

    4. This traditional conception of the soul underpins a lot of religious rhetoric about political issues, (e.g., a zygote is a person, procreation is sacred and therefore subject to God’s strictures, etc.)

    5. That’s part of the New Atheists’s points about the conflict between science and religion, both in terms of where religion conflicts with science and in terms of why we should care, politically?

    6. Mooney et al. actively engage in PR that downplays this particular conflict, and seems to deny it even exists—faith and science “are perfectly compatible”—for political reasons? They actively try to organize PR efforts like that, so that others will at least sound like they deny that the conflict exists.

    If you’re going to disagree, disagree with the freaking argument, don’t just take cheap potshots at the conclusion.

  14. Paul W.


    I don’t have time right now to do your post justice, but just let me say something about that point about your paragraph 3.

    The “empiricist”/materialist view of the mind doesn’t have to be conclusive for the facts of neuroscience to seriously undermine the traditional conception of the soul. (Watch out for the ambiguity in “empiricist”; that has special meaning in cognition, and few people are empiricists in that sense anymore.)

    It is quite evident that the structure and function of the mind quite intricately depend on the structure and functioning of the brain, even if you’re not convinced of, say, a computational account of the mind, like Dennet’s.

    So, for example, John Searle, Roger Penrose, Hubert Dreyfus, and David Chalmers seem to think that the brain is wonder tissue that does things a universal Turing machine can’t do.

    If I’m not mistaken, none of those guys think that offers any hope of a traditional dualistic soul. They just think it makes some things the brain does incomputable in certain senses. (Dreyfus seems to be mostly okay with analog connectionist computation, just not digital computation; Penrose thinks there’s weird quantum computation going on in the microtubules of brain cells; Chalmers is a dualist, but a property dualist, not a substance dualist—the mind still depends crucially on the material brain, but consciousness depends on different aspects of matter than are understood by current scientific “materialism.”)

    Don’t take that as an argument from those guys’ authority (I happen to think they’re all a little cracked in different ways), just an existence proof that there’s a variety of “antireductionist” stuff (in some sense) that doesn’t accept a model a lot like Dennett’s, but still bows to the obvious empirical fact that the mind is grotesquely dependent on the brain, and abandons the traditional (substance dualist) soul.

    There’s also still some substance dualism hanging around, although I can’t think of anybody prominent in philosophy of mind or cognitive science, but even that generally yields to the empirical facts about the mind/brain dependence—you may have a soul, and maybe it is in some sense the real you, but it’s not much like people have thought souls were for thousands of years.

  15. Jon

    I haven’t used the word “soul” in any of my comments that I’m aware of. I’ve talked about soteriology in general, as Taylor and Habermas are doing in that dialog. They’re talking about the project of salvation in the abstract. Different religions have different notions (as Taylor reminds us at the end) and many don’t even have a notion of a soul. Both Taylor and Habermas respect religious ideas of salvation, and have a tolerance for them in the tradition of Western liberalism. To get into the details of what is or is not a “soul” is wrestling with theological concepts. Unless you anchor it in a particular religious context, it’s probably hard to argue about. I’m not keen on arguing about it either. I just think the excessive and harsh intellectual policing that the New Atheists want to do is wrongheaded and counter to the tradition of Western liberalism.

  16. Paul W.


    I’m seriously scratching my head over what you’re really trying to say.

    Why is soteriology so all-fired important to you, but souls are “theological concepts” that are “hard to argue about”?

    I don’t think that soteriology per se is any more cross-culturally important than souls, or as cross-culturally important in various religions. (Sure, it’s very important in many religions, but soteriology is often built on top of soul concepts)

    Pretty much all cultures have a substance dualist conception of the soul. (Though some versions of some Eastern religions have a very reduced one, with far fewer enduring features than in most cultures.)

    That’s one reason that the New Atheist critique of religion is so broad—there is a nearly universal feature of religion that science does in fact cast so much doubt on that everybody should hear about it.

    That’s almost the furthest thing from Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s politically convenient fib that “faith and religion are perfectly compatible.”

    Almost anybody who isn’t already familiar with these issues would assume that that meant most popular religion is clearly not contradicted by science. (Except for fundamentalism, evidently—they explicitly attack.)

    If we’re going to speak in crude sound-bite overgeneralizations as Mooney and Kirschenbaum do, it’s just false to say that faith and religion are compatible.
    (That is, it’s false in most specific cases—most religions have at least one fairly central tenet that is fairly clearly contradicted by some scientific knowledge or other.)

    The crude generalization that science and religion are incompatible is much closer to true in at least this sense—most religions have at least one major tenet that pretty clearly contradicts some scientific knowledge.

    There’s the deeper issue of whether faith per se conflicts with central principles of science per se, but let’s not go there right now. For the moment, I’m just trying to establish that as generalizations go, “faith and religion are perfectly compatible” is a bad one, and more nearly false than true.

    It sounds to me like you actually more or less agree with this point, but are loath to admit it, and desperately want to change the subject to philistinism and the Argument from Tone.

    My point about souls is that some basic facts about brain science pretty clearly contradict thousands of years of conventional religious wisdom in most religions. Substance dualism is nearly universal in orthodox religion, and also afflicts the majority of heterodox religions. (E.g., New Age stuff, most theologically liberal Christianity, etc.)

    Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, say so and we can move on to soteriology and geistwissenschaft, and “respect” for such things vs. philistinism, and “intellectual policing” vs. “liberalism” and all that.

    If you disagree, say so, and try to say why. Please.

    I honestly find much of what you write very unclear. It seems like you’re trying to make a fair number of particular claims, but then sometimes backing off to what seems like a heartfelt complaint about tone.

    It would help me disambiguate what you say if you would explicitly agree or disagree with a few of my basic points.

  17. Paul W.


    Do please tell me where you think my argument actually goes wrong. Pick a statement, from 1 to 6.

    All you have to type is one digit.

    Can you do that?

    You can throw in a few ad hominems if you want, but do please include one digit’s worth of actual information about what you agree or disagree with.

  18. Paul W.

    From the other thread…

    Me: Their simplistic model of politics and rhetoric can’t account for things like the rise of the religious right—which did not play nice—or the recent successes of the gay rights movement

    bilbo: Kind of like how the NAs’ “simplistic model” of religion and their absolutist rhetoric can’t account for things like the value of religious moderates who want to fight creationism and fundamentalism just like we do, Paul?

    Nice quote mine there. I especially liked the way you left out the sentence immediately before the one you quoted:

    There’s more to Overton arguments than you’re letting on, and I think that even if Overton is wrong, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are wrong too.

    Notice that I’m not saying that simple Overton arguments trump accommodationist arguments—in general, I don’t think they do and I’ve said so before, many times, and from the start.

    My point is not that Overton arguments aren’t simplistic, and beat accommodationis arguments—it’s that they are simplistic, but they’re a useful counterweight to more intuitive accommodationist arguments, which are just as simplistic and appear to be insufficient to explain what’s under discussion, in light of the facts on the ground.

    As for whose rhetoric is simplistic, obviously both sides’ rhetoric is pretty simplistic—nobody has a clear and compelling model of political discourse, so far as I can tell, and that includes Mooney and Kirschenbaum, who like to pretend to be the experts on communication about such things. I seriously doubt their expertise.

    As for whose rhetoric is more simplistic, I gotta say it’s clearly the accommodationists.

    Sure, the NA Overton rhetoric about political strategy is often disappointingly simplistic—I’m disappointed too, which is one reason I’m here.

    On the other hand, the New Atheists don’t usually deny the basic points of accommodationism—nobody pretends that there won’t be some polarization and backlash from being pointedly outspoken about atheism and conflicts. It may go unsaid too often, but I think that’s more because it’s assumed to be obviously true, rather than than because it’s denied.

    That’s why I keep saying that the New Atheists have always understood the accommodationist arguments. They do. They think that Overton arguments win in the long run.

    And in fact the New Atheist’s views are generally more subtle, and less “militant” than the accommodationists make them out to be. Most New Atheists are accommodationists sometimes, about some things, in some forums, because they do understand that you have to pick your battles, you do need to work with people you disagree with sometimes, etc. And sometimes the backlash from one thing will spill over into another. So it goes.

    A little digression:

    That’s why Mooney’s gloating about Dawkins getting off-topic questions—questions about atheism when he’s trying to discuss evolution per se—is ridiculous. Of course that’s going to happen, and of course Dawkins knew that it would. (He’s not stupid, after all.) That doesn’t mean he has to like it, or that it’s not worth it.)

    I seriously doubt that Mooney would say that kind of stuff if Dawkins had written a book about, say, how homosexuality is not unnatural and should not be stigmatized, and homophobes people are wrong about their moral and religious views in that regard.

    He would not be saying “I told you so!” if Dawkins complained about getting off-topic questions about homosexuality when he was trying to talk about the genetic evidence for common descent and natural selection. My guess he’d be saying that interviewers were being annoying twerps, and not questioning the reasonableness of Dawkins writing different books on related subjects.

    (Here’s another analogy. Suppose Sheril publishes her book on kissing, and is touring to tout it, and people keep going off topic and questioning anthropogenic global warming. Should Mooney say she shouldn’t have written stuff against AGW denialism if she didn’t want worked-up denialists derailing her discussions of kissing? Of course not. Should be surprised if that happens? Of course not. Should she be annoyed? Of course she should.)

    (BTW, I’ve been a radio interviewer myself and I’ve done that sort of thing. I’d shamelessly drag people’s interviews off to discuss their earlier, more interesting books for part of the interview. I didn’t think I owed it to them to make the whole interview about the book they’re getting free publicity for. It happens.)

    bilbo: Oh, wait – I forgot. A goal of NA is to eliminate those moderates. So they do account for them, but just wish they didn’t exist.

    The hell you say. That’s just shameless bullshitting.

    Either you’re shamelessly straw-manning or you’re shamelessly question-begging, but either way you’re saying something the opposite of the truth.

    Or possibly you have no actual idea at all what an Overton strategy is.

    Or maybe you’re just being a little prick.

    Either way, this is one of those situations where you shouldn’t get the vapors if somebody flips you off with a four-letter word followed by “you.”

  19. Jon

    I’m getting bored. I’ve already made my case why soteriology and epistemology are separate human projects, that science and religion are separate, although not 100% harmonious, projects (although certain parties have vested interests in making it more inharmonious than it is). I don’t hear anything convincing from your side to make me see otherwise, so I’m checking out of the discussion.

  20. Paul W.

    Continuing here from the “The Discovery Institute Gets Personal Thread”, where it was OT:

    Kwok: See you like painting with a broad brush, again, but what more can I expect when I know the one “painting” is you. I have the utmost respect for Barbara Forrest, especially since she has been in the vanguard keeping watch over the Dishonesty Institute’s nefarious activities.

    You don’t even see the irony here, do you?

    Hint: an argument from authority is a kind of broad brush.

    Moreover, her comments critical of Militant Atheists like yourself have been well-reasoned and well-stated.

    No, and your saying so doesn’t make me take her comments any more seriously. Less so, perhaps.

    Again, if you don’t like the political stance taken by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum towards your fellow Militant Atheists, why do you insist on participating here at virtually every discussion thread?

    Actually, I don’t do that. Usually just the threads where Mooney and Kirschenbaum have trotted out either or both of their two big straw men. Which is pretty much any thread mentioning the New Atheists, but nowhere near a majority of threads.

    I read a lot of other threads, and usually don’t comment on them, because I more or less agree and don’t feel I have any particularly interesting knowledge to add to the discussion.

    Just go home ASAP please to more friendly “terrain” over at Pharyngula and stay there.

    Does your mom know you’re trying to boss people around on the Internet again, little boy?

  21. Vindrisi


    I did not use an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem argument is one that makes the mistake of conflating the validity of another’s argument with some aspect of that other. I said nothing about your arguments. I noted something I have empirically determined over the course of my life: people who make wild accusations of coverups and conspiracies at the drop of a hat tend to be quite irrational. You made wild accusations of Mooney and others being part of a conspiracy to cover-up the implications of modern neurological findings for your conception of the “traditional” understanding of the soul within a dualistic framework. These accusations seem to be predicated on the fact that Chris and Sheril haven’t addressed this, to which you attribute motivations without really presenting any good evidence. You jump to such conclusions of conspiracy without first hypothesizing more reasonable and likely explanations, as a good scientist should, such as that perhaps they don’t find the subject terribly interesting, or really beside the points they wish to express or try to make regarding how they think science and religion can co-exist in peace. You see, I wasn’t addressing your arguments, and I don’t really want to. You have shown repeatedly on this blog that there isn’t much point in doing so because you never seem to care about trying to figure out the other person’s perspective or point beyond attempting to try to find something within their words to attack from your own fortified position. I don’t have the time to waste with arguing with someone like that, I don’t find it productive, and I certainly don’t find it interesting. This is as opposed to someone like Jon, with whom I know I don’t agree on every particular of share exactly the same perspective, but I enjoy occasionally discussing things with him because we can give each other a fair hearing and learn from our respective disagreements without a belligerent and dogmatic insistence on being considered absolutely correct.

    So, in short, Paul, you were preceding from a fatally flawed misconception of my above comment: I was not making an ad hominem attack on your arguments. I think the arguments are flawed but interesting, and I would enjoy discussing them with someone I if I thought it was worthwhile. With you it is not. If anything my comment was both an expression of my empirically-based association of conspiracy theories with irrationality, and thus a criticism of you, or, true, a sarcastic insult. Please note that regardless of the constant conflation of the two by NAs and others in the blogosphere, an ad hominem and an insult are quite distinct.

  22. Vindrisi


    I had not heard of soteriology before you brought it up. Thanks for doing so. It looks like a very interesting area of study that I will have to look into more.

  23. Paul W.


    I had not heard of soteriology before you brought it up.

    I think that makes you unqualified to participate in this discussion, or have a opinion about the topic, by Jon’s standards. You’re a barbarian at the gates, and a philistine for being so apallingly ignorant, but daring to nonetheless have an opinion about accommodationism.

    Watch out, you’ll send Jon to the fainting couch.

    You really need to bone up on your ancient Greek, archaic German, and theology.

    Or does that only work the other way?

  24. Paul W.


    Still waiting for that digit.

    I’m only asking for about two an a half bits of information, but I can cut that down a bit if you need me to.

    Thanks in advance.

  25. Jon

    It’s just a fancy word for salvation, and it makes a good parallel with the word epistemology. During the Enlightenment, epistemology’s stock rose and soteriology’s stock fell. I think it’s not an accident that Habermas mentions the subject of salvation in that dialog. I’ve heard him mention it before in public talks, so it must occupy an important space in his philosophical view. If you look across history and cultures, there have been many systems of soteriology, not just Christianity (although the term itself originates in the Christian West). Myself, I’m curious about what kind of place it has in Habermas philosophy, and why it keeps popping up in his talks. As I’ve said before, there’s something very different about the German philosophical tradition than the English. Someone once told me Kant got a lot of his inspiration in reaction to Hume… Honestly, though, it’s been quite a few years now since I really delved into this stuff.

  26. Vindrisi

    It’s just a fancy word for salvation, and it makes a good parallel with the word epistemology.

    Yeah, I noticed that from the brief Googling I did on it. I have noted that diverse array of salvation concepts and approaches in world religions, and it is a very interesting topic. I had no idea, though, that there was actually a branch of philosophy (or is it really more a form of theology?) that dealt with the issue. I should have expected there was, given how important the concept has been in human religions and approaches to understanding how to live in the world.
    I haven’t followed your advice yet to look up Habermas, but I will do so. You have me curious.

    I have heard that, too, about German philosophy, though I haven’t delved much into it, either. I really wonder what leads to such differences in areas of thought. Certainly it must have roots in sociology and language, but to what degree, and what effect do those resulting differences in thought then have on later developments and conclusions. As an evolutionary biologist, I always find it fascinating just how integral the concept of evolution, not just biological, is to understanding so much of the human world.

  27. Paul W.


    You are the one jumping to conclusions. I never said it was a “conspiracy.” I said it was a “coverup.”

    The funny thing is that they’re doing it right out in the open—it’s not a secret what they’re saying or why they’re saying it. As Jon says, “it’s about politics.” No secret cooperation, no conspiracy.

    Cooperation isn’t the same thing as conspiracy. Even cooperation to say deceptive things isn’t a conspiracy—or if you think it is, it’s pretty silly of you to think it’s irrational to believe in “conspiracies”; that sort of thing happens very frequently in politics. You don’t have to be a “conspiracy theorist” to believe that—just not an idiot.

    You may not like my use of the term “coverup.” I think I explained pretty clearly what I meant by it, and it’s pretty reasonable. If you don’t like the loaded term, I’m happy to retract it.

    How about a “systematically and misleading PR effort to distract from a basic issue”? Coverup seems pithier, and not inaccurate, but if you think it’s got misleading connotations, how about a deception?

    Nobody here, I mean NOBODY here—including you—-seems to be willing to stand up for what I call Straw Man #1 and say that it’s the actual truth, and not in fact a straw man.

    Instead, I get a constant barrage of invective of various forms, and most of it is clearly meant to be dismissive.

    Perhaps you were just insulting me, not making an actual ad hominem argument. By an odd coincidence, you tend to do that in a way that sounds really dismissive of a straight question you’ve just been asked.

    But maybe you’re just evasive, and being a prick to boot. Maybe there’s no connection.

    Well, okay. Fine. If that’s what’s going on, *CENSORED* YOU!, too.

    Happy now?

    Ready to answer a straight question with a straight answer?

    I didn’t think so.

  28. Paul W.


    You have shown repeatedly on this blog that there isn’t much point in doing so because you never seem to care about trying to figure out the other person’s perspective or point beyond attempting to try to find something within their words to attack from your own fortified position. I don’t have the time to waste with arguing with someone like that, I don’t find it productive, and I certainly don’t find it interesting.

    Vindrisi, you’re simply lying.

    You may honestly think I’ll never come around to the accommodationist point of view, so I’m “hopeless” to argue with in some sense, but I have clearly made some serious efforts to understand what other people are actually saying—e.g., trying hard and sincerely to ask clarifying questions about at least some basic things.

    Those people, including you, have been almost entirely uncooperative—and when it comes to very basic and important points, entirely uncooperative.

    Don’t get me wrong. I do understand why it’s sometimes reasonable to evade a question in some sense—when the question itself is freighted with unfair presuppositions. Then you want to explain the presuppositions and why they’re unfair, then give a properly hedged and qualified answer, and so on.

    None of the accommodationists here is willing to do that about any important question.

    I have repeatedly asked the same basic questions, and tried to make it clear they’re not bad questions. I’ve also been willing to elaborate, in case people thought they were unfair.

    No takers. None.

    You guys have put on a stunning display of invective and stonewalling for weeks.

    I have literally never seen such a persistent and unified front of stonewalling and invective from any group of more than two people involved in anything like an actual discussion. (As opposed to, say, a political campaign.)

    Literally. Never.

    It’s really quite impressive. I’ve been trying to compute the ratio of important questions to straight answers here, but it just doesn’t work. I keep getting divide by zero errors.

  29. Paul W.


    Still waiting for that digit. (And getting pretty tired of your agressive evasiveness.)

  30. Vindrisi

    Wow…he just keeps on going…fascinating, it is almost like watching a Newton’s Cradle!

  31. Paul W.


    (Your turn.)

  32. bilbo

    Bilbo: A goal of NA is to eliminate those moderates

    Paul: The hell you say. That’s just shameless bullshitting.

    Shameless bullshitting, indeed…directly from the mouth of Richard Dawkins!

    And I quote: “They (moderates) are disingenuous hypocrites….Either religion is correct or it isn’t. There is no middle ground.”

    I don’t care if you agree with that statement or not; to say that a goal of some of NAs “biggest” voices is to wipe out moderatism is blind ignorance on your part.

  33. bilbo

    Edit: to say that a goal of some of NAs “biggest” voices is NOT to wipe out moderatism is blind ignorance on your part.

  34. bilbo

    Wow. Same two Big Straw Men about the new atheism.

    Way to stay on message

    I’ve noticed an interesting trend. The only people who seem to not argue nothing but strawmen about the New Atheism.

    I challenge anyone to find 3 criticisms of the New Atheism where the New Atheist being criticized says, “y’know, person A has a point….”

  35. Paul W.


    Don’t be ridiculous.

    Are you seriously saying that polarization per se is a goal of the New Atheism, rather than just collateral damage, some degree of which is acceptable in service of getting more of the reachable people to become atheists?

    Are you seriously saying that the intent is to wipe out the moderate middle rather than, say, pull some moderates in the atheistic direction, and sincerely hope that they in turn pull less moderate people toward moderation, i.e., shift the Overton Window.

    It sounds like you’re saying we actually want extreme polarization, for it’s own sake, and that we don’t honestly take Overton Windows seriously.

    Wow. Conspiracy theory much?

  36. Paul W.

    I challenge anyone to find 3 criticisms of the New Atheism where the New Atheist being criticized says, “y’know, person A has a point….”

    Are you serious?

    You haven’t read Breaking the Spell, have you? Or really, any of the (more pop) New Atheist bestsellers, even. Or you have a very, very selective memory.

    Every one of the New Atheists acknowledges, when they’re making a book-length argument at least, most of the following points:

    1. Religion can have beneficial effects sometimes.

    2. Not all of the “ancient wisdom” in religion is actually false.

    3. Religion (at least) could be an evolved thing with advantages for survival, hence its persistence. (Or it could be a spandrel, with different authors weighting the two differently.)

    4. Out atheism can have unfortunate polarizing effects.

    5. Accommodationism has its advantages. (And usually, that there are good are places and times to be accommodationists—e.g., when Dawkins issues a joint open letter with an Archbishop.)

    6. It’d be a great big drag if out atheism’s polarizing effects outweighted its pluses in shifting public opinion overall.

    Seriously, the New Atheists may not weight these things as much as you’d like, but they generally do say them.

    That’s in clear contrast to the leading accommodationists, who systematically stonewall about similar points about the New Atheism.

    I challenge you to find a leading accommodationist (Mooney, Nisbet, Kirshenbaum, Scott, Forrest, Pennock, etc.) who will acknowledge any of the following:

    1. Accommodationist logic doesn’t do a good job of explaining the rise of the religious right in the 1980’s and 9o’s, using (among other things) a shitload of extremism and vitriol, all day, every day.

    2. There’s something to Overton window arguments, even if they aren’t strong enough to counter accommodationist arguments in most cases. (There are risks to appeasement. People do tend to self-select into audiences that listen to what is easily conceivable to them, so that backlash is often not as strong as simple accommodationist logic would suggest, and trickle-down effects can sometimes make extremism successful in shifting the center public opinion in its own direction, not just scaring people in the opposite direction.)

    3. Most religious belief systems, including all the ones that are popular in the West, include central tenets (e.g., the orthodox substance dualist soul, intentional creation of human nature by god) that are really difficult to square with the basic facts of modern science, at least some sciences (e.g., neuroscience, full-strength Darwinism). There is no general agreement among the lay religious or among theologians on how to square them, and a whole lot of diverse ways of avoiding or papering over the issue of the issues.

    4. There are quite plausible scientific explanations for most common “spiritual phenomena” that most people naively take as actual evidence of the supernatural. (The “oceanic” feeling of “oneness with everything” or loss of self, out-of-body experiences, sensed presence of an invisible being, etc.) These things are not beyond the reach of science, at least in principle, or at the very least not without begging the whole naturalism question in a way that does not reflect a consensus within science or philosophy, or specifically the AAAS or NAS, or the relevant experts.

    5. While there are many people who believe that you can be religious without believing in either supernaturalist truth claims or revealed truth, explicitly or tacitly, there is no consensus on this. It’s not clear where the line is between religion and philosophy, or religion and folkways, so generalizations about “religion” that exclude some marginal cases are not strictly speaking wrong, or even misleading if appropriate caveats are given.

    6. There are reasonable naturalistic explanations of morality and the religious impulse, which undermine simplistic NOMA-like claims often made by accommodationists in defense of the supposed compatibility between science and religion.

    7. The New Atheists get a bum rap, often, for speaking clearly and directly about their disagreement with religious views—no matter how politely they say things, they are often accused of being strident, shrill, fundamenalist, rude, etc. simply for disagreeing with popular views of religion, which is perceived as a vicious attack. (Case in point: reviews of Breaking the Spell. Dennett bent over backwards to be nice, and evenhanded, and polite, while still getting his points across, but was often reviewed as though he was as strident as P.Z. Myers in his more over-the-top blog posts.)

    You may actually find a few of these things in books by Forrest or Pennock—they are professional philosophers, after all, and may make passing mention of objections—but I am pretty certain they’re considerably fewer and rarer among accommodationists overall than the corresponding acknowledgements-of-serious-issues by the leading New Atheists.

  37. Paul W.

    FWIW, bilbo, I think this got garbled and I don’t quite know what to make of it:

    The only people who seem to not argue nothing but strawmen about the New Atheism.

    Please clarify.

  38. Paul W.

    Oh, I left out the two biggest acknowledgement-of-issues, which every major New Atheist makes and every major accommodationist pretends they don’t:

    1. You can’t definitively disprove the existence of the supernatural or the divine, especially if there’s enough wiggle room in the meanings of those terms. (But the problem with apologists and accommodationists overbroad claims of compatibility is that science isn’t about strict logical disproof of very vague things.)

    2. Yes, some religion is comparatively benign, and it wouldn’t be nearly as worthwhile to oppose religion in general if it all was. (E.g., Dawkins’s comments about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Karen Armstrong, etc.)

    These are directly related to the two big straw men.

    All of the leading New Atheists have clearly acknowledged these things all along, and usually in chapter 1 of their books.

    They’re simply nowhere near as simplistic or harsh as they’re made out to be, or as the accommodationist propaganda about them is.

    (Chapter 8 of Unscientific America, for example.)

    Apparently nothing will satisfy the accommodationists except the New Atheists either parroting the accommodationist lines—which they can’t honestly do, for reasons they’ve clearly explained, and which the accommodationists systematically ignore—or shutting up because voicing their honest views is divisive and rude, no matter how politely they may in fact say them.

  39. Paul W.


    Please give the “no middle ground… shameless hypocrites” quote in full, and in context.

  40. Paul W.

    BTW, I can’t find the strings “correct or it isn’t” and “no middle ground” in The God Delusion (on Google Books), and using the obvious google search, I only find two documents with both strings, neither relevant here.

    I likewise don’t find anything relevant combining either of those strings with “disingenuous hypocrites.”

    I suspect a misquote.

  41. Paul W.

    FWIW, the neither the word “hypocrites” nor the string “no middle ground” appears in TGD. The word “disingenuous” does, but not in anything like that alleged quote.

  42. Vindrisi

    And that’s about, what, 25 out of the 41 posts on this thread. Click-click-click-click…the cradle keeps going…

  43. Paul W.

    I suspect that alleged quote is a garbled condensation of multiple paraphrases from Dawkins’s essay “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God.”

    Here’s where he says some things sorta vaguely like that; this is an unedited, unparaphrased quote:

    To see the disingenuous hypocrisy of religious people who embrace NOMA, imagine that forensic archeologists, by some unlikely set of circumstances, discovered DNA evidence demonstrating that Jesus was born of a virgin mother and had no father. If NOMA enthusiasts were sincere, they should dismiss the archeologists’ DNA out of hand: “Irrelevant. Scientific evidence has no bearing on theological questions. Wrong magisterium.” Does anyone seriously imagine that they would say anything remotely like that? You can bet your boots that not just the fundamentalists but every professor of theology and every bishop in the land would trumpet the archeological evidence to the skies.

    Either Jesus had a father or he didn’t. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle – and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn’t. It is a fact, one way or the other, and in our state of uncertainty we can put a probability on it – an estimate that may change as more information comes in. Humanity’s best estimate of the probability of divine creation dropped steeply in 1859 when The Origin of Species was published, and it has declined steadily during the subsequent decades, as evolution consolidated itself from plausible theory in the nineteenth century to established fact today.

    I think Dawkins is making some good points here.

  44. Paul W.


    Click-click-click-click…the cradle keeps going…

    Well, your shameless evasions never stop, either, do they?

    Still waiting for that straight answer from you.

    But I guess you don’t want to ruin your perfect record.

  45. Pete

    “accommodationist propaganda”

    sounds like someones been watching Mel Gibson’s “Conspiracy Theory” a few too many times over the past weekend.

  46. Paul W.
  47. Vindrisi

    30 of 46…click-click-click-click-click…

  48. Paul W.



    1. information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.
    2. the deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.
    3. the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.
    4. Roman Catholic Church.
    a. a committee of cardinals, established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, having supervision over foreign missions and the training of priests for these missions.
    b. a school (College of Propaganda) established by Pope Urban VIII for the education of priests for foreign missions.
    5. Archaic. an organization or movement for the spreading of propaganda.

    If people don’t like the connotations, though, I understand and will retract the term.

    How about “PR talking points”?

    Or would that make me a “conspiracy theorist,” too?

  49. Spinozaist _4

    Paul W: I’m an atheist and a materialist, but I’m also a humanist and a non-reductive naturalist. My problem so far with “the new atheism” has been more with the (mostly younger) crowd it has stirred up, than the brilliant and thoughtful thinkers trying to move, as you say, Overton’s Window (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc.).But even the famous Horsemen must realize that the cutting, often acerbic approach they have spawned can only go so far. At some point the vast majority of thoughtful, educated citizens who actually care about and follow intellectual trends — a regrettably small number — will say, “Okay, we get it. You don’t believe in God. You’re an atheist, now what?” In fact, we are already beginning to see this in the intelligentsia and media elite (mostly secular in orientation themselves). As Lisa Miller recently wrote in Newsweek: “… Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein (argues) that people can have everything religion offers—community, transcendence, and, above all, morality—without the supernatural. This seems to me self-evident, yet the larger point is important. We need urgently to talk about these things: ethics, progress, education, science, democracy, tolerance, and justice—and to understand the reasons why religion can (but does not always) hamper their flourishing.” Now it seems to me that most — if not all — of the “new atheist” authors would agree that these are important, even pressing issues for humanity. Secular Humanism sets out to confront these issues from a scientific and naturalistic base. In this sense it moves beyond disbelief, to more constructive and ultimately profound concerns. I don’t see this willingness to move on to more thoughtful concerns in most of the new atheist fan base. (I emphasis fan because it captures something of the ephemerality inherent in this overly narrow approach.) I would be delighted to discover that my perception is wrong, but I doubt it is. The level of discourse and amateurish/adolescent invective displayed by this group on various blogs and Websites is pitiful: Most seem content to bash religion and faith, ad nauseam, when what they really ought to be combating is dogmatism, fanaticism, and absolutism in all of its forms, even (indeed especially) amongst themselves. Far more important than the ideas a person holds to is the WAY s/he holds them. I sincerely hope that the points you claim every new atheist acknowledges in comment 36, are really indeed acknowledged. I certainly believe they are by Dennett and Dawkins. It would be a noble and worthwhile educative task if we could get the new atheist fan base represented on the various blog sites to acknowledge them as well and then guide their thinking and discourse accordingly.

  50. bilbo


    TGD isn’t the only thing Dawkins has ever written, you know….

  51. Paul W.


    TGD isn’t the only thing Dawkins has ever written, you know….

    Of course, but I also would be surprised if such a pithy, general, and inflammatory statement wouldn’t be somewhere on the web, if he actually made it. (Whether or not it meant in context what it sounds like out of context.)

    In fact, I was surprised not to find it, even guessing that it was an inaccurate paraphrase.

  52. bilbo

    Keep looking, Paul – you’re bound to find it. In fact, in the course of your searching, I’m sure you’ll find a multitude of quotes calling moderatism “evil,” “a disease,” “disgusting,” “it must be destroyed” and so on and so forth from NA loudmouth bloggers. I’ve found a plethora myself just thumbing through the blogosphere this afternoon…and I’ve noticed something quite telling: after a blogger calls moderatism “evil” or the like and gets criticized for it, (s)he will utter the bread-and-butter “b-b-b-but I never said that!!!!” retort that totally contradicts their original phrase. Why is that, Paul?

    And why did you call NA’s stance on moderatism as an evil that must be destroyed “shameless bullshitting” when there is sooooooooooooo much evidence to the contrary out there?

  53. bilbo

    “Many religious moderates imagine that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t.” – Sam Harris

    “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss.” – Sam Harris in another screed about moderatism

    “Fuck off!” – PZ Myers to moderates

    “So-called ‘moderates’ are enablers of fundamentalism. That is why they are our enemies, too.” – Jerry Coyne

    “We should be isolating the moderates, and attacking them.” – PZ Myers, again

    “I think we should instead be attacking moderates just as forcefully, if not more, than we do the fundamentalists. – Dawkins again (an interview, so don’g go thumbing through TGD)

    Shall I continue all this “shameless bullshitting” using the words of New Atheists, Paul? At least we agree on one thing: the drivel coming out of the mouths of these people, quoted above, is quite the shameless buttshit, indeed.

  54. Paul W.


    I don’t have time to respond meaningfully right now, but I appreciate your serious and thoughtful content, and I’ll get back to you.


    I don’t have time to respond fully right now, but let me just give the context of your very first quote-mine.

    Note that Harris is only saying that there’s no clear line between moderate and extremist religion. And he’s right.

    That is not—as I’m guessing you’re reading it—a statement that there’s no difference between moderate and extremist religion. He is clearly not saying that there’s no middle ground, which seems to be your caricature, and in context, he and explicitly says that moderate doubt is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects.

    Here’s a simple analogy. There is no clear line between tall and short people. (There isn’t is there?)

    That’s not to say that there aren’t obviously and unambiguously tall people and obviously and unambiguously short people, and a whole lot of gradations and gray areas in between. (There are, aren’t there?)

    There’s plenty to disagree with about Harris’s views—most of the New Atheists don’t agree with his hawkishness or his especially anti-Islamic sentiments—-and even in the full quote I’m about to give, but I’m guessing you’re trying to use that quote to mean something that it doesn’t actually mean.

    Sam Harris:

    There are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. First, many moderates assume that religious “extremism” is rare and therefore not all that consequential. You may not be in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense—extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don’t tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, “integrated doubt” into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith—and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs. Moderate doubt—which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects—often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

    Second, many religious moderates imagine that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love your neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

  55. Paul W.


    Keep looking, Paul – you’re bound to find it.

    Um, no. I already exercised my goo gle fu a bit, and couldn’t find it.

    I confess that my abilities are simply not up to the task of proving you right.

    If you want me to find it, give me a citation.

    Otherwise I’ll guess that you’re making stuff up, or accepting stuff unquestioningly from people who are making stuff up.

    (Which is pretty ridiculous, because I fully agree that there’s no shortage of objectionable statements by this or that New Atheist here or there. You could at least give a correct quote and a correct source for it. You’re not half trying.)

  56. Paul W.

    FYI, bilbo, a somewhat longer response is in moderation, addressing the first on your list of quotes.

  57. Paul W.


    Here’s your second quote, also from Harris, in context.

    Note that in these two paragraphs, he starts by explicitly stating that people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.

    That’s not exactly what you’d expect from somebody who thinks there’s no such thing as a middle ground, is it? Rather the opposite, isn’t it?

    Sam Harris:

    Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

    We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man. This is not surprising, since many of us still believe that faith is an essential component of human life. Two myths now keep faith beyond the fray of rational criticism, and they seem to foster religious extremism and religious moderation equally: (1) most of us believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith (e.g., strong communities, ethical behavior, spiritual experience) that cannot be had elsewhere; (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures—forces like greed, hatred, and fear—for which religious beliefs are themselves the best (or even the only) remedy. Taken together, these myths seem to have granted us perfect immunity to outbreaks of reasonableness in our public discourse.

  58. Paul W.

    Oh, by the way, bilbo, please give a citation, not just a quote, for PZ saying “fuck off.” Context is kinda important, you know.

  59. Paul W.


    Didn’t find the Coyne quote, either… citation, please.

    Where are you getting this stuff, anyhow?

    Gish Gallop much?

  60. Paul W.


    google can’t find PZ saying “should be isolating the moderates” either. (6 google hits on that phrase, none relevant.)

    Or Dawkins saying “should instead be attacking moderates”… what interview is that supposedly from?

    Pretty…. um… obscure list of quotes you’ve got there. Where did you get it?

  61. bilbo

    That’s not exactly what you’d expect from somebody who thinks there’s no such thing as a middle ground, is it? Rather the opposite, isn’t it?

    Bingo! It is quite the opposite (and I was hoping you would point that out so I could make the following point).

    Doubletalk is New Atheism’s favorite tactic: 1.) make vibrantly outspoken, extreme statement (‘MODERATES ARE STUPID AND BAD…AND THEY’RE NO DIFFERENT THAN FUNDIES!!!!!’), 2.) make similar statement, but make sure this statement is less outspoken and trending towards the opposite opinion (‘…but, of course, there is a spectrum of belief…’), 3.) when someone criticizes you for the point made in #1 (which they ultimately will, because #1 is made only as ‘hook’ to evoke primitive emotion and offend), bring up the fact that you’ve made point #2. The order of 1 and 2 are of no consequence.

    It’s clever, but ultimately disingenuous – and one of the oldest tricks in the book (and quite ironic to be used by a group that denounces “playing politics.”). Thanks for chomping that bait, Paul.

  62. Paul W.


    That’s quite a trap you laid for me. I guess I really took the bait, didn’t I?


    More later—I’ll elaborate on just how thoroughly meshed in your “trap” I am—but meanwhile, citations for those other quotes, please?

    Where did PZ say “F*** you,” exactly?

    Maybe with a little more context you can “trap” me some more.

  63. bilbo

    Maybe with a little more composure you could hide that rabid anger of yours and actually get down to addressing my point, rather than deflecting like the Silly Little Denialists have been doing here on climate change all week.

    I’m honestly not shocked to see the parallels between the two groups.

  64. bilbo

    Oh, and if the only way to point out how I’m “wrong” about doubletalk is to write an extra-long post where you over-rationalize and give wandering explanations, then either: 1.) I’m right, and you’re just making shit up to avoid admitting it, or 2.) Sam Harris needs to learn how to communicate such points clearly to the masses, not in secret code that must be later deciphered to the public in rambling posts on blog comment boards by the “true” atheists.

    Something to think about.

  65. Paul W.


    You seem to think that if somebody says that A’s are like B’s in one way, and says elsewhere that A’s are unlike B’s in another way, that’s “doubletalk.”

    It’s not doubletalk. It’s sanity.

    So, for example, New Atheists generally think that religious moderates are like religious fundamentalist in certain fundamental ways—they believe in divine revelation, they usually believe in Divine Command theory of morality, they believe in some kind of creation by a God, etc.

    This is true, isn’t it? Note that I’m talking about the numerous theologically moderate people now, not theologically liberal people—especially the middle of the road orthodox-but-not-fundamentalist Christians so common in the U.S., and the like. (I’m not talking about demographically fringe views like Spong or Armstrong’s.)

    Harris is certainly right in this “A’s are like B’s” claim. In the U.S. anyway, most religious people are fairly orthodox, and they do accept most of the basic tenets of orthodoxy. They believe that the Bible is literally divinely inspired by a God, who is a person, and is the ultimate moral authority; and many even believe that it is inerrant, in some poorly-thought-out “nonliteral” sense.

    They are a lot more like fundamentalists than many of us like to acknowledge, or are comfortable thinking about. They may be our allies on many fronts—and without question, they often are—but that is something we should never forget. They are also allies of the fundamentalists on some other fronts, like fostering respect for orthodoxy, even if they are opposed to fundamentalism. There’s a slippery slope there, and they’ve staked out an uncomfortable position on it.

    By the loose standards people use around here for calling people “fundamentalists”, the moderates are fundamentalists, too!

    That’s a ridiculous thing to say, of course, which shows that we shouldn’t casually toss that term around, but it is true to say that mainstream religious orthodoxy is closer to fundamentalism than people like to acknowledge—and certainly much closer to fundamentalism than the New Atheism is.

    Religious “moderates” have what they consider a divinely-inspired text. New Atheists don’t.

    Religious “moderates” have what they consider an infallible leader (God). New Atheists don’t.

    Religious moderates generally accept a whole set of additional dogmas (e.g., some form of divine Creation, the Incarnation, the afterlife, divine judgment in the afterlife, usually the mystery of the Trinity, etc.).

    These are honest-to-God religious dogmas. The real McCoy.

    That is not what we mean by a “dogma” in science (e.g., the central dogma of molecular genetics), which is explicitly defeasible, and usually admits of known exceptions.

    It is also not what we mean (or should mean) when we say that a New Atheist is “dogmatic.” No New Atheist claims to have an infallible text, an infallible leader, or any interesting infallible propositions. Everything in the New Atheism, by admission, must be argued for, and frequently is.

    So, for example, Frank Collins and Ken Miller are dogmatic orthodox Christians, literally. They believe that the bible is divinely inspired and they accept the central dogmas of their respective flavors of Christianity on faith.

    Pointing out that that’s a lot like fundamentalism in certain basic ways is not an error. It’s an important truth—people often fail to realize that the dangerous features of fundamentalism (e.g., dogmatism) are not mostly peculiar to out-and-out fundamentalism. They are features of extremely common, mainstream, garden variety orthodoxy.

    We should all be afraid of orthodoxy, because it is a slippery slope. Surely, most orthodoxly religous people are not as scary as most outright fundamentalists. Everybody knows that, including every prominent New Atheist.

    But the nonfundamentalist, “moderate” but orthodox religious people are still scary for basically the same reasons—they accept important ideas for reasons that beyond normal questioning—-at least, you have to “break the spell” of “respect for religion” to engage in rational discourse.

    And they vote. They may not consistently vote for atrocious crap like the Defense of Marriage Act, or bans on embryonic stem cell research, or bans on government-funded condom distribution in HIV-ridden Africa, but they don’t consistently vote against it, either. They’re insufficiently resistant to fundamentalist crap because they’re not sufficiently far from fundamentalism themselves. That’s obviously why we have such pious monstrosities in our politics, isn’t it?

    (And no, I’m not “blaming all problems on religion,” or saying that most political problems are due to religion, or that many are exclusively the fault of religion. I’m only saying that some significant problems are substantially due to religion, and giving some examples.)

    What Harris is saying—and he’s right—is that part of our society’s problem in marginalizing fundamentists is the widespread acceptance of some of the most important presuppositions of fundamentalism.

    Sure, there are many more-or-less orthodox Christians who manage to systematically disagree with the fundamentalists on most political controversies, by picking and choosing different principles from the same textual mishmash of archaic stuff in the Bible.

    But there are many more who don’t. There are many who do not reject many of the fundamentalists political points, because they are unsure of their own ability to pick and choose the right stuff from the Bible. (For example, many Christians who think there’s something morally wrong with homosexuality, but not so wrong that the state ought to be regulating it.)

    And there are still more who disagree with the fundamentalists, but their disagreement is muted or mostly ineffective, because they accept some of the wrong basic principles and can’t make a compelling argument from the same basics to different particulars. (For example, many Christians who refuse to defend the morality of homosexuality, or fail to do so effectively, because if you accept Biblical inspiration, you’re largely giving away the store—the Bible does clearly say anti-gay stuff—and it’s an uphill battle.)

    Now on to the “A’s are unlike B’s” claim.

    Harris is also saying that religious moderates are unlike fundamentalists in some interesting and important ways.

    One interesting point he makes is that many orthodox moderates have tempered their dogmatic beliefs with a certain amount of doubt. They literally believe in dogmas, but without quite the same certainty or fervor. They understand why people might doubt (some of) their dogmas, and can acknowledge people who disagree with them as somewhat reasonable. Even if they share many of the crucial premises of fundamentalism, they are less black-and-white about it in one or more ways. They are less inclined to see people who disagree as simply evil, and more inclined to accept secular reasoning.

    That’s true, too, isn’t it?

    My claim here is that both of these basic claims by Harris are simply correct, and that they shouldn’t even be controversial.

    In fact, most of this is stuff I hear from my theologically liberal Christian minister friends.

    One of those ministers is even harsher than Harris on mainstream orthodoxy. He calls the orthodox people in his denomination “fundamentalists,” and I’ve given up on correcting him about that, after numerous attempts.

    There’s a reason he does that—calling people like Ken Miller and Frank Collins fundamentalists—and you don’t have to be an atheist to understand it. (Even if, like me, you think it’s an exaggeration and an abuse of terminology.)

    Basically, his point is that fundamentalism is just more extreme orthodoxy. As Harris says, and my minister friend agrees there is no clear line between them. There’s no major qualitative difference between believing dogmatically that the New Testament (e.g., Mark) is basically true and believing that the Old Testament (e.g., Leviticus) is basically true.

    Fundamentalists are mostly just orthodox religious folks who accept more dogmas, more fervently, and accept the same text as divinely inspired, but accept more of it as reliable.

    Fundamentalism is basically the same thing as “moderate” orthodoxy. It’s mostly a matter of degree.

    Now, you can quote mine me about that, and I suspect that you will, or maybe Kwok or Vindrisi or somebody else will do it.

    You can make it sound like I simply said Fundamendalism is basically the same thing as “moderate” orthodoxy.

    And you can “paraphrase” that as “MODERATES ARE STUPID AND BAD… AND THEY’RE NO DIFFERENT THAN FUNDIES!!!!”, as you have already done in misrepresenting Harris.

    But that, of course, is a lie. I made it quite clear—and I think Harris made it reasonably clear—that I do not think that moderates are no different than fundies. Quite the reverse.

    I made it quite clear that the differences are real and important, and if you give Harris just the tinies benefit of the doubt, so did he. If you don’t give him just a smidge of benefit of the doubt, you’re being unfair.

    You are using one of the Creationists’ favorite techniques.

    You use out-of-context quotes, and apparently even some made-up quotes as well.

    You take a sincere, somewhat nuanced view—that A’s are like B’s in some important (mostly qualitative) ways, but different in other important (mostly quantitative) ways—and you present it as simply an insincere presentation of an utterly black-and-white one-dimensional view. (A’s are identical to B’s.)

    On the basis of that, you “paraphrase” what somebody actually said, to say something they clearly did not mean, and clearly disavowed, and already explained why there is actually no inconsistency, and gave a good argument for—good enough that you should give them the benefit of the doubt that they actually believe it for that actual reason.

    None of which you acknowledge, despite its quite evident truth—or at least reasonableness, or at the very least plausible sincerity—because it gets in the way of your own simplistic, one-dimensional, black-and-white smear.


    What a crock of mendacious sh… um… er… intellectual pornography.

    You, bilbo, are a quote-mining liar.

  66. Paul W.


    Oh, and if the only way to point out how I’m “wrong” about doubletalk is to write an extra-long post where you over-rationalize and give wandering explanations, then either: 1.) I’m right, and you’re just making shit up to avoid admitting it, or 2.)[…]

    What’s that bilbo, a pre-emptive first strike? Well played, sir, well played!

    Too late… I’ve already got the dreaded long post in moderation. (With an unfortunate italics fail… oops, sorry.)

    And what a crap assertion you make, above. You simply assert that if I bother to explain how you misrepresent Harris, that proves you’re right?

    There’s a stunning display of logic. What a masterful debating technique.

    And the best part is that you simply assert that I’m making stuff up, before you even see what I’ll say!

    And you don’t even see the irony in that, I’ll bet.

    Clue: everyone else does, and they’re laughing. It is really very funny.

    Sam Harris needs to learn how to communicate such points clearly to the masses, not in secret code that must be later deciphered to the public in rambling posts on blog comment boards by the “true” atheists.

    Did you even notice where your out-of-context quote mines came from? They came the introduction to Harris’s book on the subject, which you evidently did not bother to read. You didn’t even read the introduction, apparently.

    (Where do you get these “quotes,” bilbo? Seriously.)

    Hint: the quotes you mined are not supposed to be free-standing. It’s the text around them—the introduction—that makes the claims plausible.

    And the the introduction is not supposed to be convincing, it’s just supposed to be plausible, so that you’ll know what the book is about and find it interesting, then read the damned book for an extensive, explicit argument for the basic claims made in the introduction, plus a few more in the conclusions.

    It’s pretty amusing that you—of all people—say that “Sam Harris needs to learn to communicate clearly,” when you’re quote-mining and misrepresenting the introduction to one of his best-selling books. Millions of people read and understood the book. You, apparently, are not capable of that kind of elite activity.

    And as for “not in secret code that must be later deciphered to the public,” I gotta say that’s stunning, even coming from you.

    You quote-mined an introductory chapter. Of a book. A best-selling book. Did you think you wouldn’t get caught? Just how dumb are you?

    The fact that you can’t read, or refuse to, is not Sam Harris’s fault.

    There’s this technology called printing. Check out a guy named “Gutenberg,” if you’re into that archaic German tradition stuff. If not, just check out a technology called libraries.

    The secret code is called “English.” Learn it. Love it.

    Go to the library. Get Harris’s book. Read it. It’s better than you think, really. Lots better. Not perfect by any means, but really not bad overall.

    I certainly don’t agree with everything Harris says in that book, but come on, bilbo, don’t be such a flaming idjit.

  67. Paul W.

    Damn. Two posts in moderation, both with major italics fails. Oh well. I think they’re understandable anyhow, but sorry, folks.

    (Can we get a preview function on this site? Please?)

  68. Paul W.


    Could you please, please, puhleeez give some links or at least citations to your other “quotes”?

    Or are you too busy slaving away in the quote mines?

  69. Paul W.

    Okay, this is weird. There were no italics in that last comment. I guess my first italics fail is just cascading down the page. (As I see it here, where I can see my posts in moderation, anyhoo.) Odd.

  70. Paul W.

    Oh bilbo,

    As for my long “deciphering” of Harris’s “secret code” that prevents you from understanding your mined quotes…

    You’re welcome. No extra charge.

  71. Paul W.

    Since pre-emptive strikes are the order of the day, let me point out that I did not ad hominem bilbo, above.

    I was not arguing that since he’s a liar, he must be wrong.

    I was arguing that since he’s obviously wrong, and obviously either knowingly or utterly irresponsibly quote-mining and misrepresenting things, he is a liar.

    So it’s not an ad hominem, and it’s not a gratuitous insult.

  72. Paul W.

    bilbo (from way back in the thread): And why did you call NA’s stance on moderatism as an evil that must be destroyed “shameless bullshitting” when there is sooooooooooooo much evidence to the contrary out there?

    Because you evidently can’t come up with even a single actual example of this very extreme position—in the sense you obviously mean—from even one of the prominent “New atheists,” even once, anywhere, at any time.

    Instead, we get

    1) three obviously misleading quote-mines where you clearly misinterpret Dawkins and Harris as saying more nearly the opposite of what they actually mean,

    2) one FU from PZ, which I’d wager was warranted, in context, though prigs might disagree, and

    3) a handful of apparent misquotes that you seem to have pulled directly out of your posterior.

    You and some of your ilk here frequently make broad-brush assertions about the copious evidence of the extreme and assholish positions of “The New Atheists.”

    Oddly, you generally can’t even come up with one instance of any New Atheist actually taking the extreme positions that you frequently assert that they all do. Not a single one.

    Near as I can tell, every example you guys come up with is a clear misrepresentation, an unfair caricature or exaggeration, or simply made up.

    Then when you get called on it, as I’m doing here, you evade that point and sling insults, rather than doing your legwork and coming up with even one real example of what you’re talking about.

    If the New Atheists are all as bad as you say, and the evidence is a copious as you say, that should be trivial.

    If it’s so damned easy to see the evidence, give us just a very few good examples. Say, 3, from 3 different new atheists.

    I daresay you should be able to find at least one example of at least one atheist (PZ) being pretty clearly dickish. People are people, and that sort of stuff happens sometimes, even if the people aren’t usually or basically dicks.

    (I think PZ sometimes posts stuff that his usual readers understand the context for, and others understandably wouldn’t, so that he seems extra dickish than he is to “outsiders.” For example, he sometimes says broad-brush sounding stuff about “religious people,” where it’s ambiguous whether he means some, or most, or nearly all, or all religious people, and I think he should be way more careful about making it clear what he doesn’t actually mean. Not that that would help with quote-miners like you…)

    You can’t come up with one real example each from 3 of the major New Atheists, can you?

    (You can include Myers, Coyne, and Stenger along with the Four Horsement if you want. That should give you a big field of copious evidence to pick from. You don’t have to prove that the majority of NA’s has really said that crap even once, just a significant minority, once each.)

    I confidently predict that you will wimp out on this challenge, as you always do.

    Like Jon, Vindrisi, and Kwok—and Mooney and Kirschenbaum—you will never ever give even one straight answer to even one important question about the New Atheists.

    Do prove me wrong, please.

  73. Paul W.

    oops… correcting myself here.

    The quote-mine of Dawkins isn’t an example of making it sound like he’s saying the opposite of what he’s saying. (It’s just an example of making him sound like he’s saying something he apparently isn’t saying.)

    My bad.

  74. Vindrisi

    49 of 73…click-click-click-click-click…

  75. Paul W.

    Oh, Vindrisi, you’re still here. I figured.

    Still waiting for that digit. I figured that, too.

    I guess I was right about never getting a straight answer from you, huh?

  76. Vindrisi

    I don’t give answers to questions posed on misapprehensions of my concern for given issues. I explained that. And, really, I also don’t bother giving straight answers to those who have shown time and again that they are incapable of taking straight answers.
    Keep on clicking…you only have two thirds of the posts here, after all…you have work to do…

  77. Paul W.

    I don’t give answers to questions posed on misapprehensions of my concern for given issues. I explained that. And, really, I also don’t bother giving straight answers to those who have shown time and again that they are incapable of taking straight answers.


    Here’s a simple question for you:

    When have I ever gotten even one straight answer to an important question from you? (Or the other people I listed.)

    In case you’ve forgotten there are two basic claims that Mooney and Kirschenbaum make, which I claim are straw men.

    Not a single one of you will even admit to agreeing (or disagreeing) with Mooney on either of those point, or with my characterization of them as straw men.

    There are really only two basic questions:

    1. Don’t Mooney and Kirschenbaum systematically misrepresent the nature of the controversy about the “compatibility” of science and religion, systematically pulling a bait-and-switch? (They give a rebuttal of a point that the new atheists have never made and in fact have consistently disavowed, rather than the claim the New Atheists are actually making.)

    2. Don’t Mooney and Kirschenbaum systematically misrepresent the controversy over strategy, ignoring the New Atheists’s frequent rebuttals to their admittedly intuitive model of political rhetoric, and acting as though the New Atheists were just pointlessly and mystifyingly ornery and mean, rather than having a different strategy? (Mooney and Kirschenbaum consistently ignore apparent counterexamples to their model and the major counterarguments—Overton arguments—to their strategic prescriptions, despite those issues being raised scores of times by many people over a period of more than two years?)

    You said: And, really, I also don’t bother giving straight answers to those who have shown time and again that they are incapable of taking straight answers.

    That is a lie. I can’t have shown time and time again that I am incapable of taking a straight answer, because I have never gotten one.

    Not even once has any of you answered either of my questions about the two major bones of contention.

    Not once.

    You are lying.

  78. Vindrisi

    And you have just proven my case, Paul. You are not interested in any sort of rational, reasoned discussion. You are only looking for opportunities to get up on a soapbox and rant, as you have amply demonstrated here, where two-thirds of the posts have been your rants. I’m sorry, but I don’t find engagement with people like you productive or interesting, though you are certainly amusing from “poke it and see what it does” and “wow, look how he just keeps going on” point of view, just like any crazed street preacher with a bizarre view he is absolutely convinced off.

  79. Paul W.

    You have just proven my case, Vindrisi.

    You still won’t give a single straight answer to a striaght question. You just get on your soapbox about me getting on my soapbox. What fun!

    If you’re not interested in engaging with the likes of me, by all means don’t.

    But if you do engage, and keep dodging the same damned questions you’ve always determinedly dodged, don’t be surprised if I point that out and call you on it. Be surprised if I don’t.

  80. Vindrisi

    “…keep dodging the same damned questions you’ve always determinedly dodged…”

    Ignoring is not dodging. I’m not surprised you don’t know the difference between the two concepts, though. You seem to have a knack for living in your own reality. And in that reality, you see to think you have dealt with me for far longer than you have. What color is the sky in Paul W. world? Of are your Overton Windows so polarized you can’t really tell any more?

  81. Spinozaist _4

    “Not even once has any of you answered either of my questions about the two major bones of contention.”

    What are those two bones, Paul?

  82. Paul W.

    Vindrisi: Ignoring is not dodging.

    Repeatedly, pointedly saying that you’re ignoring someone is not ignoring them. (What, are you five or something?)

    If you keep telling me you won’t talk to me, I’ll have a hard time believing you. (How can I miss you if you won’t go away?)

    Do feel free to actually ignore me.

    Saying you’re ignoring people, and insulting them, while refusing to answer any serious questions, and excusing it with an ad hominem… well, that’s not ignoring. It is dodging.

  83. Vindrisi

    You can’t read, can you, Paul? I’m ignoring your questions. They had nothing to do with the point I made above, they aren’t interesting, and the fact that you just keep demanding them be answered doesn’t change that. But, I am not ignoring you (how on Earth could I? You are most of the thread!). I don’t it is possible to have a rational conversation with you because you off in some delusional world of your own that cannot be penetrated by anyone else, so I don’t bother with even trying to do so with you. That is not the same as ignoring you. On the contrary, you are fun to observe and poke in order to test hypotheses about your state of mind and thought processes. What is wonderful is that a tiny little poke provokes so much reaction, even to the point of getting enormous mountains of disjointed, incoherent verbiage that betrays a dogmatic certainty and barely contained rage. It is so amusing to observe and study!

  84. Paul W.


    Here’s an explanation of the first major bone of contention:

    My latest comment in the “An Armistice in the Religious Wars” thread is essentially an illustration of that:

  85. Paul W.


    Wait a second…

    You basically admit that you have nothing better to do than poke at me to get a reaction, rather than ever addressing anything I actually say…

    …and bilbo is over in the “An Armistice in the Religious Wars” thread ranting about my supposed bloody stumps… WTF?…

    But you’re talking about my “barely contained rage”?

    I think you must be misreading my tone!


  86. Vindrisi

    You basically admit that you have nothing better to do than poke at me to get a reaction…

    No, I have plenty of better things to do, but it a nice distraction here and there through the day as I work on editing a tricky paper. As I said, you are quite entertaining. Besides, pokes don’t take long. You, on the other hand seem to be taking quite a lot of time away from grant-writing for your thread-filling and turgid rants.

  87. Paul W.

    You, on the other hand seem to be taking quite a lot of time away from grant-writing for your thread-filling and turgid rants.

    No, at present I’m doing a bunch of stuff that gives me a few minutes slack several times an hour. Hard to get serious work done in those little slack periods. (Or to tighten up my comments here… it’s easier to reel off a longish response in a few minutes than to carefully structure and edit one… and if nobody’s going to bother to answer even one question, that’s too much work.)

    I notice you’re still dodging the relevant questions. (Pointedly failing to answer a question and gloating about it is hardly ignoring it—or if you call that “ignoring,” okay, whatever, but it’s still dodging.)

  88. Paul W.


    I followed up in the other thread with another comment, clarifying Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s apparent inconsistency and hypocrisy about basic philosophy of science and religion.

    (Basically, they seem just fine with science-of-religion stuff from Wade and Wilson that they reject and condescendingly vilify when the New Atheists say the very same things.)

    That may just be gilding the lily of Bone of Contention #1, or it might clarify something.

  89. Noel

    Phew. I just finished reading this entire thread.

    Well done, Paul; your arguments are both illuminating and entertaining.

    Pity the same can’t be said for your ‘opponents’. If this were a boxing match you’d be walking away unblemished, while the others would be flat-out on their backs, feebly crying “we win” (the Black Knight scene from the Holy Grail would work here too).



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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