NY Times report on humanism conference

October 16, 2010 • 7:51 am

In the “beliefs” section of today’s New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer reports on the Los Angeles meetings of the Council for Secular Humanism.  It’s a pretty fair article, and, after describing the Myers/Mooney clash about whether Francis Collins is a “clown,” comes to an important conclusion:

But for many in the audience, Mr. Collins’s clown status was not the pertinent issue.

Rather, as atheists in a very religious country, they were looking for solidarity.

For example, I had lunch on Saturday with two young lovers who met earlier this year at “Generation Atheist,” a meet-up for young people at a pub in Hollywood, where they had gone looking for like minds.

“I’m not ‘out’ at my workplace,” said the woman, Claire, a 27-year-old arts administrator who asked that her last name not be used. “Because most people think atheists have no morals, I could damage the organization if I’m honest about where I stand on the issue,” she said.

Mr. Myers and other “confrontationalists” surely do alienate some potential Christian allies. But they may also give comfort to people like Claire, who feel like an invisible minority. Mr. Myers is way out of the closet as an atheist — proudly, outrageously so. We’re here, he’s saying. And we don’t believe. And we have science and reason on our side. Get used to it.

That’s what Gnu Atheism is really about: legitimizing and un-demonizing atheism.  I know from my trip to Kentucky, and elsewhere in the South, that there’s a large but silent minority of atheists in this country.  Their becoming visible is the first step, and becoming more vocal the second.  And then: look out, ye faithful!

44 thoughts on “NY Times report on humanism conference

  1. See also this excellent blog post by Jason Rosenhouse:

    Likewise, if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.
    It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.

    1. Hmmm. I always thought that something that became “entirely ho hum and commonplace” would actually become invisible.

  2. If I’m not mistaken, Oppenheimer is a religious historian for the Times. It’s really heartening when somebody who is not in the Gnu Atheist camp — and is apparently not even an atheist at all, for that matter — “gets it” in terms of what we are doing, whether not they agree.

    That’s what’s so infuriating about Mooney et al… it’s not that he disagrees, which is fine — it’s that he completely misrepresents what the Gnus are all about. He obstinately misses the point.

    1. I think Mooney manufactures the misrepresentation so that he *can* disagree. Ultimately, he knows there can be no criticism with content — only presentation. What they really have a problem with is satire, candor, and irony. Witty commentary is perceived as militant behavior and uninhibited prose appears unmannerly.

    2. I’m not so sure Oppenheimer gets it, exactly. In the second graph, he writes, “They agreed on two things: People can be good without religion, and religion has too much influence. But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims.”

      They disagreed on the level of stridency? What? As if we all agreed that being strident is a central strategy or a tactic? Hell. We keep insisting that being frank and forceful isn’t being strident, but they aren’t hearing it.

      1. “disagreed about how stridently to make those claims”, while it would definitely not be my preferred choice of words, is not a terrible description of the gnu/accomodationist divide, at least not IMO. It captures the gist of it, even if it’s maybe got some hidden biases and does not capture both sides as clearly as it ought.

  3. Unless one has tenure or independent wealth in the Southeast, the “stigma” associated with non-belief tends to wreak havoc on one’s social mobility. However, I think there’s no getting around the fact that we must reclaim atheism. Even if one employs a euphemism such as “rationalist” or “humanist,” the theist’s default question remains: “So you’re an atheist?”

    1. Not necessarily. I live in the South, and my openness about my atheism is situational.

      I’m in a minor leadership role in a fairly large organization down here in Possum Holler, and my lack of interest in organized religion is well known.

      But for the sake of comity, my colleagues don’t ask the follow-up question. And I don’t volunteer. And I don’t ask them what church they belong to, and they don’t tell me that, either.

      One of my favorite people in this group is a semi-retired minister. He’s a wonderful guy, but he’s not only swallowed the Kool-Ade, he mixes up a new batch every week. But he and I get along great; because my lack of religion isn’t part-and-parcel with what it is that we do together.

      I have had extended discussions about the 6000-year-old universe with a select few others in the group, including a golfing buddy. They prefer to believe in it because to do otherwise makes their head hurt. But I think deep down, they realize that scientists are “right”. They’re fighting against their own cognitive disconnect.

      1. Kevin: “They prefer to believe in it because to do otherwise makes their head hurt.”

        That’s been my experience as well. And I’d say if considering the alternative makes your head hurt it’s because you’ve been indoctrinated at a very young age.

        1. Can’t remember where this came from. Stole it from someone, but now I can’t remember who.

          Anyway, it goes something like this:

          Reality is in very dire trouble indeed if the only things that exist are limited to things that creationists are capable of understanding.

  4. The emperor isn’t merely naked; he’s a hideous monster who isn’t even there.

    PZ goes to great pains to put forth his one true core value: truth. He opens his remarks with it, and he constantly challenges accommodationists not, for example, on the alleged efficacy of a strategy, but on the truth of its premises. I strive to do the same, which is why I’ll call religion the worship of an eternally absent absurdly abhorrent abomination clothed in nonexistent finery.

    I don’t have enough mental bandwidth to tell people lies that I think they think they want to hear. I won’t go out of my way to rub people’s noses in their follies…but, if they go too far in rubbing their follies in my nose, I won’t refrain from responding with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    If that helps lead to a society in which people abandon these kinds of follies, all the better. But, for me, that’s a welcome side-effect. First and foremost, I am to mine own self being true.



  5. Calling Collins a clown isn’t exactly tangential to the purpose of making atheism mainstream either. I think it serves a valuable service by knocking faith qua faith off the enormous pedestal it has built itself and it challenges belief in belief. Up until a few years ago, the religious could declare almost any wacky idea their “faith” and it would be untouchable, even laudable. Now increasingly these ideas are subject to scrutiny, challenge and from some people even derision. I expect that this will lead those who never cared that much for faith to stop supporting it and those that still believe may think twice about expressing it, or at least to expect a challenge.

    All of that will go a long way towards making it easier for atheists to come out and once out, for people to accept them as reasonable, moral members of society.

    Bring on the clowns!

  6. Mr. Myers and other “confrontationalists” surely do alienate some potential Christian allies. But they may also give comfort to people like Claire, who feel like an invisible minority.

    Ya think?!

    Of course they fucking do, and people like Claire need it, and given that atheism is not eeevil or harmful or immoral or anything else that would justify permanent stigma and ostracism and bullying, it’s a good thing that Myers and other confrontationalists are doing what they’re (we’re) doing. We are Helping.

    1. Just a note about the evils of Gnu Atheism: Michael Ruse has a new blog post on HuffPo, discussing Philip Kitcher’s recent paper, in which Ruse says the following:

      But I write about the New Atheists because I think their hateful attitude towards believers is a potential force for great social and moral evil.

      Yeah, right!

      1. I first saw Ruse on Nightline with Behe or Dembski – I forget who. My thought while watching him was “He’s on our side?” Time has not changed my opinion.

      2. Useful piece of evidence!

        Ruse is reliably the worst of the prominent (published in major media) gnu atheist haters – worst in the sense of truly, McCarthyistically over the top.

      3. For the zillionth time Dr Ruse, all of our “hateful attitude” is directed towards delusional ideas and not to the persons holding them.

        1. I’ve just been calling him every name in the book. Look at the last paragraph of an article of his at the CHE, about a scholar at a Calvinist college who may get fired for trying a theological reconciliation with evolution –


          Just last week, the editor of the British magazine the New Humanist, who argued for some modicum of accommodation, was called a quisling – after the Norwegian Nazi who supported the Germans in their Second World War occupation of his country. But really, what does this matter to us? I rather thrive on abuse. The case of a brave scholar like John Schneider shows too well that even today, at top-quality institutions, being willing to push the boundaries of understanding can come at great personal stress and possible cost. Such people will never get any respect from the New Atheists, who simply hate everything and anything to do with religion and who have nothing but contempt for believers. The rest of us should realize just how very perverting religion can be in even the best places and should applaud those who are believers who stand up against its misuse.

          The article has nothing to do with gnu atheism, yet at the end Ruse somehow has to yank the whole thing onto the gnu atheists so he can piss on them for the forty thousandth time, and so that he can separate them from “the rest of us” – the better to be stoned to death, perhaps.

          What a vile man he is.

    2. Yes Ophelia, the people who confront religion on the world stage are doing good. I am someone who identifies with Claire. You, PZ, Dawkins etc help give me the voice I would otherwise not have. Thank you guys a zillion times over.

    3. Being out is one way I can be of service to others. Anyone at my work (or my neighborhood) who cares to know will find out my position. I was timidly approached a while back by a fellow whose ‘a-dar’ gave him the courage to admit that he really did not believe in God and had not for some time and finally he found someone with whom he could talk about it.

      Despite what the a-haters seem to think, we don’t go around harassing religious people. I was invited to a Muslim co-worker’s wedding celebration and did nothing to embarrass him or his guests. My wife (also out) covered more skin than usual in deference, unlike, interestingly, some of the nominally religious co-workers.

  7. The latest jibe from the atheist gnu atheist-haters is that we think we’re so brave, we think we’re heroes, we think we’re like Martin Luther King.

    Bullshit. We think no such thing. I know perfectly well I’m no hero; I certainly know that I’m not brave; I don’t think I’m like King. I just think there is a need for Out atheism, that’s all; it doesn’t follow that I think I’m heroic for trying to provide some.

    1. Ophelia, you forgot to mention that not only are we being derided for supposedly comparing ourselves to King but that our tactics are reminiscent of Malcolm X and his comrades. Special company indeed!

    2. I find it incredible from the UK point of view, that people feel so unable to ‘come out’ about being atheist in the US! It is appalling that they feel so discriminated against. Most people in the UK until recently did not seem to make any issue of religion or the lack thereof intrude into the workplace. That may have changed with the visible presence of muslim women wearing the headscarf – ubiquitous in London & other major cites in western Europe. I think that may have (this is a supposition not evidence based) made ordinary people think more about religion or perhaps identify themselves more with what religion they were brought up with. I am not an apostate in the sense that I never believed that stuff even though I went along with it until I was 18 or so. I am a gnold atheist!

    3. One reason why more radical groups than the SCLC existed is that they knew civil rights legislation wouldn’t go far enough, the government would likely not enforce it rigorously, and it would never lead to true equality. These groups were looking for something more.
      If the NCSE is supposed to be analogous to the SCLC, then given the latter’s poor performance in achieving any movement on evolution over the past 30 years would not that warrant a different approach.

      Case in point – the recent data from Gallup shows no change in acceptance of evolution in the 30 year history of the NCSE, http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx
      thousands of biology teachers are still either not teaching evolution or teaching creationism, and school boards and state legislatures are still trying to force creationism into the public schools.
      One has to consider that McLean v. Arkansas BOE was in 1981 (coinciding with the founding of the NCSE), Kitzmiller v. Dover Area SB was in 2005 covering essentially the same ground, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published in 2006.
      Why wouldn’t people think a new strategy was needed? This is not all the NCSE’s fault and we all know their heart is in the right place, but what do they have to show for their efforts?

  8. That’s why Plait’s et al fishing expedition for “dicks” by way of cold reading irritates me so. The shoe is actually on the other foot, verifiable so, and it is immoral to rely on the inhuman reaction of not reacting when depicting the general situation. It’s called “victim’s guilt” I believe.

  9. Apart from the conclusion, this was certainly a pretty bad article, by any journalistic standards. First, it’s pure he-said-she-said. Second, it’s virtually context-free. Third, it’s full of lazy cliches and cardboard characterisations: a poll “energized” the attendees, they disagreed about the “movement’s” future, there’s a “rumoured rift”, some “pamphleteers” were there, they “believed” morality was possible without God, and each side “stereotyped” the other—with the author duly picking up one of the stereotypes to use on PZ.

    For any serious journalist, it is profoundly frustrating to see this kind of pseudo-journalism by lazy, hackneyed writers being featured in nominally prestigious papers. The only thing these people seem to be good at is playing it safe—as in “fit to print”. That’s just depressing.

    1. I also disliked the “stereotyping” stuff:

      Here even the humanists got less humane, as each side stereotyped the other. Those trying to find common ground with religious people were called “accommodationists,” while the more outspoken atheists were called “confrontationalists” and accused of alienating potential allies, like moderate Christians.

      Why is labelling necessarily stereotyping? Was it “stereotyping” to call the Freedom Riders “integrationists” and their opponents “segregationists”?

    2. Quite. And this is exactly the kind of reporting you get when the reporter feels no obligation whatsoever to make sense of the material for himself. If you don’t even try to understand the issues yourself, then of course all you can see are commonly applied labels that seem stereotypical to you, because you don’t have the background to see what they are shorthand for. Duh!

      1. True. Oppenheimer does the fly-on-the-wall thing in which “covering” an event just means telling us who-said-what-to-whom and what was the “gossip” about. It’s a roving eyeball, but not one that’s connected to a brain that can make any sense of what its seeing. The NY Times should be better than that. I wish they would have sent a reporter that was able (willing?) to cover the event the way, for example, Linda Greenhouse used to cover the Supreme Court.

    3. I don’t know that it’s so terrible considering the source. Remember this is the ‘beliefs’ section of the paper, by a ‘religion’ reporter.

      This is a person that goes around to churches and reports vaguely happy and context free content… that’s his job. I don’t think religion reporters ever deal with actual facts or challenging questions.

  10. I get tired of reading remarks such as this, from Oppenheimer’s article:

    In the past, Mr. Myers has called Mr. Collins “a clown” because of his religious beliefs.

    Yes, PZ did call Collins “a clown”, but what he said was not so boring and witless as “Francis Collins is a clown”. The analogy PZ used is a lot funnier than that, and it makes a serious point that none of the “clown” critics has ever answered:

    The situation is this: the White House has picked for high office a well-known scientist with a good track record in management who wears clown shoes. Worse, this scientist likes to stroll about with his clown shoes going squeak-squeak-squeak, pointing them out to everyone, and bragging about how red and shiny and gosh-darned big his shoes are, and tut-tutting at the apparent lack of fine fashion sense exhibited by his peers who wear rather less flamboyant footwear.

    I would rather Obama had appointed someone who wore practical shoes, and didn’t make much of a fuss about them, anyway. And excuse me, but I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.

  11. There is an analogous problem in medical science reported this week in the Atlantic (“Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” – http://bit.ly/bU6o49). I.e., Exposing poor scientific practices could give the alternate medicine camp more reason to be skeptical about medical science. Dr. Ioannidis, the protagonist of the article, answers it best: “If we don’t tell the public about these problems, then we’re no better than nonscientists who falsely claim they can heal.”

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