Are Birthers "Crazy"?

By Chris Mooney | January 24, 2011 9:35 am

This via the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and bravo to Eric Cantor:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he doesn’t think questions about President Obama’s citizenship should play a role in the discussion of policy matters.

Two years into the Obama administration, so-called birthers continue to argue that Obama isn’t a natural-born citizen and that he hasn’t proved he’s constitutionally qualified to be president. Birth records in Hawaii haven’t dissuaded them.

Cantor, interviewed Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said he believes Obama is a citizen and that most Americans are beyond that question.

“I don’t think it’s an issue that we need to address at all. It is not an issue that even needs to be on the policymaking table right now whatsoever,” he said.

Cantor refused to call people who question Obama’s citizenship “crazy.”

“I don’t think it’s nice to call anyone crazy,” he said.

This last point is interesting–are they “crazy”, or are they self-deluded, self-deceived, as we all are some of the time about matters in our own lives, or matters that contradict our beliefs?

I’m growing increasingly convinced that outside of true mental illness, people believing weird things–or even being in denial about certain facts–is not craziness or insanity. Rather, it’s very normal, even if often lamentable. It’s human nature to convince yourself of things that humor your prior beliefs. In this case, the prior belief is a certain strain of Obama hatred, but it could be pretty much anything.

And that’s why Cantor’s stand is important–because as Brendan Nyhan explained on Point of Inquiry, the more we see a uniform rejection of birther claims across the punditariat and political world, and especially on the Republican side, the more they will become simply untenable. At that point, many birthers will still cling to their beliefs–but their wrongheaded view, much like the view that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer, will no longer trouble serious discourse.

Comments (77)

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  1. Chris Mooney on birthers « Why Evolution Is True | January 24, 2011
  1. Jon

    Richard Hofstadter alluded to this problem in the first paragraph of his famous essay:

    American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

    …I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

  2. It’s the same sort of thing with global climate destabilization: people, often without good Science backgrounds, refuse to look at the evidence at hand and evaluate it with critical thinking. They hold to either their preconceived notions (a la “Private Universe”: http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html ) or they just listen to “others in authority” (who have the same lack of reasoning background) to avoid the hard thinking.

    It’s no longer a case of “I’ll believe it when I see it with my own eyes.” Even if the original Obama document of birth is produced instead of the official “short form”, non-believers will still not believe it.

    This skepticism would normally be healthy. Part of it must arise from our government and others in positions of authority withholding information or fabricating false information at crucial junctures, like the search for WMDs in Iraq.

  3. Zerodash

    Are 9-11 Truthers Crazy? Or are they of the “correct” political dogma and hence exempt from such labels.

    See what I did there?

  4. Rob

    I’m older than you are, Chris. I remember that, until the Cuyahoga river caught fire, little was done about water pollution.

    As you point out in the book The Republican War on Science, it took obvious damage before sulfur emissions were controlled.

    We won’t do anything about global warming/climate change until “the river catches fire.”

    Since there’s nothing that’s equivalent to a river burning in the Birther denial, it may be hopeless to try to change them. Even if they got all the documentation they ask for, it won’t change their minds.

  5. JMW

    I find it interesting that Cantor didn’t call them crazy because “…it isn’t nice…”. What does he really think?

    Denial is often a defence mechanism. When the mind is confronted by something it cannot accept, denialism preserves the nice, safe, sane worldview. This implies that it’s less disabling to be “crazy” by denying reality than it is to be “crazy” by trying to integrate a reality that one cannot integrate.

  6. TTT

    Are 9-11 Truthers Crazy? Or are they of the “correct” political dogma and hence exempt from such labels.

    Trutherism is bipartisan.

    And it’s funny you bring them up, because the media did a great job of totally excommunicating the Truthers. There has NEVER been a Truther advocate in any mainstream medium. There are no primetime program hosts who use their time to promote Trutherism. The closest would be Jesse Ventura’s self-titled “Conspiracy Theory” program on TruTV, a channel so obscure most people with cable boxes probably already have it but don’t know it–and even Ventura’s obscure show didn’t start until about 2009.

    Whereas for a few good months the entire Fox apparatus plus Lou Dobbs were taking the Birthers seriously, and to this day eco-denialism is presented as being one valid “side” in a “debate” in pretty much every medium, because the badguys have more or less won.

    To answer Chris’ question: the Birthers are no more crazy than any other grouping of devoted racists. They simply happen to have chosen a vehicle for their racism that the media is willing to disown. Other racists in the same time period have chosen far better for themselves.

  7. Jon

    Coyne equates adherence to religion with birtherism.

    Yeah, that’s a position that will get you far.

    (Even if you ignore the absolute tin-eared quality of that position politically, Which religion? Which theology? Which philosophical/epistemological stance of its adherents? etc.)

  8. Chris Mooney

    @9 yes…as an atheist…i can see some differences.

  9. Jon

    On the same note as that Hofstadter essay, and written around the same time, is Eisenhower’s warning about the McCarthyite right (which Max Blumenthal features in his recent book) :

    http://maxblumenthal.com/2009/09/ikes-warning-about-the-radical-right/

  10. Tulse

    “as an atheist…i can see some differences”

    And what are the principled differences?

    Surely we abirthers should be trying to build bridges and find commonalities with the birthers, rather than stridently denounce them. You’re not helping, Chris.

  11. Matt B.

    I still wonder how many of the birthers think Barack Hussein Obama (jr.) was born in Kenya because they heard that Barack Hussein Obama (sr.) was, and didn’t know any better.

  12. J.J.E.

    @ Chris Mooney January 24th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I’m trying my best to see it your way. And I’m trying to find some differences, and they do abound. The analogy isn’t air tight by any means. But I think it is serviceable enough, if a bit shaky. However, when I start writing down where the analogy fails in important ways, to my mind, the overwhelmingly most important aspect is that it is much more likely for a birther’s contentions to be true than those of any theists I know. I’m really not trying to be snarky, but I can conceive of some very reasonable (although absurdly unlikely scenarios) that could plausibly explain a conspiracy to hide Obama’s “true” place of birth. Of course, I reject them unequivocally as unsupported by the evidence, but they at least operate by mechanisms we can observe (human fraud, conspiracy, greed, etc.) and indeed have observed in other circumstances (people fake identities all the time and such cases have been documented). For theism? Nada.

    Now, I agree with you that birthers are dead wrong, and obviously so. Since you agree to that and since you are also unable to be convinced of the existence of gods, why can you not also countenance (if not actually get behind — I understand your political argument even if I disagree with it) a strategy of delegitimizing religious beliefs by “uniform rejection of [religous] claims” so that “they will become simply untenable”?

    .

  13. Jon

    Tulse ignores any distinctions between the things he’s “studying,” which is poor science.

    Chris has also frequently said that there is no point of “finding commonalities” with fundamentalists, creationists, etc.

    But for the movement atheist there is not any difference worth pausing over between a fundamentalist and their “fellow travelers,” who are non-fundamentalist religious people just minding their own business–a position not unlike the anti-communist Right back in the day. Indeed, in many ways this is a reactionary position…

  14. Tulse

    “Tulse ignores any distinctions between the things he’s “studying”"

    I did ask what the principled differences are. Do you care to provide them?

  15. Surely, the process of exclusion advocated by Mooney for the birthers is precisely what the gnu atheists propose for theism – that their beliefs “will become simply untenable. At that point, many [theists] will still cling to their beliefs–but their wrongheaded view, much like the view that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer, will no longer trouble serious discourse”.

  16. Chris Mooney

    I want to thank everyone for the comments, but I must say, I’m a bit dazed by this thread…it just never occurred to me that we’d have a birther/totality of religion analogy. To address the questions being raised under this heading would be tantamount to redebating all the issues that were debated after Unscientific America came out in 2009…e.g., mega time consuming, and probably not productive, I’m afraid.

  17. Tyro

    @Jon & Chris,

    Coyne equates adherence to religion with birtherism.

    No he isn’t, that’s idiotic.

    He is observing that Chris has devoted considerable energy to saying that we should treat the delusions of religious folk with not just kid gloves because anything less will not convince people. At the same time, Chris happily dismisses the political delusions of the birthers.

    Surely if vocal disagreement isn’t just acceptable but encouraged in one area, it should at least be a respectable position in other areas. Coyne and others have observed repeatedly that Chris’s recommendations are inconsistent and sometimes senseless, this is just another example. Why aren’t all false beliefs treated the same?

    Come to think of it, why is he so happy talking about delusions, insanity and other harshly negative terms here yet he says this is terribly harmful when we talk about religion?

  18. Jon

    I did ask what the principled differences are. Do you care to provide them?

    You bet. You can be pro-science and not believe that empirical science holds the answer to all possible human problems. And you may believe that a religion does offer an answer to some problems, and that science just doesn’t belong in a certain domain.

    Here’s an example. The other day I came across this essay by the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not going to blockquote it because I want you to read the whole thing, and not just rip this or that proposition out of it and hold it up for ridicule:

    http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

    He’s talking about *culture* and really not science, and he’s mentioning the role religion plays in culture. Now there are problems in how he’s understanding things, in this essay. He uses the word “choice” and puts puts human willpower on a pedestal in funny ways that the people in this book say points to a mistake, however interesting his essay is. But there are still important insights in there, and they don’t have anything to do with science–they have to do with religion and culture. Instrumental reason (such as science makes lots of use of) has brought us lots of things, but not everything, and it may even sometimes make us lose sight of what should be our priorities.

    So I would contend that whatever epistemological confusion religion sometimes brings, religion deals with questions that science simply does not in effective ways. So I guess I have a certain level of forgiveness ready for wrongheaded people in a way NA’s do not, even though I would work really hard to get a lot of them unelected to public office. (Like Wallace says in the essay, they are repulsive.) But there are worse things in the world than epistemological confusion, and I have respect for religion in the way that Wallace is talking about in this essay. I agree with the continental philosophers, against the Anglo-American analytic tradition that Daniel Dennett is a part of, that Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften deserve different models, and that religion deals with incredibly subjective human matter–not because it’s trying to blow smoke up your rear end, although undoubtedly it often does, but just because the things religion deals with are problematically subjective, as Wallace’s essay shows.

    Anyway, I only have so much time so I’m not going to participate in some infinitely long internet atheist thread. But this is my argument. I agree with the traditional liberal position that with regard to religion, you can’t prove a negative, and that often people have to agree to disagree with a minimal amount of respect for each others’ consciences. There’s a reason why freedom of religion was written into the constitution, and I think it has something to do with fostering respect for peoples’ consciences in the civic space…

  19. J.J.E.

    @ Jon

    If religion would restrict itself to humanistic endeavors of investigating the human condition, then we’d have no disagreement. The reason I think Mooney picks on the birthers is not because they simply wrong, but because how they are wrong poisons an important part of civic discourse. The same could be said about religion. It isn’t the parables and the sermon on the mount that people generally dislike about Christianity, eg, it is the fact that people really do make an effort to base their lives on the Christian Bible, which often leads ossification of certain undesirable views, such as homophobia, anti-evolution, anti-choice, even anti-AGW (from a pro-dominion perspective) views. When these views are backed by the unaddressable (religion) they can’t be challenged on a rational basis. These views aren’t just scientifically immune, they are rationally immune.

    Chris makes a good point. Birtherism needs to be recognized as a rationally immune endeavor by the public at large. I think religion should be as well. When religion and the religious en masse relinquish their claim to knowing anything that is empirically measurable, then maybe we can start accepting an “agree to disagree” response (of course not everyone will be takers). But until then, it is important for all rational thinkers and skeptics to undermine the basis for the damage that religion does.

  20. The problem is that, just like birtherism, theism makes real-word, historical and scientific claims. The claim that Barrack Obama was not born in the USA is a claim about history and biology; just as the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlahem, died outside Jerusalem and then rose from the dead are claims about history and biology. They are both patently ridiculous claims – but I have to say the claims of Birtherism are actually rather less ridiculous than the claims of Christianity.

    The appropriate thing to do with ridiculous claims is to ridicule them. That’s the way you cause such claims to “become simply untenable. At that point, many [people who make ridiculous claims] will still cling to their beliefs–but their wrongheaded view, much like the view that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer, will no longer trouble serious discourse.” The gnu atheists are implementing precisely the tactics you recommend in your original post.

    The point of all this, Mr Mooney, is that your own words in the above post are yet another opportunity to try to persuade you that you were *wrong* in your claims in Unscientific American and that the intellectually honest and consistent thing for you to do would be to change your mind.

  21. Chris Mooney

    @ 22 i’m still amazed that my birther post even *raised* the topic of religion. we are talking completely past each other.

  22. I think we may be getting at the source of your problem – you just can’t see why the core beliefs of mainstream Christianity are in the same category as the core beliefs of birtherism. That’s your block. Try this: Write out the core propositions of each cult. Now compare them. See?

    Both birtherism and Christianity are belief systems that are formed about some obviously false claims about history. Both are re-enforced by group loyality and social identity. Both help their believers understand and give meaning to the world.

    Can I suggest that we aren’t “talking past each other” but that you are missing the point? To be more precise, can I suggest that you are missing the implications of your own point?

  23. Chris Mooney

    No that is not the problem…your definition of religion is what doesn’t work for me.

  24. Tulse

    “No that is not the problem…your definition of religion is what doesn’t work for me.”

    Chris, clarifying what you mean here might help shed light not only on this particular topic, but on your overall disagreement with the gnu atheists. What are you using as your definition of religion?

  25. You have a problem with defining Christianity as centred around the core belief that a guy called Jesus lived and preached in Palestine around 2000 years ago, was crucified, died and rose from the dead on the third day and that this shows he was both the “son of god” and the prophesied Jewish messiah?

  26. Jon Winsor

    If I understand the “gnu atheist” position it’s that all religions consist simply of preposterous sets of propositions and wish thinking. There’s nothing else going on there… When anyone thoughtful says anything indicating otherwise, just keep repeating your position over and over and the world will be a much better place. Have faith. And you are perfectly safe in lumping together all religions, all beliefs held within specific religions, and all the different stances of all adherents. There is no need to distinguish between the things that you are categorically deriding. This is war. They don’t try to understand, so why should we?

  27. Then, Jon Winsor, I have to respectfully suggest that you need to go back and re-read the gnu atheists because that isn’t our position at all.

    We don’t say “all religions consist simply of preposterous sets of propositions and wish thinking” – we say that belief in certain preposterous propositions lie at the centre of most religions and certainly at the centre of the pernicious ones. Most forms of Christianity – and all the bad ones – believe that Jesus was resurrected, for example.

    “There’s nothing else going on there…” Obviously there is much more going on – as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and (especially) Dennett examine in detail.

    “[Y]ou are perfectly safe in lumping together all religions, all beliefs held within specific religions, and all the different stances of all adherents. There is no need to distinguish between the things that you are categorically deriding.” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens often distinguish between the religions. Indeed, they are often criticised for being far more critical of Islam than they are of Christianity, for example. Indeed, one of Harris’ key points is that we must distinguish between our faiths – that all of them are bad, but that Jainism and Buddhism are much less bad than Islam and Christianity.

  28. Jon Winsor

    I disagree. Dawkins makes sloppy generalizations all the time, really because he doesn’t believe what he’s talking about deserves serious study. For instance:

    http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2006/10/14/i-dont-believe-in-richard-dawkins-but-i-do-believe-in-akma/

    Hitchens can be sloppy too. He’s a polemicist and models his literary essays on Orwell, who would often do drive-by opinions in his essays (for instance, I think both of them are unfair to Aldous Huxley, not that Huxley was perfect by any means, but he deserves more than the drive-by slander that both Hitchens and Orwell give him). I won’t even go into Hitchens’ false confidence about the Iraq War.

    Dennett has a mechanistic view of human beings that I find unconvincing. And he thinks religion just comes down to people being scared and wanting a daddy. This doesn’t survive a Greek Literature 101 class. It’s much more complicated than just being a reaction to fear.

    So anyway, I exaggerate in #28, but not by all that much.

  29. Jon, I think you need to go back and read again. Hitchens is a polemicist, yes, but Dawkins and especially Dennett are far more nuanced than the mass media straw men you refer to. I find it so frustrating that the gnu haters just ignore the vast cultural richness of the gnu atheist movement. I mean, really – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Hawking, Weinberg, Rushdie, Amis, McEwin, Hiris Ali etc, etc – and you caricature this movement as narrow??? Give me a break!

    If the gnu-haters are going to accuse the gnus of “oversimplifying” theism, it behoves them to check that they aren’t just engaging in a massive dose of Freudian projection.

    And in any case, we are getting off topic. The question is, how are the beliefs of the birthers any more ridiculous or crazy than those of mainstream Christians or Muslims. The resounding silence (and, to my ears, the scrambling topic-changing) in response to this question is enormously instructive.

  30. Jon Winsor

    I’m not talking about the mass media. I’m talking about their actual views. In the above case that I linked to, Dawkins was simply uninformed, and was unconcerned enough about this that he just babbled anyway, because he has a low opinion of his subject matter to begin with.

    With regard to Dennett, I still think the notion that religion can be reduced to a response to fear doesn’t survive a reading of Aeschylus. There’s clearly more going on than that. Also, I find that he writes philosophy by deferring to science. Instead of trying to understand a thing he issues promissory notes, “just wait, folks. We will gain wisdom as a society when this or that discovery happens” etc. (Yeah, and I’ll get my flying car and moonshot vacation soon too.) This is miles and miles away from the good life that David Foster Wallace, for instance, is trying to explore in the essay I linked to above. It’s simply out of his scope.

    Here’s a philosopher characterizing Dennetts view in a way I agree with:

    http://vimeo.com/7803207

    (Go to minute 42 in this talk. Apologies if you have to wait for a while for the video to load on the page. I know, it says “Templeton Award Winner”, and knowing the gnu atheists the response to this fact will be as if he’s a Jim Jones cult member …)

  31. @Chrish Mooney:

    it just never occurred to me that we’d have a birther/totality of religion analogy.

    The analogy isn’t so much in that belief in God is like belief in birtherism – although a case can be made that both involve “convinc[ing] yourself of things that humor your prior beliefs”.

    No, the relevant analogy is in your suggested tactic to combat birtherism: “the more we see a uniform rejection of birther claims across the punditariat and political world (…) the more they will become simply untenable”. This is exactly what the gnu atheists are doing with religion (especially with fundamentalist religion). You seem to think religion is just as false as birtherism – you are neither religious nor a birther, are you not? Yet while you advocate this strategy for birtherism, you spend a lot of bandwith arguing that gnu atheists should never use it when it comes to religion.

    Now we could have a disagreement about how dangerous to society religion is compared to birtherism, or maybe about how bad the backlash from the religious or the birthers might be for our own social position, but these are not differences in principle. In principle, we agree that beliefs in both religion and in birtherism are not warranted by evidence or reason (because if we did, we’d be religious or birthers). So why the different approaches?

  32. @Jon in #21:

    And you may believe that a religion does offer an answer to some problems

    On what basis may you believe this?

    I agree with the traditional liberal position that with regard to religion, you can’t prove a negative, and that often people have to agree to disagree with a minimal amount of respect for each others’ consciences.

    With regard to conspiracy theories, you can’t prove a negative either. You can’t prove that there is not a conspiracy to cover up that Obama was born in Kenya. Are you willing to give birthers the same pass as the religious?

  33. @Jon Winsor: why do you expect New Atheists to explicitly mention all possible shades of attitudes on religion, and clad themselves in elaborate disclaimers, every time they appear in any interview, or write a column? While you don’t seem to think you require any nuance at all when you characterize the gnu atheist position?

  34. Jon

    And you may believe that a religion does offer an answer to some problems

    If you’re curious enough about that, read the Wallace essay.

    With regard to conspiracy theories, you can’t prove a negative either.

    With some questions, there are clear cut, empirical answers, like in a detective novel. Not all questions are like that though, which is just one of many reasons why the birther/religious analogy is absurd.

  35. McWaffle

    I just think we need to meet civilly with Birthers, to emphasize that us aBirthers still experience the same deeply-held distrust of authority as they do. We just differ in where we look to find it. I know that when I I look at Obama’s civil liberties record, and I’m filled with a deep sense of distrust. Once we establish this common ground, I think we can have a productive dialogue with the Birthers, and maybe convince a few to believe in mild health insurance reforms. If we focus on attacking their foundational beliefs, calling them “wrongheaded” and trying to exclude them from serious discourse, moderate birthers will turn away from our political objectives.

  36. Jon

    #37: Already covered that in #15.

  37. Tulse

    “With some questions, there are clear cut, empirical answers, like in a detective novel. Not all questions are like that though, which is just one of many reasons why the birther/religious analogy is absurd.”

    I think that almost all gnus are happy to leave the non-empirical questions to the religious. If NOMA were actually true, there wouldn’t be much tension. The problem is that all religions do indeed make clear-cut, empirical claims, and that is what is objected to by the gnus, and why the birther issue is analogous.

  38. McWaffle

    @38: I’m not talking about the Fundamentalist Birthers, the ones that believe in the literal truth of Obama’s Manchurian Candidacy. I don’t think we can reach them. I’m talking about the moderate Birthers, those raised in a Birther tradition who believe Obama’s not American without believing literally in his Reptoid origins or his Madrassa indoctrination. Those episodes are best understood as metaphors. I think THESE are the Birthers are the ones we can reach. I just don’t see how shrilly calling their beliefs “untenable” is going to help anything. I try to avoid painting all Birthers with such a broad brush.

  39. @Jon in 36:

    If you’re curious enough about that, read the Wallace essay.

    I read it. It does not say that religion answers anything. It definitely doesn’t say why you should think its answers are any good. At most, it says that religion may offer a different way of looking at things that may make you feel better – but that is not the same as answering problems.

    With some questions, there are clear cut, empirical answers, like in a detective novel.

    Except birthers will disagree that the answers about Obama’s birth certificate are clear cut. Why doesn’t their opinion count, but your opinion on religion does?

  40. Jon

    #40, I get it! All religious people are just like the birthers, so no need to get into any fussy details. Martin Luther King, just like a birther. Ghandi and Reinhold Niebuhr, birthers. Ha ha.

  41. Jon

    The problem is that all religions do indeed make clear-cut, empirical claims, and that is what is objected to by the gnus, and why the birther issue is analogous.

    Ok, you’re claiming to know about all religions, how magisterial of you. I’ll let it go.

    But do you think Christianity would end if someone demonstrated that the virgin birth never happened? Or that if everyone was convinced that the garden of eden story was incontrovertibly proven never to have happened that people would stop believing in the idea of orginal sin? (I actually had a new atheist argue that to me in a thread once, which was hilarious.)

    Obama was either born in Hawaii like he claims, or he was not. You can solve it like a detective would. If you did the same with the garden of eden, would Augustine’s ideas about original sin go poof and disappear? If you think so, you’re operating under some serious misunderstandings…

  42. But do you think Christianity would end if someone demonstrated that the virgin birth never happened?

    Do you think birtherism would end if someone produced Obama’s birth certificate? Do you think that people’s ideas about Obama not being a Real American(TM) would just go poof and disappear? If you think so, you’re operating under some serious misunderstandings…

    Obama was either born in Hawaii like he claims, or he was not. You can solve it like a detective would.

    Either the world was created by God, or it was not. You can solve it like a detective would. (birther/creationist response: no you can’t! The detective may also be too biased/too stupid/evil/corrupt/…)

    Maybe it’s not a particularly good analogy (especially if you are taking it too far, as you insist on doing). However, nothing you are saying here shows that the parallels aren’t there.

  43. McWaffle

    @42

    They are like Birthers in that they hold untenable, oft-refuted beliefs, yes. In only that limited sense. I’m honestly not sure why the analogy here isn’t crystal clear. No, I’m not saying MLK Jr. was “just like a Birther”, nor am I saying “MLK Jr. sux b/c he iz xian LOL”. The point being is that in the post above, Chris takes a very “gnu” stance re: Birthers, stating they are self-deluded, that their beliefs are untenable, and that the idea that Obama is a Kenyan should not be considered in serious discourse.

    This is not to say that, for example, a Birther could not have valuable ideas about the proper role of government in the economy. Likewise, I’m saying that MLK Jr. and Gandhi’s ideas were, independent of their untenable religious views, very important. I’m not sure where you’re getting the “those damn Gnus hate details” vibe.

  44. Tulse

    “Ok, you’re claiming to know about all religions, how magisterial of you.”

    Do you have any specific counter-examples of religions that make no empirical claims? The only theological position I can think of is weak deism, and that isn’t really a religion.

    “do you think Christianity would end if someone demonstrated that the virgin birth never happened?”

    I’d suggest asking real Christians if they think the virgin birth is critical to their faith — I would think (as a former Christian) that most would say it is integral to the notion of the Incarnation, of god made human, and so yeah, losing it would be a serious blow to their faith. Ditto for the Resurrection. You may disagree, but without the Incarnation and Resurrection (both of which are empirical claims) it is hard to see what Christianity really is.

  45. Jon

    Either the world was created by God, or it was not. You can solve it like a detective would.

    Um, no. Not analogous. You can easily define your terms and parameters with a birth certificate and reasonable evidence of birth. With God, it’s not so easy– by definition, right? It’s not like people haven’t struggled themselves with the problem, for like, the last couple of millennia. You’ve got quite a range–you’ve got Spinoza’s God, Blaise Pascal’s God, Pat Robertson’s God, and quite a bit in between those.

    By the way, full disclosure, I’m an agnostic on the question. I just respect individual conscience and the difficulties that the questions pose, things that NA’s gloss over.

  46. Since there’s nothing that’s equivalent to a river burning in the Birther denial

    Actually, there is. The day Obama leaves office, many of these people will be perfectly happy to believe that he’s a natural born citizen.

  47. Tulse

    Perhaps the objections to Chris’ claim of dis-analogy can be made clearer by asking, “What is less likely: that a US president is actually not a citizen, or that a dead man came back to life?”

  48. The premises of both birtherism and Christianity are demonstrably false and damage the American culture. I think the analogy holds.

  49. Alex SL

    Yes, the analogy is excellent. The one big difference is that religion is arbitrarily allowed to move goalposts, and other movements are not. Seriously, where is the difference between, just as an example, claiming that nobody can disprove a creator god because he could have created the universe (or our species) in a way that made it look uncreated (or evolved), and claiming that nobody can disprove your favourite conspiracy theory because the shadowy conspiracy could have doctored all evidence in a way that made it look as if everything is above board? There is really no difference. Both claims are absolutely correct in principle, and both break down the moment you introduce the concept of plausibility. Both beliefs have negative consequences, and thus it takes a bit more elaboration to understand why the same strategy should not be used to counter them.

    As for all the other justifications: Yes, there are nice believers like MLK. So what? There must also be nice birthers, I presume. That does not increase the plausibility of the belief that defines “birther” or “Christian”. Religion is not just a ridiculous belief, and not defined by it? Okay, then do a thought experiment: take all the positive stuff about religion that is not beliefs that run counter to empirical evidence, and tell me that a decidedly non-religious, perhaps atheist person cannot have them. Compassion? A feeling of wonder? A sense of direction in life? No problem. You do not have to have a religion to have those, I hope we can all agree on that. Conversely, imagine a person who lacks all positive and non-ridiculous things about religion, who is neither compassionate nor happy, but merely believes that a god exists, and that this god commands all gays to be stoned. Can you really argue that this person is not a member of a religion? So what defines religion then? Obviously the counter-factual god/soul belief.

  50. Paul W.

    Dennett has a mechanistic view of human beings that I find unconvincing. And he thinks religion just comes down to people being scared and wanting a daddy. This doesn’t survive a Greek Literature 101 class. It’s much more complicated than just being a reaction to fear.

    I read a pretty good book about this. It explained how the neo-Freudian account of religion as an anxiety-reducing wish-fulfillment father fixation is grossly simplistic, greedily reductionist, and doesn’t make much scientific sense, because it’s a theory at the wrong level and reifies an unrealistic concept of the “unconscious mind.”

    A more plausible cognitive scientific account sees many aspects of religion as side effects of useful heuristics evolved to make us intelligent and able to function in a complex world, and calls for a lot of serious study of how it actually works at several interacting levels, how it may have evolved, and how and to what extent it may have been selected for and fine-tuned because of its survival value for a social species.

    That book was Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, which you evidently have not read.

  51. ambulocetacean

    I’ll happily change my opinion the moment I see Jebus’s long-form birth certificate. Why don’t they just produce it and get it over with?

  52. Jon

    Alex SLSo what defines religion then? Obviously the counter-factual god/soul belief.

    Like I said above, this is the heart of the matter. For New Atheists, all religion (emphasize ALL), consists simply of ridiculous propositions and wish thinking. There’s nothing else to consider.

  53. Tulse

    Jon, I offered earlier for you to provide counter-examples of religions that don’t offer falsifiable empirical claims. That offer still stands.

  54. Jon

    As Carl Sagan said, books of the Bible (for instance) are based on 2500 year old science. *All* texts based 2500 years ago contain 2500 year old science, not just religious ones.

    Now with religion, you have a particular problem because the texts in question are considered sacred, and not surprisingly in modern times you have fundamentalist interpretations of those texts.

    But my point is this: does that mean that religion consists simply of ridiculous propositions (from old science) and fundamentalist interpretations of them? Of course not.

    There is tons more going on in religion than what you could arguably call false propositions and adherence to them. Forget the Bible for a second, read the Oresteia, or the Heart Sutra, or the Bagva Gita. But picking out false propositions and holding them up is all new atheists talk about. Over. And over. And over again. Ad nauseam.

  55. Tulse

    “does that mean that religion consists simply of ridiculous propositions”

    No one has said that religion consists ONLY of false empirical claims — that wasn’t the point at issue.

    Sure there are all sorts of warm fuzzy things that accompany religion (as an ex-Catholic, I went to plenty of bingo games and potlucks, and enjoyed the community of my church). But UFO believers and conspiracy theorists could also point to the benefits of having a community of like-minded individuals for social support and friendship, and could also explain how such beliefs provide their lives with drive and purpose and meaning. Those psychological and social benefits do nothing to make their foundational empirical claims less false, which is the issue Chris was talking about regarding birthers.

    Chris didn’t address whether any birthers experienced such secondary benefits (and no doubt they do) — he was only concerned with the falsity of their beliefs. The point that many folks have been making here is that it is hypocritical (or simply intellectual blindness of the highest order) to denigrate birthers for believing in clearly false notions, while vigorously defending religious believers whose views are similarly false.

  56. Jon

    … while vigorously defending religious believers whose views are similarly false.

    But my G.D. point is that it’s not “similar.”* And it’s revealing that you all think it is.

    And Chris is not defending religious believers whose views are false in any way similar to the birthers.

    *Here are more of the many reasons why birtherism is nothing like religion, which I shouldn’t have to spell out. Birtherism is not the background of any institutions, legal systems, founding of nations. Birtherism is not a particularly diverse phenomenon, at all. Birtherism did not help spawn whole systems of philosophy and inquiry, some of which brought about modern science in the first place. Birtherism didn’t inspire art, architecture, inspire people to emigrate to other parts of the globe. (Need I continue?)

  57. Tulse

    “But my G.D. point is that it’s not “similar.””

    None of the things you listed change whether the foundational beliefs are false. I completely agree that religion has a lot of other things happening, that it has a long history and is tied up in cultures in all sorts of ways. But that still doesn’t make its foundational beliefs true, right? You’re not disputing that, right? That’s really all that is at issue in the current discussion — if you want to argue the benefits of religion on the grounds of all the things you listed, fine, but that’s separate from whether the beliefs are just as false as the birthers.

  58. Jon

    None of the things you listed change whether the foundational beliefs are false.

    I don’t think the foundations of Christianity rests on whether Mary was literally a virgin. Or whether Jesus literally had a normal body and walked around after he was crucified. The brute facts about that stuff could go away tomorrow and Christianity would still go on. Educated people would reinterpret some things, but it would still go on.

    On the subject of God, as I said above, which God? Spinoza’s God? (Yes, he was a Jew, but still influential) Aquinas’s God? What the word God even represents is disputed. So you can’t just conduct an investigation the way a detective would in a murder mystery, searching after brute fact etc.

  59. Jon

    Paul W in # 52: That book was Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, which you evidently have not read.

    With the “daddy” analysis, I’m over characterizing a bit. Really it’s not just fear that he suspects, but uncertainty. I got this from Dennett himself in this interview:

    http://www.radioopensource.org/is-god-in-our-genes/

    If he says something different in Breaking the Spell, it’s in contrast to the views in this interview. I guard my free time carefully, as any reader should. As someone once said, “some books should not be set aside lightly but hurled across the room with great force.” But you’re probably right that if I’m taking the time to give my opinion here I should read Breaking the Spell. But from listening to a couple of inteviews, I think I’m justified in thinking that Dennett is conducting less of an open inquiry than a hostile deposition. And philosophically, I think I’m safe in putting him in a camp that I take exception to.

    For instance, I find this passage on Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften cavalier:

    http://adjix.com/6q9b

    Philosophically, it’s like he’s playing a piano with the ethics keys missing. C0uld the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften divide be “threatened” by advances in the sciences? Sure! But what you get out of that–is that right, good, etc? Dennett very cheerfully ignores that question, at least in this context, which I find disturbing to read in philosophy.

    I find it much more important to consider human beings as “subjects of significance” as opposed to things that can be dissected at will and you could completely learn their essence as if they were clocks or computers: http://adjix.com/839d

    Oh, and I also understand that certain theories about how human cognition and physiology work many consider not very plausible scientifically, and have the odds stacked against them as theories…

  60. Tulse

    “I don’t think the foundations of Christianity rests on whether Mary was literally a virgin. Or whether Jesus literally had a normal body and walked around after he was crucified. The brute facts about that stuff could go away tomorrow and Christianity would still go on.”

    I have to vigorously disagree, as I think would most Christians (and I speak as an ex-Christian). If Jesus was not an incarnate god who died and rose from the dead to redeem humanity, there’s not much purpose to Christianity.

  61. Jon

    But what form did that risen body take? The Bible is unclear on this. Did you read Chris’s post about the Catholic theologian who says that if there had been a camera at the resurrection it would have recorded nothing?

  62. Tulse

    “But what form did that risen body take?”

    If you genuinely think that question is at all relevant to the empirical problems at issue, I’m not sure we can have a productive discussion. Just a hint: if the risen Christ was an invisible ghost, that doesn’t really solve anything.

  63. Jon

    OK, well what if the risen Christ was in peoples’ minds, but that mind-reality is something more real, significant, than the physical reality? That’s not that different than Plato’s idealism– that the forms are more real and significant than physical reality.

    You could say something like “that’s hogwash, that’s subjective reality just in the brain. So it’s not significant.” Well, there are some philosophical assumptions there that could be up for debate (which is why I’m impressed with certain continental philosophies, for example Charles Taylor, more than the Anglo-American analytic tradition, such as Hume–the tradition that Daniel Dennett inherited).

  64. Tulse

    “OK, well what if the risen Christ was in peoples’ minds, but that mind-reality is something more real, significant, than the physical reality?”

    Jon, would you really tolerate such blatant special pleading for any other domain? Or, for that matter, any other religion? Would you accept such an explanation for the thetans of Scientology, for example? Was the mind-reality of comet Hale-Bopp more real and significant than physical reality when the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide to join it in 1997?

    If you won’t engage in the same kind convoluted reasoning to preserve some bizarre form of “truth” for these groups beliefs, what makes Christianity special?

  65. Jon

    what makes Christianity special?

    Well, for one thing, 2000 years of Western history.

    I gave a short list of other things in #58.

    But you guys always talk about “religion” right? In general terms? In that case, you don’t even have to restrict yourself to the West, or to the last two millenia.

    And as far as mind reality goes, Plato doesn’t claim everybody knows “the Good.” He has Socrates dialog with an awful lot of stupid people.

  66. How is the fact that Christian beliefs have been believed for 2000+ years relevant to whether those beliefs are more or less plausible than the central beliefs of birtherism? Surely you can see that your response at #67 is just a massive non-sequiter?

    As for #58:

    “Birtherism is not the background of any institutions, legal systems, founding of nations.” Yes, but so what? What does that have to do with the issue of the truth or craziness of the central beliefs of the two cults.

    “Birtherism is not a particularly diverse phenomenon, at all.” So?

    “Birtherism did not help spawn whole systems of philosophy and inquiry, some of which brought about modern science in the first place.” Even if one accepts your premises (which I don’t), how is this relevant to the plausibility of the resurrection?

    “Birtherism didn’t inspire art, architecture, inspire people to emigrate to other parts of the globe. ” So? Falsehoods can inspire. Mistakes can nevertheless give birth to great movements of people and art (Islam, for example, or Communism). What does this have to do with the question of the plausibility of the resurrection?

    “(Need I continue?)” Yes, because you haven’t actually said anything relevant yet.

  67. Alex SL

    Looking back, I should have expected Jon to ignore the second paragraph I wrote. Oh well, one can only try.

  68. You can easily define your terms and parameters with a birth certificate and reasonable evidence of birth.

    You can easily define your terms and parameters with fossils and reasonable evidence of unguided evolution too. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Birthers don’t think the evidence is reasonable at all, instead preferring to think state officials will help issue fake birth certificates, setting ridiculous standards of evidence, and claim that it’s all a liberal socialist conspiracy. They’ll even argue that government is inherently unreliable, so they won’t accept any contradicting evidence offered by government anyway.

    As a parallel, Creationists (included ID pronentsists) don’t think the evidence for unguided evolution is reasonable either, want a mutation-by-mutation account of the history of life, and prefer to think it’s all an atheist materialist conspiracy. They’ll even argue that science is inherently unreliable, so they won’t accept any contradicting evidence offered by science anyway.

    These parallels are real, and they root in the same human tendencies towards rationalizing away uncomfortable evidence. You have said nothing that refutes this.

    The fact that the analogy doesn’t cover all aspects of religion (or even all of religion) is irrelevant. It’s an analogy. They’re not expected to hold perfectly. If birtherism and religion would be entirely the same, it wouldn’t be an analogy anymore, it would be an equality.

  69. Jon

    I didn’t ignore it. Sure, I think atheists can have “compassion, A feeling of wonder, a sense of direction in life.” That’s obvious. I’m an agnostic, and I have it. But, some people think religion does more for them in that department than if they didn’t have it. You can argue with them on a case by case basis on whether a person’s religious commitments are doing this for them. But to generalize and say that all religion is unsuccessful at this–a kind of generalization that new atheists do regularly–then that’s no more than a speculative rant.

    Anyway, I’m going to do one more post, because it’s obvious that I’m getting diminishing returns for the amount of effort I’m putting in. I disagree that commenters are “trying”. People are just repeating over and over again that we’re just dealing with ridiculous propositions and nothing else, etc. Basically I’m going to recap everything I said, and if you want to call it all “irrelevant”, whatever. Then we’re talking past each other.

  70. Tulse

    Just to be clear, Jon, no one has said that religion can’t be therapeutic, or doesn’t have various other personal and social benefits. But as people have repeatedly said here, that is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the simple matter of the analogy between birthers and the religious in terms of the truth of their empirical claims. By running off on tangents about how religion makes people feel better, you are avoiding this central issue.

  71. Atticus_of_Amber

    Jon, no one is saying “we’re just dealing with ridiculous propositions and nothing else”. We’re saying that the “something else” is irrelevant to the ridiculousness of the propositions. What we want to know is why you think Christian propositions aren’t at least as ridiculous as birther propositions. The fact that Christianity or birtherism may or may not have various “something elses” that give meaning and purpose to the lives of their adherents is irrelevant to that question.

    I think you’ll find that its *you* who keeps repeating things in order to avoid answering the question.

  72. Jon

    I’ve had second thoughts. It’s probably not worth repeating all I’ve said above, about the Wallace essay and the subjective, non-empirical nature of the things religion tends to deals with, or the possibility of religion having a claim on the non-tangible world in the manner that Plato’s forms do (and Charles Taylor’s arguments to that effect, contra Hume), or how the transcendent and the miraculous were hard for the unscientific people in the ancient world to tell apart, etc.

    Instead, just think about if you walked up to say, someone’s churchgoing grandmother, and said, “Jesus Christ was the son of God and appeared to his disciples after he was crucified,” has the same status as “Obama is really Kenyan, and his birth certificate was faked and he shouldn’t be president.”

    One statement is written into the traditions of families, nations, philosophies, institutions, works of art, over centuries, and is probably not empirically testable. The other was generated within the last 4 years out of spite that a black man is president. One you get to know from experience as a practitioner in a spiritual tradition. The other you get by ignoring careful inquiries into official and other documents, and is a mystery you could solve in the manner of a detective story murder.

    Anyway, again, it’s more than obvious that I’m wasting my time, and this is my last comment on the subject.

  73. Atticus_of_Amber

    “Instead, just think about if you walked up to say, someone’s churchgoing grandmother, and said, “Jesus Christ was the son of God and appeared to his disciples after he was crucified,” has the same status as “Obama is really Kenyan, and his birth certificate was faked and he shouldn’t be president.”” – While there is a time and a place for such truth telling, I see nothing in principle wrong with making such a statement if the topic of the truth of Christianity was being discussed with someone’s churchgoing grandmother. I’d certainly happily make that statement and defend it at a debate before a hall full of churchgoing grandmothers, for example.

    “One statement is written into the traditions of families, nations, philosophies, institutions, works of art, over centuries, ” – So what?

    “and is probably not empirically testable.” Actually, it’s plausibility is relatively easily assessed. If it weren’t for the fact that they were encrusted by years of tradition, Christian beliefs would be laughed out of any serious discussion on the basis of their conflict with many empirically established facts in history, archaeology, biology and physics.

    “The other was generated within the last 4 years out of spite that a black man is president.” – Again, so what? The truth of an idea has nothing to do with its age or the motives of its originators.

    “One you get to know from experience as a practitioner in a spiritual tradition.” – Huh? How does one get to “know” that “Jesus Christ was the son of God and appeared to his disciples after he was crucified” from experience as a practitioner in a spiritual tradition? Experience of a spiritual tradition can have many beneficial effects and teach many useful things, but it cant be probative of whether certain events occurred 2000 years ago; let alone whether there is a god.

    “The other you get by ignoring careful inquiries into official and other documents, and is a mystery you could solve in the manner of a detective story murder.” well, you get to Christianity by ignoring a massive amount of historical, archaeological and scientific evidence. In this respect the two cults seem to me to be very similar indeed.

    “Anyway, again, it’s more than obvious that I’m wasting my time, and this is my last comment on the subject.” You wouldn’t be wasting your time if you actually read what we were writing and answered the questions we asked.

  74. Jon

    I think we’re both accusing each other of lack of due diligence because we have different definitions of what that diligence should look like.

    Two cultures anyone?

    Anyway, it’s been real.

  75. Atticus_of_Amber

    Jon – then what is your definition of “due diligence” in this circumstance. Mine would be addressing the points the other person has made – something I think I have done and you have not.

    And i hardly think you can hide behind CP Snow: This is not a sciences vs humanities thing. Many of the gnus are humanists rather than scientists – Hitchens, AC Grayling, Dennett, She who Must Not Be Named, Richard Carrier, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwin, Martin Amis, Ayan Hirsi Ali, etc

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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 Salon.com 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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