Carl Sagan wins again. New evidence for the rejection of new Atheist communication strategies.

By The Intersection | May 24, 2011 11:43 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Hi Intersection readers!  I’m happy to be back.  Because my day job as a research scientist is rather demanding, I am unable to be a full-time blogger, however Chris has invited me to contribute on occasion.  I am pleased to be able to continue to share my ideas with you and I truly appreciate your feedback.  This has been a wonderful learning experience.  As I said before, you have much more to teach me than I have to offer you.  That is an ideal arrangement for me.

Now, I’d like to discuss a topic that came up in the recent Point of Inquiry interview in which Chris took the interviewee seat to chat with Ron Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry.  Ron led a conversation about criticisms of Chris for his “accomodationism” and the effectiveness of the new Atheists communication methods for persuading the religious to reconsider their position on evolution.

At one point in the interview, Ron brought up the higher level of secularism among Europeans and proposed that critical analysis of religion should be the means to get people to understand science better and maybe accept evolution.  In other words, the way to get people to accept evolution is not to soft-peddle criticism of religion but rather to subject religion to rather harsh criticism.

Chris appropriately responded, “If you assume the harsh criticism is going to change their minds, which is something that I strongly reject.  I think it will backfire…”

So the question is how do we convince them to retire their religious beliefs?

Chris’ made this thoughtful recommendation:

“I would try to empower the messengers that they (religious folks) will listen to, people who are more like them, people who they trust.  That means people in their community, pastors, scientists who are religious, people who are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them.  It will still be very hard.  You will still trigger a lot of resistance, but I think there will be more openness than, kind of, the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common: an atheist.”

I agree with Chris on this response.  Prior evidence suggests that opinions of others are more likely to be accepted when they derive from individuals who represent values similar to one’s own.  However, new research suggests that atheists and others who wish to improve science communication can increase their effectiveness by adopting new tactics not included in Chris’ comment.  And, Surprise!, the most effective tactics are not those used by Richard Dawkins and the “new Atheists.”

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College have conducted a study that suggests that a more naturalist approach as used by the late Carl Sagan is more effective than that used by the new Atheists at persuading individuals to accept Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and reject the Intelligent Design Theory.  Lead author Jessica Tracy and co-authors Joshua Hart and Jason Martens identified “death anxiety” as one motivator for the acceptance of Intelligent Design Theory over Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  The authors explain that peoples’ thoughts about their own mortality “may be central factors underlying the success of the IDT movement and corresponding doubt about ET.”  Essentially, preference for IDT is part of a “terror management” strategy that offers more psychological security than acceptance of ET.  However, the language used to communicate ET can be crafted in such a way as used by Sagan that it becomes more appealing perhaps more comforting, even to those inclined to prefer IDT.

This article offers fertile territory for discussion on ways to improve communication strategies for those of us who wish to effectively reach those in the religious community.  Although there is room for criticism of this study, I believe there is now a growing accumulation of scientific evidence that supports the rejection of the tactics used by Dawkins and other new Atheists.

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Comments (67)

  1. I know that there is an atheist push to this type of science communication right now. But why even bother with that and why should scientists (atheist or not) give credence to this. Before you even try to convey a message, you have atheist vs believer. I think plugging science to a community of believers from an atheist point of view is entirely counter-productive.

  2. There’s a lot of criticize in the “death anxiety” study, but I for one prefer “accommodationist” approaches. I don’t like ideological litmus tests of any sort — they tend to lead to circular firing squads. My primary goal is the promotion of science and science education. I welcome all allies in that goal.

  3. The “death anxiety” study was really flawed, so I hope someone does a better one in the future. However, I’m very much in favor of the “accommodationist” approach. Ideological litmus tests are troublesome in general, and lead to circular firing squads. My primary goal is the promotion of science and science education, and I welcome any allies in achieving that goal.

  4. Somite

    I don’t think that you can make the jump from “existential threat” to the new atheists. I personally find great meaning in knowing the truth regardless of “existential threat”, and consider the new atheists and the scientific outlook to be meaningful and uplifting.

    Regardless, Sagan did not offer any existential comfort. Sagan used mostly astronomy with some astrology to illustrate materialism while Dawkins uses the reverse. The only difference I see between Sagan and Dawkins is that the latter engaged in the systematic formal demolition of religious belief while Sagan only alluded to it. Sagan was certainly emphatic about the ignorance of religion regarding the natural world.

  5. One thing about a non-confrontational approach — it may well help improve general understanding and acceptance of science, but it won’t destroy religion. You may end up with a world of people more like me. I’m a theist, but I also fully accept science. (Despite the fact that nü atheists insist that somebody like me isn’t semantically possible.) That is, you may couch it in terms of trying to positively transition people from being religious to being fully secular, but in reality you will probably end up with people who can handle being both. Religion is a powerful meme (or collection of memes), and has survived numerous philosophical assaults in the past. Indeed, look at Josh Rosenau’s post today about evidence that “secular spirituality” is not really a “transition phase” from religion to aspiritual atheism.

    Of course, if your goal is to promote good science, then this is the right way to go. However, to many of the nü atheists, they’ve stated that promoting science is at best a secondary goal; their primary goal is to destroy religion. It may be because they believe that it’s impossible to accept science without being an atheist, but there’s vast quantities of empirical evidence showing that that’s not the case.

  6. Somite

    And this is the part I don’t get. If you believe you have a better way to promote secularism just do it the best you can. If you are right you will be more successful than the new atheists and everyone wins.

  7. The Intersection

    @3 Somite
    I accept the dynamics of the marketplace of ideas, but if we are truly on the same team we shouldn’t be using tactics that are counter-productive.

  8. Dave

    Atheists will tone it down when the religious tone down the hell talk. Deal? Until then, science should be promoted and religions mocked for their bankrupt claims and blatantly bigoted immorality.

    Worrying about the tone of the argument is a distraction. While it’s true that certain presentations will be more or less effective than others, “harsh” is far too subjective and lowers the capacity for stern conversation.

    Dawkins, Hitchens, your neighbor, etc.: Everyone has his or her own method when explaining similar topics. Some poets go into intimate detail when describing love; others use lofty language to hide physical sensuality. Should we tell such poets to tone it down in order to appease those who are uncomfortable? Of course not: they’re just different expressions.

    Consequently, we should support the full spectrum of religious criticism. Because the people who profoundly and ignorantly believe in some fabricated deity won’t listen anyway — and those who may be on the fence may need a witty slap of cold reality.

    Think of it: Which, say, cigarette adverts, are more effective? The ads that create a storyline, or the ones that display the raw facts about cancer?

    Sometimes an intellectual shock to the system is what’s needed, rather than speaking to such believers like children who are already de-clawed of critical thought.

  9. Sara

    It seems foolish to say we should reject either method. I found both Sagan and Dawkins to be instrumental in helping me let go of my religious delusions. Sagan helped me open the door and Dawkins helped me walk through it. Without the cold scientific logic of Dawkins, I think the religious wounds of my indoctrinated brain wouldn’t have been as soothed.

  10. Beau

    I’ve never understood why the acceptance of evolution has to involve a person renouncing their faith in God.

  11. I guess the advice is fine if what you’re looking for are religious people who accept (perhaps grudgingly) evolution. Like the Pope does. But then the best you can hope for is a wishy-washy non-scientific interpretation of evolution, because what does it mean to believe in God the Creator who has no part in the development of the species on the earth? (Deism, I guess, but are there a lot of Deist converts?) No, you can be sure that ID will sneak in somewhere, perhaps when it comes to determining when ‘ensoulment’ occurs. But without *natural* selection, you don’t really understand or accept a scietific evolution after all, do you?

    Oh, did I say that the Pope accepts evolution? I meant the previous pope. And that’s the other problem: when you find yourself in the wishy-washy middle, it’s quite easy to fall back on traditional mythologies as soon as the environment makes it convenient.

    As for “accomodationsim”, that debate is about more than evolution. It is over whether you advertise that science and religion are a priori compatible, and then form all of your arguments based on that preconceived idea, sometimes when not even believing it yourself, as a way to “accommodate” someone enough so they accept or tolerate a subset of your scientiic opinions. You don’t have to declare that they are always incompatible, but likewise you don’t have to declare that they are compatible just to make people feel at ease.

  12. J.J.E.

    Have you even read the Demon Haunted World? Did the analogy in chapter 10 (The Dragon in My Garage) not penetrate?

    How about Chapter 7 (also entitled The Demon Haunted World)? There he talks about delusions and makes many comparisons between alien abductions, demons, and religion.

    Here are a few specific excerpts. This is not to indicate that these are the only opinions Sagan held on the matter. Indeed, he made a few statements in the Demon Haunted World that would seem very accommodationist. But claiming Sagan for one particular “side” is a bit of rhetorical mendacity that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Sagan compares gods to aliens, p108:

    The gods watch over us and guide our destinies, many human cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsible for the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve human needs. Even if they’re wholly fanciful, people feel better believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and call them aliens?

    Sagan suggests gods are hallucinations, p125:

    Perhaps when everyone knows that gods come down to Earth, we hallucinate gods; when all of us are familiar with demons, it’s incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely accepted, we see fairies; in an age of spiritualism, we encounter spirits; and when the old myths fade and we begin thinking that extraterrestrial beings are plausible, then that’s where our hypnogogic imagery tends.

    In Chapter 4 (Aliens) he clearly shows his opinion that skepticism threatens religion and that religion (as well as other nonsense) fights back by discouraging skepticism:

    But the tools of scepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They’re hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent practitioner, although scepticism repeatedly sprouts spontane- ously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising and religions (New Age and Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a sceptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.

    Furthermore, Sagan finds little to recommend in religion. Indeed, he suggests that that modern science casts substantial doubt on religion (p37 of Chapter 2, Science and Hope):

    Science, Ann Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.’ Despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion. Scripture is said to be divinely inspired – a phrase with many meanings. But what if it’s simply made up by fallible humans? Miracles are attested, but what if they’re instead some mix of charlatanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena and mental illness? No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnifi- cence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

    But of course I might be wrong.

    This is beginning to be tedious, because the examples are so legion. But here’s one last example of Sagan saying that religion is a great place to find logical and rhetorical fallacies from chapter (The Fine Art of Baloney Detection) page 199:

    In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.

    He then goes on to detail such fallacies as ad hominems, argument from authority, special pleading, etc.

    The edition to which I refer is ISBN: 0747251568, a UK edition published by Headline Book Publishing in 1997.

  13. Another thing: everytime this topic comes up, you guys get into a weeklong debate with Jerry Coyne and others, taking time that could be spent just sharing interesting developments, stories and facts in the scientific world. This in-fighting can’t be helpful to the cause (whatever the scope of your cause is). Instead of lobbing grenades at your own intellectual allies (and trying to pick fights between Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan), why don’t you guys just tell your stories your way and let Jerry, Richard, et al tell theirs? Even if you think their way is counterproductive.. take your own advice and dial your rhetoric down a notch. Lead by example, not by argument. I’m sure these personal feuds makes for a lot of page hits, but it’s really just getting tiresome.

  14. BlakeG

    I’m confused. I don’t see the connection between I.D. and and “death anxiety”. Why would thoughts about mortality motivate acceptance of I.D.? An afterlife fits no better on Young Earth or Old Earth Creationism than it does on Theistic Evolution.

    P.S. Dave, how much Phil. of Religion have you read (i.e. how familiar are you with the debate)? E.g. are you familiar with Collin’s Fine-tuning argument? With Maydole’s Ontological argument? With the Rasmussen-Weaver Cosmological argument? There is a rich field in Phil. of Religion devoted to the debate over God’s existence, with numerous peer reviewed journals and respected philosophers both theist and atheist. Dawkins etc. are loud, but they are generally unexposed to the literature and tend to a butt of jokes in philosophy departments. Best to align yourself with respectable atheist thinkers, like Michael Martin, Michael Ruse, and Michael Tooley (to name a few Michael’s I know). Anyways, I’m a Christian who is probably much more familiar with the academic debate than you are, so I think your naive condescending confidence is a little cute. = )

  15. sophi

    while i agree that we need more people like Carl Sagon and that we should be celebrating science and showing how beautiful the world is through the lens of science and understanding. i don’t agree that we need less Richard Dawkins. or should avoid harsh criticism of religion.

    in a way it’s less about converting people away from strongly held religious beliefs and more about convincing everybody else to stop elevating them above criticism. it’s about forcing people to realize that simply having a strongly held religious belief about something doesn’t automatically give you a free pass. just because you believe with all your heart and soul that god is against same sex marriage doesn’t mean your opinion on the matter is at all justified. and as long as people are going to use their religion to justify/inform their political positions than their religion is going to be fair game for harsh criticism.

    not to mention the need to be able to openly participate in the societies in which we live. which isn’t something you accomplish by remaining silent. especially not when the simple act of declaring our existence is controversial.

  16. The Intersection

    I really wish I could participate more deeply in this conversation, but I am currently attending a conference on HIV vaccine development. Keep the comments coming, though. Your responses are incredibly informative!
    One thing I would like to say is that this is not about Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins. It is about communicating science and what SCIENCE is telling us about the most effective means to do that.
    Many people are responding based on their personal knowledge of these icons. I encourage you to read the paper that I mentioned. Take a look at the excerpts used in the study and try to understand why one is more effective than the other.
    That is the point of this post. I do not wish to rehash old arguments about who’s cooler, smarter or the better atheist. It’s about communicating science. This is a current topic because of the NEW research conducted in this study.
    Criticize the paper. Try not to criticize one another.
    Cheers,
    Jamie Vernon

  17. Dave

    @13
    BlakeG: Certainly my alleged condescension pales when compared to your explicit condescension, on top of the fact that you didn’t address a single point that was made.

    “Respectable” atheist thinkers, by the way? The scent of hypocrisy stemming from your comment is a little nauseating.

    And the fact that some scientists compartmentalize in order to believe in God means nothing. All that matters is what the science itself says.

  18. Richard D. Morey

    This would all be fine and good if the goal of the New Atheists were simply to get people to believe in natural selection. Let’s just suppose that we determined empirically that the most effective way of getting people to reject creationism was to find really “uncool” people and have them pretend to be creationists. Then kids would reject creationism, and everything would be great, right?

    Except, the point has never really been about getting people to believe a particular thing, even if that thing is very likely to be right. Making creationism “uncool” might be effective at getting people to believe in natural selection, but science is not about facts (we all know this, right?) Science is about evidence. Being consistent in pointing out that people often have no evidence for the things they believe is much more consistent with the goals of science than simply getting people to believe a particular thing.

  19. SC

    Heh. Atheists discussing the most effective evangelism methods.

  20. J.J.E.

    One thing I would like to say is that this is not about Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins

    If you think that invoking Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins is refractory to discussing the interesting paper you presented, then perhaps you shouldn’t have invoked both Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. You’ll have to forgive me if I find your protestation a bit disingenuous in light of the fact that you entitled your post “Carl Sagan wins…”, invoked both Sagan and Dawkins multiple times and went through the trouble to link a composite image with both gentlemen pictured.

    On to substantive issues. The paper as summarized by you is entirely unsurprising, and it baffles me as to why you think it is addressing Gnu arguments. That being said, thanks for the heads up. However, your framing of the paper shows clear signs of motivated reasoning, though that doesn’t impugn the paper’s results.

    Let me disentangle this for you:

    Gnus are well aware of many things you implicitly don’t give them credit for. For example, let group A hold belief X very strongly. If the goal is convincing extant members of group A to accept belief Y (which they may be skeptical of), it could be very strongly counterproductive to criticize belief X. Gnus get this.

    However, when certain skeptics are wearing their Gnu hats, their goal is usually not to convince group A to accept belief Y. The goal is often to convince another group, group B, to reject belief X.

    So, while Gnus are undoubtedly sympathetic to convincing people that evolution is a good theory or that global warming is real, this isn’t their primary goal (however, when it is their primary goal, they can follow the “naturalist” approach quite admirably; read The Selfish Gene and Why Evolution Is True). However, in this context (the context you are invoking) their primary goal is to convince uncommitted or weakly committed people to reject religion. Or to convice the uncommitted or weakly committed that religious beliefs don’t deserve special immunity to criticism.

    You see, you have a very targeted and immediate goal. Gnus get that. But your goal is not always their goal. Once you accept this, then you can finally start engaging the Gnus.

    So how about it? Do you think that convincing uncommitted or weakly committed people to abandon religion is a worthy goal?

  21. TB

    You know, this isn’t about “tone,” that’s just a strawman. It’s about different goals that don’t have to be in competition but are. As Sara in @9 illustrates, her result was about giving up religion. And that’s fine. Promoting that is Out Atheism.
    But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with science – it’s an opinion about the metaphysical, a philosophical position.
    But if you maintain that in order to accept science you have to give up religion, then you’re trying to impose your philosophical opinion on science – and that’s what I oppose. That’s Exclusivist Atheism – or what was once considered ‘New Atheism.’
    I don’t confuse Out Atheism with Exclusivist Atheism. But labels change, and many Out Atheists consider themselves New Atheists. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also exclusivists but I guess we’ll see.
    I think, though, a lack of clear identity is counterproductive – I’ve had people think I’m arguing against Out Atheism when I talk about New Atheism.

  22. J.J.E.

    @ Rob Knop

    Despite the fact that nü atheists insist that somebody like me isn’t semantically possible.

    Who says this? They say science isn’t compatible with religion, not that scientists can’t be theists. This persistent conflation is a category mistake. You are certainly possible! That you consider skepticism to be compatible with faith is puzzling as these concepts seem to be semantic complements to each other, but that’s a different discussion.

  23. @Matunos

    But then the best you can hope for is a wishy-washy non-scientific interpretation of evolution,

    Incorrect. You insist and insert that the religious can’t have a fully scientific acceptance of evolution, yet quite a very large number of us do.

    @JJE : Well, sure, they don’t deny my existence… but they then go on to assert that anybody who doesn’t share their strict and dogmatic philosophical materialism is intellectually dishonest. (Much in the same way that fundamentalist Christians argue that those who don’t share *their* religious philosophy are damned.) In other words, people like me may exist, but we’re sick and wrong and need to be converted if we are not to continue to be twisted. (Again, an attitude found amongst fundamentalist religions.)

    Skepticism and faith are semantic complements. So are humility and ambition. So are caution and courage. So are (in some contexts) stability and improvement. Yet, many people are able to find a greater or a lesser value for one, the other, or both of each of these things in their lives. The usefulness and value of one does not necessarily preclude the usefulness and value of the other.

  24. Pablo

    I agree with Richard, #17. I’d also like to add that the overwhelming majority of religious folks aren’t complete wacks as the New Atheists and some here project. Sure, they may believe in things that are factually untrue, but realistically they’re not much different from non-believers, besides the obvious practices of church and such. You don’t see religious folks rejecting modern medicine or arguing with the laws of physics – many share concurrent views with science (i.e belief in evolution, yet still believe in a universe created by a deity).

    Furthermore, since science cannot answer how the universe was created, these religious views aren’t going against science, but filling a void for which science cannot yet fill. It’s this notion that makes science and religion compatible – if it can’t be proven, who’s not to say a deity has no part in it. Most often, religion functions to accommodate the emotional over observable and factual. It’s when people reject the observable and factual that you enter the realm of irrationality, creating people like the pastor who said the world was ending this past Saturday. It’s perfectly fine to thank some deity for your life, personal experiences, etc.; but not OK to replace observable reality with some religious doctrine. It’s a fine line between crazy and simply religious, fortunately most religious folks are generally rational.

  25. SSoG

    Re #8: “Atheists will tone it down when the religious tone down the hell talk. Deal? Until then, science should be promoted and religions mocked for their bankrupt claims and blatantly bigoted immorality.”

    I’d imagine the Christian community would take that deal in a heartbeat, since they’ve already radically toned down the Hell talk. Within the last generation alone, the majority opinion has shifted from a belief in Hell as a place of eternal torment to the belief of Hell as merely a place of isolation from God. In addition, there are several movements gaining significant traction by preaching that Hell does not exist in any form. Some preach Heaven for believers and non-existence for unbelievers, while others preach a “heaven for everyone” doctrine.

    In fact, I suspect if you compared the strength of the Hell rhetoric to the harshness of atheist criticism over the last 50 years, you’d find a crushingly strong negative correlation. As the Christians move inexorably towards a rosier picture of the afterlife for the unsaved, the atheists as a whole seem to only be ramping up the Disdain for religions in general and the contempt for the overly religious in particular. Sounds like you need to tell your fellow atheists about the deal and work on getting them to hold up their end of it.

  26. onerose03

    This article is spot on. I was raised to be religious but also to respect and value science, and have found as I’ve matured that my love of science is dramatically reshaping my views on religion. And the greatest boost on my “way out” actually came from the science professors at the Christian university I attended who taught rock-solid science (much to the dismay of more fundamentalist students!) and my philosophy and religion professors who, for example, directly questioned the concept of a soul separate from the body.

    Hearing those questions and ideas from people who were in some sense Christians (even though they were hardly orthodox) allowed me in the end to entirely rethink my beliefs, and I’m still in that process. If I had instead jumped into science and been attacked or written off because of my religious background instead of taught I probably would have run straight back to the church for protection. I’m sure I would have continued with science and skepticism but would have been much slower to allow it to change my beliefs.

    Getting people to out and out reject religion is going to be MUCH harder than bringing people to a point where they can balance some form of religion with respect for science. The best results are going to come from increased science literacy promoted by people who are not completely alien to the religious community. Getting a person truly interested and invested in science will start the process of prying them loose from fundamentalist religious beliefs as well. I don’t see a lot of additional benefit from going to the immense amount of effort it would take to try to get someone to untangle the last roots of religion from their identities. They may get there on their own (especially if they read Sagan), but you won’t be able to force it.

    I myself am not sure exactly where I’ll end up on the question, but I’m here actively promoting good science and open mindedness and skepticism to my friends and family who are still closed in, trying to change their minds on evolution and climate change and keeping bad science out of the school system. Is all of that truly worthless if I decide in the end to hold to some form of religious belief? An atheist’s answer to that question is the crux of things. If your main focus is eradication of religion the answer is yes. If your main focus is mitigating anti-science attitudes the answer is no. From my perspective and experience on the religious side it’s those with the second goal who will make the most progress because it will allow you to join in a common cause with like-minded people in the religious community who have the best chance of reaching those in question. Just as S.C. said :-)

  27. I applaud this post and the stance that Chris has taken.

    The reality is that the world is full of religious people, many of whom are fairly intelligent and progressive on other issues. To make progress in policy and in finding and implementing solutions to our common problems, we need to enlist religious people, rather than alienate them. I find the goals of ‘new atheism’ unfathomable, and feel that combative atheists give reasonable, tolerant atheists like myself a bad name.

  28. Interesting post. I think there’s a key discrepancy between ‘promoting science’ and ‘debunking religious faith’ in the communication methods of the so-called ‘new atheists’. While the two often overlap, not all polemics and utterances by Dawkins et al can be considered as attempted apostasy and shouldn’t be treated as such.

  29. pedro

    It seems to me that the New Atheist movement is more rooted in hatred or disdain for religion than promoting science, as others have mentioned. It’s one thing to not believe in religion, it’s another to organize and push your philosophy on everyone else. It’s this notion that essentially makes the New Atheist movement a religion in itself – a group of people organized to push a common set of beliefs. This notion has also been at the center of court battles in defining “religion”. Either you practice religion or you don’t and to push your personal set of beliefs on others is exactly what the New Atheists protest, yet that’s exactly what they do by painting all religion as pure non-sense in attempts to eradicate religious thought and practice. Organizing and forcing their beliefs on the world shows they lack a level of tolerance for beliefs contrary to their own – a practice characteristic of bigotry and racism.

    People don’t like to be ostracized or face prejudice for any reason, therefore the New Atheist attitude toward religion will only result in more negativity projected upon each side. It’s a matter of respect and it goes both ways – open a respectful dialogue with respectful people and more people will pay attention.

  30. megan

    onerose03 is totally spot on. Plus, Islam the keeper of most science when Christianity was kabosh, was religious to the extreme but accepts most precedents of reason & logic. Their downfall is denial of human animal origins. And now adopting Christian ID tenets.

    All I can say is I gradually became agnostic atheist during the time (70-80s) the Catholic Church encouraged and incorporated other religious and science into it’s teachings to say it all was good because it existed under god. I finally couldn’t maintain the dichotomy and disconnect that still overall the Catholic theology and cosmology was paramount in the framing for ‘true’ understanding. Didn’t need it at all nor a priest or pope to direct or teach me.

  31. Well, I think I’m something like a scientist, having been dealing with chemistry and related science for about 35 years. And, please sit down and breathe deeply, I’m a Catholic, too. In fact I believe that atheism is one of the more disturbing and irrational form of religious belief, really sorry for prof. Dawkins (and prof. Atkins and so on) which unfortunately devote to atheism their otherwise so brilliant minds.

    About evolution, I’ve been taught that in principle there’s nothing in it which is offending Catholic faith… at least as you think that, since more or less a century, each and every Pope plainly declared so.
    Maybe the bigotry of some radical Reformed church leads to an harsh reaction from scientists in the USA, but, you see, on this side of the Atlantic it’s not such a hard business for scientists.

    I suggested some people to read the pages of S. J. Gould – not exactly a creationist, I guess – which are carrying a more relaxed and, who knows, even more scientific approach about this topic.
    Well, of course, until the Atheistic Church Unholy Office will burn all of his heretical books in front of the Temple of the Goddess of Reason… beware the guillotine, my friends, when the Sans-coulottes start with it, it’s not a good time for any rational people.

    Have a nice stay on this marvellous universe and – well – may Someone bless you for the efforts you put in confirming my religious standpoints.

  32. J.J.E.

    It seems to me that the New Atheist movement is more rooted in hatred or disdain for religion than promoting science, as others have mentioned. It’s one thing to not believe in religion, it’s another to organize and push your philosophy on everyone else. It’s this notion that essentially makes the New Atheist movement a religion in itself – a group of people organized to push a common set of beliefs.

    This is wrong and reveals the excess privilege that religion gets. When somebody has the temerity to suggest strongly that religion ought to be abandoned, this knee-jerk reaction arises. Every time. When people like Chris is really trying to convince people that climate change is real or the NCSE is trying to convince people that evolution is real, this isn’t indicative of holding religious views. It is indicative that they hold a conviction that their views are correct. This extends to less slam dunk scientific views as well as politics. Simply vociferously defending your point of view is not synonymous with pushing a religious perspective.

  33. Pablo

    I was brought up catholic as well and attended catholic school through 8th grade. I used to question a lot of the practices even back then. I went on to my local public high school and never went back to church. It wasn’t until I was in college and able to think more independently that I started to really analyze and question religion – an interest in science and a degree in math helped me see the world more logically as well. Around that time the news of the priests involved in molestation and attempts to cover it up by the church were rampant and I asked myself how someone who teaches people to do good can do such things.

    I was never really religious, but by 18 I reached the point of agnosticism. I found questioning everything leads to the truth and helps gain knowledge along the way, while simply attributing everything to a deity implies lack of curiosity and often stifles the higher level, critical thought process for the simple reason of not thinking outside the narrow mind of religious teachings and accepting everything as a product of a deity. To me, the world is a much more interesting place when you simply observe and raise questions – how everything came to be as it is and the relationships between the many variables. Not knowing how to explain something just means we have more to learn and learning ceases when you stop paying attention to what’s around you.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    How is this different from creationist reasoning, where they refer to a study while claiming something that is not supported in the paper? This paper is not describing “new Atheist communication strategies.”

    To paraphrase to come to the point, the research uses texts that provoke responses along the subject’s world view.

    The point is that a text of “cosmologist and science writer Carl Sagan [argues] that humans can attain meaning and purpose by seeking to understand the natural origins of life. In this passage, Sagan explicitly states that even if humans are “merely matter,” we still can find purpose, but it must be one that we work out for ourselves.” provoke a weakened response.

    This argument of working out own purpose in life is precisely what you can find with Dawkins, Myers et cetera! The problem of ironically instead claiming that it would be a “new Atheist communication strategy” though is that you likely can find the same claim with accommodationists, whether they secretly support religious sense of purpose or not.

    This result, if valid, is either orthogonal to gnus actions (most likely), or suggesting that they know how to weaken provocation of other’s chosen world view (when mentioning how to work out purpose instead of taking it from religious texts).

    And in the larger perspective the actual “new Atheist communication strategy” is described by JJE. It is, funnily enough, foremost about promoting atheism of all things. Fancy that!

    So what is the take home message here? That fact is not relevant, because you are allowed to lie for Zombie Jesus (here: Evolution)?

  35. Kieran

    The only thing that religion has to offer science is a compromise on standards.

  36. RickK

    I’m not really moved by arguments that “Islam protected science” or “great scientists were religious”.

    We’ve learned some things in the past 200 years. Our perspective is different than that of those early scientists.

    1) The supernatural has supremely failed to survive skeptical inquiry. We’ve looked hard, with the continually improving methods of objective testing, and supernatural causes that would have been accepted as possible or probable (or even fully accepted) 200+ years ago is now known beyond all reasonable doubt to be false.

    2) We’ve learned a LOT about God – about where he isn’t, about what he didn’t do, what he doesn’t do now.

    3) We now know about galaxies, about our absurdly small place in a ridiculously huge universe. It’s so big that something as improbable as abiogenesis becomes much more likely. Also, the idea that all of that space was created for us is no longer an idea that a rational person can retain.

    Believing in witchcraft made perfect sense 500 years ago. Believing in god(s) made perfect sense 200 years ago.

    It’s different now.

  37. Skepacabra

    Yes, clearly the passive aggressive method that has been unsuccessfully used for thousands of years is more effective than the method that has successfully brought the discussion into American living rooms by making it newsworthy in just 6 years. It was much better a decade ago when most Americans had never even heard of the word “atheist” and didn’t even know people who didn’t believe in any gods existed. Cause that makes sense. This also explains why Zeppo is everyone’s favorite Marx brother.

    I think Sam Harris said it best:
    “The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.
    “While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, the accommodationism that Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. They assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems quite collegial. We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion—just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality.”

  38. Tolpuddle Martyr

    While I respect scientists, atheism is not just about science. It is a personal decision to implicitly reject supernaturalism. I am not a scientist but rather an English/Humanities teacher, scientific naturalism supports my atheism but it is not the sole reason for it.

    I am not trying to “convert” anyone to my position on religion, I just don’t want my position on religion to be something I have to hide! The raison d’etre of atheism is not necessarily conversion of the masses.

    One of the reasons I like the so called “new atheists” is that they don’t try to hide their atheism to mollycoddle the religious, they say “I’m here and I’m proud of my atheism”. While even moderate religious leaders publicly show disdain for disbelievers I see no reason to hide my true feelings about religion 24/7. I really do think modern religions are a bunch of old myths, outdated doctrines rooted in rule by fear and the absolute power of monarchs and I really do reject them!

    My ability to be accommodationist with believers begins and ends with any discussion of religion, I get on fine with them as long as their religion does not effect my life. If they try to talk to me about religion, pass laws on me with a basis in religion or convert me to their religion I’ll be a blunt and “new atheist” as I truly feel about the matter!

  39. JMW

    I think the argument over optimal communication strategies is predicated on a couple of faulty premises.

    1) It is imperative to eliminate religion. I’ll grant you that religion has inspired a great many negative things over the centuries. I’ll grant that the basis of religious thought is unscientific, unverifiable, and in many ways demonstrably false. That being said, religion has also inspired a great many good things. And, viewing religion as a social phenomenon, it provides people with a means of connecting to their community, of establishing some moral rules, etc., etc. Now, if we could eliminate the negative from religion while keeping the positive, I’d have no problem with that.
    2) There is one and only one optimal way to communicate with religious people. I think this is a false, cookie-cutter analogy that denies the simple fact that people are different. And different people will respond to different arguments in different ways. Someone may respond to a Dawkins-like frontal assault on their faith; another might find their faith hardened in response – but later find themselves responding to a more sympathetically founded message. Or vice versa.

    Of course, my feeling about the first of my so-called faulty premises is based on my attitude that as long as someone doesn’t deny the essential science, whether they believe in a god or not is immaterial.

    And I could be wrong.

    But I don’t think so.

  40. Pablo

    If you look at the history of religion and science you’ll notice that many a “miracle” are now explained by knowledge of modern medicine. Back in the 1600s and beyond, people had no idea of germs, illness, disease, or bodily functions. This is why the world was governed by religion, it helped people deal with and explain the unexplainable – i.e. having a religious ceremony to cure a disease (like malaria) that is naturally cured over time. When that person gets better, it’s a miracle of God. Today we know exactly what’s going on and people no longer think that way in the modern world (we use pharmaceuticals). The knowledge is necessary to comfort the mind – alleviates anxiety of the unknown.

    Religion helps bring mental comfort to people when it’s convenient and has actually helped many people overcome a variety of things in life. It also helps promote community and most organizations do a lot of good, giving back to help those in need. I’m not religious, but I still don’t believe all religion is bad – it’s simply the radical and irrational interpretations that are dangerous. Once again, the overwhelming majority of religious folks are not radical fundamentalists – you’d be hard pressed to show where most religious folks cause harm to people in today’s modern nations. It’s ironic how irrational religion can be, yet still be composed of generally rational people. It’s also ironic and just as irrational for non-believers to attack it so vehemently without much evidence of it doing harm – it’s not like Christians are waging a holy war like radical Islamists in the middle east for example. Trying to eradicate religion is the equivalent of the Crusades or Spanish Inquisition – forcing people to accept a set of beliefs, a way of thinking.

    Eventually people will come around on their own as society develops and accommodate their views in modern society, it’s been proven to work that way for thousands of years. However, religion is rooted in serving the mental/emotional over the rational and scientific, so I don’t believe it’s fair to compare the two and force people to one side or the other (it’s like forcing someone to choose Democrat or Republican – both sides have irrational beliefs in certain areas and it angers each side, respectfully – because people think differently). In fact, rooting for one’s favorite sports team (and partisan politics) is similar to choosing a religion.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/200911/is-sport-religion

  41. TB

    @ 32 JJE

    “Simply vociferously defending your point of view is not synonymous with pushing a religious perspective.”

    It may have been poorly expressed, but Pedro did have a point. While it’s not religious, atheism is a position on the metaphysical without scientific proof to support it. I can’t speak for other countries, but as a practical matter in the US, atheism is generally addressed by law in the same context as religion.
    Recently a group of skeptics have been pushing to get the military to allow secular chaplains to serve – which I think is a brilliant move. But you can’t have it both ways – it’s not just a point of view – it’s an opinion on the metaphysical for which there is no proof.

  42. TB

    It’s interesting to see how movements change and evolve. Contrast 37. Skepacabra with 38. Tolpuddle Martyr.

    Skepacabra’s comment contains the usual smears and disinformation. But he quotes Sam Harris accurately: “The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory)…”

    Contrast that with Tolpuddle Martyr: “I am not trying to “convert” anyone to my position on religion, I just don’t want my position on religion to be something I have to hide! The raison d’etre of atheism is not necessarily conversion of the masses.”

    (Tolpuddle, I wonder how blunt you would be if the conversation just happened to turn to religion – most people in a friendly conversation try to find common ground without necessarily compromising their opinions.)

    But more to the point, what Skepacabra and Tolpuddle are advocating here under the “new atheist” banner are actually two very different things – open versus exclusivist atheism. Being able to be open, respected and even elected regardless of their opinion on the metaphysical versus, as I think Sam Harris has said, destroying religion.

    I wonder just how exclusivist open atheists are? I wonder if they have the same problem with the way NCSE is undertaking it’s political mission that exclusivist atheists do? And it’ll be interesting to see if the current thought leaders can be nimble enough to stay in front of their own changing movement. Some have staked out some pretty exclusivist grounds.

  43. @ 40 TB

    New atheism (and old atheism and the position of every atheist I’ve ever encountered) is the rejection of god claims because they don’t have merit; they lack evidence (see Dragon in My Garage). That’s applying the scientific method to the matter, so saying atheism has no “scientific proof to support it” belies perhaps a misunderstanding of atheism. If we say there is no god, it’s with measured certainty, not absolute knowledge, the same way I’m sure you’ll say there are no fairies nor trans-dimensional gnomes; evidence does not support the claims for their existences.

    The grouping of atheism into religious categories has been prompted by either convenience or, in the case of the military, a necessity. IF the only way a group can be recognized and have rights they deserve is to declare themselves a religious group, THEN they’re forced to do so. This does not mean, nor should be used as evidence that atheism or atheist groups are religious and comparable to religions.

    @ 20 J.J.E.

    Bravo! That comment nailed it. These debates are really not for the sake of the one you’re engaged with, but rather for those watching. The sooner the accommodationists realize that, the sooner we can all move on.

    @ 19 SC

    LOL!

  44. J.J.E.

    While it’s not religious, atheism is a position on the metaphysical without scientific proof to support it.

    This is simply wrong unless the concept of god has been prefigured in order to make this necessarily true (i.e. question begging). For example, take two models of the world: one which treats, say for example, the doctrines of Mormonism as true in a supernatural sense (though this will work with almost any religion); and another that treats the doctrines as if they were a purely human creation like literature, art, music, politics, ideologies, sports, etc. Given the enormous amount of evidence collected on questions pertaining to Mormon doctrine as well as the enormous amount of evidence collected on questions pertaining to human creativity, story telling, myth making, political ideology, etc., it would be perverse not to concede that, of the two models, the better supported is the one that doesn’t posit supernatural forces. While this perspective may not (and indeed cannot) rule out god absolutely (it doesn’t aspire to producing Truth™), this is not to say that there isn’t a perfectly adequate description that doesn’t require god. Furthermore adding god to the descriptions adds no descriptive power.

    In short, in the same sense that any competing model in science is preferred over its competitor, the hypothesis lacking god is preferred over the one containing god.

  45. J.C. Samuelson

    @ Jamie (#16):

    One thing I would like to say is that this is not about Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins.

    Then why did you use them to personify (allegedly) opposing sides of an argument?

    Also, it again strikes me that those who promote Carl Sagan as a paragon of science communication forget that he had no truck with religion. I think you should go read Demon Haunted World again, and watch Cosmos. While he never “attacked” religion per se, at best he treated it as a bygone myth that no one paid any serious attention to anymore.

    Time to go read the paper now…

  46. abb3w

    The UBC/UC college did examine the effectiveness of Carl Sagan’s approach at increasing acceptance of science such as evolution. It did NOT measure the effectiveness of the approach of the “New Atheists”; thus, claiming the study “suggests that a more naturalist approach as used by the late Carl Sagan is more effective than that used by the new Atheists” would appear to be overstating the results.

    It’s also amusing to note that the science acceptance they were testing was a passage about evolution written by… Richard Dawkins.

    @41, TB: I wonder just how exclusivist open atheists are?

    You might care to look into the study of atheists done by Hunsberger and Altemeyer (published as “Atheists”, ISBN 1591024137); the material in chapter six would seem relevant to the question.

  47. TB

    JJE: ” this is not to say that there isn’t a perfectly adequate description that doesn’t require god. Furthermore adding god to the descriptions adds no descriptive power.”

    But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, nor does it offer any proof of atheism. It simply means that atheism is a valid philosophical position, something I certainly don’t dispute.

    In fact, your whole post was a strawman argument, for a few reasons.

    First, not every religious person would agree that Mormonism is a reasonable example of belief. To limit the choices to only two essentially lumps all belief into one – and that’s wrong on it’s face.

    Second, non-belief in a deity can be just as unnecessary in daily life as belief – methodological naturalism covers all those same bases.

    Last, life isn’t a controlled scientific experiment. Depending on the details of that belief, there just isn’t necessarily any assumed value in belief or non-belief with which to judge whether something is “better” or not IF the result is the same.
    If someone gave money to help storm victims, it doesn’t matter what motivated them to do good as long as we can recognize that they’re equally altruistic.
    Conversely, we should hold people accountable for the wrongs they commit regardless of what motivated them. But if you start ascribing value to their wrong beliefs, then do you punish them more because they were religiously motivated? If so, then you need to be consistent and reward good deeds more if they were religiously motivated. 

    Obviously that’s not what you would want to do, so how are we to understand your judgement of preferable outside the bounds of your limited example, in the context of methodological naturalism and within the understanding that life is not a scientific experiment and, where results are equal, there is no extra value in belief or non-belief?

    I understand it as the strawman that it is. Non-proof against my assertion that atheism is one of the valid philosophical stances that support the ability to do science, but is not in itself proven by science. And so has no special claim to scientific authenticity.

  48. SSoG

    Another consideration that I don’t often see discussed: if religion is wholly a product of the human mind, then it seems clear to me it must have been an evolved response. At some point in our history, belief in the supernatural granted us some non-trivial survival advantage. Perhaps we should tread with a greater sense of gravity while trying to divest humanity of something we don’t fully understand yet. What advantages did religion initially give us? What advantages does religion give us today? While some can clearly handle being areligious, are some people just not mentally equipped to function at peak efficiency without the comforting assurance of a divine power?

    I’m reminded of a study that found that the sounds we make when stumbling for a novel word (“ummm” or “errrr”) actually serve a huge purpose in child development- they cue the child that it’s time to pay attention because the adults will be teaching them something novel, now! This makes me think about the lengths to which some have gone to eliminate these artifacts from their speech, and speculate what the consequences might be if society succeeded in it’s mission of eradication. And that’s just the word “umm”! How much greater might the consequences be if we succeed in eliminating something that is as large a part of the human identity as religion without first trying to understand the repercussions?

  49. TB

    @42. PhillyChief

    That’s applying the scientific method to the matter, so saying atheism has no “scientific proof to support it” belies perhaps a misunderstanding of atheism. If we say there is no god, it’s with measured certainty, not absolute knowledge …”

    There is a misunderstanding of atheism, but it’s not by me. As I said before, it’s valid philosophical position, but in the end it’s still just a philosophical position.

    And, a measured certainty? You’ll show me those measurements, right?

    “This does not mean, nor should be used as evidence that atheism or atheist groups are religious and comparable to religions.”

    And that’s not what I said, so I’m not sure what you’re commenting on.

  50. Junior

    An interesting article here, basically sums up my sentiments on this issue:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/apr/24/martin-rees-atheists-drop-campaigns

  51. J.J.E.

    As I said before, it’s valid philosophical position, but in the end it’s still just a philosophical position.

    The existence of any unseen object that is instantiated in someone’s imagination has the same status. From the absurd (like the FSM), to the more patient (like Sagan’s dragon), to the near universally accepted (gods). At the end of the day, simply saying it’s “still just a philosophical position” shines no light on anything. It serves only to try to shield religion from scrutiny. My model regarding the absence of alien abduction or the failure of cold fusion experiments falls into precisely the same “philosophical position”. Every single position everyone in science holds is “merely” a philosophical position if you want to get technical.

    your whole post was a strawman argument

    My argument was a positive argument I was putting forward on behalf of myself. In short, a model with a supernatural god and a model without a god + human myth making can be adjudicated with our knowledge of humanity as well as our lack of knowledge of supernatural “phenomena”. How can my own personal model possibly be a strawman? Are you misusing the word? And who said that my argument hinged on whether someone would accept Mormonism? It was a concrete example that I explicitly indicated could be swapped with virtually any religion (or at least those that posit god(s)). Excluding it leaves my proposal unchanged.

    Second, non-belief in a deity can be just as unnecessary in daily life as belief

    I wasn’t aware we were having a normative discussion. I thought it was descriptive. This seems to be a non-sequitur.

    Last, life isn’t a controlled scientific experiment

    I’m sorry, this seems logically unrelated to the discussion, and your exposition is muddy. What does this have to do with anything?

    Last, life isn’t a controlled scientific experiment. Depending on the details of that belief, there just isn’t necessarily any assumed value in belief or non-belief with which to judge whether something is “better” or not IF the result is the same.

    For the sake of this particular discussion, I don’t care about values. I care whether the model has any descriptive power, i.e. is it true (in the weak sense of the word true — absolute truth isn’t a goal of science).

  52. Skepacabra

    I’d very much like to know what specific disinformation TB is referring to. Was my calling accommodationism “passive aggressive” disinformation? Was my suggesting accommodationism in one form or another has been the traditional (and losing) strategy for the better part of the last few thousands years disinformation? Was I wrong in suggesting that the so-called “New Atheists” have catapulted atheism into the mainstream and made the topic more relevant and newsworthy than ever in the span of just 6 years?

    I’d also like to know why my post and Tolpuddle’s post are to be viewed as representative of some larger conflict among so called “New Atheist” positions. It seems to me that we’re dealing with a variety of goals that are not mutually exclusive and which are simply being conflated to fit under the same silly “New Atheist” label to avoid just accepting that those supporting more confrontational approaches span a variety of views. I don’t see any inconsistency and it’s not us applying the “New Atheist banner” but those opposed to more confrontational approaches who throw the term around the most. I have no problem with co-existence with religious moderates but simultaneously wish to promote critical thinking skills that I suspect will additionally lead to more atheists as the evidence for all the mainstream religions is weak. I don’t know where you came up with this “exclusivist atheism” term but it sounds an awful lot like a straw man to me.

    Now what IS disinformation is suggesting (or rather outright saying) that this article depicts “evidence for the rejection of new Atheist communication strategies” when it does no such thing.

  53. TB

    @ 52. Skepacabra

    “I’d very much like to know what specific disinformation TB is referring to.”

    Oh I don’t know, there’s so many. Let’s focus on these two:

    “Was my suggesting accommodationism in one form or another has been the traditional (and losing) strategy for the better part of the last few thousands years disinformation? ”

    Science as we know it hasn’t been around for the past few thousand years. Accomodationism – a term I reject as nonsense, by the way, was only coined in the last decade. Which draws into question what measures you’re using for success.

    “Was I wrong in suggesting that the so-called “New Atheists” have catapulted atheism into the mainstream and made the topic more relevant and newsworthy than ever in the span of just 6 years?”

    But coupled with the previous statement, you’re claiming a unique kind of success. Rush Limbaugh is popular and influential and by some measures successful. But when I look at his content, I don’t agree with it and I don’t contribute to his success.

    New Atheist books have certainly been popular – their controversial statements do draw media attention, and they probably have contributed to the success of open atheism.

    But that doesn’t mean exclusivist atheism – coined by philosopher John Wilkins and used, for example, against a scientist as described by 23. Rob Knop – is a message that will gain wide acceptance.

    By another measure of success, direct confrontation legally, it’s been believers and unbelievers joining forces like in Dover that have defeated creationism. Exclusivist atheism hasn’t been tested in a court of law as an effective counter.

  54. TB

    Complain, complain, complain

    @ 51 JJE

    “And who said that my argument hinged on whether someone would accept Mormonism? It was a concrete example that I explicitly indicated could be swapped with virtually any religion (or at least those that posit god(s)).”

    You started with Mormonism, and the implied fundamentalist approach at that. That’s not accidental and the idea that any belief can be swapped in with them is a strawman. And so I swapped it with virtually any religion, specifically any belief consistent with methodological naturalism – you failed to address that in your complaints, also not accidental. So your supposed standard of scientific “descriptive” value is countered by methodological naturalism. Complain all you want, I did just as you suggested.

    So that leaves us with a believer and non-believer accepting the same things that science can tell us – all things scientifically being equal. Your preferred description then can only be justified on a philosophical level, and we are only left with so-called “normative” comparisons – whatever you mean by that.

    (I think your normative complaint is a ruse to try and rule out any counter example you weren’t prepared to refute. Too bad! You don’t get to set the goal posts at the forty-yard lines after the fact and complain that I was playing the full field!)

    In a non-confrontational way, I brought up altruism. A non-believer might understand their motivation as cultural influence combined with a biological response to another person’s distress. A believer might understand it in that way too but see the ultimate source of that motivation as god. They give the same amount of money – end result is the same. How, then, is one philosophical (I use this term to include theological, obviously) system to be measured as “better” than the other?

    Only if you adopt the standard of an exclusivist atheist, where all beliefs are a priori devalued, can you find fault with the believer.

  55. pedro

    Look at it this way.

    For example: if someone wants to call everything around them God’s creation, or thank God for all the good in their lives, or ask God for help during the rough times, what damage are they doing to science? Would you tell them it’s foolish to believe so or that there isn’t a God? I certainly find no harm in believing in such things, as it doesn’t affect science or anything other than their personal lives. It’s a personal life choice on a whole different level from scientific thought – it’s for emotional appeasement, to give one’s life more meaning.

    Furthermore, ask that same person how they feel about the law of gravity, physics of bridge building, germs, antibiotics, DNA sequencing, predicting weather patterns – the list of scientific truths is monumental and you’ll be surprised that they won’t argue with you. Their views adapt to accept any kind of scientific advance transitively – i.e. God created man and germs, man created antibiotics, God helped cure disease, etc. This is the reality of modern religious types in the developed world – the middle east and third world countries are another story simply because they lack the knowledge and technology.

    Religion gets a bad reputation because the media broadcasts the .5% of religious wackos and people (namely narrow minded, militant atheist types) jump on that to exploit the issue. They also broadcast whenever atheists put up signs in the NYC subway or on buses for example and that gets people fired up on the other side – even though those atheists are not representative of the majority of atheists. The reality is that modern religious and non-religious folks aren’t that far apart, the only obvious exceptions being practicing religion and, for some, evolution. You’d be surprised how many religious folks accept the theory of evolution – they adapt it to their religious beliefs in the sense that God created the universe and first signs of life which evolved over time. As for climate change, the Pope recently announced his support for a “green” lifestyle and curbing emissions.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/15/pope-urges-action-on-clim_n_392311.html

    Once again, we’re on the same page. The major area of the disconnect is simply belief in what cannot be proven or dis-proven by science, therefore organizing and campaigning for atheism over religion is a religion in itself (as courts have ruled). Simply not practicing religion, nor forcing others to accept your view, is a whole different scenario (and that goes for both sides). It doesn’t matter how likely or unlikely it is that God exists – statistics are not absolute truths (lies, damned lies, and statistics) – it doesn’t apply to something existential that cannot be measured, nor quantified, it’s an ad-hoc conclusion (the same way belief in a deity is ad hoc).

  56. Skepacabra

    @53 TB
    Formalized principles of science as we know it now have only been around for a few hundred years, yes, but we’re talking about religious criticism. While the modern scientific method is fairly new, there’s always been a rationalist community often made up of academics. Some legitimate science went on under the label of natural philosophy. But rarely were religious critics of the past very confrontational, and for good reason. It was likely to get them killed. So religious critics of the past had little choice but to make their criticisms soft and as inoffensive as possible. And it’s this which I was referring to. If there were more confrontational religious critics prior to the Enlightenment, most of it has been lost to history.

    You’re right that popular doesn’t necessarily mean these authors’ arguments have merit, but nor does it mean they don’t. To compare the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens to Rush Limbaugh is an utterly absurd ad hominem. While they may use strong rhetoric, the comparison ends there and there as their position is built on a foundation of science and reason. They’re simply not playing the the political game the way you would. I don’t doubt that stodgy, carefully calculated word choices and measured tonality are persuasive to some, but Mooney & co. seem to think all people share the same simplistic psychology when they don’t. Emotional arguments combined with logical ones have a fairly strong track record for success too, and there’s no shortage of unbelievers who largely credit such approaches for their own present positions.

    You might think their attitude rude and unappealing, and that’s an entirely valid opinion, but it’s your opinion. I grew up in an environment where, while dominated by religious moderates, these ideas weren’t easily accessible. If one was lucky enough to even learn the word “atheist” and wanted to read about it, the available books on the subject were mostly incomprehensible. Guys like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens were able to bring these ideas to the mainstream, which is a necessary step if one’s goal is having religious criticism represented in the free marketplace of ideas. Especially in the age of the internet, it’s an accomplishment just to have any unpopular opinion heard over all the noise. You said you agree that they probably have contributed to the success of open atheism. And Mooney posted just the other day about evidence suggesting open atheism is making a big difference in changing attitudes. So if A leads to B, which leads to C, and C is our mutual goal, I’d say that suggests A is a successful means of reaching our goal.

    But I’m not saying I’m completely against using strategies to better persuade people. I remember a while back hearing Randy Olsen express concern about how slick the “Expelled” commercials were by trying to frame creationism as counter-cultural, but nobody was ever going to buy traditional Christianity as being subversive. Atheism, however, fits that frame quite easily and I’ see no reason to not take some advantage of that because it will naturally appeal to younger audiences who favor contrarian viewpoints. But at the same time, I have no problem allying with guys like Ken Miller on issues that strictly address science education. But while I may find Miller useful, I still must maintain that his position is not internally consistent because scientific skepticism is no less a virtue outside the lab as it is inside the lab.

    “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle! Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
    -Frederick Douglass

  57. TB

    @56. Skepacabra Says:
    “Formalized principles of science as we know it now have only been around for a few hundred years, yes, but we’re talking about religious criticism. ”

    No, you’re talking about religious criticism. I’m talking about defending science and science education.

    “I have no problem allying with guys like Ken Miller on issues that strictly address science education. But while I may find Miller useful, I still must maintain that his position is not internally consistent because scientific skepticism is no less a virtue outside the lab as it is inside the lab.”

    As has been pointed out many, many times before – such as in asking how you know your significant other loves you – no one is consistent with science outside the lab. And I have yet to have it demonstrated to me that someone like Miller is somehow a second-rate scientist because of what he thinks outside the boundaries of methodological naturalism.

    It just doesn’t have anything to do with defending science and good science education, yet exclusivist atheists insist on making it so in their own version of the culture war. It also, as far as I can see, really has nothing to do with promoting Open Atheism.

    And that’s the point I’m making. Exclusivist Atheists are trying to combine their goals with that of Open Atheists. Instead of seeking equality, they’re seeking domination.

    Feel free to disagree with Miller’s religion, but please, don’t pretend science has anything to do with your philosophical culture war.

  58. if someone wants to call everything around them God’s creation, or thank God for all the good in their lives, or ask God for help during the rough times, what damage are they doing to science? Would you tell them it’s foolish to believe so or that there isn’t a God? I certainly find no harm in believing in such things, as it doesn’t affect science or anything other than their personal lives. It’s a personal life choice on a whole different level from scientific thought – it’s for emotional appeasement, to give one’s life more meaning.
    Insofar as you demand respect for your “choice”, you are damaging science by making unscientific beliefs appear respectable. The very idea of treating belief as a choice is damaging to science, as though believing the conclusions of science is merely a matter of personal preference.

    Defending faith on the grounds that it is a “lifestyle choice” seems like nonsense to me. Why is it okay to “choose to believe” in god but not to “choose to believe” in invisible pink unicorns? More to the point, why should anyone respect your “choice” to believe in god? If I have to respect that choice, do I also have to respect FSMism?

  59. @58 TB Says:
    As has been pointed out many, many times before – such as in asking how you know your significant other loves you – no one is consistent with science outside the lab.
    this is so tired. you know your s/o loves you because of his or her behavior. if the evidnece you have that your partner loves you is as bad as the evidence for god’s existence (there ain’t any) then it’s a good bet s/he’s not in love with you. Please tell me what I’m missing here.

    Intuition is a better example of non-scientific reasoning than the one you propose, but even there, you should only follow your intuition if it has been reliable in your experience. some people have very bad intutition, and those people shouldn’t rely on it. How do you know if your intuition is good or bad? BY OBSERVATION.

  60. pedro

    It’s purely illogical to compare religious thought to scientific thought – the two can, and do, coexist (in many scientists as well) and yet science has continued to modernize society. Therefore, I question where’s the evidence of religion harming science? I’ve presented ample evidence showing religion and science co-existing and adapting to fit modern times – it’s all around us in fact, observable every day.

    There’s also no scientific proof of a deity either way and saying something has a very small likelihood statistically doesn’t mean it cannot happen or exist, ergo belief or disbelief in any deity is the equivalent of an opinion – no matter how wacky you may believe it is (which is also an opinion, even when it’s a logical one backed by observation – but that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s an opinion).

    Scientific theories, for example, are basically qualified opinions for which science has theorized and tested to be true, but with logical, theoretical exceptions that are statistically unlikely because they cannot be tested and quantified, yet they exist and prevent that theory from being called a law. Same logic applies to the concept of religion, no matter how far fetched it seems to someone. I’m also agnostic to religion, so I’m not speaking on my own behalf here, it’s just an objective logical analysis.

  61. TB

    @60 You do realize that eyewitness testimony is considered evidence in a legal sense, but not scientific evidence, right?
    If we were to introduce your standard, anyone who testifies that they feel god’s presence is providing scientific evidence for the existence of god. And if you don’t feel it, you’re not doing it right.
    On a more practical note, I can cite the divorce rate and any number of con artists to show how unreliable personal observation regarding love can be.

  62. ThomasL

    Your pretty young aren’t ya George…

  63. pedro

    I’d like to point out another example with logic, to be consistent. Say you’re afraid of heights, George. If someone asked you to base jump off a 1,000 ft. bridge or sky dive, would you do it? Statistically, the chances of serious harm or death is very small, almost negligible. Since emotions don’t matter to you because you base your life only on the observable, you shouldn’t have any problem making that leap. If you were to chicken out because of fear, you’d be acting upon emotion and not scientific statistical evidence. Same logic applies for the belief in God – only instead of fear, the emotions generally provoke positive reinforcement. The chances of harm or death are very small, just as the chances of God’s existence.

    Humans are not perfectly consistent logical creatures because we have emotions – our behavior is based upon how we feel about something, as well as knowledge and experience on a case by case basis. The world is far more often gray than black & white because people feel differently about different situations and surrounding circumstances – ask any good attorney. The real world isn’t solely based on uniform “facts” and statistics.

  64. KennyJC

    Carl Sagan is an accomodationalist? I seem to remember a lot of quotes by Sagan that directly attacked religious notions of a personal god and religion itself. I don’t see a lot of difference between the books of Dawkins and Sagan so I’m missing the point here on the drastic difference between both of them.

    And again, we seem to still only be talking about evolution. For atheists that’s just one of dozens of points of contention. I’d like to see a study on how people to respond to contrasting approaches of pure accomodationalism versus pure blasphemey and ridicule (but with the same fundamental points as accomodationalists). Shouldn’t be too hard to conduct such a study… and maybe one month later after the discussions, ask the people being studied their thoughts on religion and see where the stats are.

    A third thing I would bring up is how successful are the atheists able to get their message out to a wider public versus the accomodationalist science focused message? That seems to me the bigger question on seeing which method is more effective.

  65. TB

    “The chief deficiency I (Sagan) see in the skeptical movement,” he writes, “is in its polarization: Us vs. Them–the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all those stupid doctrines are morons.”

    http://articles.latimes.com/1996-04-18/news/ls-60022_1_carl-sagan

    To paraphrase from some: it’s as if they never read The Demon-Haunted World.

  66. J.J.E.

    TB sez

    To paraphrase from some: it’s as if they never read The Demon-Haunted World.

    I wonder to whom TB might be referring? Certainly not I.

    J.J.E. sez

    This is not to indicate that these are the only opinions Sagan held on the matter. Indeed, he made a few statements in the Demon Haunted World that would seem very accommodationist.

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