More To Say About "Tom Johnson"?

By Chris Mooney | July 24, 2010 11:52 am

PZ Myers now says he knows who “Tom” is. This certainly raises the possibility that someone may soon “out” him. I have not decided to do so, but the matter might be out of my hands. (Jean Kazez, by the way, has a thoughtful post about this.)

If it happens, there may also be a need to say more about “Tom’s” original story–even though, as I’ve already observed, there is no reason to believe it any longer.

We’ll see….


Comments (69)

  1. Ken Pidcock

    There really is a need to say more about Tom’s original story. If it was fabricated, then NA anger at its being left hanging out there, not disconfirmed, is justified.

    If the story has any truth to it, Tom should be able to identify friendly corroborating witnesses who can publicly identify the meeting and offer their own version of the events.

  2. Anthony McCarthy

    About the only thing I think there is to learn from it is that without verification there’s a risk in taking someones’ word for anything.

    I don’t think it’s that much different from believing PZ’s Great Desecration yarn. Which I used to but, looking at how he framed it, I don’t buy anymore.

  3. Anthony McCarthy

    Just read the link. I can’t believe that they’re still going on about it. It’s a moderately humiliating thing to have taken someone posting on a blog comment thread as having told a credible story and then finding out they were making it up but, good Lord, are they that hard up for stuff? [EDITED]

    Chris, if this is the best they’ve got on you, you’re looking pretty good.

  4. Ken Pidcock Says:

    “There really is a need to say more about Tom’s original story. If it was fabricated, then NA anger at its being left hanging out there, not disconfirmed, is justified.”

    No, that is simply not true.

    1) The actions of the witchhunters in trying to find out TJ’s identity are fully unjustified. This is not some Orwellian world where anyone has some kind of “right” to try tracking down some internet user.


  5. Just catching up here, but it seems like Chris thought he was promoting a tale of the impolitic nature of some atheist scientists and instead he demonstrated the deviousness of an accomodationist.

    In other words: the script got flipped!

    (Perhaps there’s also a side lesson to require registration for blog comments, to at least make sock puppetry a little more complicated.)

  6. Chris Mooney

    Or, to put it an even better way–turns out Tom Johnson was really, really *not helping*

  7. Chris Mooney

    And Gudur–
    I appreciate you trying to defend me, but it is far too inflammatory for my tastes, and I’ve given a warning.

  8. MosesZD

    The problem, as I see it Chris, wasn’t the liar that caused this problem. It was your jumping for some sort of confirmation of YOUR strawman arguments about the so-called “New Atheists.”

    And, just so you know, I think your position is bunk because it is a capitulation to second-class status. What you say to us New Athiests is the same thing said to the black-man for a hundred years after the civil war. The same, functionally equivalent, thing that Martin Luther King addresses in so many of his speeches — the PEACE OF SUBJUGATION AND IN-EQUALITY.

    That’s your accommodationist peace. That’s what the accommodationist white liberals, whom MLK railed against, many times, wanted. They’d sympathize with what he was doing, but would not help him in the cause. Because PEACE was more important than Justice.

    …and Jesus looked at them and said, in no uncertain terms, “Brethren, I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” He didn’t mean, “I come to bring a physical sword. He didn’t mean, “I come not to bring positive peace.” What Jesus is saying, “I come not to bring this old negative peace which makes for deadening passivity and stagnant complacently. And whenever I come a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new. (Yes) Whenever I come, (Yes) there is a lashing out between justice and injustice. (Yes) Whenever I come, (Yes) there is a division between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.” (Yes) Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice. (Yes) [applause] And the peace which existed at that time was a negative, obnoxious peace devoid of any positive meaning.

    And that is accommodationist result. You want PEACE. You think, magically, things will get better. You ignore at least 100 years of American history that say things won’t.

    If blacks didn’t fight for equal rights, they’d still be living as third-class citizens. If women didn’t fight for equal rights, they’d still be the chattel of their husbands without the right to vote. If unions didn’t fight for the right to organize, we’d still be slaves to the Company Store. At no time in history do those in power surrender their privilege without discord.

    And I’m not going to shut up until I can go to my grandchildren’s graduations and not be subject to illegal commencement prayers. When my grandchildren can go to public schools and not be harassed by teachers e-mailing Christian prayers and parables while using “search-and-replace” to remove God and Jesus and replace those words with “a wiseman.” Where if you don’t pray to the Flag, you’re un-American. Where if you don’t have a church when the teacher is asking people what faith they were, (which happened to my younger daughter in 5th grade), you’re ostracized.

    Of course, I guess it’s just your being young. You lack of relevent experience about the crappy way things were before you became semi-aware. You grew up after the upheavals of the 60’s. You didn’t march on any lines. You weren’t, like I was, forced to see the evil of your “peace.” To see how your belief in societal “peace” was a tool used by those who wish to oppress others through social pressure.

  9. J. J. Ramsey

    MosesZD: “The same, functionally equivalent, thing that Martin Luther King addresses in so many of his speeches — the PEACE OF SUBJUGATION AND IN-EQUALITY.”

    Careful here. Yes, MLK criticized the “‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent,” but he also took aim at the “hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” Now the New Atheists aren’t much into despair, but as for hatred, just take a look at Pharyngula, for example. You are eliding the difference between saying “Don’t be hateful” and saying “Do nothing.”

  10. TB

    I wouldn’t put up with the things you describe either! That’s really a strawman argument against a label – “accommodationism” – that’s becoming increasingly meaningless.

  11. Hitch

    So much labeling, so much fear, so much pointing fingers. This is not helpful discourse.

    This “do n0thingism” meme is very wrong and hurtful. I wish people would stop. But there are many wrong and hurtful memes out there. The whole branding of “New Atheism” as aggressive, hateful and nasty is another. The whole divide between “accommodationism” and “New Atheism” is another.

    We are not talking positions or ideas, but there is lots and lots of discussion trying to paint the other side as bad. That’s nothing more than a larger scope ad hominem.

    Taner Edis wrote a really thoughtful book on the relation of non-belief and science. I think it would be much more productive to have discussion on the topic on this level.

    But let me one last time return to the topic at hand and be very long-winded and explicit how I view it. First, I knew nothing about the TJ story before YNH collapsed. I had been very rarely hitting this blog (when the Ecklund book came out) before.

    Now after reading back here is how history looks to me:

    Chris and Sheril wrote a book about the troubles of science in the US. A chapter was devoted to the new outspoken atheism and its rhetorical style and how it hurts the cause. To me that is a matter of opinion. I personally would disagree to their argument but to articulate that disagreement I would have to rehash what many commentators have tried. My reaction right now is to indeed say that we have to have a more disinterested attitude towards that disucssion and consider other positions that have been argued in detail (again Taner Edis comes to mind).

    Needless to say that there was an ongoing beef that results from this. My problem is that it contributes to this branding of New Atheists which I consider very harmful. Many people contribute to that idea and even Victor Stinger embraces it as positive. Most canonical new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) have expressed unease or rejection of the term for very easy and obvious reasons.

    Yet the branding continues not only from the outside (i.e. believers who feel threatened by outspoken atheism) but from the inside (i.e. self-declared non-believers who feel threatened for science or are afraid of the confrontation).

    Then the TJ story emerged. Having that as a comment is fine. If that never would have been elevated the whole story would have ended. I do think Chris made a mistake to elevate that story. Even if TJ always would have posted under his real name, that story would not have been good for elevation.

    Here is where the long-winded part comes in. Here is TJs story annotated:

    “Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk”

    This phrasing itself shows a bias “ilk”? It also is vague. Many colleagues? The third one is that it sets up an argument of culpability. It tries to imply that Dawkins, PZ and unspecified people who are somehow similar are responsible for what is to follow.

    This is improper. For example the person who shot John Lennon cited “The Catcher in the Rye” as explanation.

    “and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like”

    Yes that would be rude. People questioned this simply because it is against standard academic etiquette. Also as phrased it has a hearsay quality. No context. Nothing about what triggered the responses. It smacks of being not real in the sense that it again intentionally is vague “and the like”.

    ” – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.”

    Here the story returns to the meme that new atheism is bad for science.

    “So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face”

    This is blatant demagoguery. Clearly from the description no spitting, no kicking etc happened. It’s an emotional appeal to make it appear horrible.

    ” – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.”

    And the gist of it is that New Atheists alientate people with their ignorant nasty and dismissive attitude.

    Is this a good and credible story? I’m sorry but it isn’t. It’s tendentiously phrased hearsay that we would not accept from a non-anonymous source. Stuff like this simply should not be elevated.

    The final paragraph is a piece of irony:

    “That’s the problem with the blogosphere – you can say all the extreme, controversial things you want without consequences. But when your readers start echoing those things to the public (the people that science desperately needs to translate research to action), I’m afraid the consequences are rather severe.”

    YNH in the light of this comment is a strange concept. But yes, what if people start echoing that Dawkins is nasty in public, or that PZ Myers endorses rape with objects, or that Hitchens wants war on all believers, or that Harris wants all Muslims bombed. What about the meme that a person who shall not be named is a liar when the case for it was artificial?

    This is the problem indeed. Honesty should really not be negotiable, and ad hominems also. But it swings all ways. “New Atheists” whoever is supposed to be that deserve to be discussed on the merit of their arguments and not on dramatizations and exaggerations.

    Now let’s pay attention to the comments of the original elevated TJ story. Multiple commenters amplify the message. bilbo, a YNH sock puppet ratchets up the rhetoric and invents “new atheist rant-o-sphere”.

    Reactions of most doubting commeters were mild. “I have literally *never* seen anything of the sort. But maybe it happens.” but they also question the legitimacy of the source “Wait, who is this Tom Johnson commenter who argues from anecdote?” and challenge the selective hearsay quality of the story “As any scientist should know, the plural of anecdote is not data — I can just as easily cite posters on various blogs who say that reading Dawkins, Myers, et al. convinced them of the truth of evolution against their religious upbringing”.

    Things got aggravated as two camps solidified. Those that wanted TJs story to be true and those that objected to it.

    Then Chris posted his Thanks post, essentially rephrasing what a TJ sock puppet had invented: “New Atheist comment machine”. I very much object to that label because it smacks of negative stereotyping. This is not bridge building and communication. It puts people who feel sympathetic to certain people who are branded “New Atheists” automatically on the defensive. It was unhelpful and escalated the discourse.

    Yes, if someone insinuates that what I do in some way led to rude behavior elsewhere I would be arguing against it. This is not wrong, in fact that’s a proper reaction.

    But rather than understand the dynamic, Chris wrote: “Clearly, Johnson really touched a nerve.” Unfortunately that too divided. Yes he did hit a nerve, the nerve of not wanting to be branded negatively and unfairly through hearsay stories.

    TJ is praised as a highly virtuous guy for daring to stand up to those commenters. That too is sad, because it becries that many commenters were very civil, just articulated their misgivings with the quality and credibility of the story.

    The story stuck and people had to hear how awful New Atheism is. After all they snicker and sneer at academic meetings in religious settings.

    But of course it was just successful negative branding. If a person of a specific minority group does something that is seen as negative, that does not automatically define the whole group. That generalization is at the core of negative stereotyping and to be rejected.

    Now fast forward to the YNH/TJ revelation. The current beef of many “New Atheists” is simply that Chris has failed to acknowledge his own role in this. Rather he has left open hypotheticals (other side may have sock puppets, story may still be true).

    I find this regrettable. No sock puppetry on the other side anywhere on the scale of YNH have been revealed, so this is at best an implied false symmetry. The second is that the story may be true! That changes very little. It is still a hearsay story of one incident that is unverified. It still says nothing about Dawkins “and his ilk” and it still does not justify that commenters who argued that the story had problems of credibility were part of the “New Atheism commenter machine”.

    I think the resolution to this is quite simple. If Chris comes out and acknowleges that something has gone wrong here on his side and that we should not brand each other but discuss topics of merit, I for my part, would think it’s done.

    Now if we will see this (because people are too afraid to reach out, or afraid that it will be seen as a ding in their chassis) I don’t know. Guilt is such an unhelpful concept. Being real and honest and acknowledging mistakes is much more helpful. My kudos do go to YNH/TJ because he did come out and acknowledged quite a bit more than I have seen many people ever acknowledging. I hope he has learned that exaggerating ones case, trying to find fault in others, reinforcing (rather than quesitionig) ones own position and so forth are a problem, and that we can indeed do better.

  12. Chris Mooney

    wow, hitch. wow. i let that tome go through although length might have disqualified it, because it is really pretty good (though i disagree with parts).

    but don’t other people get in the habit of posting comments that long….

    i did acknowledge that “something has gone wrong,” and of course, it was on my “side.”

    Re branding: As you know, I think “New Atheism” is a useful and, in fact, a needed term. you want me not to use it?

  13. Hitch

    Chris, I appreciate that you let it trough on length.

    The question of labels. I prefer if we discuss individuals and not groups. If we do discuss groups and movements, I think we have to be very careful that we are fair and clear.

    New Atheism is a very contested term. I personally dislike it exactly because partisans try to load it with unfair meaning. Same with accommodationism and I think you are very good to be uneasy with that label too.

    On the phase “New Atheism” is not a bad label, it’s the context that makes it bad.

    But rather than discuss label why don’t we discuss content. Taner made some interesting points regarding the intersection of atheism, and science. I think understanding these things separately, then their overlap etc will make things more clear and be less prone to filling labels with negativity.

    For example I agree with many canonical new atheists that there is nothing new about it. If we look at the history there has been many different styles of atheists.

    One of my favorite historical examples is Thomas Huxley. We could take him to ask the question that is being asked now: Did he help or hurt science because of his stance towards religious beliefs?

    I think it is very hard to know for sure, but I would say that evolution needed an outspoken defender that lived at the intersection where it faced the strongest opposition, namely belief. I think evolution did need a bulldog but I may be wrong. But that isn’t the measuring rod. The question is, did Huxley hurt acceptance of evolution? My answer, and I think this one is far less controversial, is not at all. Evolution today in scientific circles is well established. In countries with low religiosity and high levels of education this extends to the general population.

    I think that there is excessive fear of outspoken atheist and that the argument that being outspoken in the realm of atheism hurts science is not so easy.

    Note how I use the word “outspoken atheist” rather than “new atheist”. There is a reason to it.

    Finally we are losing the quality of agreeing or disagreeing with opinions rather than with persons.

    For example I sometimes agree, sometimes disagree with Dawkins or PZ Myers. We do not see this nuance in this discussion. Dawkins is per se a New Atheist and hence to be opposed. That becries that he has written many great science expositions that have nothing to do with new atheism. But because we have to demonize the concept and the person that holds it, we lose sight of the much more sensible thing to do, and that is to agree and disagree with specific instances and opinions.

    PZ for example may be a “New Atheists” but that says nothing to whether a specific blog post of his made a good point or not. The “New Atheism” label at best clouds how we look at his opinions. I rather disagree with something specific he says than brand him and say it’s bad. Same for yourself. I think if people critique your views, that should not brand you and do the broad stroke thing.

    Makes sense?

  14. J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch: “bilbo, a YNH sock puppet ratchets up the rhetoric and invents ‘new atheist rant-o-sphere’.”

    The problem is that bilbo didn’t invent the rant-o-sphere. Orac unleashed the “Hitler Zombie” on Dawkins well before bilbo went into action. Harris is responsible for saying, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” and for making the poorly evidenced claim that liberal and moderate believers provide cover for extremists. That has set the ground work for the current level of polarization that we see now between the so-called “accommodationists” and “New Atheists.”

    PZ Myers in particular has been a provocateur. He is responsible for caricatures about the target audience of accommodationists being “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys,” and he is responsible for creating a strawman that he called a “witless wanker.” I have yet to see anyone seriously suggest that Myers “endorses rape with objects,” only that he winked at a comment that jokingly suggests that the Intersection authors and commenters should be forcibly sodomized–and Myers is unfortunately guilty of that. If anything, Myers is more the face of the dark side of the New Atheism than the original “Four Horsemen.”

    The “New Atheists” (or whatever you want to call them) are largely responsible for their own negative reputation.

  15. TB


    Both “new atheist” and “accommodationist” were terms put forth or adopted originally by those who self-identified as new atheist.

    I think the discomfort you’re feeling about labels is valid, but I wonder if that discomfort arises from the positions taken and behavior of some who self-identify as NAs?

    Really, the problem of labels like these is that they’re not official “party” labels in the sense that one can’t police who says what.
    I do think it’s all a bit of name calling. I wonder, though, if even “outspoken” atheists could fall prey to the same inability to police those who self-identify as one? Perhaps it would be better to simply say some atheists until there is an official atheist party of america that one could go to to confirm or debunk positions.

  16. Jon

    MosesZD in #8: That’s what the accommodationist white liberals, whom MLK railed against, many times, wanted.

    Identifying atheists with pre-civil rights blacks in the south, and MLK?

    Atheists are among the most highly educated people in the country. They can get jobs anywhere, many of them at the most elite institutions and organizations (maybe with the exception being certain positions in power politics, which aren’t things you’re entitled to in a democracy anyway). Atheists are justified to campaign for separation of church and state and the like, but to say they are oppressed like southern blacks prior to civil rights? Sorry, that’s just not serious. In fact, it sounds remarkably like the identity politics I was talking about a couple threads back.

  17. Jon

    And PZ Myers, you’re no Thomas Huxley.

  18. Anthony McCarthy

    I use “new atheist” because many if not most of the atheists I know don’t wan t to be associated with the new atheists. If non-fundamentalist atheists want to come up with some other terminology and it’s widely accepted I’ll change.

    “Accommodationism” from what I can gather is the myth that there are people asking science to destroy itself to include the beliefs of religion, when I don’t know anyone outside of the ID industry who does that. And those people are better called by what they are “creationists”.

    Having read Coyne’s epic post on this “scandal” I’m amazed that they are getting that worked up over it. Makes you wonder how they’d deal with a serious, scholarly take down of their movement. Not too well, obviously.

  19. Delurking here. Too bad Chris’s post went up just before Jerry Coyne posted the results from his inquiries into the background of TJ’s claims:

    A solid, comprehensive post which should put the issue to bed.

  20. Gabby

    Here’s the problem that I’m having. This is from “Sock Puppets and “Tom Johnson,” Part II”

    “In light of all this, there’s no reason to trust the story that “Tom Johnson” originally told on this blog. It might still be accurate, and it was never any more than one person’s perception anyway. But one cannot trust its source in light of subsequent behavior.”

    In the paragraph where you admited that the story couldn’t be trusted, you slipped in “It might still be accurate”. That seems unnecessary and frankly, a little slimy. It felt as though you were a little desperate to hold on to a piece of the story that supported your bias.
    Maybe it wouldn’t have stood out to me had you not posted this remark in “More On Sock Puppets and “Tom Johnson,” Part I”

    “Since we weren’t checking (and will not go back through every single thread), it’s not at all impossible that there were other sock puppets–and this might well have occurred on either side of contentious issues.”

    You seem to be saying that they’re side is as bad as our side, but I don’t feel it neccesary to show proof. It just seems right. Both of these statements seem to be without evidence and only included so that you could cling your bias.
    I’m sure that you couldn’t care less whether I’m uncomfortable but there have to be others who feel this way. Would you mind addressing this?

  21. Just Me

    Jon @16:
    “Atheists are among the most highly educated people in the country. They can get jobs anywhere, many of them at the most elite institutions and organizations (maybe with the exception being certain positions in power politics, which aren’t things you’re entitled to in a democracy anyway). Atheists are justified to campaign for separation of church and state and the like, but to say they are oppressed like southern blacks prior to civil rights? Sorry, that’s just not serious.”

    While true that atheists are generally highly educated, they are also one of the most consistently distrusted and disliked groups. Atheists certainly can hold almost any job in society; open atheists, not so much. Outside of tenured positions, someone who is upfront about their atheism — not pushy, just honest and unashamed — has little chance of getting hired in most places if the topic gets raised in even the slightest way. The law formally labels belief a protected attribute, but only a fool would think that would stop many from simply re-wording their bias to have “doubts” about a candidate’s suitability. In politics, they would have essentially zero chance even if they hid their atheism entirely, unless they deliberately pretended to have faith in order to fool voters.

    When you say there is no oppression similar to other circumstances of civil rights, all I can say is are your eyes even open? Sure, atheism is not necessarily worn on one’s sleeve the same way that one’s skin color or sex is, but that doesn’t make it any less a target of scorn. That second-class status is very real, and demolishing it should be paramount.

  22. Kevcol


    Chris and Sheril, you should shut down this blog! Your conduct in this affair is nothing less than disgraceful. Chris you should apologize profusely. I’ll never trust a word you say about anything. If you walked in from outside and said it was raining, I wouldn’t believe you until I checked for myself.

    I suspect every comment as sockpuppetry and wonder if you have any yourself?

  23. Jon

    Gabby: You seem to be saying that they’re side is as bad as our side, but I don’t feel it neccesary to show proof.

    I think “side” is a funny word in this case (and I think Chris is right to put it in scare quotes). Chris spent some time at the Templeton Cambridge conference patiently listening to certain views, many of which he disagreed with. But I just dedicated some of my afternoon today reading some Charles Taylor, something I’m sure wouldn’t hold much interest for Chris. Also Chris spent time on his old blog defending Daniel Dennett, while I spent a lot of time on it defending his critics. Are Chris and I on the same “side?” A lot of the time perhaps, but sometimes not.

    As far as the other commenters on this site, I think Anthony McCarthy has some insightful things to say, but I think he strays off the mark sometimes. Marion Delgado, I think, is more of a politically dedicated type than me, although I don’t disagree with him very often. John Kwock pretty much lost me as a reader after the first couple days. There are others that drop by but that I don’t have a sense of, or are slipping my mind.

    Are we commenters all on the same “side”? We all find cause to criticize the new atheists, but I’m not sure we’re unified enough to call us a “side”. I’m reminded how the right is in the habit who calls everyone who disagrees with them “the Left”, as if that one term comfortably describes every constituency finding itself at odds with them, and hence deserving the same derisive treatment, from actual leftist activists, to the Democratic party establishment, to scientists, to the Brookings Institution, to the uninsured, to Duke Energy, etc etc etc… The truth is all these things don’t represent “a side,” they just find themselves in opposition to the conservative movement for various reasons.

  24. Gabby has nailed it. Chris, you could earn a lot of good will just by acknowledging unequivocally that the story was a fabrication and was, looking back, always implausible – and that you made a misjudgment in falling for it. You seem to be unwilling to say that expressly. And of course, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that anyone on the “New Atheist” side has done anything remotely comparable to what “Tom Johnson” did. Insinuating that was another misjudgment. Your continued support of Kazez, who is in a terrible lately, does you no credit either. Her posts may be thoughtful, but the thoughts are not useful ones.

    Everyone makes misjudgments from time to time, but this one did a lot of damage, and it has now been demonstrated clearly. A simple, unequivocal statement from you would go a long way.

  25. H.H.

    So does this mean we won’t ever get to see an exhibit B?

  26. Oops, left out a word in #24. I meant to say, “Kazez … is in a terrible muddle lately.”

  27. TB

    Blackford: “the story was a fabrication and was, looking back, always implausible”

    So, what Dr. Coyne said isn’t true?

    TJ is a grad student, as he represented himself to Chris privately. There was an outreach event connected to the school, as he said. There is other information in Coyne’s post that’s true that I’m aware of.

    You’re right about Jean, we now know we can’t trust anything TJ says and she should not have tried to make that case. I said as much at the time.

    But you’re trying to use hindsight to justify your own doubts. Johnson was who he said he was, and was in a position to have an experience like the one he said. But to confirm any of those details farther would have “outed” Johnson to his colleagues. And that’s where Chris was burned by the source – he gave anonymity in return for honesty. Chris could have burned him right back but didn’t because he didn’t think the kid could take the intense public scrutiny that some people still want, and he didn’t think any of the other parties involved deserved that either.

    TJ mixed fact with fiction liberally, and even after he confessed to being a liar some people – like Jean and like the commenters who trumpeted his confession that he wasn’t a grad student (funny how you didn’t mention their fallacies) – were too quick to STILL take him at his word for some details.

    Greg Laden was right: Before this came out, all we had was two competing confirmation biases: You thought it was always implausible because apparently you can’t imagine overt scientism seen online jumping from there to in person/in your face in such a way that would undermine your view that advancing atheism “overtly” advances science; I don’t see any mechanism that would keep that behavior from happening, and I see it as a threat – with a conservative court using the fallacies of scientism to allow religion to be taught as science in public schools.

    Tom Johnson doesn’t change anything in that debate. He was never the only evidence out there.

  28. I use “new atheist” because many if not most of the atheists I know don’t wan t to be associated with the new atheists.

    That’s the opposite of my experience.

    Many of the atheists I know are not crazy about the term. (I myself have come to embrace it for lack of a better label) But pretty much every atheist I know has no problem being associated with those to whom the label is usually applied.

    My anecdote cancels your anecdote!

  29. Jon

    Just me: Atheists certainly can hold almost any job in society; open atheists, not so much.

    Maybe this is because I’ve spent all my life in the northeast, but I just don’t see this. Sure, if you come out and make a point of saying you’re an atheist at a job interview, maybe. But this might be true of all sorts of things you’d say at a job interview. If you said you were a Hindu at a job interview, you might not get it. If you came out of the closet at a job and started telling people about Hinduism, you might be in trouble. But the same might be true if you came out and were a proselytizing Vatican II Catholic in a Baptist town. Something similar is true with all sorts of sensitive subjects and matters of conscience. The next question might be what do about it? Do you agitate to *make* people understand your underdog belief system? A more likely tack is that you show them that you’re not a threat, that you’re a reasonable just like everyone else, and over time people become more broad minded.

    Now with civil rights for blacks, it’s a completely different story. They were actually oppressed by segregation in structural and economic ways. Gays are denied rights, like the right to visit their partners in the hospital or join the military. These are real civil rights issues, and I see the parallels with the case of atheists as fairly weak.

  30. Jon

    I think the “New Atheists” as a phenomenon is pretty easy to define. This is the article that coined the term:

    There are concrete historical circumstances, authorities, cases of atheism that are clearly not “new atheism” (I’ve yet to hear a new atheist discuss Camus or Sartre–they were the last generation’s atheists, and have nothing to with Dawkins’ or Dennett’s writings).

    You need something to refer to a movement. I’ve heard other people say “movement atheism.” That works for me too, although it doesn’t have the name recognition that “new atheism” does, so that’s what I use.

  31. Pi Guy

    I use “new atheist” because many if not most of the atheists I know don’t wan t to be associated with the new atheists.

    I like very much being associated with people who actually feel like reality is real and the truth matters.

  32. jfb

    In politics, they would have essentially zero chance even if they hid their atheism entirely, unless they deliberately pretended to have faith in order to fool voters.

    For example, there’s this bit from the Texas State Constitution:

    Article 1, Sec. 4. RELIGIOUS TESTS. No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

    IOW, atheists are constitutionally barred from holding office in Texas. It’s not enough that most Texans wouldn’t vote for an atheist in the first place; atheists aren’t even to be given the chance to be elected.

    Is it comparable to being black in the South in the first half of the 20th century? No. That doesn’t mean it’s okay.

  33. Jon

    I like very much being associated with people who actually feel like reality is real and the truth matters.

    As if other people didn’t. Does this sound like Charles Taylor is any less committed to the truth than Daniel Dennett is?:

    Of course if blog snippets are your shortcut to truth, and that’s the extent of your commitment, then who cares right?

  34. “You’re right about Jean, we now know we can’t trust anything TJ says and she should not have tried to make that case. I said as much at the time. ”

    TB, I have no idea what you mean. Where did I try to make the case that WE could trust TJ? Please..I’d love to know!

    All along I have said that the October 2009 email made it reasonable for CHRIS to believe TJ’s whole story AT THAT TIME. As in–BEFORE all the mendacity came to light.

    That email made the student’s identity clear, as well as his visits to conservation meetings, his interaction with baptists, his concern about atheism, etc etc. I did not expect any of that to ever be refuted, and it hasn’t been. That’s not because TJ is reliable, but because his identity and professional activities were proven by linked websites, etc.

    As to the essential claims about atheists, I never said WE should believe them. I’ve said over and over again that TJ’s mendacity has to be take into account and that I didn’t KNOW whether those claims were true. But in October 2009, pre-mendacity…it doesn’t seem it was remiss of Chris to believe them. The email provided pretty solid backing.

    I think what Russell wants to maintain is that even in October 2009, before Chris had any knowledge of TJ’s mendacity, it was a mistake for Chris to find that email credible. He thinks the whole story is so implausible the email could have done nothing to “increase the probability.” But that comes from Russell’s own background assumptions, not ones that (I suspect) Chris shares.

    I believe I have consistently said the above, and nothing to the effect that WE (NOW) should trust TJ’s word about what he witnessed.

  35. Jon

    jfb That doesn’t mean it’s okay.

    Now what you mention *is* a rights issue. I didn’t say they didn’t exist (see what I said about separation of church and state). But they’re not on the scale of gays lacking the rights of marriage or especially, pre-1960’s blacks (an equivalence argument that borders on the juvenile). My argument is these kinds of issues don’t merit a lot of the overblown and divisive rhetoric we’ve seen, for instance about religion being inherently fascistic (Hitchens), or child abuse (Dawkins), etc.

  36. Gabby

    I wasn’t making any judgements on who anyone might or might not be in bed with on any issues. I was simply illustrating how Chris’ words translated when put in the greater context. Chris mentioned sides, so I went with that.
    Regardless, who ever suggested that those who agree on this specific issue must agree on all? It certainly wasn’t me. I was hoping to have the substance of my post addressed. You seem to be offering distraction at best. Do you have an opinion on the substance of my post? Do you think the highlighted comments were justified or supportable?

  37. Hitch

    Jon, please read the introduction to Hitchen’s anthology “The Atheism Reader” re Camus. And read the Minnesota study on distrust of atheists in the USA before spreading claims that there is no problem.

    I like Camus a lot, so let me actually be more specific about your repeated claim that people don’t know their precursors. French atheism of the period saw atheism as a done deal, hence it was no topic at all. Camus and Sartre said virtually nothing about atheism that can be leaned upon. Existentialism can be viewed as the necessity to re-erect the need for reasons for existence in the absence of grand theistic narratives, in the absence of metaphysics. There is no need to argue the first step. That’s gone. Second to that both of them are also virtually uncited in the larger philosophical literature, so this is not just something specific to atheists.

    And certainly the mix of implied, not expressed atheism of say Camus with much stronger themes of romanticized personal suffering is not very compatible with the cold de-emotionalized rational British school. But the first sentence of the Myth of Sisyphus certainly won’t make anyone who follows a catholic creed give the warm and fuzzy.

    To understand that style difference even in contemporary thinkers, just compare Andre Glucksman’s work with that of Peter Singer. Glucksman’s thought is full of emotive themes (french) whereas Singer’s thought is full of consequence and utility to arrive at compassion (anglo-saxon).

    But this style of non-scientific atheism does not work well in narratives of science (Dawkins, Harris) or analytic philosophy (Dennett).

    The natural precursors for current day atheists are Kurtz, Sagan, Orwell, Ayers, Russell, Quine, Huxley, Ingersoll, Twain, Paine, Jefferson, Locke, Hume. Why? Because that’s the anglo-saxon school of atheism. Russell, who never gets attacked like this also didn’t extensively cite Feuerbach either. Why? Different intellectual tradition. Russell and Sartre were contemporaries and could join in causes like the Vietnam war, but philosophically they followed disjoint paths. Sartre was a and in marxist literature, after Marx rarely extensively discusses the metaphysics of deities. The rejection of that metaphysics is a done deal. Religion at best enter as a socially organizing force into that literature. To not understand this is basically ignorant of parallel but not historically causal schools of thought.

  38. Yes, Jean, and it’s now clear that my background assumptions were the correct ones. I knew this hadn’t happened because it was just so implausible to any0ne with any experience of how the world works. Chris has the excuse that he’s still very young and inexperienced, but I don’t know what your excuse is.

    TB: Give it up. The story is a fabrication. Stop grasping at straws.

  39. Russell, The revelations at WEIT do not show that your background assumptions were correct. Your assumption is that this kind of stuff never happens anywhere, not in one-on-one interactions. The fact that it didn’t happen on this occasion says nothing about that generalization. Obviously!

    My assumption is that this kind of stuff does happen. I assume so because I think there are obnoxious jerks of all kinds. I don’t think atheists are exempt from having obnoxious jerks in their ranks. Second, confrontational, mocking behavior is something that happens in the milieu I’m part of. I have had colleagues who told me they mock their students’ religious and political beliefs to their faces. (Lots of students think it’s fine, but some complain on evaluations.) So could it happen at some meeting–in another field? No, it’s not impossible. As to Chris’s age, it’s enviable, but surely immaterial.

    I know the arrogant tone is de rigeur in some circles and much applauded, but it’s not helping you convince anyone here.

  40. Jon

    Gabby: Chris had it in scare quotes:

    i did acknowledge that “something has gone wrong,” and of course, it was on my “side.”

    I think there’s a tendency to see the “other side” as all these similar people… For instance, “Tom Johnson” has nothing to do with me, other than we have a shared opinion about something. I’m not on the verge of starting a blog with sock puppets, and people advocating your position might have used sock puppets, as Chris wasn’t checking for that (and maybe that’s why he said hypothetically it might have happened, although I don’t see why new atheists would need to–if PZ Myers gets 40% of Scienceblogs traffic, and Scienceblog traffic is greater than Daily Kos, then there’s no motive to inflate your numbers, as I think TJ was fraudulently trying to do). So anyway, no, I doubt there have been many new atheist sock puppets on this blog, and yes, I think Chris got burned by his source, who probably made up about all of his story (and may have talked with colleagues who had the views he described, but that’s very different from doing what he described them as doing at the event).

    By the way, I was a commenter on this blog when this happened, and I didn’t say anything, but it made me uncomfortable and I don’t think I engaged “Tom” directly. (He did address me–I don’t think I addressed him back.)

  41. Hitch

    “My assumption is that this kind of stuff does happen. I assume so because I think there are obnoxious jerks of all kinds. I don’t think atheists are exempt from having obnoxious jerks in their ranks.”

    Are you serious? You don’t even cite an incident, just claim that it must be possible! Just assumptions are enough to think negatively about people.

  42. Jon

    To Jean’s point. The most influential book in the American postwar conservative movement is WF Buckley’s *God and Man at Yale*. I doubt Buckley’s book would have been as successful if it weren’t for his description of the atheist Yale professor Raymond Kennedy:

    So there are consequences for this kind of stuff. (Wish they had the book itself online.)

  43. Hitch, If you don’t like the generalizations, just go on to my next point–the one about colleagues. Really, I can’t be faulted for not citing incidents. Did you want names and dates??

  44. Gabby

    I think our wires are still slightly crossed on the “sides” issue so let me just say that I should have used quotes. I get your main point there and certainly can’t disagree with it.
    As far as “Tom Johnson’s” intentions, I think you’re being far too generous with your evaluation. This seems akin to my complaints about what Chris posted. It’s as if all of the benefit of the doubt is being assumed in one direction and that is toward the “accommodationists”. Tom wasn’t being underhanded and attempting to smear the “new atheists”, he was just boosting Chris’ numbers with his sockpuppetry. This is also what Chris meant when he said “this might well have occurred on either side”.
    Do you really believe that?

  45. Hitch

    Jean, here is the deal. We all interact with a range of people. That is just how it is. But generalizing from individual interactions to make a case against a group. That is stereotyping.

    I know opinionated scientists, in fact I know real geniuses who have zero social skills. What does that mean? Well it only means that not everybody is a Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    If you truly believe that your examples can be used to generalize, go ahead and try. But better get it right because smearing people just to safe face is not OK.

    Jon, why the case that Buckley decided to make a career on exclusionary conservatism that opposed universal suffrage, raged against artists like Shostakovich simply because they lived in Soviet Russia and was happy to bash anything non-Chrisitan is beyond me. So you say that the only way to avoid a conservative movement is have no visible atheism at all? How is that a strategy? Would that work for the women’s movement or the civil rights or gay movements? Not at all. That’s to say that the only way to avoid opposition is to not fight for ones own. Sorry, I rather have Russell be honest and not get a teaching job in New York than him be quiet to not offend people he disagrees with.

    So Buckley played into conservative bigotry and one Professor at Yale is at fault? I’m sorry but that is at best ridiculous. By that measure we could never teach anthropology of religion classes.

    Frankly you guys are just looking for possible examples that make the case that atheists have to be quiet. But I’m happy to be proven wrong. Show me how to do it right! How can one be an outspoken atheist and not cause the problems you guys cite? And how are we going to do the implementation? How can one discuss Feuerbach in an anthropology of religion class without risking offending conservative christian students and enraging the next Buckley?

  46. Jon

    First you complain, “You don’t even cite an incident, just claim that it must be possible! Just assumptions are enough to think negatively about people.”

    Then I give you an incident where people were offended, and it had consequences, and you say something like “why can’t we be as in-your-face as we wanna be? It worked for blacks and gays.”

    I discussed that upthread and before as well.

  47. TB

    Blackford: I see what you’re trying to do, and I’m not buying your revisionist history. Why didn’t you castigate all those commenters for buying more of TJ’s lies?

  48. Jon

    OK, Hitch, let me try a different tack here. One of the backstories of new atheism is the Internet. As people like Cass Sunstein and Henry Ferrell have discussed, the intertubes is a double edged thing. It allows people to come together and share thoughts–lowering “transaction costs” for finding new info. But it can also create monocultures–cultures that are passionate but intellectually weak because they have closed off other views, having only picked up the low hanging fruit from similar minds. (“Epistemic closure” is the meme of the hour on this subject, although it’s a technically incorrect use of that term from philosophy…)

    I think, particularly in this case, the new-atheist-o-sphere could benefit from lining up the counter arguments to their views, and acknowledging where there are intellectual stalemates–and there really are many of those (but you wouldn’t know it from the pseudopopulist rants you get from PZ Myers and co. that sometimes, ironically, get to sounding like rants from right wing media).

    It doesn’t have to be that way. I think the political left has been much more successful online at forming a cognitive community. I recently ran into this piece by Reihan Salam that was pretty good:

    JournoList was less a conspiracy than an attempt to build a progressive community. Reihan Salam on what its critics don’t understand about the Web—and why there’s no counterpart on the right…

    Older liberal journalists who had spent the better part of their careers talking potshots at brain-dead liberals found themselves outflanked by progressives who saw the Bush White House as a far more pressing problem than aging hippies. At first, the older journalists sneered. But then, faced with the growing influence of the tyros, many of them started to listen and learn. And it’s from this rapprochment that JournoList was born. Founded by Ezra Klein, an indefatigable reporter and intellectual entrepreneur, JournoList was a marriage of young and old, built on the premise that everyone had something to learn and to teach. It was less a liberal conspiracy than a low-key effort to build a cognitive community…

    JournoList was also a valuable reporting tool. Blogger X could ask about a failed Medicare reform from the 1980s, and within the next day or two a tenured eminence would offer thoughts or, at the very least, the name of an academic who could. To be sure, it was at least as common to have a tiresome shouting match over whether a reporter at Time or some other legacy media institution was getting rolled by Republicans. Yet the collective brainpower of the list made wading through tiresome flame wars worthwhile…

    As a wonky conservative, I often envied the intellectual firepower of JournoList’s small army of economists and political scientists, which would hard if not impossible to replicate on the right. Among lefty academics at elite research universities, the leading liberal bloggers command attention and respect. The same doesn’t hold for the far smaller number of righty academics at the same schools, not least because the activist right has tended to be less policy-focused. And if anything, one could argue that the problem with today’s right isn’t a lack of intellectual solidarity so much as an excess of it

    I think that last part describes the new atheist Internet pretty well. But again, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can acknowledge your differences and in the process gain respect for how difficult certain problems are. Then, I think, your “tone” naturally changes. You may lose some of your “populist” edge, but if your commitment really is to reason, you can’t be surprised when the missions of populism and reason clash sometimes. (Although populism maybe isn’t really the right word here, because what kind of popular base does new atheism have?)

  49. Hitch

    Jon, don’t put words in my mouth, thanks. I have multiple times explains how I feel about exaggerating another’s point of view, so I reject your characterization of my position as caricature. In fact it doesn’t characterize my position because I never have said and never will say that one should be “as in-your-face as we wanna be”.

    I recall that you mischaracterized a comparison of mine with respect to teaching marxism and we agreed that I will point out to you when you mischaracterize my position moving forward. Here is to that agreement.

    Finally you blur two lines of discussion. Jean made an argument from assumption that I challenged. “My assumption is that this kind of stuff does happen. I assume so because I think there are obnoxious jerks of all kinds. I don’t think atheists are exempt from having obnoxious jerks in their ranks.” She did not connect this to her experience because she continued: “Second, [..]”. That challenge is still valid as it stands.

    This has nothing to do with you giving Buckley as an example. I gave my response to the Buckley case and am happy to hear your response.

    Do you want to have an honest discussion how to overcome atheist’s stigma in the US? If yes, I’ll be very happy to have a discussion on it.

    If all you want is win an argument by mischaracterizing and trying to pin me or other people participating in the discussion, well that’s not what I am here for, sorry.

  50. Jon

    For example, take a look at this thread:

    It’s interesting to read both Coyne’s post and the responses. My favorite one is “Free will is an illusion. Get over it.” It has all the appreciation of hard questions as John Bolton’s comment about the Iraq War: “We should have just given them a copy of the Federalist Papers and said ‘good luck.'” (I’m not comparing *the consequences* of John Bolton’s views with the NAs’, but still they both stick in my mind as epitomizing certain ideologically blinkered views …)

  51. Jon

    Hitch Do you want to have an honest discussion how to overcome atheist’s stigma in the US?

    I already have. I said there are civil rights issues, but they are out of proportion to the rhetoric used by new atheists. I think this is because NA is an intellectual and political movement, an ideological movement, not just a civil right’s movement. As the Wired “New Atheist” article put it:

    When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins’ analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.


  52. Hitch

    Jon, I think the internet/blogosphere is an interesting topic. However frankly that is too big a topic for me to tackle in the scope that is actually relevant here.

    It would be more relevant if this was specific to atheism. I see no evidence that it is.

    But that is not the argument brought in UA. There it is claimed that Dawkins, who is not a blogosphere person is a bully and muddles the line between science and philosophy.

    With those arguments I can do something tangible.

    But let me not completely dodge the issue, because there is a related nugget in it, and say this much: People are afraid of a diverse range of expressions and claim that individual voices have more impact that I can actually find evidence for. The internet discussion is one full of hypothesis and limited in evidence. I am happy to wait some until some more solid sociology of the internet emerges.

    But more relevant and indeed related is the notion of identity formation. See again, pointing to Taner Edis, there are two notions here, non-belief, and science. These are not the same. But much of the discussion does not separate them sufficiently.

    The second issue is that people may reject group identity formation, disbelief is particularly strong in this department. I for one do not “identify” with PZ Myers. I can agree or disagree with views he holds. But that is a different thing. Many atheists are “post-identity” like this.

    So to argue that atheism fails at strong cognitive cohesion is a part truism but it is also possibly even desirable. As far as an identity would be a good idea, internal sniping as we see it here is one of the best ways to disrupt it.

    For solidarity, why don’t we critique say UA for a lack thereof. After all Dawkins spent his life promoting science, yet one sentence is used to claim he blurs the boundary and is called a bully. Is that really, what leads to group cohesion and solidarity to a cause (say science outreach)? I am not even sure that the critique what breaks group cohesion is well placed here.

    Ultimately, and I may phrase that too simply, it seems to me that accommodationism is the split over style and people who do not lock step over style questions are shunned. I will not do that for two reasons. Style is routinely mischaracterized. Dawkins is much better than he is presented by the Hitler Zombie meme. The second is that I reject splitting over style. If you cannot acknowledge substantial agreements over style, then there is a failure to recognize that personalities and preferences differ but that one can still have a deeper common cause.

    If we have to split the difference over personal styles, surely we will not find a common umbrella. This pretty much is at the core of my critique of that divide. It’s not a very deep or helpful divide that is being argued here.

    I actually think some form of cohesion is a good thing, but the problem is not that people don’t set good steps towards it (billboard campaigns, charities, etc) but that some prefer to nit-pick each other. To make that case, why do we rarely to never discuss positive examples of blogosphere atheism? There are plenty, plenty examples.

    And if we are worried about extreme styles, I personally are much more worried about the viewership numbers of Glenn Beck and his message than I am of the numbers PZ gets and his message. Are we really looking in the right direction in this discussion?

    But let me pose the real challenge: How can atheism gain the much needed and deserved social trust without gaining visibility?

    Or to put it differently, why does Dawkins and Hitchens appear more on the news than Dennett and Harris? And is that a net good or bad?

    I’m give you my answer: It’s a massive net plus. But I’m happy to debate that point.

  53. Hitch

    Jon, I have pointed to the Minnesota study multiple times too. The reason is simple. People do not recognize the problem of being an atheist in the USA.

    I will not do a thorough critique of the Wired article but will say this: It, like many articles on “New Atheism” does not correctly represent the views of the people it discusses.

    But to the paragraph:

    “When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins’ analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.”

    How is rejecting a stigma an attempt to gain power? It isn’t. Basically Wolf misframes what the issue is. Atheism does not need power, it needs to be treated as a peer. Distrust is at over 40% compared to 6% for conservative christians and 2% baseline. That is no joking matter. That an atheist president is unelectable is not a question of power, it’s a question of stigma.

    Atheists want exactly live and let live, like the gay rights movement, like the civil rights movement, like the women’s rights movement.

    Do I really have to dig out articles that opposed second wave feminism as too loud and questioned what women would do with all the power once they had it?

    Dawkins does not disagree with tolerating religions. He disagrees with having to be quiet about religious dogma. These are different things. Again I refer to the four horsemen video.

    But Dawkins is presented as a caricature of his views. In fact most atheists I know, that includes many of the so-called new atheists, are pluralists, that believe in enlightened toleration ala Voltaire and Paine. And if people actually listened to what they as a whole say, people would understand it.

    Toleration, by the way, includes tolerance for critique of religion.

  54. Jon

    I for one do not “identify” with PZ Myers. I can agree or disagree with views he holds. But that is a different thing. Many atheists are “post-identity” like this.

    I think a cult of personality doesn’t describe it (although there is elements of that). I think it’s more like what the Wired article describes. You identify with a *movement,* and an associated intellectual project. I’ve already given my thoughts on what that movement and intellectual project is about.

    But let me pose the real challenge: How can atheism gain the much needed and deserved social trust without gaining visibility?

    I already talked about that. And I agreed that there are some civil rights issues, but there is a cost to pursuing atheism as identity politics.

  55. Jon

    Toleration, by the way, includes tolerance for critique of religion.

    You bet. But what about the quality of the critique? I already commented on what you said about people just speaking out and saying what they feel, man!

  56. Anthony McCarthy

    Hitch, different gay people in the movement want different things. I’ve run up against all kinds of rude idiots in the gay rights movement in the past, there was a really obnoxious fad (especially in some circles in NYC in the 70s) that were the equivalent of the new atheism, which I also opposed. It was obnoxious and dishonest and rude and counterproductive and, eventually, it disappeared because most gay folk didn’t want to associate with them and they got nothing done. I’d think a better comparison would be that “New Black Panther Party” that FOX is trying to use against the left. A tiny and irrational group of egoists, yet useful to the opponents of civil rights.

  57. Hitch

    Jon, you haven’t addressed the issue of visibility at all. Please read the Minnesota study and explain how what you say in any way addresses the distrust issue, which we had and kept while not being visible or having identity movements.

    Your points about civil rights movements is completely mistaken. Slavery and anti-segregationism is but the most visible aspects of civil rights. Having electable and bench representation is also a civil rights issue. Having women on the bench and in office is a women’s rights issue. Basically you give a gross caricature of what group right’s movements are about. They are not just about legal oppression but about social stigma.

    The gay rights movement does not end if they have equal rights under the law as long as gays still get beaten up more than straight people simply for being gay.

    In fact that was a Buckley move. First he opposed voting rights for blacks, then he charged that all is alright because after all the legal system was balanced, denying all deep seated structural problem in society that upheld the divide, and he rephrased his suffrage argument to say that he meant access to voting via some test of access. Hmm yes… Are we really to tune our strategy based on a character like that? I completely reject that. There is no way to get a sensible outcome when negotiating with someone who uses that style of politics.

    And again some states bar atheists from holding office, so yes atheists do have a legal battle. In fact we constantly fight legal battles over the first amendment in the SCOTUS. We have moved from comfortable margins to 5-4 margins in that critical body. Yes, freedom of and from religion is still largely upheld but it is getting very close. That is not just an issue but a serious issue.

    So I reject both of your claims, (1) that a civil rights movement ends if the legal system is in order and (2) that atheism does not have to fight for it’s standing in the legal system.

    And no you have not addressed toleration. Toleration has nothing to do with quality of critique. Dawkins does not lack quality in critique when he says that a personal god is a scientific hypothesis. There is no problem of quality here.

    But you cite demagoguing and politically unsympathetic sources like The New Republic as authoritative. Let me actually quote the TNR article you cite:

    “Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion–to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state–is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.”

    Well simply because that insinuation is part of the exaggeration strategy. People who opposed slapping of children as child abuse did also not automatically call for persecution of the parents. I have indeed made that argument before (unanswered).

    So why do I have to respond to this again, when I already have? If you disagree with my objection please disagree with my objection, don’t just claim it’s addressed.

    So why are we discussing people who want to undermine atheism and have a stake in making it look unreasonable as sensible support for helping atheism is beyond me.

    See we have no choice but participate in some form of identity politics not because atheism is a natural identity, but because opponents of atheism brand it heavily, with negative content, see the TNR article and the whole blog of it’s author. I reject your strategy as not only ill-informed but dangerous. If we do not form our views, others will fill it with whatever they want. And if you take their views and reinforce them you help them brand it. I think that is a very serious issue and it is very much why I spend to much time arguing.

    As long as “atheists” cite “anti-atheists” for cues and support how to improve the negative image of atheism we are in deep deep trouble. Buckley, Linker? Seriously? No I’m sorry. There is no winning if we try to behave so that these people will not try to brand atheism negatively. And to try is to help them succeed.

    So yes, this is my charge for you, you are helping people like Linker in branding atheism negatively and ask of atheism to assume a defense-less politically powerless position. I completely reject that as self-defeating if not worse. I think you mean well, but I cannot support what you say.

  58. Jon

    I’d think a better comparison would be that “New Black Panther Party” that FOX is trying to use against the left. A tiny and irrational group of egoists, yet useful to the opponents of civil rights.

    Exactly right.

  59. Hitch

    Anthony, aren’t we lumping people together and dismiss them whole-sale? That is what I object to. I have no problem with distancing oneself from X or Y, but at least one has to be honest what X and Y is. To say “God is a scientific hypothesis” is not bullying. And to suggest that indoctrinating children at a very early age with bigotry thought processes may be child abuse is not rude.

    (posted by proud parents)

    Anyone want to come out and state that the above video is completely unproblematic and that there is nothing to discuss here?

    But rather we demagogue and dismiss people who dare to raise that there may be an issue here. I think we do it all wrong if we dismiss people on surface issue and also through out the content with it.

  60. Jon

    Yes, Hitch, and if religion is child abuse, then it merits state intervention; it’s nearly calling into question separation of church and state and religious liberties. As far as I can see, that level of policing peoples’ personal choices, made with their consciences, is properly called illiberal.

    I didn’t watch your movie, by the way, I’m speaking on general principle that religion itself can’t be made criminal behavior like child abuse. To do that, you’d have to rewrite the US Constitution, and good luck with that–you’d have to go through me and the rest of the US population not sharing your ideology to do that.

  61. Hitch

    Jon, I am happy to concede to you the right to claim that for you child abuse always warrants state intervervention. I reject that you project on others that they have to hold the same view. Again please respond why people who think slapping children is child abuse are forced into your line or argument?

    Only if people buy your forced link, is there any policing. So the claim that it is illiberal does not at all follow as you state it. Dawkins has never made that link and I do not see that link. So you claim that Dawkins is illiberal not on his words but on your claims. I’m sorry the universal nature of the link you claim is not proper.

    And please engage me on my argument not an argument that is more convenient to make your case. I am not arguing a “general principle” that you resurrect to argue against.

    Let me repeat my argument: We have to be able to speak to what constitutes social ills, like child abuse. Is indoctrinating 2 year olds with intolerance against jews child abuse, is slapping child abuse? Can we have that debate without automatically radicalizing it’s political implementation?

    This does not automatically lead to political ramifications, but is a matter of discussion. I gave an explicit example for possible discussion. This the grounds I argue and it is exactly because Dawkins is whole-sale dismissed using your argument when that is not his argument.

    This totalizing trend of framing Dawkins is very troubling. The Hitler Zombie thing falls into that category, the child abuse thing. We do not engage Dawkins on the merit of his case but on an extremized interpretation of it. That was and is one of my main objection.

  62. Jon

    Hitch, even if you don’t involve the state, Alan Wolfe argues that even imposing humiliation and social isolation as a price for ideas you happen to disagree with is outside the liberal tradition:

    And I agree with him. Anyway, I keep reposting arguments I made before. This is getting tedious. And hating Jews is not synonymous with religion, by any stretch. I don’t know why you threw that in there.

  63. Hitch

    Jon, watch the video to understand the remark that baffles you. Context is our discussion of child abuse. The video is the context of that remark.

    On Wolfe, I really would prefer not having to do another book review just to further the discussion. How about we settle to agree to disagree. I disagree with Wolfe’s characterization of Harris and Dawkins and I find the definition of illiberal that you cite tricky at best. But we’ll have to leave it at that. You are entitled to hold a different view and I respect that.

  64. Jon

    You are entitled to hold a different view and I respect that.

    Good I’m glad you say that, because if you were most NAs you would be busy mocking me now.

  65. J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch: “This totalizing trend of framing Dawkins is very troubling. The Hitler Zombie thing falls into that category, the child abuse thing.”

    The “Hitler Zombie” thing was mocking Dawkins for using the Chamberlain analogy, period, and the one doing the mocking was working from several paragraph-long quotes from Dawkins, with plenty of context to make the meaning of the quotes clear. Furthermore, the mockery came from someone who generally avoids getting involved in blogosphere fights on religion, New Atheism, etc. Sorry, but Dawkins earned the derision that came to him on that point. As for child abuse, Dawkins had said that labeling children as having a religion is child abuse.

    This isn’t a “totalizing trend.” This is pointing out problems with what Dawkins actually said and did.

  66. Anthony McCarthy

    Anthony, aren’t we lumping people together and dismiss them whole-sale? That is what I object to. I have no problem with distancing oneself from X or Y, but at least one has to be honest what X and Y is. To say “God is a scientific hypothesis” is not bullying. And to suggest that indoctrinating children at a very early age with bigotry thought processes may be child abuse is not rude. Hitch

    Hitch, identifying the adherents of an ideological position by that position is an unfortunate artifact of the impossibility of going, person by person, and identifying individual differences in their conduct and stated positions, and nothing that those change over time and in different contexts. But it’s inescapable in discussing things on an abstract level. For the small universe of big name new atheists and the somewhat larger universe of frequently seen blog names, it’s a lot more legitimate than it is to lump all of many thousands of religions into “religion” or the billions of religious believers together for similar treatment. I would agree that you don’t get an entirely clear picture that way but this is, by and large, a matter of generalization.

    The idea that “God is a scientific hypothesis” is fundamentally and clearly wrong. There is no one “thing” that constitutes what “God” is held to be and in the definition of God as infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, as well as supernatural God cannot be addressed with science. It makes about as much sense as trying to make the right to due process a scientific hypothesis. Science, due to the exigencies made necessary by its intentions, has an extremely limited field of legitimate activity. Anything which cannot be confined within its only possible focus, the physical universe which can be defined, observed, quantified, etc. cannot be the subject of science. That people are able to come up with an enormous range of questions that can’t be honestly addressed by science is simply a fact of life. You’d think that scientists would be relieved that they didn’t have to address those, considering the trouble they have supporting their legitimate work.

    Just about the entire conflict between science and some religious people in the West surrounds the strife between scriptural fundamentalists and evolutionary biology. The young earth nonsense is the product of that strife. There are biblical fundamentalists who have successful careers in science, they just don’t make good evolutionary biologists or workers in allied fields.

    I think far more children are harmed through the constant indoctrination into materialism that they’re minds are saturated with by mass media than the relatively few who are brainwashed into the more damaging forms of fundamentalism. Pretending that most religious believers are the same as extreme fundamentalists is bigoted and untrue and unhelpful.

    The career of Richard Dawkins, going back into the early 70s, well before I had any idea what his ideas about religion were, has influenced a lot of my thinking about the real limits of science, the unfortunate pretenses of extending it well past where it can go and the habits of those who do that. If our species survives for enough time, I think he might become an example of one of the more dangerous dead ends in science and in the general culture.

  67. Hitch

    Anthony, thanks for your candor. You are not at all alone in that position. Many believers are seriously scared of atheism. It’s a massive problem for atheists actually, because it is an irrational fear.

    People are really scared of materialism so they are really happy to demonize Dawkins and other outspoken atheists. In fact people are rather happy to demonize anyone who is perceived as scary in that way. For example Klinghoffer (of the Discovery Institute) wrote a scare piece in the HuffPo recently trying to link Darwin to Hitler. This is how scared people are of lines of thought that they see as in conflict with the divine. It’s rather scary and sad state of affairs itself.

    I think it is interesting though. In my discussion here I for very long stretches have no idea why people oppose say Dawkins, or my position. You at least are honest. You are not in the “I am an atheist but reject the approach” camp. You are in the “I am a believer and am threatened by Dawkins” camp.

    To me this allegiance of people who oppose Dawkins out of irrational fear and need to preserve god with an idea with the idea that we have to be careful how to present science but are symapthetic towards atheism is strange. I don’t think UA very clearly articulates the consequences of that alignment.

    Just out of interest, is it atheism per se that is scary, or just the thought that one might be able to test for some versions of god scientifically? So are Terry Eagleton’s arguments also problematic? After all he correctly points out that Roman Catholicism subscribes to Thomism and not Fideism, hence essentially frames itself as something with materialist connections? His criticism of Dawkins is actually the inverse of yours and that of UA, in that he claims that Dawkins sees faith as fideism. I think Eagleton grossly misunderstands Dawkins, but he is correct that Thomism is about the connection of the mind and the body and hence rather explicit statements that can be testable and is not just unprobable faith.

    Basically I’m trying to figure out why this testable idea is scary when uttered by Dawkins when it is part of theological lines of thinking too. Again, the whole idea of the historical Jesus is based on the idea of verifiability of the validity of the bible story, and in particular the verification of the divinity of Jesus. If in fact resurrections can be shown to have actually happened this is evidence for the existence of the Christian claims. So should we advocate that that line of work stops as well?

    Or is it enough that theological historians try to confirm rather than disprove to not be worried?

    Finally what is your source for your epistemological arguments? Is that your perception or is that grounded somewhere? Did you read in detail how Dawkins argues the conditions under which he sees the god hypothesis as testable or is this a general view of that proposal?

  68. Anthony McCarthy

    You mean the arguments that I made about the narrow scope of science? Well, as people who have read a lot of my comments might guess, Eddington and William James have had something to do with it. Mostly it’s derived from the history and methods of science.

    Materialism of the consumer variety is dangerous because it leads people to overindulgence and irrational acquisition, enslaves people, harms animals and destroys the biosphere.

    Materialism of the ideological kind has less obvious dangers. I’d hold, but, as with any -ism, when it is mistaken as an obvious truth instead of a belief is mostly just a potential annoyance. It’s no more an objective fact than idealism is. I think that a lot of scientists have an emotional investment in asserting that the subject of their work is the only possible reality but that doesn’t make it science.

    I would very much doubt that the majority of Catholics today hold with Thomism, I doubt most of them through history could recognize it if it was presented to them. There is no way to test any of the various beliefs you list with science, not in the way it is possible to show that the Genesis account of creation is certainly not literally true. Without the needed physical evidence, in beliefs which are held to be unique events or which reside in the realm of the supernatural, science can’t proceed and scientists who do attempt that have ceased to be practicing their profession.

    No one understands anything about the “mind-body” issue. The various sides on that are ideological, as well.

  69. Hitch

    But Feuerbach, Freud, James, Dennett and yes Dawkins basically just say the same thing at the core: We can study religion and we can study religious claims that have naturalistic implications. And for example Dawkins certainly doesn’t advocate consumerist materialism as I understand it. But yes, we will see what Harris has to say about ethics. Not that ethics as a secular topic is anything new, after all some of the most eminent current day ethicists are atheists, like Peter Singer, who incidentally is one of the biggest and arguably most infuential thinkers on animal rights and preservation.

    So to reject the metaphysical does not at all mean that we enslave people and harm animals. In fact the allowance to enslave is described in the texts of the Abrahamic religions, as is the notion that animals were created for the benefit of people. But I would definitely agree with you that luckily many believers do not take scripture to be literal on many of these passages.

    Thomism is still doctrine of the church, and I think you better take it up with Eagleton if you think it’s unsound to bring it as an argument. I only mention it because that was yet another charge against Dawkins. I think it’s a little tricky to be both charged with fideism, ignoring Thomism, and then be told that Thomism is irrelevant when it turns out that Thomism is exactly what makes faith a testable hypothesis. So Dawkins is bad for saying there are testable hypothesis and he is bad for claiming it’s all just fideism hence untestable. At least one of these critical positions have to have it wrong, I would suppose.

    In terms of epistemology we have to differentiate between questions we can probe now and questions that can be probable. We actually learn quite a bit about “mind-body” issues in neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, sociology. It not at all an impenetrable issue. Mind-body is a platonic/cartesian concept of organizing things. I do not think that science really upholds that model because we already know too much that doesn’t neatly fit that divide. Basically the whole field of lesion studies break the divide down.

    I agree that we can not study the transcendental metaphysical. It may well not exist at all. But to study claims made under the guise of metaphysics that have materialist consequences is not unscientific at all. Dawkins makes an extensive case what might be testable. I think that is to be taken seriously.

    The claim ultimately can be simplified to these two cases:
    1) Transcendental metaphysics is not the realm of science, but it is also not the realm of anything else. It can by definition not interact with the natural world, or else it might conceivably be studied.
    2) It has naturalistic consequences. Well then we have hope to study it.

    The first is deistic, immaterial, inconsequential. It really is just “nature” in Einstein’s sense.
    The second is what many people hold to be god. That as you see has at least the potential to be tested. Dawkins in chapter 1 goes over Einstein’s god for this very reason. So I tend to find it not quite accurate or fair to say that he tries to claim science can study transcendental metaphysics, and hence leaves the realm of science.

    Rather there is a politics involved here. Some people simple do not want naturalistic instantiations of the supernatural to be studied, because the outcome may be unwelcome. And to say that it is supposedly unscientific to do so and discredit whoever tries, is a way to try to stop it.

    This pretty much carves out my I defend Dawkins in this point. Theistic claims indeed can be scientific, and that is pretty much to exactly the extend that they serve any function. After all we can study the effect of prayer. If there was a function, even if initiated from a supernatural category, it would show. That isn’t abandoning science at all and has nothing to do with ideology. If prayer studies show that it has no effect people can still hold on to the ideology that prayer works.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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