Moby Chris

Jul 6th, 2009 6:47 pm | By

I give up. I’m going to stop saying I’ll stop disputing Chris Mooney, because Chris Mooney won’t stop talking bossy patronizing evidence-free nonsense, and I can’t stay away. It’s like trying not to pick a scab. The scab is there! It tickles, it nags, it pulls – how am I supposed to ignore it?! I can’t, so I give up.

I’m reading the book. It’s very short and very easy to read in a sense – but in another sense it’s very hard to read, so I’m going slowly. It’s hard to read in the sense that the mental atmosphere stifles me after a few pages, and I have to stop. There’s also a lot of annotation to do, which slows things down.

Meanwhile – there’s yet another offensively condescending hectoring bossy smarmy post in which Chris tells Jerry Coyne how to be more like Chris. This comes after – what is it now? A week? Two weeks? Is that all? It feels like months – of Chris ignoring all reasonable serious probing questions about how he knows what he keeps claiming to know, what he means when he tells Jerry in particular and ‘new’ atheists in general to be more civil, to not flail at religion, to talk and write in a different way, and similar gaps in our understanding. Many people have asked him such questions, and he just ignores them all and goes on repeating his original claims over and over and over again. I find this profoundly exasperating. He really needs to answer these questions, because he’s busily telling people off in public, so he has a duty to pay attention to their questions and to answer them.

Today’s sermon was on this text:

What good is trying to communicate about science and reason if you can’t get non-scientific audiences to listen to you?…But how long do we have to keep making the same mistake, of trying to defend science and reason in a manner that we ourselves find persuasive, but that does not appeal to non-scientific audiences or even grasp where they are coming from?

I pointed out (knowing it was futile, because he won’t answer me, because he literally never does) that he is as usual treating audiences as a bloc and ways of appealing to them as a dichotomy as opposed to a range of possibilities. The book does exactly the same thing. It’s not convincing.

A breath of fresh air

Jul 5th, 2009 5:22 pm | By

Oh good, a new book saying how bad and stupid the ‘new’ atheism is, and it starts out just as it should, by summoning the usual clichés.

[The book] is clearly intended as a riposte to all those blasts of aggressive atheism from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Reading Armstrong after these boys is like listening to a clever and kindly adult after a bunch of strident adolescents. Both Bible-bashing fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists have a similar idea of what “God” means, she points out…

Well done! That got a lot in. The usual implication that there have been thousands of atheist books, which promptly collapses into the usual sad admission that the total is all of five, or maybe as many as eight if you include the outliers like Onfray and Stenger. The usual charge of aggression directed at…some books. The S word! Hooray, he got in the S word! He gets the Madeleine Bunting Award for this week. ‘Fundamentalists’ is there, ‘dogmatic atheists’ is there, the charge that they share a silly idea of god that is nothing like the sophisticated version that everyone actually believes in and prays to is there. Well done in such a small space: many of the familiar stale tropes, and not one thing surprising or unexpected or even clever.

…a similar idea of what “God” means, she points out, and it is an absurdly crude one. They seem to think the word denotes a large, powerful man we can’t see.

Yes…There are reasons for that. For most people, the word denotes exactly that.

Socrates pushed rationality and intellect to the point where they fail: you reach his famous aporia, and realise you really know nothing at all. The new atheists do the opposite. Their rationality and intellect bring them to a place of absolute knowledge, a height from where they survey all history, and pronounce with finality on pretty much everything.

Okay, I’m bored with the joke now. That’s just cretinously stupid, and it’s not true. ‘The new atheists’ don’t do any such fucking thing, and we (I guess I get to say ‘we’ now, since I’ve been called one by no less an authority than Madeleine Bunting) are pretty damn tired of being told that we do.

The book is by Karen Armstrong. The reviewer, Christopher Hart, vouches for her at the outset in the careful way that one has to:

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has written highly acclaimed biographies of Muhammad, Buddha and, most recently, the Bible.

Yeah – notice he doesn’t say who does the acclaiming. Cautious.

A priest’s fond memories of gay-baiting

Jul 5th, 2009 12:23 pm | By

Have some nice clerical moral blindness from a tattling joke called Michael Seed.

The cathedral came under attack in different ways on many occasions. The publication of certain Catholic edicts, or the re-emphasis of traditional church principles, could incite mob fury…The protest that got completely out of hand was led by Peter Tatchell and concerned gay rights. The church was launching a new catechism that had upset various pressure groups. The section saying homosexual activity was wrong had particularly aroused anger, protest and even rioting around the world.

Really?! I can’t imagine why! Merely because ‘the church’ had announced that a whole substantial minority of people is of its essence ‘wrong’ despite the fact that there is no actual reason to think ‘homosexual activity’ is wrong in any sense that can be pinned down – people got angry, and protested! Astonishing.

But actually of course what’s astonishing is the obtuseness of Seed’s dismissive wave of the hand. The section saying homosexual activity was wrong aroused anger because homosexual activity is not wrong in any meaningful sense, and saying it is at this late date and in the teeth of awareness that gay people are subject to disdain and worse – is bad. That’s what’s wrong, if you like: not ‘homosexual activity’ but stupid settled prejudice dressed up in clerical robes.

What the refrigerator magnet said

Jul 4th, 2009 6:45 pm | By

Well Sarah Palin is fer sher comedy gold, right? (Provided nobody ever lets her get anywhere near real power ever ever again.) I’m sure I speak for many Americans when I say I couldn’t believe what I was hearing yesterday – Tina Fey and all the writers at SNL coked to the gills couldn’t have done it better. ‘I’m doing what’s best for Alaska’ by by stopping being its governor. Well that’s always been my view, certainly! And then all the dynamic thrusting energetic plucky metaphors and stories to say why she was dumping an elected office a year and a half before her term expires. Yes indeedy you betcha, you can’t get much more plucky and determined than that! That’s the grit that made this country great. When you get restless any time – when setting up the first Ford factory, when fiddling around with this here telephone thing, when tooling up to build bombers and tanks for Dubya Dubya Two – the iron-jawed two-fisted spirit-of-Paul-Bunyan thing to do is just drop it and go wander off elsewhere for a space of time and regroup, or change the way you do your hair, or something.

Life is too short to compromise time and resources and though it may be tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up. But that’s a worthless, easy path out. That’s a quitter’s way out. And I think a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fishermen and we know that only dead fish go with the flow.

Yeah…so what you do, to be not apathetic and not like a dead fish and not go with the flow, is you stop being governor of Alaska.

And so as I thought about this announcement, that I wouldn’t run for re-election and what that means for Alaska, I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks…I promised efficiencies and effectiveness. That’s not how I’m wired. I’m not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual. I promised that four years ago and I meant it. That’s not what is best for Alaska at this time. I’m determined to take the right path for Alaska, even though it is unconventional and it’s not so comfortable.

So it’s the same old politics as usual to stay in the office you were elected to until the end of your term – the getting all mavericky up in there thing to do is to stop dead, right there in the middle, and get out a year and a half early. That’ll show that old politics as usual! That’ll be unconventional and uncomfortable. Good strategy for running for president, too.

Comedy gold, I tell ya. Happy 4th of July.

Candle power

Jul 4th, 2009 3:25 pm | By

Udo and Russell did an interview about 50 Voices of Disbelief recently.

Part of the first question was why this book, and what Udo said certainly resonated:

I guess my main motive was some kind of frustration (that’s putting it mildly) about religious people’s published musings about how they “struggled to find God” only to eventually succumb to the delusions we all know too well. It seemed only fair game to me to let reality-based people explain why they did better.

Quite. For all the screeching about the dreaded ‘newatheism’ the default position is still that there’s something impressive about ‘struggling’ with ‘faith’ and then collapsing into the old nonsense again.

The candle on the cover and what it means:

Udo: The flickering candle is normally understood as a symbol of believers’ connection with their imaginary God. Our intention, of course, is to sever that link and accordingly we blew the candle out on our cover. I am curious whether people who see the cover will see it that way…

Russell: I don’t “read” the symbolism in the way that Udo describes. I expect that that will be how most people see it initially, but I hope they’ll then do a cognitive shift to seeing it as the candle of reason or Enlightenment, which is blown out in so many places and circumstances by religious nonsense. As we say in the book’s introduction, it is very difficult to keep the candle of reason alight at a time when unreason in many forms is resurgent. But each essay is one small effort on behalf of the candle of reason, one contribution to keeping it alight. That reinterpretation is reinforced by the interior design: when you open the book, you see one lit candle for each essay, on the essay’s first page!

Ah, I didn’t know that; that’s nice. We could call it ‘Fifty Candles’…

Is it ‘part of the New Atheism movement’?

Russell: Well, what’s the New Atheism movement? I think the expression is often used pejoratively to attack anyone who argues against religion. The best sense that I can make of “the New Atheism” is that it is a return of normal transmission – a return of perfectly normal and proper criticism of religion in the public sphere, after this seemed to become taboo during the 1980s and 1990s. We have to thank Dawkins and others for breaking the taboo, so in that sense I suppose the book can be seen as part of the so-called New Atheism.

And then, there’s the familiar issue…

All too often, religion demands and receives deference in the political sphere. And yet, over recent decades it became taboo to criticize religion strongly in public.

And that’s a bad, and coercive, and dangerous situation.

Second prize: a visit to the piranhas

Jul 4th, 2009 11:22 am | By

Even funnier than Sarah Palin.

A Turkish game show is challenging atheists to reassess their views and win “the biggest prize ever”. Penitents Compete will bring together an Islamic imam, a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist monk and a Greek Orthodox priest seeking to convert the atheists. The prize for any converted contestants is an expenses-paid pilgrimage to a holy site of their chosen faith.

But that’s not a prize unless you do in fact convert, so it’s not going to function as a prize for the people who are supposed to convert because they won’t want the thing offered – it won’t appeal to them – in fact it will repel them. It’s like saying the prize is a bowl of shit, or a week in Evin Prison, or two tickets to a wrestling match. It’s like the old W C Fields joke – first prize is a week in Philly, second prize is two weeks in Philly.

A free ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ of one’s ‘chosen faith’ – if you’ve converted that could be enough to convert you right back again, don’t you think? You have to be gentle with these things! Someone who’s just converted from atheism to Islam or Greek Orthodox Christianity on a tv game show is in a fragile state in the ‘faith’ department – I don’t think instantly thrusting a ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ on such a convert is a very sensible idea! You want to take things step by step, not shove people off the diving board and watch them sink. To an atheist, or to someone who was an atheist until five minutes ago, a ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ sounds like being locked in a ship’s cabin with a few thousand people all of whom you detest. It doesn’t sound like a nice holiday – or a prize. It sounds like…you know…torture.

[I]f any are genuinely convinced by a faith, they will be sent on a pilgrimage – new Muslims to Mecca, Buddhists to Tibet and Jews and Christians to Jerusalem. The TV cameras will follow the winning contestants as they go on their pilgrimage. “They can’t see this trip as a getaway, but as a religious experience,” the deputy director of Kanal T, Ahmet Ozdemir, told Hurriyet.

See? It’s not a prize.

Not that kind of compatibility

Jul 3rd, 2009 11:36 am | By

Chris Mooney (yes, it’s not over after all) disagrees with Jerry Coyne (and by extension me, and Austin Cline, and anyone else who has made the same point) about what the Pew report tells us about the putative compatibility of science and religion.

Let me say at the outset that I find it regrettable, just as Dr. Coyne does, that people are rejecting scientific findings due to their religion. That’s not cool. It’s not acceptable. And it is of course one of the key reasons we have an “unscientific America.”

But where Coyne sees sheer science-religion incompatibility, I see something else: An opportunity. For it seems to me that if we could only dislodge the idea that evolution is contradictory to people’s belief in “Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%),” then they would have no problem with evolution.

Yes, and if we could perform other miracles we could do other great things, but alas…

My view is that if we force-science religion conflict on much of America, then for a large portion of our citizenry, science is not going to prevail as the victor. But if we demonstrate compatibility, then that should be very good for the public understanding and appreciation of science.

This, annoyingly, is just Mooney going back to that same old equivocation again, as he keeps doing, like a dog with a bone, no matter how many times people tell him that that’s what he’s doing. (And yet he’s always telling us that people who disagree with him don’t know enough philosophy!) I told him so in a comment but of course, as always, he took not a blind bit of notice. I pointed out that it is not possible to ‘demonstrate compatibility’ in the epistemic sense. The only kind of compatibility it is possible to demonstrate is this brute force kind, in which believers simply ignore the evidence whenever it threatens their religious beliefs. The brute force kind of compatibility is epistemically worthless, and worse than that if it leads to delusions about genuine (epistemic) compatibility.

I told Mooney he is still playing on this equivocation and that he’s still talking about the brute force kind of compatibility and ignoring the fact that the people who disagree with him (and I’m one) are talking about epistemic compatibility.

It’s such a basic point. Is he refusing to get it, or is he unable to? The brute force kind of compatibility is an option, it’s true, but it’s not an option that it’s reasonable or sensible to try to pressure other people – least of all scientists! – into accepting for themselves. Yes it is always possible to ignore evidence, even whole mountain ranges of evidence, and believe whatever we want to. But that is not the same thing as substantive compatibility of findings. It is unwise to ignore this distinction.

Bunting redux

Jul 2nd, 2009 5:41 pm | By

Guess who’s back – why, it’s Madeleine Bunting. ‘What’s she up to now?’ you cry in pleased surprise. She’s going out of her way to show us how silly she can be, yet again.

There is a school of thought that the new atheists have so polarised the debate about the relationship between science and religion that it’s not a conversation worth having. The “Ditchkins” – as Terry Eagleton describes them in his recent book – have developed such a crude argument about religion based on their boasted ignorance of the thinking which underpins belief that it’s hard to know how a dialogue is possible.

‘School of thought’ – she means herself saying it, and Terry Eagleton saying it, and one or two other woolly prats saying it. That’s not actually a school of thought.

So what happens when there is an attempt at a very different kind of conversation which is not around the extremes of belief and non belief but largely amongst thoughtful believers, many of whom might be scientists? That was the proposition behind Lambeth Palace’s gathering of scientists, philosophers and theologians yesterday morning.

Ooooh, doncha wish you’d attended that? No, neither do I.

[T]he Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

Uh huh. And the archbishop doesn’t believe the Nicene creed. Except of course he does.

I am genuinely a lot more conservative than [Bishop John Shelby Spong] would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don’t. I don’t know how to persuade him but I really don’t.

Thank you Edmund Standing.

It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

Because religion and religion alone concerns itself with that; there is no secular discipline or way of thinking or set of ideas that concerns itself with relationships to other people; therefore religion has a crucial role. Except that the first part isn’t true. Other than that, it hangs together a treat.

There’s other stupid crap in there – crap about consumerism, crap about Darwin leading to Goebbels – but that’s enough to clutter the place up with. Bunting did a bang-up job of showing us what she set out to show us. We’re convinced.


Jul 2nd, 2009 7:47 am | By

We’ve seen that Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim that ‘faith and science are perfectly compatible.’

Austin Cline has a very helpful post explaining how this is done.

Chris Mooney regularly insists that all he wants is to promote the “pragmatic” position that science and religion are compatible. He doesn’t want critics of religion and theism to “shut up,” he just doesn’t want them to keep being so publicly critical. This differs from shutting up in that… well, Chris Mooney can’t quite explain how it differs. But it does, really. You can trust him on that.
As a demonstration of just how trustworthy Chris Mooney is, as well as a demonstration of just what he he thinks “framing” is all about, he recently cited a report which reveals that there is a “silent majority” of Americans who agree with him that science and religion are compatible.

That report, from the Pew Research Center, does indeed shed new light on how people find science and religion to be compatible. What they do is, whenever science says something they don’t like, they just ignore it. Simple!

[A]ccording to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form…Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard…So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

Ah! So that is what is meant by compatible! We suspected as much all along, but how helpful of Mooney to cite a report that spells it out so bluntly and in such detail. Science and religion are ‘compatible’ because many people are perfectly happy just to ignore any theories and evidence that contradict their religious beliefs. Right. We knew that. That’s one of the first things Jerry Coyne said in the New Republic review –

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.

Or the even more trivial sense that people can pay lip service to one attitude while allowing it to be trumped by the other whenever that seems more pleasant.

In other words, for a great many Americans, religion and science are ‘compatible’ in a sense that simply contradicts the real meaning of the word. They are ‘compatible’ in the sense that people in this demographic will allow science to go its merry way, and will avail themselves of its benefits, but they will ‘simply choose not to believe’ anything they don’t feel like believing. That’s not genuine compatibility – it’s just compartmentalization, which is in fact the opposite of epistemic compatibility.

It’s funny that Mooney doesn’t seem to dwell on that part of the Pew report very much. He did slip up though in his ‘silent majority’ post, and Austin Cline spotted the slip-up. Mooney quoted this from Pew:

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.

Right – and that, Chris, makes religion incompatible with science, not compatible. It makes the two ‘compatible’ in the brute force sense that people can always just ignore mountains of evidence, but it makes them incompatible in the sense that just ignoring mountains of evidence is in fact not a reliable way to discover the truth about anything.

Mooney seems to rely on equivocation between the two meanings for his whole case, and then express baffled outrage when anyone points this out. Not good.

The rest of chapter 8

Jul 1st, 2009 3:16 pm | By

Moving on.

Scientists as a group are more secular than ‘the rest of the nation.’ Religion is an emotional matter. Creationists fear that evolution [the subject, not evolution itself] will ‘undermine their religious culture.’

Abrasive atheism can only exacerbate this anxiety and reinforce the misimpression that scientific inquiry leads inevitably to the erosion of religion and values. [p. 100]

They apparently mean ‘abrasive atheism’ of scientists there, but they failed to specify that, which is one problem throughout – a constant tendency to overbroaden their claims and confuse the issue. As it stands the claim is nonsensical – ‘abrasive’ atheism as such can only exacerbate fear of evolution? Well, possibly, but it’s not obvious how CM and SK know that. In any case what would one be expected to conclude from that? Abrasive atheism in general will have X predicted bad consequence, so…what? Everybody everywhere should stop being an abrasive atheist? That would be asking a lot.

But they do ask a lot. That’s the problem.

To further the cause of scientific literacy, we need a different, and far more sympathetic, approach, one that’s deeply sensitive to the millions of religious believers among our citizenry. [p 100]

See what I mean? That’s asking a lot. It’s asking a great deal too much. We’ve had that – we’ve had years and years of nearly everyone being deeply sensitive to the millions of religious believers among our citizenry, and we don’t want to be deeply sensitive any more. We want to talk freely. The millions of religious believer can toughen up a little and get used to disagreement.

Then there are two pages of fundamentally irrelevant stuff about history, which demonstrate only what we already know, that people can combine incompatible beliefs, and have done so in the past. Then we get back to the advice.

The official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are perfectly compatible. It is not only the most tolerant but also the most intellectually responsible position for scientists to take in light of the complexities of history and world religion. [103]

That hasn’t been demonstrated.

The problem with the New Atheism [sic], however, isn’t just that it’s divisive or historically incorrect about the relationship between science and religion. It’s also misguided about the nature of science. [103]

Then there are a couple of pages on the putative distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, which is treated as if it were gospel.

The American scientific community gains nothing from the condescending rhetoric of the New Atheists [sic] – and neither does the stature of science in our culture. We should instead adopt a stance of respect toward those who hold their faith dear, and a sense of humility based on the knowledge that although science can explain a great deal about the way our world functions, the question of God’s existence lies outside its expertise. [105]

And that’s about it. I’m not skipping the part where they present a real argument, because there isn’t one. There is some handwaving about methodological naturalism versus philosophical naturalism, but nothing we haven’t seen on their blog.

One thing that’s interesting about this is that it shoots to pieces Mooney’s recent claims that he hasn’t been telling anyone to shut up. The whole chapter is all about telling ‘the New Atheists’ to shut up – not literally as in ‘Hey, New Atheists: shut up!’; but plainly nevertheless, as in ‘We should instead adopt a stance of respect toward those who hold their faith dear.’ It’s true that it’s not literal censorship, or even a literal command to self-censor – but it’s pretty damn close to being the latter. It is very strong moral advice to self-censor. I think it’s pretty disingenuous of Mooney to keep expressing shock-horror that everyone thinks he’s telling us to shut up. That is pretty much what he is telling us.

On the wicked ‘new atheists’

Jul 1st, 2009 12:06 pm | By

I half-promised to stop disputing the claims of Chris Mooney yesterday, but then Jerry Coyne sent me the SEED summary of Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s new book, and I realized I had been premature.

Following up on his The Republican War on Science. science journalist Chris Mooney joins Sheril Kirshenbaum in explaining the disconnect between scientists and the public. This time the onus is on not just on obfuscating and interfering conservatives, but largely on scientists themselves. By talking down to the misinformed – and outright insulting the religious – scientists, they argue, do more harm than good in their quest to enshrine reason in American politics and culture. While the authors’ call for more friendly and magnanimous champions of science is far from a radical conclusion, it duly highlights the Sagan-and Gould-shaped holes we have in our current scientific discourse.

Oh, thought I, I’ll have to look into that. So I did. I read chapter 8, which is titled ‘Bruising Their Religion.’ It starts with two pages scolding PZ Myers for the eucharist incident, mentioning the death threats against Webster Cook (the student who removed a communion wafer) but not mentioning the campaign to get Cook expelled. It says it’s a good thing that Myers wasn’t fired or disciplined, but…

Nevertheless, Myers’s actions were incredibly destructive and unnecessary. He’s a very public figure. His blog often draws over 2 million page views per month. It was dubbed the top science blog by Nature magazine in 2006…Yet Myers’s assault on religious symbols considered sacred by a great many Americans and people around the world does nothing to promote scientific literacy; rather, it sets the cause backward [sic] by exacerbating tensions between the scientific community and many American Christians. [Unscientific America p. 96]

After some more scolding in this vein, we get to the nub of the matter.

Myers is certainly not alone. In recent years a large number of ‘New Atheist’ voices have arisen…The writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett are generally considered the ‘big four’ (or if you prefer, the ‘four horsemen’) of new atheism. [p 97]

Note, before we go further, the silly vulgarity of all that. There are scare quotes on the first mention of ‘new atheism,’ but that is the only distancing there is; after that the term is simply taken for granted without ever being explained or itemized or pinned down in any way. But it’s a stupid term. We all know that. There is no such thing – it’s just that some existing atheists have written some books which did well, and they and other existing atheists have done other writing and speaking, and atheism has belatedly managed to get a little more public attention than it was able to get ten years ago. That’s all. That’s not such a coherent or organized or sinister phenomenon that it deserves its very own label, but CM and SK give it one anyway, and treat it as established and self-evident. The nonsense about the ‘big four’ or (why would we prefer?) the ‘four horsemen’ is just dopy journalistic jargon; it should be beneath them.

They’re hardly a monolithic group…But the broad tenor of the movement they’ve impelled is clear: It is confrontational. It believes religious faith should not be benignly tolerated but, rather, should be countered, exposed, and intellectually devastated.

The most outspoken New Atheists [sic] publicly eviscerate believers…If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheism is strongly counterproductive. [p 97]

And so on and so on, for another eleven pages.

America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning…A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction…[pp 97-98]

Yes of course, but the issue is whether there is in fact a contradiction, not whether or not people have an internal sense of such a contradiction. The chapter never comes to grips with that distinction but instead relies on pointing out the brute fact that many people have combined science and religion in their own heads. The fact that this is fundamentally beside the point never gets a look in.

That’s about halfway; I’ll let you digest that and me take a breather, before I continue.

The return of the archbishop

Jun 30th, 2009 4:36 pm | By

Horrible man, the archbishop of Canterbury – cruel, callous, ruthless, tyrannical. He doesn’t think so of course, but he is. He’s again sticking his oar in to prevent suffering people from ending their own lives.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, and Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, have come together for the first time to urge peers to reject proposals that would allow families to help loved ones to die abroad free from the threat of prosecution.

Why? No reason – just to show off the superior devoutness of devout people by straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

It would surely put vulnerable people at serious risk, especially sick people who are anxious about the burden their illness may be placing on others. Moreover, our hospice movement, an almost unique gift of this country to wider humankind, is the profound and tangible sign of another and better way to cope with the challenges faced by those who are terminally ill, by their loved ones and by those who care for them.

Notice the conditonal tense about imagined vulnerable people while the real, non-conditional, known people who have horrible diseases and don’t want to experience the last, worst days of those diseases go unmentioned. Notice how brutally callous that is. Notice the soothing irrelevant claptrap about hospices. If people prefer hospices, they will go to hospices! But some people will find their condition unendurable in a hospice or anywhere, and want to escape instead. It should not be up to the archbishop of Canterbury to decide whether they can do that or not. He’s not their daddy, and it’s none of his business.

If only everyone knew as much as I do

Jun 30th, 2009 10:06 am | By

I’m thoroughly tired of attempting to get a straight answer out of Chris Mooney, so I’ll drop the subject, but I just want to note that he has an annoying habit of attributing ignorance to people who disagree with him. He did it a month ago in his first reply to Jerry Coyne:

I guess you could say I’ve changed my view; certainly I’ve changed my emphasis. A lot more reading in philosophy and history has moved me toward a more accomodationist position. So has simple pragmatism; I don’t see what is to be gained by flailing indiscriminately against religion, other than a continuation of the culture wars. That’s especially so when those who flail against religion do so in philosophically or historically unsophisticated ways…

But that didn’t work out all that well, because some philosophers hove into view to tell him that his ways were not all that philosophically sophisticated either, though they didn’t put it that rudely. They did however say that his cherished distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism is not as simple or as self-evident or as orthodox as he seems to think. So he’s gone to his fall-back position.

I’m growing increasingly convinced that the lack of historical awareness is an important factor in fanning the flames of science-religion conflict.

Not his lack of historical awareness, naturally, only that of people who disagree with him.

Then he tells us a story that he got out of a book, by way of demonstrating his historical awareness. The thought that the book might be wrong, or debatable, seems not to have occurred to him – yet he doesn’t hesitate to patronize everyone else.

Well that’s communication for you.

A quibble or two

Jun 29th, 2009 11:25 am | By

Allow me to run down a few of the claims in Sholto Byrnes’s review of our book that are not true.

Actually, first, let me start with a plain oddity, since it appears in the first sentence.

The question of whether God hates women is not one that can be answered with certainty; not least since, by the time any of us dared ask a putative deity such an impertinent question, we would be in no position to communicate the response to our fellows.

Ah – so he admits it. The putative deity is one that we cannot question or otherwise address until after we’re dead – by which time it is too late to ameliorate anything the putative god’s putative rules might have done to fuck up our lives while we had them. Yes, quite so; and this is part of the problem. We’re supposed to obey the rules but we can’t appeal them to a higher court until after we no longer need to. Ding ding! Bad arrangement!

Now, for the falsehoods.

Benson and Stangroom don’t really have religion in general in mind – there’s one in particular they’re after. True, a few pages deal out blame to the Christian, Jewish and Hindu deities for the misogynistic activities of some of their more extreme devotees.

Not true. It is considerably more than ‘a few pages.’ It is true that Islam gets the most pages (for obvious reasons) but it is not true that the others get only a few pages.

[A]mid the torrents of invective, they allude to many matters worthy of calm examination, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to his favourite wife, Aisha, when she was only nine.

There are no ‘torrents of invective,’ and there is a considerable amount of calm examination – including that of Aisha.

This could have been the starting point for a thoughtful discussion about textual literalism and modernity. Instead, Benson and Stangroom attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong, a respected religious scholar who believes that “the emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart” and then quote, without qualification or disapproval, the view of an American Baptist leader that Muhammad’s marriage means that the Prophet was a “demon-possessed paedophile”.

1. There is such a thoughtful discussion. The ‘instead’ is absurd, because there is a whole chapter of thoughtful discussion.

2. We don’t attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong, we dispute her scholarship, which is a perfectly routine and legitimate thing to do.

3. Armstrong is a respected religious scholar only among people who are not themselves religious scholars or historians. She is referred to that way by radio presenters and similar, but not otherwise.

4. The ‘and then’ is incorrect because we quote the Baptist preacher before the extended examination of Armstrong’s work, not after it, and we quote it simply to indicate that the subject has been in the news; the suggestion that we passively endorse what he said is absurd.

This is inflammatory in the extreme. But that appears to be the point. Self-proclaimed champions of the secular right to challenge and insult others’ beliefs, Benson and Stangroom show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion.

1. Since it is not what we wrote, it is not inflammatory in the extreme. I consider the review itself to be considerably more inflammatory than our book is – and a kind of inflammatory that is directed at particular people (us), not at religions or their beliefs or practices.

2. Since it is not what we wrote and not inflammatory, that can’t be the point. We’re not self-declared champions of anything, and in particular we’re not champions of the right to ‘insult others’ beliefs.’ (How do you insult a belief?) I at least have argued for a general right to challenge ‘others’ beliefs’ – but does Sholto Byrnes really want to claim that there is no such right? Let’s hope not.

3. It is flatly and blatantly untrue that we show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion. That simply dismisses the whole book – via distorted name-calling, ironically.

Other than that (and a few more details) it’s all very reasonable.

What is it like to be an elephant calf?

Jun 29th, 2009 10:25 am | By

Yesterday, by way of refreshment from enumerating the falsehoods in Sholto Byrnes’s review of our book, Jeremy and I chatted a little about elephants. He’d sent me a picture of the Toronto elephants playing water games, so I made him envious by saying I used to join the Seattle elephants in their pool to scrub their backs and generally play with them. This led to a discussion of how one gets used to being around such large animals, and Jeremy asked if they knew not to tread on people by accident. I said they do, and told a little story to illustrate, and he thought I should share it, so I will. Consider it refreshment from whatever you need refreshment from.

One of those summer pool-play days, I was standing a short distance away from the pool and the youngest calf, Sri, who was about three at the time, was standing at the edge of it. She was about my height then, but so is an SUV – she was about my height and weighed several times as much. The older calf, Chai, was in the pool and she suddenly gave Sri a playful bump from behind that sent her rocketing straight toward me, too fast for me to jump out of the way. Sri slammed on the brakes in order not to crash into me. It’s not easy to do that! She had to dig in her feet and brace her legs and just jar herself to a stop – and she did. I was very impressed by that (not to mention very relieved). She was just a kid, but she not only knew not to crash into me, she knew it mattered enough to make a big effort.

The Toronto ‘phants on Saturday:

From Safari 2009-06-27


Jun 28th, 2009 4:42 pm | By

Chris Mooney wonders something.

Wilkins’ post stirs up something that, especially as a journalist, has always made me wonder about the New Atheists–how are they so confident?…I met a lot of moderate religious people, in the course of my life, who were anything but irrational or fundamentalist. And they changed me…[T]hey certainly made me less of an absolutist. They made me less confident that I had all the answers, that my way was the only way–not just for finding out the truth, but for getting through life.

How are ‘the New Atheists’ so confident of what? What is it that Mooney takes ‘the New Atheists’ to be so confident of? Apparently that they have all the answers and that their way is the only way. Well that is (to use a good word that he also likes) a canard. I simply don’t know of any atheists who are confident that they have all the answers. In fact one thing the atheists I know are confident of is that they don’t have all the answers. Is that what Mooney means? How can ‘the New Atheists’ be so confident that they don’t have all the answers? Well…because it is so obvious that there are so many answers to be had and that life is short and the human mind is limited. But Mooney implies that the atheists he knows are confident that they have all the answers. I wonder if he could quote any of them saying anything that would back that up.

I suspect that what Mooney means, but didn’t manage to pin down accurately, is ‘how are they so confident that the epistemology of religion gets things wrong?’ I would put the confidence I have in this way: I am confident that I know of no good reason to believe that a god exists. I think that’s what atheists in general are confident of. Not that they can be certain that no god exists, but that there is no good reason for most of us to think so. I say most of us because it may be that for people who have had really powerful experiences of god, it is reasonable to say that there is a good reason for them to think so. A goodish reason anyway. Well, not really a good reason, but a reason of sorts. But for most people, there isn’t. I think we are and can be confident of that simply because if there were such a good reason, everyone would know about it. As it is – we don’t! We ask for a good reason, and we are handed a stone.

Now…is that ‘so confident’? Is it so confident that it is too confident, deplorably confident, strangely confident, unreasonably confident? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just the commonplace kind of confident like the confident in ‘I am confident that there is no good reason to think Will Shakespeare is sitting across the room writing a new sonnet.’ It’s just vulgar everyday empiricism. I have good reason to think there are oranges in the glass bowl, I don’t have good reason to think there are elephants in it. There could of course be a kind of expertise or scholarship or instrumentation such that if I were properly trained I would be able to detect elephants in the bowl or Shakespeare across the room or a god – but I have no good reason to think there is. No one has any good reason to think there is.

That’s the kind of confidence I have. I think it’s not an over-reaching or arrogant kind of confidence because it does leave room for being wrong, and for learning better. It could be (in principle) that there is such a reason and that nobody has found it yet. It’s a temporal claim. So far, nobody has any good reason to think there is a god. (Well I suppose I can’t be confident that there are no secretive or isolated people who do have such a good reason and simply haven’t made it known yet. But other than that – if there were such a good reason it would be common knowledge in a heartbeat. It would knock Michael Jackson right off the front page.)

So that’s how we are ‘so confident.’ We are confident that we shouldn’t be expected to believe things if there is no good reason to believe them. That’s not quite the same as thinking our way is the only way, as Mooney hinted. It’s just thinking we should match important beliefs to good reasons, by way of caution, you see.

I’m independent, you’re on the fringe

Jun 27th, 2009 4:09 pm | By

Peter Hess, a Catholic theologian who is director of something called ‘the Faith Project’ at the National Center for Science Education (the what? at the where? yes, you read that correctly) recently said in a Washington Post ‘On Faith’ article (have we got enough name checks of faith yet?):

Too often, debates over the public perception of evolution are dominated by the fringes, by fundamentalist Christians and others who reject basic science due to their literal reading of the Bible and by ardent atheists who reject religion because they’ve embraced metaphysical naturalism ― that nature is all that exists. But the silent majority ― that spans the spectrum from theism to atheism ― have no problem reconciling their religious beliefs with established sciences such as evolution.

Spoken like a true journalist, theolgical credentials notwithstanding. Yes right: atheists who decline to believe in supernaturalism are waaaaaaaay out there on the freaky fringe of extreme maniacal militant crazy as a bag of rats fringe, while all the nice, normal, sensible, mainstream, average, just like you and me people are here in the middle smiling and agreeing that everyone can have an activist god who answers prayers and sciency stuff like evolution. It’s only lunatics who say anything else. That’s the way to frame things! Just declare your own view Normal and then describe two views that differ from yours as fringey-extreme.

Chris Mooney is full of approbation of this tawdry gambit.

I heartily agree–my sense, too, is that the silent majority doesn’t side with either of the extremes.

See? There you have it again. Those other views are Extreme, while good decent family-oriented views are silent majority middle and Good.

[I]n the science blogosphere, we don’t hear a lot from the “silent majority.” Rather, and admittedly with some important exceptions, we hear from the New Atheists.

Whom it is important always to refer to by an epithet of some sort and treat as a bloc. At any rate – it doesn’t seem to occur to Mooney that the reason for the silence of the ‘silent majority’ in the science blogosphere is that the putative extreme has a better case than does the putative silent majority. It ought to occur to him.

Jerry Coyne is not as impressed by Peter Hess as Mooney is.

As I’ve maintained repeatedly, religion is neither set up for finding truth nor very good at finding truth. Let me correct that — faith is incapable of finding truth, or at least no more capable than is astrology. The methods of ascertaining “truth” via faith are either revelation or acceptance of dogma. These methods have produced “truths” like a 6,000-year-old Earth and the Great Flood. Not a very good track record. In fact, I have yet to find a single truth about humans, Earth, or the universe that has come uniquely from faith.

Same here. I’ve tried – I really have – as I mentioned the other day, I asked the Templeton shill exactly that question:

What exactly do you ‘believe’ that the world’s religious traditions have to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe? Can you specify one theory or explanation or bit of evidence that a religion has contributed to understanding human experience and our place in the universe?

But the Templeton shill didn’t answer.

Jerry Coyne says this matters.

In all these debates about the compatibility of science and faith, I have yet to see an intellectually respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.” Instead, people like Mooney go after us for our tone, for polarizing people, and so on…Instead of beefing about our “militancy,” why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true? Let’s hear about whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence. Now that would raise the tone of this debate.

Mooney does, at last, give a straightforward answer.

I don’t believe that faith can tell us anything true, or at least, anything that we can reliably know to be true. I don’t think we can know anything except based on evidence. In this I’m in full agreement with Coyne, Dennett, Dawkins, and all the rest.

Well done. But then he veers off into a false choice.

I don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview…I know that many very intelligent people are struggling all the time to make their peace with this incongruity in their own way–a peace that works for them. And so long as they’re not messing with what our kids learn–or, again, trying to ram their views down our throats–then good on ‘em.

But that’s a false choice, because anti-accommodationists also don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with epistemology; that’s not the issue; as has been pointed out a thousand times, the issue is what it is reasonable and fair and useful to talk about in public. It’s not a question of grabbing every American over the age of ten for an inquisition on beliefs, it’s a question of writing and discussing and debating in public fora. As has been pointed out a thousand times, Jerry Coyne didn’t break Ken Miller’s door down to challenge him, he reviewed a book for a magazine – a book that Miller himself wrote. This isn’t private, this isn’t prying into people’s heads, it’s public discourse. It’s not fringe public discourse, it’s just public discourse. We’re allowed to do that.

Update: see Russell Blackford’s comments @ 128, 129, 138. Beware of the oceans of Anthony McCarthy you have to wade through to get there.

Update 2: see Russell’s post on the subject.

Science and philosophy are continuous with each other

Jun 27th, 2009 11:08 am | By

Chris Mooney also read the Lawrence Krauss piece in the WSJ. He saw it as yet another chance to say methodological naturalism is different from philosophical naturalism and that scientists have no business going from the first to the second and they’d just better not or else.

What Krauss is effectively saying is that it is rational to go beyond science’s methodological naturalism to also become a philosophical naturalist…But it is an omission on Krauss’s part not to admit more explicitly that in making this move, one is leaving beyond the realm of science per se and developing a philosophical worldview. I think–though I’m not sure–that in a conversation Krauss would probably admit as much. But by not doing so in the Journal, Krauss is helping along the misconception that science itself is inherently atheistic. It isn’t.

Krauss agrees in a comment that that is what he was doing:

I agree with you about it being a philosophical leap… and that is why I began the argument with Haldane, who makes it clear that it is such.. or at least it was clear to me.

But Tom Clark and Russell Blackford dispute this idea of a Great Separation or a leap.

First Tom:

Seems to me Haldane isn’t making a “leap” from his atheistic scientific practice to his global atheistic naturalism, rather it sounds like he believes it’s ethically required of him to apply the same (reliable) cognitive standards in all domains. It’s not only rationally permissible, but epistemically responsible to do so because the standards are reliable. Not to do so is, as he says, intellectually dishonest if we’re interested in truths about the world.

Then Russell:

Science and philosophy are continuous with each other. Yes, Krauss is not speaking as a physicist, carrying out specialist research in an area of cosmology or whatever, when he makes the claims that he does in this article. He is stepping back from that; he is speaking as a person who has an overall familiarity with the image of the world that comes from modern science – which you’d hope any high-level scientist possesses – and is capable of comparing that with the typical claims of religion. Yes, that is an example of what we mean by doing philosophy, but you make it sound as if “doing philosophy” is some kind of exercise discontinuous from all our rational investigation of the world.

Krauss is doing exactly what Dawkins does, or what a philosopher like Philip Kitcher does. There’s no conspiracy to hide this and pretend that Krauss’s article in the WSJ is reporting findings from his lab.

Chris Mooney please note. (Not that he will. He never does. He just keeps repeating his mantra.)

The invisible activist god

Jun 26th, 2009 5:43 pm | By

Laurence Krauss says God and science don’t mix.

He has joined his friend Ken Miller in telling school boards that ‘one does not have to be an atheist to accept evolutionary biology as a reality. And I have pointed to my friend Ken as an example.’

This statement of fact appears to separate me from my other friends, Messrs. Harris and Dawkins. Yet this separation is illusory. It reflects the misperception that the recent crop of vocal atheist-scientist-writers are somehow “atheist absolutists” who remain in a “cultural and historical vacuum” — in the words of a recent Nature magazine editorial. But this accusation is unfair. Messrs. Harris and Dawkins are simply being honest when they point out the inconsistency of belief in an activist god with modern science…Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions.

Cue the defense of ‘pluralist naturalism’ – whatever that is.

Fiendish brutality

Jun 26th, 2009 5:19 pm | By

Back to talking about things that actually matter. What the thugs did to the family of Neda Soltan is quite staggering.

Neighbours said that her family no longer lives in the four-floor apartment building on Meshkini Street, in eastern Tehran, having been forced to move since she was killed. The police did not hand the body back to her family, her funeral was cancelled, she was buried without letting her family know and the government banned mourning ceremonies at mosques, the neighbours said…Amid scenes of grief in the Soltan household with her father and mother screaming, neighbours not only from their building but from others in the area streamed out to protest at her death. But the police moved in quickly to quell any public displays of grief…In accordance with Persian tradition, the family had put up a mourning announcement and attached a black banner to the building. But the police took them down, refusing to allow the family to show any signs of mourning. The next day they were ordered to move out. Since then, neighbours have received suspicious calls warning them not to discuss her death with anyone and not to make any protest.

How fiendishly brutal is that? Less fiendishly brutal than murdering Neda Soltan in the first place, but fiendishly brutal all the same.

“We are trembling,” one neighbour said. “We are still afraid. We haven’t had a peaceful time in the last days, let alone her family. Nobody was allowed to console her family, they were alone, they were under arrest and their daughter was just killed. I can’t imagine how painful it was for them. Her friends came to console her family but the police didn’t let them in and forced them to disperse and arrested some of them. Neda’s family were not even given a quiet moment to grieve.” Another man said many would have turned up to show their sympathy had it not been for the police. “In Iran, when someone dies, neighbours visit the family and will not let them stay alone for weeks but Neda’s family was forced to be alone, otherwise the whole of Iran would gather here,” he said.

Yes well of course that’s exactly why they wouldn’t allow it – they couldn’t be doing with the whole of Iran gathering there. Bastards.