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Austin Cline

Chris Mooney has Abandoned Science, Reason, Logic

By June 15, 2009

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Chris Mooney presents himself as someone who promotes science and science education. He's even written a couple of books on the matter, but I've concluded that it would be a grave mistake for anyone to even consider looking to Chris Mooney for information or education about science. In his efforts to come up with reasons for why atheists are bad, bad people for daring to criticize religion, Mooney has revealed that he must not really know anything about science or how science works.

My conclusion stems from an attempt by Mooney to argue for why atheists should sit down and shut up when it comes to their ideas for why science undermines traditional theism and religion. To be fair, Chris Mooney is only quoting Barbara Forrest (via Barfefoot Bum and Saint Gasoline) and these aren't his own original, nonsensical thoughts, but since he quotes thme so approvingly (even concluding with an "amen"), he can be held accountable for their faults:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

Since when is being "nice" more important than intellectual challenge, criticism, and engagement? I'll bet Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney don't recommend this sort of "strategy" with any other subject, which means this is nothing more than the same sort of special pleading we see so often from religious apologists: religion is so special and delicate that it just can't stand up to any sort of critical scrutiny from atheists.

Beyond that, though Barbara Forrest is lying — yes, lying. So is Chris Mooney by extension because he agreed with her. Both Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney have to know that religion is not just a "very private matter." Religion plays a significant role in the public square both directly and indirectly. Liberal religious believers do not shy away from bringing their religious beliefs up in public; Barack Obama, to cite just one prominent example, has started public lectures and meetings with prayers far more often than even George W. Bush did.

What does it say about Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney that they have to engage in such an obvious and blatant lie in order to argue that atheists shouldn't criticize religion? Well, at the very least it says that they not only don’t have a sound position but know that they don't have a sound position. Sadly, their argument actually gets worse.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

This brings us back to their lie about religion being a "very private matter." It would help to point to the context for Chris Mooney's admission of scientific illiteracy (coming up): a review by Jerry Coyne of books by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson — books all about reconciling religion and science (specifically, evolution). This is part of why we know Forrest and Mooney are liars: the very context of these arguments is an atheist's response to liberal Christians making their religious beliefs something other than a "very private matter."

Forrest and Mooney are going further than just lying, though: here they are specifically arguing that regardless of what a liberal Christian says about their religion or what implications science might have for their beliefs, atheists shouldn't respond. It doesn't matter whether the liberal Christians say things that are unreasonable, illogical, false, or even presumably outright lies — atheists shouldn't criticize. Atheists can, however, criticize fundamentalists who are attacking science. Why is that?

It looks to me like Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney are rejecting the principle that ideas should be accepted or criticized based on their merits; instead, they seem to be arguing that criticism should be predicated entirely on whether or not one agrees with the political agenda of the person expressing those ideas. Liberal Christians support church/state separation and science, so we shouldn’t be critical of anything they say; fundamentalists oppose church/state separation and science so it's OK to criticize their writings.

It should be pretty obvious that such a principle is a violation of just about any reasonable intellectual and ethical value. You shouldn't refrain from criticizing ideas just because political allies of yours like them. You shouldn't refrain from challenging opinions merely because your friends hold those opinions. You shouldn't refrain from questioning claims solely because they are made by people you agree with on other issues. This is in fact an important intellectual principle in science and Chris Mooney is basically throwing it out the window, but that's still not the worst...

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

I just want to be sick. I usually see this "we can't prove a negative" claptrap from creationists and religious apologists who have completely lost every argument they've trotted out and so are now resorting to the idea that they can't be proven absolutely wrong, therefore it's reasonable for them to continue believe that they are right (despite the mountains of evidence contradicting them). It's a pathetic argument and one that can only be offered sincerely by someone who either doesn't understand science or who is deliberately misrepresenting science for an ideological agenda — an option we can't ignore when dealing with people who decide whether or not to challenge claims based on the other person's ideological agenda.

Can science "prove a negative"? Yes, to the extent that science can prove anything (remembering that "prove" has a variety of meanings and doesn't carry the same sense of absoluteness in science that it can in the vernacular). Science can't prove any old negative that comes along; instead, science can only prove a negative when the context and problem are defined clearly enough. Science can prove the nonexistence of alleged entities to the same extent that it can prove the existence of alleged entities.

Can we say "there is no God"? Yes, if "God" is defined clearly enough. If undefined, the statement is meaningless. So, yes, it is possible to prove that religious theists are wrong about their metaphysics if their metaphysics is defined clearly and coherently enough. If their metaphysics is incoherent or undefined, that's criticizable as well. Either way, religious theists cannot be claimed to be immune to challenges, questions, or critiques. Every attempt to so do reduces to what we see from Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney: misrepresentations, lies, falsehoods, and sheer nonsense.

What I think I find most telling about all this is the fact that if Chris Mooney were to take any of his ideas or principles seriously, he would have to apply them to his own treatment of atheists. His insistence at behaving towards atheists in exactly the manner he argues atheists shouldn't be behaving towards theists communicates not only his own pervasive hypocrisy, but also the fact that everything he's saying is being said in pursuit of an ideological agenda rather than due to principle or sincere belief. A person who will say or argue anything, no matter how baseless, contradictory, or hypocritical for the sake of an ideological agenda, is not a person who can be trusted and is certainly not any sort of ally.

 

Update: Chris Mooney responds, after a fashion. Apparently criticism of him is a "waste our limited energy and resources on the narcissism of petty differences," but his criticism of atheists is really appropriate and good. Criticism of Chris Mooney runs the risk that we "won’t have the strength left to forge a better, more scientifically literate country," but that isn't a problem when Chris Mooney criticizes atheist scientists.

Funny how my closing comments above are all about how Mooney doesn't apply his standards to himself. Hypocrisy? A lack of self-reflection? Who knows.

What's most noteworthy, though, is the complete absence of any attempt to actually and substantively disagree with any of my arguments. It's also absent from any of the comment there, with the one exception of Erasmussimo who came here to try to do that. Since Erasmussimo is here, I'll just comment on this:

If rational people cannot agree among themselves, then rationalism isn’t a very reliable way to think, is it?

Uh, that conclusion doesn't follow from that premise. Not at all. Rational people disagree all the time; what separates rational people disagreeing from irrational people disagreeing is that rational people should, in principle, have rational, reliable means for working through their disagreements. For example, rational people should approve of using evidence in arguments and this is a good means for working through disagreements. Irrational people don't care so much about evidence. Be rational does not, cannot, and never will imply universal agreement among rational people on all things.

What's more, I think that it's implied at a couple of points that Mooney is not approaching this in a genuinely rational manner. For example, insisting that others should abide by standards which you do not accept for yourself is not rational. Another example is Mooney's attempt to argue that his way of doing things is so much better than others' without supplying evidence for this. Where's his evidence that articles like Coyne's will drive Christians away from science? It doesn't exist; he's just guessing.

Comments
June 15, 2009 at 1:52 pm
(1) Wes says:

I think you’re being too hard on Mooney and Forrest. Both have made very important contributions to the protection of science education from religious infiltration, and it’s important to remember that.

However, I completely agree with your over all point. I’ve noticed many times precisely the same phenomenon that you’re criticizing: Whenever religious belief is at issue, suddenly blatant fallacies, sophistries and absurdities become acceptable. Argument from ignorance and the is/ought fallacy, especially, are something everyone can agree are illogical and irrational and yet these same people will accept these arguments if used to bolster belief in God.

I’ve never come across an argument for the existence of God which could withstand rational scrutiny. They usually involve either an appeal to ignorance (“science can’t disprove it”), an is/ought fallacy (anthropic principle), or a false dichotomy (Pascal’s wager, “liar, lunatic, lord”, etc.). And people who damn well know better still accept these arguments. And even atheists who don’t want to rock the boat will nod approvingly when these arguments are made despite the fact that they are blatant fallacies. It’s very annoying.

June 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm
(2) Tommy Holland says:

Mooney has revealed that he doesn’t actually know anything about science or how science.

Missing a crucial word in the first paragraph. ‘Works’?

Also missing the word ‘if’ in front of ‘Chris Mooney’ in the last paragraph.

June 15, 2009 at 4:43 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

I think you’re being too hard on Mooney and Forrest. Both have made very important contributions to the protection of science education from religious infiltration, and it’s important to remember that.

If their contributions are simply when and where doing so happens to conform to an outside ideological agenda, then that’s not something we should be quite so thankful for.

June 16, 2009 at 12:52 am
(4) Eric O says:

I’ve always appreciated the effort Chris Mooney put into promoting science. However, I get a little annoyed every time he says that atheists should avoid critising potential allies who are religious. Not only is it insulting towards atheists who respect intellectual honesty, it’s patronising towards liberal theists; there’s an underlying suggestion that if atheists are too mean, liberal theists will stop supporting proper science education or separation of church and state. It’s as if he believes that liberal theists don’t take those positions seriously.

June 16, 2009 at 3:54 am
(5) Mark Barratt says:

Eric O, you’re absolutely right. Atheists are constantly called mean, uncompromising, fundamentalist, etc. but in these situations the threat of withdrawal of support for science is only ever made on behalf of one group: liberal theists.

No prominent atheist critic of religion EVER threatens to withdraw their support for science in general or evolution in particular unless liberal theists stop claiming that science and religion are compatible. Coyne certainly doesn’t; he’s happy to make a common cause of support of evolution with the liberal theists while simultaneously criticising their metaphysical outlook.

It’s only ever the liberal theists who are apparently so delicate that, if atheists insult their precious imaginary friend, they might actually give up their support for good science altogether.

This veiled threat is made over and over again, often by the liberal theists themselves but also by “I’m an atheist but…” figures like Mooney.

If people defending atheists routinely told people like Francis Collins or Ken Miller to stop arguing that science enriches Christianity, because it might cause atheists who disagree with that to abandon science altogether, that wouldn’t be taken seriously for a second.

This is because it’s obviously a ridiculous, petty, weak-minded and confused position to take. But make that argument on behalf of those precious, delicate liberal theists and suddenly it’s sensible.

Once again, the insane level of special treatment granted to ideas and people just because they are labeled “religious” is truly astounding.

June 16, 2009 at 4:17 am
(6) IsaacJ says:

Not to be overly picky or anything Austin, but there are quite a few typos in this article besides the one mentioned by Tommy Holland. :-) You might want to give it a once over. No big deal. I make them on my blog too, of course.

Just trying to be helpful and all that.

June 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm
(7) Adam Tjaavk says:

Nothing unusual, Isaac, slapdashery rules – seems never to bother giving anything a second glance. Here’s hoping!

_____

June 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm
(8) BEX says:

I’ve also notice a lack of proof reading. I figured it was due to lack of time.

June 16, 2009 at 7:26 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

If people notice errors, it would help if you could point them out instead of simply saying that there are errors. I proof read everything twice and run it through two spell checkers. I’ve read this one a couple more times, run it through a third spell checker, and even used a grammar checker. I found exactly one more, minor, error.

June 17, 2009 at 2:30 am
(10) Mick says:

Excellent article, Austin. This sums up my feelings perfectly.

June 17, 2009 at 10:32 am
(11) Erasmussimo says:

Austin, your essay reads like a rant, not reasoning. My impression is that it expresses anger, not analysis. Here’s why:

First, you misunderstand Mr. Mooney’s statements. He has never suggested that anybody shut up, yet you attribute that position to him. (“atheists should sit down and shut up”). His argument here is more nuanced; he is discussing political strategy rather than censorship.

Second, you are arguing against pragmatism. Spitting into the wind is not pragmatic. The case you make has been argued a thousand times by every dogmatist in history: “Fight for the truth, no matter what!” It is the thinking of the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution of China, the Christian fundamentalists of America, the anarchists of the late 19th century, the suicide bombers of radical Islam, and the brown shirts of Nazi Germany. It is a rejectionist attitude, not an irenic one.

The world is a big and complicated place. No matter what your beliefs, there are billions of people who reject them. They may be wrong, but even if you are the only infallible thinker on the planet, you still have to live with all those people. If your fundamental approach is to emphasize your differences, then there’s only one end point to your thinking: violence. If you instead emphasize your similarities with other people, then you can work out a modus vivendi.

June 17, 2009 at 11:06 am
(12) Austin Cline says:

First, you misunderstand Mr. Mooney’s statements. He has never suggested that anybody shut up, yet you attribute that position to him. (“atheists should sit down and shut up”). His argument here is more nuanced; he is discussing political strategy rather than censorship.

You make the same error I see Mooney making so often: telling people to shut up about something isn’t censorship. And, when he tells people to stop making certain arguments or expressing certain ideas in order to stop making some group feeling bad, that’s telling people to shut up about something.

Second, you are arguing against pragmatism.

Pragmatism is good. Mooney et al have not, however, made the good case for the idea that their position really is pragmatic.

The case you make has been argued a thousand times by every dogmatist in history: “Fight for the truth, no matter what!” It is the thinking of the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution of China, the Christian fundamentalists of America, the anarchists of the late 19th century, the suicide bombers of radical Islam, and the brown shirts of Nazi Germany.

Thanks for comparing me to so many evil groups. Either you really believe that atheists’ arguments and positions here are comparable Christians fundamentalists and the Red Guards, or you don’t but you don’t think it matters whether a group’s aims are good or evil — simply fighting for justice and truth no matter what is itself inherently bad. I challenge both notions.

This is also, by the way, the same principle which has been used by so many groups fighting for good causes: abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, suffragists, and gay rights activists. It’s telling that you didn’t think to mention any of them.

The world is a big and complicated place. No matter what your beliefs, there are billions of people who reject them.

Of course. Do you imagine that this in an argument for atheists not doing what Mooney says they shouldn’t do? If so, you need to construct a specific and relevant argument. Simply repeating cliched truisms doesn’t cut it.

If your fundamental approach is to emphasize your differences, then there’s only one end point to your thinking: violence.

Only insofar as Christians can’t live peacefully with people who aren’t ashamed of being different and aren’t willing to be treated as inferiors because they are different.

Austin, your essay reads like a rant, not reasoning. My impression is that it expresses anger, not analysis

You claim that you would state why this is so, but you don’t. You fail to address a single one of my positions or arguments directly. You don’t even try, at any point, to explain why any specific statement of mine is wrong (except for the “sit down and shut up” part, but you misrepresent the issue in doing so).

June 17, 2009 at 11:44 am
(13) Erasmussimo says:

Thanks for your lengthy response. I’ll try to answer your points as directly as possible.

when he tells people to stop making certain arguments or expressing certain ideas in order to stop making some group feeling bad, that’s telling people to shut up about something.

Again, you misunderstand his position, which he has explained in great detail. He is claiming that it is unwise to antagonize other people. You interpret this to be equivalent to “telling us to shut up”. That’s not what Mr. Mooney is saying. There’s a big difference between advice and commandment, and I don’t think you recognize that difference.

Mooney et al have not, however, made the good case for the idea that their position really is pragmatic.

A more correct statement would be that you are unconvinced by the arguments Mooney et al make. They have certainly presented a case, and I myself find it compelling. You are presenting your subjective view as a claim of objective truth.

Thanks for comparing me to so many evil groups.

Again, you’re not reading closely, and you are making the big mistake of identifying with your ideas. Read my statement again: it refers to the case you make and the thinking. There is nothing objectionable about attacking an idea. But you perceive it as an attack on you personally. I urge you to step back from your ideas and consider them objectively, and distinct from yourself.

You interpret my position as “fighting for justice and truth no matter what is itself inherently bad.” This interpretation is correct: I believe that violence is almost always evil, and that it rarely produces justice or truth.

This is also, by the way, the same principle which has been used by so many groups fighting for good causes: abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, suffragists, and gay rights activists.

I think you misunderstand the history here. Let’s go through each of these cases.

The abolitionists present us with a difficult case to analyze, because their efforts were cut short by the Civil War. That is, their objective was attained serendipitously, not as a direct result of their actions. Moreover, they were quite a varied lot: while they had their violent members, they were generally a nonviolent lot — and the nonviolent element was politically more successful.

The civil rights people were most definitely accommodationists. Yes, they had their Stokely Carmichaels, but these people set back the civil rights movement. Far and away the most powerful element of the civil rights movement was the school led by Dr. Martin Luther King, whose example you would do well to learn from. He had no harsh words for those he disagreed with; he was the acme of accommodationism and irenicism. His efforts were the most important factors in the success of the civil rights movement.

The suffragettes provide another good example. They were also accommodationist. They saw no need to attack or denounce men; they just wanted the vote for women, and they advanced their program without invective. (Yes, there were some hotheads among them, but none of those people ever achieved sway within the movement — and yes, the leaders of the suffragette movement spent a lot of time urging the hotheads to tone down their rhetoric. And yes, the hotheads complained that they were being told to shut up.)

Interestingly, the modern feminist movement has a more mixed record. The hotheads enjoyed more prominence in the feminist movement of the 1970s and the result was a backlash that compromised their efforts. The ERA did not pass. And even today, the basic objective of the feminist movement — equal pay for equal work — has still not been fully realized. They’ll get there, but only after the sour taste that the word ‘feminism’ has in some mouths is forgotten. Nowadays, most feminists agree that the more ferocious voices in the feminist movement of the 1970s set back overall progress.

The gay rights movement supports my point from the other side. In any reasonable society, we would have expected gay rights to follow quickly on heels of black rights and women’s rights. But in fact, gay liberation has lagged far behind these other two areas. The LGBT movement has been more confrontational than either of the previous two movements. The connection between these two facts should be obvious.

Only insofar as Christians can’t live peacefully with people who aren’t ashamed of being different and aren’t willing to be treated as inferiors because they are different.

This comment provokes several thoughts for me. You seem to expect that your neighbor should live peacefully with you even if you loudly denigrate him. Even the law recognizes the notion of ‘aggravated assault’ — that if you badmouth people and they lash out at you, they’re still lawbreakers but their crime is treated less severely because you incited them. If you want to live peacefully with people, you have to treat their beliefs with respect, even if you do not share those beliefs. How can you expect to live peacefully if your words are not peaceful?

I am particularly interested in this comment:

people who aren’t ashamed of being different and aren’t willing to be treated as inferiors because they are different.

What, precisely, do you mean by ‘treated as’? Don’t you really mean ‘regarded as’? Don’t you regard Christians as inferior? If so, how can you resent them regarding you as inferior when you regard them as inferior?

June 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm
(14) Austin Cline says:

Again, you misunderstand his position, which he has explained in great detail. He is claiming that it is unwise to antagonize other people. There’s a big difference between advice and commandment, and I don’t think you recognize that difference.

I have never described any of his statements as a command. Telling us we should shut up is, from my perspective, no different from simply telling us to shut up given that he has no actual power to impose any penalties on us for failing to comply.

Again, you’re not reading closely, and you are making the big mistake of identifying with your ideas. Read my statement again: it refers to the case you make and the thinking. There is nothing objectionable about attacking an idea. But you perceive it as an attack on you personally. I urge you to step back from your ideas and consider them objectively, and distinct from yourself.

I didn’t take it as a personal attack. I simply noted that the only people you could find as a basis for comparison were evil. That says something.

More important, though, is that what you are saying I should not do is precisely what I and other atheists have been saying that religious believers and religious apologists should not be doing: namely, treat criticism of or even mocking of opinions or belief systems as personal attacks or personal denigration. If you look around here you’ll find me arguing against that frequently.

Now, what was it that Forrest and Mooney were responding to with their admonition to “be nice”? A criticism of ideas, not a denigration of any person. This is the flaw in your attempts to draw a distinction between the examples of activists you addressed (and so I won’t go into them again in detail): you praise them for not attacking people, but that really isn’t the issue here. The issue is attacking ideologies and opinions. King did it. Suffragists did it. Abolitionists did it. They attacked particular ideas, systems, and situations vociferously, consistently, and even harshly. Their attacking individuals rarely if ever, but attacking ideas and systems harshly, is quite consistent with the behavior of atheists who are being told that they are doing something wrong and should stop.

Mooney et al have not, however, made the good case for the idea that their position really is pragmatic.

A more correct statement would be that you are unconvinced by the arguments Mooney et al make. They have certainly presented a case, and I myself find it compelling. You are presenting your subjective view as a claim of objective truth.

No, that would not be more correct. It’s not merely my subjective view that they have not made a good case, because a truly good case — a case that is objectively respectable even if I don’t agree with it — for a tactic being the most pragmatic is one that provides empirical evidence that it has more practical, pragmatic benefits. Mooney has not done this; instead Mooney just makes assertions about what he thinks would be better. His assertions are little more than speculation. When I say that speculative claims about what he thinks might be better is not a good case, I’m not just being subjective.

And speaking of claims unsupported by empirical evidence:

In any reasonable society, we would have expected gay rights to follow quickly on heels of black rights and women’s rights. But in fact, gay liberation has lagged far behind these other two areas. The LGBT movement has been more confrontational than either of the previous two movements. The connection between these two facts should be obvious.

Not to me. Please, establish the causal connection for me.

I hope you’ll forgive me for not addressing the rest of your comment in detail, but I just don’t think it’s necessary. Everything you write comes back to the idea that the behavior criticized by Mooney — criticism of religion — is somehow related to violence or denigration of persons. I just don’t see the connection and have trouble believing that you do, since you yourself make a point of saying that criticism of an idea should not be taken as a personal attack.

Of course, if you weren’t imply any such connection, why bring them up? It all strikes me as a straw man because at no point do you directly address the actual context. The only way to properly defend and agree with Mooney is to specifically and directly argue that criticisms of ideas and arguments like those which Coyne wrote are wrong enough that they should not be written.

If you want to live peacefully with people, you have to treat their beliefs with respect,

Beliefs have to earn respect; no opinions deserve automatic respect. If people need me to respect all their opinions in order to not be violent with me, they are the ones with a serious problem.

I do not respect all opinions. Not all opinions deserve respect. Some opinions deserve disrespect. Some deserve derision. This is all true of some of the opinions I’ve held through the years, too.

What, precisely, do you mean by ‘treated as’? Don’t you really mean ‘regarded as’?

No, I wrote what I mean.

Don’t you regard Christians as inferior?

No.

June 17, 2009 at 5:47 pm
(15) Erasmussimo says:

Austin, I am disappointed with your response because you seem to me to be engaging in semantic quibbling rather than engaging the substance of the issues. For example, you argue that

Telling us we should shut up is, from my perspective, no different from simply telling us to shut up given that he has no actual power to impose any penalties on us for failing to comply.

This flies in the face of the clear meanings of “to” and “should”. I hate these stupid semantic arguments, and so I won’t pursue this matter or the other similar matters you raise, but I wanted to illustrate what I mean when I refer to semantic quibbling.

I prefer to get to the heart of our difference, so rather than engage you in tit-for-tat, I’d like to summarize the points you make into a broad position. You are (it seems to me) arguing in favor of confronting religious believers of any stripe, whereas I favor confronting them only on specific political issues. In other words, I’d prefer to engage in disputes only when those disputes directly concern political decisions. You, it seems, prefer to engage them anywhere, any time, on any and every subject. [Please correct me where I have misrepresented you.]

A huge unspecified variable in our discussion is the context of any such communications. For example, suppose that a theist comes to your blog and disputes atheism with you. In such a case, I would consider you fully justified in arguing the matter with them as strongly as you wish. At the opposite extreme would be somebody barging into a theist blog and telling everybody that they’re wrong — and I hope you’ll agree with me that such behavior would deserve condemnation.

The real problem comes when we consider the discussion taking place in the blogosphere and in the literature. How public is that? How justified are we to intrude into such discussions? If the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to distribute their WatchTower brochures, to what degree do you feel compelled to answer with your own brochures? If an accommodationist wishes to write a book explaining why atheists and theists should just get along together without arguing their beliefs, do you see that as a gauntlet being thrown down or just a tiny part of a huge ongoing discussion?

There’s a lovely cartoon showing a fellow in front of his computer at one in the morning. His girlfriend requests that he come to bed. He demurs because “Somebody on the Internet is wrong”. We laugh because we know that there’s always plenty of falsehood on the Internet. But what is our obligation to contest that falsehood?

More fundamentally, what do you hope to accomplish by contesting what you disagree with? Do you really think that your confrontational approach accomplishes anything? You earlier cited some past political movements but my own quickie analysis showed that confrontation was not a factor in their success. Your fundamental goal is to change minds. I ask you, were I to engage you in a confrontational manner, condemning your ideas in the most ferocious terms, would I change your mind? I very much doubt it. I suspect that, if I treated you harshly, you would close your mind to my claims.

The most effective way to change minds is to goad your opponent into running amok against you. You have to look friendly, peaceful, and reasonable, and your opponent has to look nasty, violent, and unreasonable. But if you use nasty rhetoric, you lose the battle before your opponent even opens his mouth.

So let me boil this all down to what I believe is the essence of our disagreement: you want to defeat theists in a head-on confrontation; I am happy to live affably with them so long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on me. Does this fairly summarize our disagreement?

June 17, 2009 at 7:19 pm
(16) Austin Cline says:

I thought I should address this:

This flies in the face of the clear meanings of “to” and “should”. I hate these stupid semantic arguments, and so I won’t pursue this matter or the other similar matters you raise, but I wanted to illustrate what I mean when I refer to semantic quibbling.

Of course the words mean very different things — in isolation. However, context matters. A lot. When a person lacks any power to force you to shut up, then telling you to shut up cannot function as a genuine order. It can only function as an expression of personal desire: I wish you would shut up. That’s an expression of one’s opinion of what should happen.

If I tell my wife to “hurry up,” I can’t force her to or penalize her if she doesn’t. It’s a statement that she should hurry up in order to… (be on time? something). If I tell my boss to email me a document, it’s not an order — it’s an expression of what I would like to happen and, perhaps, that he should email it rather than print it and hand it to me.

So, it’s not “semantic quibbling” to note that in a particular context, the “pure” meaning of a word may shift. On the contrary, I’d say that if anything is “semantic quibbling” it’s ignoring that context and insist that the words be interpreted solely as they would be in isolation.

So since Chris Mooney has no power to force anyone to shut up or punish them for not shutting up, then his saying “shut up” and “you should shut up” have effectively the same meaning. The only genuine difference is in tone.

June 17, 2009 at 6:42 pm
(17) Austin Cline says:

Austin, I am disappointed with your response because you seem to me to be engaging in semantic quibbling rather than engaging the substance of the issues.

Funny, but I think it’s you who neglected previously to deal with the substance of the real issue. I’m not even sure you have now, but you’re at least much closer.

You are (it seems to me) arguing in favor of confronting religious believers of any stripe, whereas I favor confronting them only on specific political issues.

Those two are not contradictory. You could be interested in confronting believers of any stripe on just those political issues you care about, for example. The two categories are apples and oranges.

A proper contrast would be “you favor confronting religious believers on any old matter whereas I favor dong so on just specific political matters.” Or “you favor confronting religious believers all of types whereas I favor doing so with just those who are engaged in some egregiously bad behavior.”

In other words, I’d prefer to engage in disputes only when those disputes directly concern political decisions. You, it seems, prefer to engage them anywhere, any time, on any and every subject. [Please correct me where I have misrepresented you.]

It is a bit of a misrepresentation. I am willing (in theory) to engage any religious believer on any subject at any time. I don’t seek out every possible debate in every possible venue at every possible time. I do not consider any topics to be inherently “off limits” or any believers to be inherently “off limits.”

A huge unspecified variable in our discussion is the context of any such communications. For example, suppose that a theist comes to your blog and disputes atheism with you. In such a case, I would consider you fully justified in arguing the matter with them as strongly as you wish.

You prefer to engage only in politically-concerned disputes. So, if that theist comes arguing something completely non-political, would that be inconsistent with your preferences? I know you don’t object to me doing this, but I’m trying to figure out if my doing it is still consistent with your personal position, or if it’s contrary but not objectionable?

At the opposite extreme would be somebody barging into a theist blog and telling everybody that they’re wrong — and I hope you’ll agree with me that such behavior would deserve condemnation.

Not necessarily. If everyone is talking about how atheists are incapable of morality, then not only would such behavior not be deserving of condemnation, but it could be almost obligatory (depending of course on exactly how one “barges”).

The real problem comes when we consider the discussion taking place in the blogosphere and in the literature. How public is that? How justified are we to intrude into such discussions?

That depends on how broadly or narrowly you define “intrude.”

Anything posted in the blogosphere is completely public. Any book that is published and sold to the general public is, necessarily, completely public. It ain’t private, that’s for sure.

If the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to distribute their WatchTower brochures, to what degree do you feel compelled to answer with your own brochures?

I think it might be a good idea regardless of whether JWs distribute brochures, but if those brochures exist an “opposing viewpoint” is legitimate. Take the question out of religion and into politics: if a conservative groups is distributing flyers promoting some viewpoint, is it “intruding” for liberals to respond? I don’t think so

If an accommodationist wishes to write a book explaining why atheists and theists should just get along together without arguing their beliefs, do you see that as a gauntlet being thrown down or just a tiny part of a huge ongoing discussion?

Why does it have to be either/or? It can be both. It can be perceived as one by some people and the other by different people. If someone has the expertise and knowledge to offer a strong critique of some of the claims being made in that book, I welcome them publishing their thoughts.

In either case, a substantive criticism is justified or even needed.

But what is our obligation to contest that falsehood?

Depends on the nature of the falsehood, some of the possible consequences it has, and one’s ability to offer a substantive rebuttal. A person who knows little has little reason to exert themselves to respond; a person who knows much who can really lay bare a bad argument’s flaws has more obligation to speak out.

More fundamentally, what do you hope to accomplish by contesting what you disagree with?

Depends on the subject. Sometimes, it’s to make accurate information available. Sometimes, it’s to make people think more critically about what they’ve been told.

Do you really think that your confrontational approach accomplishes anything?

Sometimes. More significantly, though, I think that in the grand scheme of things a variety of approaches accomplishes more than just a single approach. Everyone is different and will respond to different things in different ways. Some people respond well to a splash of cold water; others are better off with subtle, nuanced arguments. Some people respond well to visual images; some just don’t get it. Mockery and satire can reveal absurdities very quickly and directly; other times, they are counterproductive.

This is one of the errors I see Mooney et al making: arguing that just one single approach and way of doing things is best while the others are unhelpful or even counterproductive.

You earlier cited some past political movements but my own quickie analysis showed that confrontation was not a factor in their success.

I disagree with your analysis — and even more with your characterization of your analysis. You tried to show that personal attacks and denigration did not factor in their success. Confrontation, however, was a huge factor. Every public march is confrontational. Every sit-in is confrontational. Every strike is confrontational. You really can’t think that the Civil Rights movement didn’t employ confrontation.

Your fundamental goal is to change minds. I ask you, were I to engage you in a confrontational manner, condemning your ideas in the most ferocious terms, would I change your mind?

Depends on how well you did it, but you might change others’ minds. Different people respond to different tactics in different ways. Some people listen more closely to strongly-worded denunciations. Some don’t.

I very much doubt it. I suspect that, if I treated you harshly, you would close your mind to my claims.

Actually I wouldn’t much care – I don’t know you well enough to take your treatment of me personally. This includes being offended by insults as well as being complimented by kind words. No insult intended, that’s just the way I am. I’d focus entirely on the merits of your actual arguments.

However, I also know that most people are absolutely terrible when it comes to logical arguments – don’t know how to use them, don’t know how to evaluate them, and didn’t arrive at their present conclusions via logical arguments. Use of cold, sober logic is pleasing to people like me who think in such ways, but it has little impact on others. If you look at really effective propaganda closely, you’ll find little in the way of sober logical arguments in it. Marketing/advertising too. I’m not employing any particular “propaganda techniques,” I’m simply pointing out how little progress is made in mass-persuasion through sober logic.

Emotional arguments that hit close to home work far better with the average person. Stories about real people suffering injustice work far better than an impersonal argument about how nifty equality is. People think with their gut and use their brain to rationalize later on – unfortunate, but it’s how people seem to work.

So, yeah, harsh rhetoric to get people riled up a bit can be quite effective in some situations. It shouldn’t be, but it is. If I could wave a wand to cause people to ignore such things in favor of looking just at the quality of arguments, that would be great – and it would make your concerns here much, much more right. Yes, I’d like to make you right! But I can’t. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.

June 17, 2009 at 7:14 pm
(18) Erasmussimo says:

Again we are swimming in a morass of semantic issues. One of our problems concerns the context of confrontation. You argue for what is acceptable, and I argue for what is desirable, and we get nowhere. So I think what I should do is tighten up my statements to insure that they leave no semantic leeway. That’s going to be a lot harder.

We’re zeroing in on a core point concerning the effectiveness of “confrontation” — an undefined term. So I need a term that precisely differentiates us. For clarity, I’m going to coin my own terms, and I’m going to coin two terms, one for each pole of the dispute.

At one end of the dispute I will declare that the term inyerface describes the attitude that vociferously rejects all religious belief as pernicious. The advocate of this school argues that religion is intrinsically wrong-headed and inevitably inflicts injury upon society. This person condemns religion and all religious believers as necessarily injurious to himself and other atheists.

At the other end of the dispute I will declare that the term nomybiz describes the attitude that considers all religious belief a private matter that is beyond the reach of reasoned discussion. If somebody wants to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that’s their business and none of mine. If they want to hold FSM religious parades with satin vestments and holy statues, I would have no more objection than I would to a Boy Scouts parade or a veteran’s parade. My only concern arises when they try to impose their religious beliefs upon me.

I am not claiming that you are an advocate of inyerface; I am offering the concept as a clearly defined one that we can work with. So I ask you, how do you fit into the inyerface vs nomybiz spectrum? I am definitely at the far end on the nomybiz pole; where do you see yourself?

June 17, 2009 at 8:16 pm
(19) Austin Cline says:

At one end of the dispute I will declare that the term inyerface describes the attitude that vociferously rejects all religious belief as pernicious.

What if I vociferously reject all religious belief as pernicious, but only do so with other atheists?

The advocate of this school argues that religion is intrinsically wrong-headed and inevitably inflicts injury upon society. This person condemns religion and all religious believers as necessarily injurious to himself and other atheists.

I’ve never encountered anyone who thinks that all religious believers are necessarily injurious to all atheists. I don’t think this is true and so won’t be defending it.

At the other end of the dispute I will declare that the term nomybiz describes the attitude that considers all religious belief a private matter that is beyond the reach of reasoned discussion.

Well, I reject this too. All actions are predicated on beliefs and all beliefs have at least the potential to motivate action. So all beliefs are, more or less, at least theoretically an appropriate subject for discussion and/or criticism. Thus no beliefs are, in principle, beyond the reach of reasoned discussion.

Even that aside, I reject that idea that all religious beliefs are purely “private.” I explain and argue for this above so won’t repeat myself.

I am not claiming that you are an advocate of inyerface; I am offering the concept as a clearly defined one that we can work with. So I ask you, how do you fit into the inyerface vs nomybiz spectrum?

I completely and utterly reject both. I also question whether it’s appropriate to regard them as “poles” because they aren’t even about the same thing: the first is about religion being bad and the second is about religion not being my business.

True opposites would be religion bad/religion good and religion public/religion private. It’s possible to say that religion is wonderful and good and that it’s an appropriate matter for public debate (notice that this rejects both poles completely). It’s possible to say that religion is wonderful and good and that it’s none of my business. It’s possible to say that religion is bad and is a matter of public debate. It’s possible to say that religion is bad but a private matter (though unlikely, since it’s hard to ague that something which is threatening me is none of my business).

Once again, I think you’re dealing with apples and oranges here; instead of dismissing this as a merely semantic issue, try to deal with it directly. I think that this is the second time this has happened and if you need to explain your position using false comparisons, then maybe that’s a sign of a problem with your position?

But just to play along I’ll say that I’m much closer to the first than the second. The first is too extreme, but is closer to reality than the second: it’s not true that all religious believers and beliefs are threats, but some definitely are and in some contexts many are. In contrast, it’s not the case that any beliefs are truly, in principle and necessarily, beyond reasoned discussion. Some may not be worth debating or bringing up, and in some situations I may not personally encounter any of the behaviors motivated by the beliefs in question. However, in theory such encounters are possible and such debates may become worth having.

So I’m always closer to the position that is itself closer to reality than to a position that is disconnected from reality.

How close? Impossible to say since there is very little that I claim about “all” religions and almost nothing that I would claim about “all” religious believers.

June 17, 2009 at 9:47 pm
(20) Erasmussimo says:

OK, let’s see what we’ve got here: you utterly and completely reject both of the poles I presented. Your position is that some religious believers are a threat in some contexts. I can agree with that. Religious fundamentalists are a threat when they resort to violence. But we already have laws against violence. Members of ANY given group of people can be a threat in some contexts. Why pick on religious believers? Some atheists can be a threat in some contexts. So why not pick on atheists, too?

You reject the claim that religion is a private matter because “Religion plays a significant role in the public square both directly and indirectly.” Here I wish to inquire closely into your thinking. I suspect that you are referring to the values people bring to the ballot box. For example, most of the people who voted in favor of that California anti gay marriage proposition did so because they held religious values. You then conclude, I suspect, that religion is pernicious because it creates the values that lead to the vote for this harmful action.

The problem with this reasoning is that it can lead to intolerance against any group. Should you vote against something religious believers support, then they are justified in claiming that your atheism is pernicious. The same reasoning you use to assault religion can be used to assault atheism. Given that there are a lot more of them than there are of us, this seems a particularly unwise line of thinking!

I just threw out two long additional paragraphs that I wrote because I don’t want to dilute the above points. I’d like to see your response to them before I go off on a long theoretical point.

June 18, 2009 at 6:46 am
(21) Austin Cline says:

Your position is that some religious believers are a threat in some contexts. I can agree with that. Religious fundamentalists are a threat when they resort to violence. But we already have laws against violence.

Violence isn’t the only type of threat.

Members of ANY given group of people can be a threat in some contexts.

True, but not every group is driven by an ideology which constitutes the motivation or source of a threat. Stamp collecting groups, for example, aren’t know for either violence or promoting the oppression of minorities. Individual members might be a threat in some context, but that’s no reason to object to stamp collecting.

Also, stamp collecting groups don’t appear to be predicated on any beliefs which are false and contrary to reality. Theistic religions are. Since all beliefs, to be genuine beliefs, end up motivating behavior, then false beliefs are going to end up motivating behaviors predicted on falsehoods.

Why pick on religious believers?

They are the subject of the two poles you describes.

Some atheists can be a threat in some contexts. So why not pick on atheists, too?

Atheists are one of those groups lacking any single ideology which motivates or encourages threats. Atheism, not being any sort of belief system, can’t motivate anything — good or bad.

You reject the claim that religion is a private matter because “Religion plays a significant role in the public square both directly and indirectly.” Here I wish to inquire closely into your thinking. I suspect that you are referring to the values people bring to the ballot box.

That’s one thing, but by far not the only one.

For example, most of the people who voted in favor of that California anti gay marriage proposition did so because they held religious values.

It can also create values that lead to positive action. Either way, though, it’s indisputably public. What’s more, using religion as the basis for law — good or bad — is a violation of secular government.

You then conclude, I suspect, that religion is pernicious because it creates the values that lead to the vote for this harmful action.

My position is that traditional, theistic religion is a problem for a number of different reasons. One is that it involves a lot of false beliefs which. One is that it can promote or motivate harmful behavior. Another is that it (at least implicitly) encourages undemocratic attitudes. Another is that it tends to preserve some of the worst aspects of past human relationships – patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc. I don’t have any one single objection to religion; I have specific objections to specific religions, religious groups, institutions, behaviors.

The problem with this reasoning is that it can lead to intolerance against any group.

Can… but need not, right? So you don’t claim that there is anything inherently wrong objecting to religion, criticizing religion, arguing against religion, encouraging greater skepticism of religion, etc.

Should you vote against something religious believers support, then they are justified in claiming that your atheism is pernicious.

Only if they can argue that my atheism is the motivating factor. Since atheism doesn’t actually encourage or promote anything, no such argument will succeed.

Or do you simply mean to reference voting against something solely because it’s supported by religious people, regardless of why they happen to support it? That’s an absurd scenario to try to discuss for two reasons. First, no atheist that I’ve heard of has ever recommended anything vaguely similar. Second, given the number of religious theists, there is no measure not supported by at least some religious believers — so someone adopting such a tactic would have to not vote at all. They couldn’t even vote against anything, since some religious people are doing that as well.

The same reasoning you use to assault religion can be used to assault atheism.

No, for the reasons given.

Given that there are a lot more of them than there are of us, this seems a particularly unwise line of thinking!

So you object to the line of thinking not because it’s illogical, ill-reasoned, or factually false, but rather because of the possible effects if used incorrectly against you? By that “logic,” we should abandon democracy because in the hands of the wrong people it can be used against us!

Now, to describe a realistic parallel: religious believers who argue that some atheistic philosophy is “pernicious” or at least false, problematic, and maybe at times dangerous, so they criticize it, argue against it, and encourage people not to adopt it. In some cases they even attack it in the most extreme and nasty ways.

Yes, that can be used to “assault” atheists. What would I do were that to happen? It already does happen. Communism has been under assault from Christians since the 50s. Secular humanism has been a frequent target of assault since the 70s, and if you read the attacks closely you can find that the complaints being made are eerily similar to some of those once used by Christians against Jews. Secularism, of course, is constantly under assault from Christians.

So, do I have a problem with Christians or other religious believers taking an atheistic ideology or philosophy and publicly criticizing it, arguing against it, encouraging people to reject it? No, of course not. When they lie about those beliefs I object and correct, but they have every right to lie, too. I am not doing anything which is not already being done to a far more extreme and even hysterical (not on the funny sense) manner by religious believers.

Now, I get the impression that you have a problem with people publicly debating, discussing, and critiquing all these ideologies, beliefs, religions, and systems. You aren’t the only one, but I must confess and I cannot comprehend how any sane, rational, mentally healthy adult would object to that — no offense intended, I’m just trying to be honest about utterly alien, absurd, and bizarre I find such a position. I actually find Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism more sensible and grounded in reality. Really.

I regard the public debate of opinions, belief systems, and ideologies — even including pointed criticism, heated debate, and more — to be a necessary ingredient for any free society. It’s not always pretty and sometimes people’s feelings may be hurt, but there’s no way to have a serious, substantive, and vigorous debate while also protecting the feelings of the most sensitive. If someone is bothered by public debate of opinions they happen to hold, they need to avert their eyes.

June 18, 2009 at 11:39 am
(22) llewelly says:

The problem with this reasoning is that it can lead to intolerance against any group.
The problem with this reasoning is that someone will imagine you’re on a sled, riding down an 89 degree slope of the finest polished ice.

June 18, 2009 at 11:53 am
(23) Erasmussimo says:

I don’t think you’ve answered my objections about the nature of the threat you perceive from religion. For example, you state

Stamp collecting groups, for example, aren’t know for either violence or promoting the oppression of minorities.

Here you insinuate that religions ARE known for violence or promoting the oppression of minorities. I agree that SOME members of SOME religions SOMETIMES engage in violence or the oppression of women. But you have to agree that it is not the case that most members of most religions usually engage in violence or the oppression of women. The indesiderata here are violence and the oppression of women. We already have laws against violence and the oppression of women. So why move up the causal chain when that causal link is so uncertain?

We do criminalize some actions that are themselves not injurious but are likely to cause injury, such as drunk driving, selling certain drugs, practicing medicine without a license, and so forth. But in each of these cases, the action in question is likely to lead to injury and is unlikely to produce socially desirable results. Such is not the case with religion: it is unlikely to produce injury (because injuries caused by religion in this country are uncommon) and is likely to produce socially desirable results (charitable actions, respect for moral codes, etc)

Hence, the threat that you claim to exist seems to me to be unsubstantiated. Yes, there are violent individuals who are Christians. Since most Americans call themselves Christians, simple probability allows us to determine that most violent Americans will be Christian — but correlation does not imply causation.

You cannot establish that religion is the primary causal agent for socially injurious actions. Yes, there are some causal linkages, but these are weak, and no matter what, you cannot deny the salutary social results of religion. These two factors (weak causality for negative effects, strong causality for positive effects) destroy any case that religion as a whole is a threat to non-believers.

The second major point I want to make concerns your continuing misunderstanding of the argument regarding public discussion. You misrepresent my position as one of opposition to public debate. Let me reiterate my position on this: there’s a difference between what is permissible and what is advisable. You argue that public debate is permissible; I agree. But I add that some public expressions are inadvisable. For example, I could run off to other public fora and slander you in vile language, denouncing you with lies and ugly insinuations. This is unquestionably permissible. Yet it is equally inadvisable, because it is pejorative to the public debate.

You might base an objection on the truth content of public debate. Were I to slander you, that would be falsehood, but your attack on religion is based on truth. You would then claim that the discriminating factor is truth: any true statement in the public debate is advisable.

The problem with this argument is that the whole point and purpose of public debate is to dispute the truth. When religious believers claim that atheists are amoral, they believe their claim to be true. So, by the truth standard, their statements are just as advisable. Indeed, the truth standard would recommend ANY statement in the public debate, so long as the speaker believes it to be true. Yet we know that there are lots of people who hold ugly, vicious beliefs that are corrosive to the public debate. A religious believer could conclude from your writings that you are the spawn of the devil, a threat to Western Civilization, and so forth. Would you recommend the publication of such views? Sure, that person has a right to say such things, but do they make the world a better place?

To conclude:

1. You don’t have a case that religion itself presents a significant threat that cannot be addressed symptomatically.

2. You have not yet presented a case that attacks on religious belief are salutary to the public debate.

June 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm
(24) Austin Cline says:

Here you insinuate that religions ARE known for violence or promoting the oppression of minorities.

No, I insinuate that some religious groups are known for violence or promoting oppression. Critique of the religious beliefs utilized by those groups is an appropriate and useful means for analysis and deconstruction of their systems.

But you have to agree that it is not the case that most members of most religions usually engage in violence or the oppression of women.

I do agree that such behaviors are not the norm. However, I also assert that the beliefs behind those behaviors are not entirely absent in those not committing them and that these beliefs can motivate other behaviors which are not as immediately awful but still nevertheless negative — for example, while they may not motivate active oppression, they may nevertheless encourage subtle, even unconscious discrimination or feelings of self-superiority.

We already have laws against violence and the oppression of women. So why move up the causal chain when that causal link is so uncertain?

You might want to explain what you mean by saying that being critical of religion is “moving up the causal chain.”

We do criminalize some actions that are themselves not injurious but are likely to cause injury, such as drunk driving, selling certain drugs, practicing medicine without a license, and so forth. But in each of these cases, the action in question is likely to lead to injury and is unlikely to produce socially desirable results. Such is not the case with religion

Good thing I don’t favor criminalizing religion then, huh?

it is unlikely to produce injury (because injuries caused by religion in this country are uncommon) and is likely to produce socially desirable results (charitable actions, respect for moral codes, etc)

We also don’t criminalize belief systems which do have a history of producing injury without also producing socially desirable results. Nazis are every bit as free as Quakers. Thus the reasons we don’t criminalize religion aren’t because of what you imply, but rather because we don’t criminalize any opinions or any belief systems, no matter how injurious.

Hence, the threat that you claim to exist seems to me to be unsubstantiated.

Really? Perhaps you can explain to me exactly what threat I claimed existed, because I don’t remember specifying any.

You cannot establish that religion is the primary causal agent for socially injurious actions.

And I claimed that I could?

The second major point I want to make concerns your continuing misunderstanding of the argument regarding public discussion. You misrepresent my position as one of opposition to public debate.

You did say that you were on the “far end” of a spectrum that ends with “religious belief a private matter that is beyond the reach of reasoned discussion” and, no matter what a person believes — no matter how awful, injurious, offensive, silly, or nice, “that’s their business and none of mine.” So long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on you, you won’t object, debate, discuss, critique, etc.

Now, you didn’t explain just how far off from that end you are, but the “far end” sounds pretty close to the last end point and given the absence of any details I think I’ve been justified in placing you there.

Let me reiterate my position on this: there’s a difference between what is permissible and what is advisable.

I never attributed to you the position that any debate is impermissible, merely that it’s inadvisable (i.e., “it’s not a good idea, so it’s better not to do it”). So it sounds like I understood you just right, I think.

You argue that public debate is permissible; I agree. But I add that some public expressions are inadvisable. For example, I could run off to other public fora and slander you in vile language, denouncing you with lies and ugly insinuations. This is unquestionably permissible.

Actually, slander isn’t permissible. If you really do slander me, I can take you to court.

However, let’s pretend that it is permissible. I agree that lies, whether direct and implicit or indirect insinuations, are inadvisable. I’ve never said otherwise.

You might base an objection on the truth content of public debate. Were I to slander you, that would be falsehood, but your attack on religion is based on truth. You would then claim that the discriminating factor is truth: any true statement in the public debate is advisable.

No, I would say that any opinion which you can reasonably support with good evidence and reasoning is legitimate. Whether it’s “advisable” or not depends upon the purpose of expressing the opinion — or to put it another way, the context you find yourself int. The exact same set of words might be advisable in some circumstances but not in others. It isn’t possible to declare that some statement is inadvisable, period, except perhaps when we get to speech that really is criminalized (threats, slander, libel) and perhaps deliberate lies.

The problem with this argument is that the whole point and purpose of public debate is to dispute the truth. When religious believers claim that atheists are amoral, they believe their claim to be true. So, by the truth standard, their statements are just as advisable.

And you’ll notice that I don’t level complaints against them like what Mooney et al level against so-called New Atheists.

A religious believer could conclude from your writings that you are the spawn of the devil, a threat to Western Civilization, and so forth.

I’ve had religious believers conclude that from nothing more than my being an atheist. I don’t have to write anything to engender such a reaction. So if my goal is to avoid that, my only course of action is to cease to exist. Ergo, I’ve stopped concerning myself with engendering such reactions in people. It will happen no matter what I say or how I say it, and so I focus on the legitimacy and reasonableness of what I am saying.

Would you recommend the publication of such views?

To “recommend” means to consider such views worthy of confidence, acceptance, or favor. Obviously I don’t think that.

However, if they think that they have a good argument to make, I won’t object. I won’t call it “inadvisable,” unless I have some reason to think that they have a specific goal which is being undermined by this course of action.

1. You don’t have a case that religion itself presents a significant threat that cannot be addressed symptomatically.

I don’t need to in order to justify public critique of it.

2. You have not yet presented a case that attacks on religious belief are salutary to the public debate.

You haven’t asked me for such a case. What’s more, I haven’t actually advanced the proposition “attacks on religious belief are salutary to the public debate,” so that’s another reason why I haven’t presented a case for it.

Is there some reason why you think it’s appropriate to “conclude” with pointing out that I have failed to make cases for propositions that I have not personally advanced nor been asked to make cases for? I fail to see the point, except as an obvious and poorly constructed straw man.

If you’d like me to make a case for some specific proposition, assertion, claim, or accusation which I have made, I’ll be happy to do so. If I cannot, I’ll retract or amend and try again. If I still fail, you’d be right to point this out as a problem with my position. However, any failure on my part to make a case for something I’ve not asserted nor been asked to support isn’t a legitimate point of criticism or concern.

June 18, 2009 at 1:06 pm
(25) BEX says:

I offer an apology to Austin for bringing up minor, petty grammatical errors. It was pointless for me to mention something that has no bearing on my enjoyment of your articles or the meaning of your arguments.

June 18, 2009 at 1:10 pm
(26) Erasmussimo says:

Ah, it appears that I have completely misunderstood you. I thought that you claimed that religion poses some sort of threat to somebody. But you have now disavowed any such claim:

Perhaps you can explain to me exactly what threat I claimed existed, because I don’t remember specifying any.

So we now agree that religion poses no threat to anybody. This then raises the question in my mind, “Why worry about it?” If somebody prefers to believe that there are ants living deep inside Neptune, I see no reason to debate them.

But you later add that you don’t need the existence of a threat to justify public critique of religion. Now, on this point, we need precision. There are many forms of public critique, and, as you have so many times pointed out, the context of such critique plays a large role in determining its advisability. Let’s not forget that the context of this discussion is the denigration of scientists who retain religious beliefs. Perhaps you agree with me that such denigration is inadvisable; if so, then we can close our discussion in agreement. Is that the case?

Lastly, two minor tidbits:

a. I used the word ‘conclude’ in my previous post only in reference to the post itself, not the overall discussion.
b. Do you believe that attacks on religious beliefs are salutary to the public discussion?

You snuck a misrepresentation into one of your comments:

You did say that you were on the “far end” of a spectrum that ends with “religious belief a private matter that is beyond the reach of reasoned discussion” and, no matter what a person believes — no matter how awful, injurious, offensive, silly, or nice, “that’s their business and none of mine.” So long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on you, you won’t object, debate, discuss, critique, etc.

The misrepresentation lies in the inclusion of the word ‘injurious’. That dramatically misrepresents my position. If a person’s beliefs are injurious to others (that is, they directly lead to injurious actions) then those beliefs should be challenged. For example, if a person claims that all blacks should die, then I find that belief objectionable and I will challenge it. If, on the other hand, another person believes that butterflies talk to him, I see no reason to challenge him (unless the butterflies are telling him to kill people).

June 18, 2009 at 1:28 pm
(27) Zayla says:

In having the pleasure of reading this debate in “real time”, it seems to me that Erasmussimo spends half his time nitpicking over the use of wording, semantics and how arguments are laid out, instead of the of the issues.

This is a frustration of mine when discussing things with someone who likes to think they are being logical when they’re actually being excessively and unnecessarily wordy.

June 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm
(28) Austin Cline says:

Ah, it appears that I have completely misunderstood you. I thought that you claimed that religion poses some sort of threat to somebody.

I have never said that religion, inherently and necessarily, poses a clear and immediate threat to anyone in particular. I try to be careful in what I say, and this is how I formulated my position:

My position is that traditional, theistic religion is a problem for a number of different reasons. One is that it involves a lot of false beliefs which. One is that it can promote or motivate harmful behavior. Another is that it (at least implicitly) encourages undemocratic attitudes. Another is that it tends to preserve some of the worst aspects of past human relationships – patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc. I don’t have any one single objection to religion; I have specific objections to specific religions, religious groups, institutions, behaviors.

This isn’t a perfect formulation and, if pressed, I’m sure I’d have to make a couple of modifications here and there — but I figured it was sufficient for our purposes here and now.

So we now agree that religion poses no threat to anybody.

I wouldn’t say that either. The two options, “poses no threat” and “poses an inherent threat” aren’t exhaustive of all possibilities. They are close to two opposite poles on a spectrum with a range of possibilities in between.

This then raises the question in my mind, “Why worry about it?”

Even if I accepted the above as true, I would refer you to what I wrote earlier and which I quoted again.

The exact same question could be posed about any ideology, opinion, or belief system.

If somebody prefers to believe that there are ants living deep inside Neptune, I see no reason to debate them.

Neither do I, if: they don’t bring it up, they don’t make an issue of it, and if no problematic behaviors are seen to stem from it.

Let’s not forget that the context of this discussion is the denigration of scientists who retain religious beliefs.

Denigration? I’m not sure that Coyne’s review qualifies as denigration – especially since, if I remember correctly, there are points where he agrees with Miller and others.

Perhaps you agree with me that such denigration is inadvisable; if so, then we can close our discussion in agreement. Is that the case?

Not necessarily. It depends on the nature of the beliefs, how those beliefs are being used, etc.

a. I used the word ‘conclude’ in my previous post only in reference to the post itself, not the overall discussion.

That’s what I figured and what I had in mind when I commented.

b. Do you believe that attacks on religious beliefs are salutary to the public discussion?

They can be, depending on the beliefs in question and what sort of “attack” it’s supposed to be.

The misrepresentation lies in the inclusion of the word ‘injurious’. That dramatically misrepresents my position.

Well, you didn’t make that exception in your description of that far-end position nor did you reference it as an important point where you diverged from that far-end position.

If a person’s beliefs are injurious to others (that is, they directly lead to injurious actions) then those beliefs should be challenged. For example, if a person claims that all blacks should die, then I find that belief objectionable and I will challenge it.

What if this person doesn’t actually try to kill black people — would you still challenge it? If so, then it seems to me that it’s not just injurious actions that are key for you, but also desires for injurious actions. Would that be fair? If so, it might even have to be extended further because wouldn’t you challenge a person who believed that blacks were inferior but didn’t come right out to say they should be discriminated against?

Technically there is no injurious action or (as far as you know) any desire for injurious action. However, there can be no doubt in your mind that this belief consistently leads to injurious action, even often times unconscious and inadvertent, so it’s important to confront and dispel such notions whenever we find them. This would mean, though, that it’s not just injurious action and the desire for injurious action which compels challenge from you, but also beliefs which are likely to lead to injurious action, even if unconscious and even if only when spread widely enough (and not necessarily when isolated in a single individual).

Now, all actions and desires are motivated by our beliefs. It is further arguable that if an alleged belief doesn’t motivate any actions or desires, then it’s questionable that we really and truly believe it. If this is the case, then it might further be argued that every false belief is more likely to lead to injurious action or desire than true beliefs. Might that not justify under your own standards challenging false beliefs — even if it didn’t occur until you were made aware of them in some fashion (i.e., you don’t go out hunting them, but you don’t ignore them when they come up).

If, on the other hand, another person believes that butterflies talk to him, I see no reason to challenge him (unless the butterflies are telling him to kill people).

What if the butterflies tell him to simply believe that black people should be killed? What if the butterflies tell him that black people are inferior?

June 18, 2009 at 2:51 pm
(29) Erasmussimo says:

I’ll start off with an easy point. You quote me as follows:

For example, if a person claims that all blacks should die, then I find that belief objectionable and I will challenge it.

And then ask:

What if this person doesn’t actually try to kill black people — would you still challenge it?

Re-read my sentence. I propose to challenge the belief regardless of any resulting action.

it seems to me that it’s not just injurious actions that are key for you, but also desires for injurious actions. If so, then it seems to me that it’s not just injurious actions that are key for you, but also desires for injurious actions. Would that be fair?

Whoah! You’re mixing a lot things together here. First, there are mental states, which have no significance in my thinking except perhaps to mitigate the evaluation of an injury. A mental state without issue is ethically, IMO, without significance. But there’s also the expression of the mental state, a speech act. A speech act is usually treated with great leeway, with exceptions for speech acts which are clearly injurious, such as incitement. So I hold a person criminally responsible for acts that directly lead to injury or could reasonably have been expected to lead to injury. But I make a further distinction: speech acts that do not lead to injury but are pejorative to the public debate. For example, I most of the commentary of such persons as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh falls into the class of inadvisable actions that I am accusing you of committing: they are pejorative to the public debate.

Let me be specific about the nature of my accusation. I have no objection to public discussion of public issues; such discussion is vital to the well-being of democracy. My accusation is two-fold:

1. Attacking the core beliefs of those you disagree with is a pointless effort because you cannot change those beliefs. You might be able to convince somebody to support a Congressional bill they originally opposed, but convincing a theist to become atheist is most unlikely.

2. Your approach is confrontational rather than conciliatory, aggressive rather than irenic, and is therefore doomed to failure. This only antagonizes those you attack, making it more difficult for people to reason together. Thus, your methods are pejorative to the public discussion.

Your last four paragraphs all suffer from a problem best addressed with the aphorism “Keep your eye on the ball”. In each case you address beliefs that could lead to injurious actions, and claim that it is the beliefs that should be challenged. There is merit in this argument when the beliefs in question have a high probability of leading to an injurious action. But when that probability is low, the argument runs afoul of the need for diversity in public discourse. In any case, it is the injurious action that requires our attention, not some belief that may or may not have contributed to it.

June 18, 2009 at 4:12 pm
(30) Austin Cline says:

Re-read my sentence. I propose to challenge the belief regardless of any resulting action.

You might want to re-read your own earlier sentence: “If a person’s beliefs are injurious to others (that is, they directly lead to injurious actions)…” (emphasis added)

You only specify beliefs that do lead directly to injurious actions, not beliefs that could lead to injurious actions if put into effect or could lead indirectly to injurious actions. So I had to ask.

First, there are mental states, which have no significance in my thinking except perhaps to mitigate the evaluation of an injury.

Why would beliefs only be mitigating factors and never exacerbating factors?

A mental state without issue is ethically, IMO, without significance.

So believing that blacks should be killed without actually saying so has no significance? This suggests that such a belief will have absolutely no impact on a person’s actions — for example, in how they treat black people. Not even unconsciously.

I doubt that.

But I make a further distinction: speech acts that do not lead to injury but are pejorative to the public debate. For example, I most of the commentary of such persons as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh falls into the class of inadvisable actions that I am accusing you of committing: they are pejorative to the public debate.

Well, that’s a pretty specific and clear accusation. I assume you can support it? You’ll need to point to specific cases where things I have said have had a demonstrably belittling effect on public debate. It won’t be enough to point to something that you think may, somewhere, have had some sort of possibly negative effect on some debate. Your speculation isn’t sufficient for justifying your accusation.

1. Attacking the core beliefs of those you disagree with is a pointless effort because you cannot change those beliefs.

No? Not ever? I look forward to you supporting this claim.

Also, I like how you always use the prejudicial term “attack,” a favorite of religious apologists when complaining about almost any sort of criticism. Your use of this term betrays your prejudices and reveals that you aren’t making an argument based solely on objective standards. When you are arguing against something you start out by calling an attack, you are signaling that you already reached your conclusion. The rest is just theater.

You should note that I, in contrast, have endeavored to use language that is as neutral as possible, even when talking about religious beliefs and ideas.

You might be able to convince somebody to support a Congressional bill they originally opposed, but convincing a theist to become atheist is most unlikely.

Yet it’s happened here a number of times. In fact, when we still had a chat room one of the chat hosts was a form theists who became an atheist after spending time on this site.

2. Your approach is confrontational rather than conciliatory, aggressive rather than irenic, and is therefore doomed to failure.

So, confrontational approaches never, ever, ever work? Confrontational approaches never, ever help at all? Again, I look forward to you supporting this claim.

Your last four paragraphs all suffer from a problem best addressed with the aphorism “Keep your eye on the ball”. In each case you address beliefs that could lead to injurious actions, and claim that it is the beliefs that should be challenged. There is merit in this argument when the beliefs in question have a high probability of leading to an injurious action.

Who gets to decide when the probability is high enough for challenge to be “advisable”? Do I need to find you and get your advice? Do you have some sort of mathematical formula to use, or is it just guesswork — and if it’s guesswork, I’ll suggest that your conclusion has a lot to do with your own prejudices, assumptions, and preferences. This would make it less of a sober analysis and more of a rationalization for what you already wanted to do. In that case, your conclusion won’t be objectively and demonstrably superior to mine.

But when that probability is low, the argument runs afoul of the need for diversity in public discourse.

Wait, now your seem to be making the claim the publicly challenging beliefs which have a low “probability of leading to an injurious action” run “afoul of the need for diversity in public discourse.” This seems to be the claim that challenging such beliefs will tend to decrease the diversity in public discourse — lead to less diversity, less ideas. I’d like to see you support this claim, especially given the fact that any challenge to an idea is itself an expression of ideas and thus immediately the addition of more ideas.

Hey, I just challenged your idea! If it’s the case that your idea isn’t likely to lead to injurious actions, does that mean that I shouldn’t have done it? Is my comment running “afoul of the need for diversity in public discourse”?

Come to think of it, you’ve been challenging my ideas — constantly. All over the place! You’ve accused me of being “pejorative to the public debate,” but you haven’t accused me of spreading ideas that have a high probability of being injurious to others. Therefore, isn’t it inadvisable to be challenging my ideas? Aren’t my ideas none of your business unless and until I either start trying to impose them on you or they starting leading to others being harmed?

Yes, I know you said that “pejorative speech” is inadvisable and deserves to be called such, but: first, you only use that as a basis for declaring it “inadvisable,” not “attacking” it (hope you don’t mind my using that term too — if you can use it without a demonstrably justified basis, so can I); second, you haven’t declared the ideas I’m expressing right here to be “pejorative speech,” and therefore they seem to lie outside even the sphere of what you permit yourself to call “inadvisable,” never mind “attack.” Therefore, it seems to me that your own standards require you to just mind your own business and not challenge, criticize, or “attack” what I’m writing in this very comment.

In any case, it is the injurious action that requires our attention, not some belief that may or may not have contributed to it.

Because we can’t change people’s minds such that they stop holding the beliefs leading to injurious actions, right? Even though it does happen. And even though the criticism of old, bad ideas seems to play an important role in eliminating them from society over time even if it doesn’t change many minds today.

I’m wondering how you think false ideas get eliminated if not through vigorous public criticism.

June 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm
(31) Erasmussimo says:

Austin, I’m not going to engage you in this silly “you-said–I-said” nonsense. Your comments are confused. For the most part, I have simply ignored the sillier arguments, but I know you won’t accept my claim, so I’ll pick one example to demonstrate my claim.

So believing that blacks should be killed without actually saying so has no significance? This suggests that such a belief will have absolutely no impact on a person’s actions — for example, in how they treat black people. Not even unconsciously.

I doubt that.

Your initial question contains within in the premise that the belief in question remains unstated. You then declare that it necessarily has an effect — even though you stipulated that the belief has no verbal expression. Now at this point you’ll try to hide behind the claim that you’re talking about a belief that remains unexpressed verbally but IS expressed in other forms of behavior. In so doing, you will be ignoring my paragraph explaining the differences between mental states, speech acts, and injurious actions.

Next, you ask for evidence to support my accusation:

You’ll need to point to specific cases where things I have said have had a demonstrably belittling effect on public debate. It won’t be enough to point to something that you think may, somewhere, have had some sort of possibly negative effect on some debate. Your speculation isn’t sufficient for justifying your accusation.

How about the title of your essay? I find that pejorative. You, of course, will declare that it is not, and thus we are at an impasse. I agree. But that does not induce me to retract my accusation; I stand firmly behind it. I have no expectation that any amount of logic or evidence will convince you to declare yourself guilty of pejorative writing. I am declaring my accusation, not selling it.

Next, you ask me to support my claim that you cannot change somebody’s core beliefs. This is one of those facts of human nature that is apparent to those of us blessed with a modicum of social percipience. You are welcome to deny it. (Here’s the mistake you’ll make: you’ll point to examples of people changing their core beliefs. The mistake is that such changes are the result of inner personality changes, not external arguments.)

You criticize me for using the term ‘attack’, because you fail to recognize the intrinsically qualifying nature of that term. I did not use ‘discuss’ or ‘comment upon’ because I do not object to such behavior. I object to attacks — that’s why I used that word.

You should note that I, in contrast, have endeavored to use language that is as neutral as possible, even when talking about religious beliefs and ideas.

Oh c’mon!

Chris Mooney has Abandoned Science, Reason, Logic
That’s neutral language?!?!?

Mooney has revealed that he must not really know anything about science or how science works.
That’s neutral language!?!?!

these aren’t his own original, nonsensical thoughts
That’s neutral language?!?!?

I’m not even done with the first page and I have already located three examples of decidedly UN-neutral wording. (You’ll counter by offering some quotes from me to show that I’m just as bad. Go ahead. You’ve already made that accusation.)

Next, you did exactly what I expected you’d do when I wrote:

You might be able to convince somebody to support a Congressional bill they originally opposed, but convincing a theist to become atheist is most unlikely.

I knew that’d you’d argue against “most likely” by stating “possible”, and sure enough, you came through:

Yet it’s happened here a number of times.

Your response has no bearing on my statement. I didn’t say “impossible”, I said “unlikely”. But you argued “possible”. Sheesh. Debaters! So predictable!

Next, you ask me to support my claim that confrontational methods are doomed to failure. You attempt (and will continue to attempt) to focus the question on whether it is remotely possible for a confrontational method to achieve something useful. However, the thrust of my point is that, for decision-making purposes, the likelihood of confrontational methods being successful is so low as to make such methods inadvisable. (You’ll respond with something like “Nyaah, nyaah, you didn’t actually specify that in your statement! Sheesh. Debaters.)

Anyway, my claim about the futility of confrontational methods is based, once again, on social percipience. I don’t expect you to concede the point. All I can say is, “Go get ‘em, hotshot! After enough 2x4s over the head, you’ll learn. It would be nice if you could learn from history, from literature, or from some other source of wisdom, but there are some things that young men must learn the hard way.”

Your next paragraph (about assessing the probability of consequences) refers to it all as “guesswork”. I know that’s the way it seems to a young man. But the term I use is “judgement”, a term whose meaning is difficult to appreciate until you’ve exercised it many times. Have you ever wondered why our society grants the power to decide the most difficult questions to older people? That’s because younger people haven’t had enough time to develop their judgement. There are still plenty of old fools, but if you’re looking for highly developed judgement, you’re most likely to succeed by looking among older people.

So the decision as to whether the probability referred to above is high enough is a matter of judgement. We each make our own judgements. Some of us have special powers assigned to our judgements; others have only the vote. I have already explained how my judgement leads to my conclusions. You are welcome to use your judgement to come to your own conclusions. As I wrote earlier, my judgement as to the pejorative nature of your approach stands.

Your paragraph starting with “Wait”, and the subsequent paragraphs, are based on a misunderstanding of my earlier statement, and are therefore not germane to this discussion.

Next, you completely misunderstand my statement,

In any case, it is the injurious action that requires our attention, not some belief that may or may not have contributed to it.

You respond with arguments about changing people’s minds. Again, you’re not keeping your eye on the ball. Our more fundamental goal is to prevent injury to individuals. That is what should occupy our attentions first and foremost. And our laws for doing so are pretty good. We get very few cases of religious people physically attacking atheists — so few that it is difficult to imagine much we can do to reduce such attacks even further. There’s always room for improvement, but remember — the religion of the shooter isn’t the primary target, the primary target is the shooting.

Lastly, an overall comment. You seem to have a lot of optimism about the power of logic to change people. I felt the same way when I was your age. What I had overlooked was the fact that Homo Sapiens is an animal just like any other, and that our constitution is optimized for life as hunter-gatherers, not logicians. Indeed, logical thinking is an artifice only two thousand years old and something that didn’t start to sink into our culture until about 300 years ago. Even now it remains a distant ideal. You’re trying to convince cave men to give up their clubs by quoting Kant to them. The sad truth is that humans are animals who wear clothes and hold their pinkies up when they drink tea. Religion is a deep component of their makeup; it takes a very special personality to eschew the comforts of religion.

June 18, 2009 at 6:52 pm
(32) Austin Cline says:

Austin, I’m not going to engage you in this silly “you-said–I-said” nonsense.

Responding directly to your comments isn’t “you-said-I-said,” nor is it nonsensical unless you wrote something that you didn’t think was worthy of response.

Saying that my comments are “confused” or “silly” is an easy accusation to make but harder to prove. At least you try, but you fail:

you will be ignoring my paragraph explaining the differences between mental states, speech acts, and injurious actions.

I’m not ignoring it. Instead, I’m waiting for you to explain how a belief can be “inconsequential,” but the injurious acts it leads still make the belief worthy of criticism.

How about the title of your essay?

OK, how about it? I invite you to point to the demonstrable belittling effect.

I find that pejorative. You, of course, will declare that it is not, and thus we are at an impasse. I agree. But that does not induce me to retract my accusation; I stand firmly behind it.

So what we are reduced to is that it’s “inadvisable” for me to express ideas or criticism which you subjectively find pejorative, though cannot actually demonstrate is pejorative. Now, is it just your standards which I am expected to meet or those of everyone? Or maybe I should rely on my own?

Here’s the mistake you’ll make: you’ll point to examples of people changing their core beliefs. The mistake is that such changes are the result of inner personality changes, not external arguments.

OK, prove it. Don’t forget, you’ll need to demonstrate that “personality change” occurred without being helped along by external arguments, confrontational approaches, propaganda, emotional arguments, clever rhetoric, etc.

You criticize me for using the term ‘attack’, because you fail to recognize the intrinsically qualifying nature of that term. I did not use ‘discuss’ or ‘comment upon’ because I do not object to such behavior. I object to attacks — that’s why I used that word.

And is “attack” a conclusion you reach in the same way you reach with “pejorative”? Is it just something where “you know it when you see it,” but can’t actually demonstrate in any reasoned manner?

You should note that I, in contrast, have endeavored to use language that is as neutral as possible, even when talking about religious beliefs and ideas.

Oh c’mon!

I was talking about my discussion with you. I had hoped you percipient enough to figure that out.

I knew that’d you’d argue against “most likely” by stating “possible”

Did you notice, though, that your original assertion was absolute and unqualified? Perhaps it would help you make your case if you exercised a bit of consistency in what you say. Even at your age, it can’t be that hard to remember what you write from one line to the next.

Your response has no bearing on my statement. I didn’t say “impossible”, I said “unlikely”.

“Cannot” is “impossible.”

Next, you ask me to support my claim that confrontational methods are doomed to failure. You attempt (and will continue to attempt) to focus the question on whether it is remotely possible for a confrontational method to achieve something useful. However, the thrust of my point is that, for decision-making purposes, the likelihood of confrontational methods being successful is so low as to make such methods inadvisable.

OK, when challenged to support an absolute claim you retreat to a qualified claim — but fortunately, it’s qualified in a specific manner: the likelihood of success is too low. So, please explain how low the chances are, how you know, and why.

Anyway, my claim about the futility of confrontational methods is based, once again, on social percipience.

When you write “social percipience,” I think you’re just covering up for “pulling guesses out of my nether regions.”

I don’t expect you to concede the point. All I can say is, “Go get ‘em, hotshot!

OK, so now you’re treating this as advisable. I can now say, in all honesty, that when it comes to confrontational methods you’re advice is “go get ‘em”.

After enough 2x4s over the head, you’ll learn.

I’ve been at this since 1998 on About alone, and for a quite while elsewhere before that. Thus far, I have not found my way of doing things to be ineffective, inadvisable, or problematic.

Even in cases where it’s not expected that you’ll convince someone, you clearly don’t think it’s inadvisable to make your case anyway. If you did, you wouldn’t have posted so much here to make your case about this. So, obviously, you don’t have a problem with arguing against some position which is non-injurious and where you don’t expect to succeed in convincing anyone.

Your next paragraph (about assessing the probability of consequences) refers to it all as “guesswork”. I know that’s the way it seems to a young man.

Now you’re defending colon-produced guesswork because it was extracted from a well-aged colon. Sorry, but unless you can demonstrate success with your guesses (or your colon), they aren’t worthy anything.

But, if you can do it then so can I: I regard the position Mooney, Forrest, you, and others are promoting to be pejorative at the very least and quite possibly injurious. No, I can’t prove it – it’s derived from my judgment which is based on years of research, debate, and discussion. Or, if you like, I yanked it out of my nether regions. If it’s true that I’m younger than you, it only means I’m not suffering from deleterious effects which age has had on your mental agility and reasoning skills. It also means that I don’t suffer from the sorts of gastro-intestinal irregularity which afflict so many of the elderly, thus anything I pull from my nether regions is bound to be in much better shape.

Our more fundamental goal is to prevent injury to individuals.

That’s a goal. It’s not my only goal.

Lastly, an overall comment. You seem to have a lot of optimism about the power of logic to change people.

First you berate me for using heated language rather than logic, then you whine that I have too much optimism in the power of logic. I’m going to assume that you didn’t read this, a real problem for someone who spends so much time complaining about being misunderstood or misrepresented:

However, I also know that most people are absolutely terrible when it comes to logical arguments – don’t know how to use them, don’t know how to evaluate them, and didn’t arrive at their present conclusions via logical arguments. Use of cold, sober logic is pleasing to people like me who think in such ways, but it has little impact on others. If you look at really effective propaganda closely, you’ll find little in the way of sober logical arguments in it. Marketing/advertising too. I’m not employing any particular “propaganda techniques,” I’m simply pointing out how little progress is made in mass-persuasion through sober logic.

Emotional arguments that hit close to home work far better with the average person. Stories about real people suffering injustice work far better than an impersonal argument about how nifty equality is. People think with their gut and use their brain to rationalize later on – unfortunate, but it’s how people seem to work.

So, yeah, harsh rhetoric to get people riled up a bit can be quite effective in some situations. It shouldn’t be, but it is. If I could wave a wand to cause people to ignore such things in favor of looking just at the quality of arguments, that would be great – and it would make your concerns here much, much more right. Yes, I’d like to make you right! But I can’t. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.

Or maybe you just nodded off when you got to the end of that comment? Old people needs them their naps.

You’re trying to convince cave men to give up their clubs by quoting Kant to them.

Hmmm…. first I’m wrong for being confrontational, then I’m wrong for quoting Kant. I don’t think that it’s possible to be very confrontation with Kantian quotes, so I think you’ve missed one of your naps.

June 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm
(33) Erasmussimo says:

It’s obvious that this has interchange has lost all value, so this will be my last post. First, your speculation as to my purpose is incorrect here; I have no intention of convincing you of anything. My purpose here is to improve my writing skills.

I recognized from your writing that you represent a particular class of writer that I have long recognized. I refer to this class as “the Debater” and it is characterized first and foremost by an emphasis on ostentatious but sloppy logic. The logic is sound enough for somebody reading it one post at a time, but when the overall piece is read as a whole, the Debater is seen to ricochet all over the map, to argue every tiny point without ever arguing a coherent overall case. My guess was right and you turned out to be a particularly good example of this class of writer. The problem here is to induce the writer to seriously engage on the topic. In this, you showed a lot of debater’s talent: you concentrated on the attack, avoided making clear statements of your own thinking, and lathered every statement of your position with indefinite qualifiers.

Now, you can never nail down a Debater, but my goal was to learn how better to expose his case as a sham by getting him to bounce and evade so egregiously that a fair-minded reader will conclude that it’s all a lot of hot air. In that, I think I was fairly successful. I wasn’t as aggressive in this pursuit as I could have been because you were quite courteous throughout most of the exchange and I thought that maybe, just maybe, an illuminating discussion might develop.

I present a final point for your consideration: there was never any possibility that I would convince you that your essay was pejorative to the public debate. We both knew that from the start. The fruitful lesson here comes from asking “Why was there no possibility?”

I leave you with that question.

June 18, 2009 at 9:16 pm
(34) Austin Cline says:

It’s obvious that this has interchange has lost all value

What value did it have for you earlier?

For me, it had the value of someone being able to put the best foot forward for this accommodationist approach so that I could reveal just how hypocritical, contradictory, and vacuous it was. Since that’s been accomplished, it has lost value for me.

First, your speculation as to my purpose is incorrect here; I have no intention of convincing you of anything.

I did not say that this was your purpose, gramps. On the contrary, I specifically pointed out that you didn’t expect to. Turn up the hearing aid.

My purpose here is to improve my writing skills.

Since nothing has happened to stop that from continuing, it can’t have lost all value for you.

I recognized from your writing that you represent a particular class of writer that I have long recognized.

You recognized what you long recognized! Congratulations!

I refer to this class as “the Debater” and it is

…one of your ways of dividing up people into neat little groups which are easier for someone your age to keep track of. Sure it’s objectifying and even a bit dehumanizing, but the pejorative nature of that is small price to pay to remember whom your dealing with from minute to minute.

characterized first and foremost by an emphasis on ostentatious but sloppy logic.

Not that you know enough about logic to point out any actual holes. Then again, maybe in your concern with the “overall piece,” you keep mixing up all the Debater Pieces you read. We are all the same, aren’t we? We’re just a means to your end — or at least what you imagine is your end — of revealing the “flaws” in “Debater methods.” Who we are as persons and the details of what we actually think are hardly relevant.

you concentrated on the attack, avoided making clear statements of your own thinking, and lathered every statement of your position with indefinite qualifiers.

I’m sorry that I didn’t simply my position enough for you to comprehend. Maybe if you read slower?

my goal was to learn how better to expose his case as a sham by getting him to bounce and evade so egregiously that a fair-minded reader will conclude that it’s all a lot of hot air.

I never evaded any questions you asked and endeavored to explain my position whenever asked — despite you putting words in my mouth and attributing to me positions I never took. It’s rather disingenuous for you to accuse me of evading in those circumstances.

Given the rather extreme positions you tried to attribute to me, perhaps your complaint above about my positions having “indefinite qualifiers” suggests that you had hoped to debate someone who promoted all the straw men and “militant” extremism you’ve been told characterizes “new atheists.” When you found that wasn’t the case, and that I instead adopted more careful and nuanced positions that you couldn’t actually argue against, I suppose that would have forced a hasty reassessment of what you could accomplish.

Clearly, you don’t do very well when forced to change directions quickly.

I present a final point for your consideration: there was never any possibility that I would convince you that your essay was pejorative to the public debate. We both knew that from the start.

Since I didn’t know from the start that this was your position, it’s not possible that I could know that this was a goal that could not be achieved. Frankly, I didn’t give any thought to what your goal might or might not be. I prefer to try to address people’s ideas, opinions, and arguments at face value without possible, prejudicial concern with their background religion, ethnicity, agenda, etc. We are all susceptible to strong unconscious biases and the very fact that they are unconscious makes it hard, if not impossible, to overcome them once they take effect. I am hopeful that it’s better to prevent possibly prejudicial assumptions from taking root at all.

The fruitful lesson here comes from asking “Why was there no possibility?”

Since you don’t believe that it is ever possible, it likely follows that even if you try you won’t ever do so hard enough to get anywhere. Since your goal lay elsewhere entirely, the answer is simple: you fail because you don’t try. Of course, if you aren’t confident that your position is superior in any way to alternatives, it’s probably better for everyone that you don’t really try. Indeed, with the overall pejorative nature of your attitudes and ideas, it’s surely inadvisable for you to even express such things.

Not that I expect you to agree with me. After all, we both know that you could never be convinced to agree that you should be subjected to your own standards. If you can’t convince anyone else, how can you ever convince yourself?

I leave you with that question.

Ah, faux philosophical depth. I wonder if you asked that question of yourself here.

June 19, 2009 at 7:58 am
(35) Coryat says:

Not to sound too sycophantic, but that really was very good Austin.

You nailed him down on his shifting language about poles, and the comments on his age were a perfect and deserved riposte to his bringing up your (comparative) youth.

June 19, 2009 at 8:23 am
(36) Moridin says:

I think the pragmatic argument stems from the idea that advocating incompatibility between science and religion is exactly what creationists want, because then they can say to their flock that if you accept evolution and so on, then you cannot be a Christan. Even if this is true (a position I consider merited), it will make religious people ignore the science, because it seems clear to me that when push comes to shove, they will side with the ideology they have been indoctrinated into and reject science. Eric Hovdind wrote almost exactly this on his blog the other day and Philip Johnson has been arguing it for years. If a biologist starts a talk about evolution at a fundamentalist church and starts with saying that you have to abandon your religion to accept what I am saying, the congregation will ignore everything the biologist has to say, even though it is true that they ultimately have to abandon their worldview.

So I think that accomodationists who are also atheists advocate that accomodationism should be used because is useful, whereas antagonists (for a lack of better word) does not think accomodationism should be used because it is false. I think the two sides also have different overall goals. The accomodationists want to see evolution and related sciences accepted by people who also claim to be deeply religious and this implies specific methods (such as accomodationism); the antagonists want to see science and rational thought eclipse irrationalism overall, which implies other methods (such as advocating an incompatibility between science and religion and that science is valid).

Maybe it is from here that some of the vitriol displayed in the accomodationist vs. antagonist debate comes from? Also, is it possible for accomodationism to be useful in convincing deeply religious to accept science, yet still be fundamentally philosophically untenable? Or is that just insulting to religious people?

June 19, 2009 at 9:05 am
(37) Austin Cline says:

Even if this is true (a position I consider merited), it will make religious people ignore the science, because it seems clear to me that when push comes to shove, they will side with the ideology they have been indoctrinated into and reject science.

Obviously that isn’t entirely true, otherwise Christians would still believe exactly what they believed centuries ago. But they don’t; instead, Christian beliefs have evolved over time to abandon those aspects which were no longer tenable in the light of modern science.

Pointing out that some aspect of science (S) isn’t compatible with some aspect of some religion (R) will always turn some people off. Others will gradually amend their beliefs. In the long run, though, more and more of the younger generations will grow up already accepting the science – rather like with noxious beliefs such as racism.

Accommodationists want to argue that S and R are compatible, but that isn’t possible without misrepresenting S or altering R if, in fact, they aren’t truly compatible. Believers won’t approve of people altering R on them, and no one will be happy when they learn that S was misrepresented.

I might respect the accommodationist viewpoint if they admitted that they were doing something that is or is potentially misleading, false, and deceitful but only because it’s in the service of an ideological agenda important enough to lie for. They don’t, however — they will insist that their arguments for compatibility are genuine. So if they are going to insist that they are arguing for the truth, then their argument must stand or fall on its merits. Appeals to “but its useful” are implicitly abandoned and cannot be brought up later when it looks like the validity of their arguments isn’t working out.

If a biologist starts a talk about evolution at a fundamentalist church and starts with saying that you have to abandon your religion to accept what I am saying, the congregation will ignore everything the biologist has to say, even though it is true that they ultimately have to abandon their worldview.

Since fundamentalist churches won’t likely accept evolution regardless of what you say, I wouldn’t recommend that biologists go there to say anything anyway.

June 19, 2009 at 9:07 am
(38) Coryat says:

‘Also, is it possible for accomodationism to be useful in convincing deeply religious to accept science, yet still be fundamentally philosophically untenable? Or is that just insulting to religious people?’

I do believe that accomodationism has a place, and I would consider men like Kenneth Miller as valuable allies on the side of science and reason. Indeed, I support a pluralistic approach. That has to cut both ways though: we need to act in good faith and be prepared to say what we actually believe. This means that whilst accomodationists are free to accomodate, they should stop telling us to sit down and shut up.

I think the key point is acting in good faith: although I think accomodationists are wrong-headed, they’re free to say as they wish; but if atheists and science proponents want to shake negative sterotypes of themselves then we can’t pretend to not believe what we believe (i.e. non-compatability) nor shut up for machivellian strategic reasons.

June 19, 2009 at 7:57 pm
(39) Zayla says:

After devoting a lot of time to reading that debate, I wondered why Erasmussimo had to bring up age at all?

What did anyone’s age have to do with anything? It never would have occurred to me to mention that. I can only assume that Erasmussimo was clearly losing steam and had to start attacking the author.

What a shame and an embarrassment. The home probably took the computer away at a certain time and he knew it so he was hurrying his comments up. Can’t be late for tapioca pudding.

June 20, 2009 at 11:04 am
(40) mobathome says:

Please stop the barbs about Erasmussimo’s alleged age. The flood of stereotypes about people who are old feels hurtful to me. Perhaps it’s because while I’m not there, I can see myself there. Perhaps it’s because I regularly go to a rehab home where I see old people struggle with the disabilities brought on by age.

June 20, 2009 at 11:08 am
(41) mobathome says:

O.K. Not a “flood”. Still, please stop.

June 22, 2009 at 12:59 am
(42) TB says:

“Accommodationists want to argue that S and R are compatible, but that isn’t possible without misrepresenting S or altering R if, in fact, they aren’t truly compatible. Believers won’t approve of people altering R on them, and no one will be happy when they learn that S was misrepresented.”

Except “R” gets altered all the time, and has been through the ages.

As Larry Krause has said, it is “R” that needs to change to conform to “S.” And if people do that, without changing “S,” then really there’s no problem.

“S” changes due to new information and discoveries. “R” should change as well, with “S,” and with the overall idea of methodological naturalism.

June 22, 2009 at 6:11 am
(43) Austin Cline says:

Except “R” gets altered all the time, and has been through the ages.

Certainly R gets altered, but that’s not the same as misrepresenting R — i.e., attributing to people an R that isn’t accurate.

As Larry Krause has said, it is “R” that needs to change to conform to “S.” And if people do that, without changing “S,” then really there’s no problem.

Of course believer are welcome to change R to make it compatible with us. The problem is, the incompatibilities lie not just on the level of specific empirical claims but also in attitudes and methodologies.

“S” changes due to new information and discoveries. “R” should change as well, with “S,” and with the overall idea of methodological naturalism.

That’s the my previous point: R doesn’t change that way, even in forms of R that have abandoned the most seriously problematic empirical claims.

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