Pigliucci calls out atheists again

January 12, 2011 • 11:12 am

Using the excuse of criticizing an advertisement by the American Atheists, Massimo Pigliucci goes after what he calls “in-your-face” atheists over at Rationally Speaking.  The ad, which has been criticized by others, including Rebecca Watson,  is indeed unfortunate: it’s ugly and probably not very effective:

Like Watson, Massimo properly calls out the AA organization for not doing a better job here.  But, in the process, he can’t resist being disagreeable and taking a swipe at atheists in general.

And he faults the AA for lying:

First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers.

Well, one can debate what “scam” means here.  Certainly some purveyors of religion are being knowingly dishonest: witness the nonbelieving preachers in the Dennett and LaScola study, who still preached the gospel despite their creeping atheism.  In a reply just published at Rationally Speaking, though, former AA President Ed Buckner takes issue with the word “scam”:

The meaning of “scams” is also quite relevant, of course. Massimo declares that “an intentional fraud” is what one is claiming when one says “scam” and there are certainly elements of that intentionality implied at some level. But if one Googles “scam definition,” the very first things that pop up are:
1. Victimize: deprive of by deceit; “He swindled me out of my inheritance”; “She defrauded the customers who trusted her”; “the cashier gypped me when he gave me too little change”; a fraudulent business scheme.
2. A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence.

Given such definitions, it is reasonable to argue that someone can be victimized by a scam even when the immediate agent for victimization is wholly unaware of the fraudulent nature of the transaction.

Well, this semantic quibble is what we Jews (SECULAR Jews!) call pilpul: intense argument about trivial issues.  Personally, I read “scam” in Buckner’s sense.  But never mind.  What irritated me more was Pigliucci’s haughty and supercilious criticism of atheists.  Granted, at first he imputes these sins to only “some” atheists, but eventually that “some” becomes “many.”  Arguments about a group from personal experience, without documentation (why don’t people ever name or link to the “dicks”?), aren’t terribly effective.

If only a few of us are guilty of these sins, what’s the big deal?  There are some professional philosophers who don’t argue very well, either, but we don’t indict the whole profession for a few miscreants.

And, according to Pigliucci, here are the sins of in-your-face atheists:

1. We’re inconsistent and arrogant.

Then again, in my dealings with the skeptic, humanist and atheists communities over the years I have noticed a peculiar lack of critical thinking among some atheists. Atheists are not necessarily skeptics (and vice versa), though they typically pride themselves in being smarter and more honest than religious people.

It’s odd that Pigliucci, at least, berates “some” atheists for saying they’re smarter and more honest than religious people, for if you’ve read his columns regularly, you know that that lack of humility is his own besetting fault.  I thought he’d decided to be less arrogant, but that’s not obvious in this latest column.  For example, he lectures atheists again because

2.  We’re philosophically ignorant and afflicted with scientism.

Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.

Oh dear, we’re back to that again, except that “some” atheists have become “several” and “many.”  Yes, I decry those atheists who approve of things like homeopathy, but really, I find them quite rare.  If anything, the situation is the reverse: skeptics tend to go after stuff like homeopathy and astrology and, for tactical reasons, keep their mitts off religion.  And I maybe I am ignorant, because I’m not sure where the epistemic limits of reason really lie—at least in understanding the universe around me.

Really, what is this “unbounded faith” that we have in science?  That sounds like something a creationist or faitheist would say.  We don’t have “faith” in science and reason any more than we have “faith” in evolution or atoms.  We have confidence in using science and reason because they’ve been shown to work.

3.  We’re angry.

Pigliucci says:

I get it, a lot of atheists are recovering from religious indoctrination, often of the harshest fundamentalist kind, and they are therefore angry about all the time they have wasted and all the emotional suffering they have endured. I went through my own short anger phase in atheism after I moved to Tennessee (where religion was as in your face as it could possibly get, the place priding itself in being the buckle of the Bible Belt). Anger is good as a transitory psychological state, because it gives us the energy to reexamine broad aspects of our lives, laying the ground for a more thoughtful future self. But if it stays in our system it quickly becomes both corrosive at the personal level and undermines our overall goals as a community.

(Note that “some” atheists have become “a lot of atheists”.)  Once again, Massimo has managed to transcend the limitations that he sees as afflicting everyone else.

What a condescending and invidious thing to say!  The accusation here is that angry atheism springs largely from being psychologically damaged by faith.  But no, Massimo, most of us, even including those who used to be religious, have legitimate reasons—beyond religious indoctrinationto be angry.

And our anger is a good thing.

[Note: at the bottom I’ve added links to two earlier posts by Greta Christina on why atheist anger is good.]

I, for one, was never indoctrinated, and nevertheless I’m angry. I’m angry that these scams (that’s what I’ll call them) have such horrible effects on the world.  I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation.  I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks.  I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur.  I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock.   I’m angry that many religions see, and treat, women as second-class citizens, stoning them, swathing them in burkas, or making them sit behind screens in the synagogue and purify themselves in ritual baths during menstruation.  I’m angry at the stupid dogmatism that’s behind creationism, and behind the idea that even if evolution might have happened, God did it all. I’m angry at the faithful who dispute global warming, or environmental depredation, because they think God gave us stewardship over the earth.  I’m angry at those people who oppose abortion or stem-cell research because of the absolutely stupid idea that a ball of cells is equivalent to a sentient person.  I’m angry at the faithful who, on religious grounds, prevent suffering and terminally ill people from deciding to end their own lives. I’m angry that one of the greatest pleasures of being human, the act of sex, is subject to insane restrictions and prohibitions by many faiths—especially when it’s between two people of the same gender.

And I’m angry that religious people try to suppress freedom of speech when it deals with religion, trying to prevent us from calling attention to all this damage.

What is the proper response to all this religiously-inspired nonsense?  Anger, of course.  No, you don’t have to be a red-faced, sputtering jerk when confronting the faithful, but controlled anger is without doubt the right response to a form of superstition that wreaks uncountable harms on humanity.  And not “transitory” anger, either—permanent anger.

Nor need anger turn you into a sour, embittered, and ineffective person.  I’ve met the Big Four atheists—Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens—and they’re all delightful people, with not a trace of bitterness.  They turn on the anger only when it’s appropriate.  I’d rather have a beer with any of them than with a “non-angry” accommodationist like Chris Mooney.  Really, in the end it’s the accommodationists who are angry—at us!  They pretend to be oh-so-nice people, but underneath are deeply angry and aggressive because we’re not listening to them.

Again, the proper response to religious stupidity, as it was to segregation in the South, is anger—persistent anger.  Anger that remains until the kind of religion that forces its tenets and superstitions down humanity’s throat vanishes for good.

Finally, since Massimo sees fit to lecture us about how the way we should behave to get our message across, let me reciprocate.  Massimo, you’re a smart guy, and could be a real asset to atheism. But don’t you see how you look to many of us with your arrogance and your constant lectures on how we’re not as smart, insightful, or philosophically sophisticated as you?  Many of your posts virtually drip with the overtones of “I AM SMARTER THAN YOU ARE.”  I guess you really believe that (though, really, some of us actually do know philosophy), but perhaps you could refrain from saying it so often?  It really does undercut your message.


UPDATE:  I knew that Greta Christina did an awesome post a while back about why atheists should be angry.  I couldn’t find the link, but she just sent it to me.  She actually did two posts on the topic:

Atheists and Anger

and, the response to the many comments she got on that one:

Atheists and Anger: A reply to the hurricane

175 thoughts on “Pigliucci calls out atheists again

  1. Well put. Pigliucci has made some great contributions to evolutionary biology (particularly in the area of the evolution of plasticity), and his Denying Evolution book is well worth reading (parts of Nonsense on Stilts were similarly illuminating), but I regret his tendency to play the “But-I-uniquely-understand-the-philosophical-underpinnings-of-these-issues” card. “Some” biologists (“many?”) might argue that he is overreacting to “atheist anger” (for unknown reasons) and is perhaps a little too quick to label “some” of his opponents as disingenuous or philosophically naive.

    1. And “recovery from indoctrination” as a motivation for anger is indeed an unsupported generalization. You have laid out OTHER motivations for anger that are quite sufficient, and there is no need to invoke one’s personal history. My own anecdotal impression is that “recovery from religious indoctrination” is NOT the most common cause of perceived anger – more folks are upset with the current, ongoing CONSEQUENCES of the policies and practices of various religious organizations.

      1. Pigliucci’s assertion that most “angry atheists” are “angry” because they experienced childhood religious indoctrination is upsetting for a few different reasons. It provides ammunition to people (atheists or non-atheists) who claim that atheists who grew up with religious indoctrination (myself included) are atheists/”angry atheists” solely because we have some sort of “issues” to work through and/or are psychologically damaged, etc. Yes, there are individuals whose atheism stems out of anger at the religion in which they were raised, but Pigliucci’s claim is a huge overgeneralization, supported only by anecdotal evidence. It’s the height of condescension to assume that our atheism and/or our anger at religion are a result of emotional “issues” and/or are some sort of rebellion against our pasts, when, for most of us, they’re a result of our critical thinking abilities and our empathy/ethical concerns.

        1. People are angry because they’re atheists, not atheists because they’re angry, he has fallen for the old, “Atheists are just angry at god” line, he should know better.

        2. Using his own words, I hope he has the facts to back that up, because, well, you know, otherwise he’d be…lying?

  2. Well said, Jerry. I had to stop reading Massimo’s blog a while back because my neck was beginning to hurt. It’s tough looking up at someone on such a high horse all the time.

  3. Yes, I’m angry too, permanently, irreversibly angry, angry at religions for all the reasons you give — marvellous paragraph beginning “I, for one, was never indoctrinated, and nevertheless I’m angry.” — angry at people like Massimo who can’t seem, not only to see through the the deceptiveness of so much religion, but to see that religions simply do not deserve the kind of respect they’re automatically given. Does he not see that an awful lot of religion is foisted on people simply because religious people doubt, can’t help but doubt, and so need to reinforce their beliefs by converting others? That’s the nature of religious belief. You can see it at work in practically every holy text, the underlying doubt, and then the prophetic insistence that it’s all true. You can’t really condemn unbelievers if you aren’t half way there yourself. That’s why it’s so urgent and the condemnations so uncontrolled.

    I want to ask Dr. Dr. Dr. Massimo: Why do we need to respect religion? Why shouldn’t we be angry? Give me one good reason not to be angry at the idiocy in Pakistan, the peremptory certainty of the pope, the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for saving a woman’s live, the constant interference of religion in the legislative process — as though all must be subject to religion’s rules because some people are religious. Yes, I’m angry. I bloody well am!

    And religion is a scam. Just because people believe it doesn’t mean it’s not a scam. Homeopathy is a scam, but homeopaths, unaccountably, believe it’s true. What can I say? I think Massimo is scamming us with his pretended outrage. Perhaps if he followed his own motto, and discussed with us like friends, we’d find out the truth.

      1. “Granted, no ad is going to change the mind of the religious fundamentalist, but there are plenty of somewhat religious people out there who might be interested in a positive message, and are sure as hell going to be turned off by a (factually inaccurate) negative one.

        Sometimes it seems like atheists could benefit from learning a bit of elementary psychology, or ask a professional ad agency to help them “brand” themselves to the general public.”

        That sounds dangerously like a combo of Mooney and a post a while ago from Josh R that Jason Rosenhouse skewered. I don’t think it’s necessarily “sure as hell” that it’ll turn them off. For all the reasons Rosenhouse, and Jerry, and Ophelia, and Dawkins and Greta have laid out.

  4. Thanks for this. I’m fed up to eyeball level with the sort of arrogant looking down at us “regular folk” that Pigliucci too often engages in from his ivory academic tower. From where he sits, I think he believes that everything is just an intellectual exercise in which you lose style points for being too passionate or aggressive. For a lot of people, the theist-atheist divide is something that they deal with every single day in an up-close sort of way with family and friends. This isn’t a philosophical debate between academics, we’re talking about people’s lives. Real people, not hypothetical ones in a thought experiment.

  5. Re: The anger issue, others, including Jerry here, have already well-covered why we should be angry. (Greta Christina has perhaps the most exhaustive list… I won’t bother to link, but it should be easy to find with a search)

    There’s another aspect to the anger issue, and I’ll just quote from my personal deconversion story because I already explained it in detail there:

    You know, it’s always really funny to me when people talk about how the so-called “New Atheists” are so bitter and are “obviously angry at God.” I actually was an angry-at-God quasi-atheist for nearly a decade, and what made me not angry at God anymore was reading those dudes’ books. I’m not quite sure exactly how to put it, but I guess that it made me view my atheism as not just the inevitable conclusion of a rational mind, but as a distinctly good thing.

    Well, it was more than that even. It sort of turned my anti-theistic feelings upside down. Rather than being angry at the idea of God and religion, instead I became passionate about the idea of freedom from religion. Don’t get me wrong, I still have plenty of righteous indignation (heh) reserved for theism. But I’m less focused on the badness of what is, and more on the goodness of what could be.

    Maybe my blog doesn’t always make it seem like that, but given the distrust and vitriol reserved for atheists in this country, I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that even when I’m trying to be positive I end up mostly complaining. The difference is, somehow, I feel good about it now.

    At the risk of feeding the “atheism is just another religion” crowd, I guess I could say that being passionate about atheism makes me feel like I’m a part of something larger than myself. I know a lot of people fulfill that need through religion. I myself never got that from Mormonism (though you better damn well believe I tried) but even if I had, isn’t it better to find fulfillment via something that is actually true?

    The “New Atheists” are not bitter and angry. In my opinion, the ones who are the most bitter and angry are fundamentalists, disillusioned theists, and yes, the closeted atheists who know the truth but somehow view that as a negative. Coming out about one’s atheism is a way of letting go of the damage done by religion. I only wish more people could see that.

  6. I think it was Churchill who said “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
    While Pigliucci, Mooney and the other militant New Accomodationists push the rest of us towards the jaws of religion they shouldn’t feel too safe (or too smug) that they have removed themselves from the menu.

  7. Of course there are obvious scam artists who are themselves duped by their own scams. Charlene Werner, for instance. But let’s consider religions: they all promise things they never deliver.

    At best, your average Christian gets a few nice ceremonies, culminating in the funeral ceremony, and some fun-filled Sunday socials for all their faith and worship while dumping a significant portion of their life savings into the church and getting some of the worst miseducation possible. The actual products being hawked such as better morality, divine intervention, and being taken to a special place after death are never received.

    So yes, it is a scam. It doesn’t matter that nearly everyone complicit in the scam doesn’t recognize it as such, and it doesn’t matter that religions fail to honestly label themselves as businesses. For instance, some Protestant priests I have known were nothing but the nicest, warmest, caring people, but the truth is that they were selling a whole package of lies.

    1. I think it’s worth comparing to two other common scams: pyramid schemes and homeopathy.

      If someone is trying to recruit you into a pyramid scheme, they likely sincerely believe in it. That’s the nature of a pyramid scheme. They simply don’t recognize it is a scam for various psychological reasons.

      Homeopathy has some similarities as well. I’m sure most homeopaths sincerely believe that homeopathy is effective. Many who recommend homeopathy do so even when they do not gain anything economically from it. And like prayer, homeopathic remedies are given credit when none is due. “Got over your cold? Must’ve been the homeopathic pills.”

      1. Good one. Pyramid schemes are another scam where most everyone, if not all people involved, feel really good about participating in the scam until it comes crashing down and they are left befuddled and feeling betrayed.

        And, I really can’t think of any homeopaths, water witches, or faith healers I have met who weren’t totally convinced that what they or their medicines could do was real. At least the ones in those fields who charge for their services do recognize it as a business.

    2. Here’s a good video (I hope its the same one) by Orson Welles about cold reading, and how after a certain point he got so good at it that he could surprise even himself. After you start doing that, you start believing your own crap.

      1. That was amazing! “Becoming a ‘shut-eye’, I’ll have to remember that one. This is what happened to Rodney Stark, he spent so much time extolling the virtues of Catholicism that he started to believe it was true.

  8. I don’t understand the concept of Scientism?

    It seems like it just means ‘A belief that science works as a way to explain the world’. But I don’t understand how that can be negative in any which way? Isn’t there evidence enough for supporting ‘scientism’ in that sense?

    It’s very confusing to me because a belief in the efficacy of science can’t by definition have dogma, which are the antithesis of science…

    So, please help me out, can someone enlighten me on the subject? Is is just a world like atheist with a factual meaning which is being sling through the mud for no reason to have something to say about sciency-types?

    1. Good question. At one point in his otherwise worthy book, Denying Evolution, Pigliucci defines scientism as “the fundamentalist belief that science can do no wrong and will ultimately answer any question worth answering while in the process saving humankind as a bonus.” A mouthful! But who really believes that science can do no wrong – if we include the many applications of science? Who believes that science will answer any question worth answering? It seems to me that scientism is an elusive concept at best – and a convenient STRAW MAN. Clearly, scientism is not as simple or easily defined as theism, atheism, creationism, etc. I think Pigliucci is upset with ‘scientism’ because he perceives it as the intrusion of science into philosophy (and science has indeed rendered some areas of philosophy obsolete). Our current society is not characterized by a too vigorous defense of science, rather by too many religiously motivated attacks on science.

      1. Thanks Frank, that’s what I was thinking.

        I like describing myself as a ‘scientism’ believer in the sense that I do believe that science is (currently) the only way to found out about the world in any practical and meaningful sense.

        Which other alternative word would be adequate for describing the positives that I lined out as my system of beliefs?

        I think science is a great deal more than just finding facts, it’s a mindset and possibly a lifestyle. I find evidence of left-leaning politics in psychology (out of the facts of which things promote human wellfare, etc.) and along those lines can form an educated scientific opinion on a great many subjects, which I would like to define as scientism. Not as a dogmatic view, but a broad and informed view, constantly revising itself to fit the new data and very well possibly wrong if a better alternative comes along, I will find that exceptionally pleasing. A lifestyle of anti-dogmatism to boot!

        Basically an application of Sam Harris new consequentialism, if you want to call it so. But I like the term scientism, much nicer and newer ring to it. Seems to me it’s being hijacked by no valid means whatsoever.

        Anyways, I’m not saying there is no stupid atheists. I do write or an atheist website and there are some spectacularly dogmatic and stupid people there as well, I’m sure I’ve been equally stupid a great many times myself, being of no discernible great intellect or special carrier of knowledge.

        But wouldn’t those people just be dogmatic idiots JUST THE SAME AS MANY BELIEVERS as opposed to promoters of science (which would know no such things as fundamentalism or extremism by definition)?

        I don’t get it. I will rigorously apply EXTREME science to curing your cancer, sir. I will FUNDAMENTALLY find this quantum particle in the large hadron collider (if it’s there at all)…

        If we agree the broad scientific view, every bit of reason is in a sense scientic by nature, as long as it’s self-critical and based on evidence and logical argument. That doesn’t seem like something to deride or avoid, but praise?

        We don’t have bloody enough scientism by that logic…

      2. Of course science can do no wrong – it’s a process and a system of knowledge. Scientists can (and do) do wrong all the time. I seriously hope that is not what he said. I’m also not aware of anyone (beyond sone crackpots) who think that we will ultimately know everything (and I’m not even sure that many want us to know everythig, for then the search stops!).

        1. Ah thanks! Puts some meat on the rather fragile bones. Doesn’t add MUCH though…

          Mainly it’s a complaint that the term is so undefined that it’s useless.

          Well, so be it. Not attached to it, just similarly confused.

          But truly, who would believe theatre is pointless from the perspective of science? The science of psychology is very complete and won’t support such a position by any means.

          Seems like a really stupid way to describe an autistic’s view of science…

          1. I favor claiming scientism from those who employ it pejoratively (which is just about everyone who uses the term) and using it as a positive indication of world veiw. If nothing else, it’s demonstrably superior to philosophism.

            Feminism, environmentalism and evolutionism are examples of other stances that are continually under assault aimed at vilifying the terms.

      1. Biologos has once again jumped on scientism and new atheism in a summary statement from their Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop. http://biologos.org/blog/the-biologos-foundations-theology-of-celebration-ii-workshop/#comments

        “In contrast to scientism, we deny that the material world constitutes the whole of reality and that science is our only path to truth. For all its fruitfulness, science is not an all-inclusive source of knowledge; scientism fails to recognize its limitations in fully understanding reality, including such matters as beauty, history, love, justice, friendship, and indeed science itself.”

        Giberson was on the panel – I guess his “strawmen” of new atheism continues.

        1. This is bizarre, especially the last clause.

          There are many sciences of science, some in better shape than others. But well known are the history, sociology, politology, psychology, economics etc. of science. Some of these are alas, rife with pseudo-science, particularly the sociology of science – but even there, there are solid researchers like T. Merton and S. Cole.

  9. Pigliucci says that for something to be considered a “scam,” it must be intentionally dishonest. But he also says that “making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence” counts as “lying.” Lying is defined by Merriam-Websters as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive ”

    So, using his own logic, religions which make preposterous claims that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence are lying and therefore scamming people, and therefore the billboard is in fact entirely accurate.


      1. “Intent to deceive” being the key bit…

        It’s also about how we can expect `scam’ to be read, not all the possibly legitimate ways in which it *could* be read. If a common reading is inaccurate, we can try a different statement.

        For the same reason, I don’t agree with Pigliucci’s usage of “lying”, I should add.

        1. For the same reason, I don’t agree with Pigliucci’s usage of “lying”, I should add.

          Sure, it all hinges on the way Pigliucci defines the terms, but I find it odd how oblivious he seems to the fact that he’s painted himself into a corner. He wants to call skeptics “liars” when they make statements they cannot support with factual evidence, but apparently he never even considered holding the religious to the same standard or he would have quickly realized that his argument is self-defeating. And he’s supposed to be some big shot philosopher? Color me unimpressed.

          1. To give Pigliucci some credit, I think he is probably overcompensating for bias toward his `side’ of things, though this is not credit in that it excuses the inconsistency here. Further, I think he is shifting unannounced between different usage definitions, a bad habit of which one must always be cautious. He criticized the `deliberate dishonesty’ usage of `scam’ and abandoned a similar connotation for `lying’.

            I’ll still think his criticism of the ad is more-or-less correct, but you are quite right to point out that it can happen to even the critics of AA, not just AA.

            1. … shifting unannounced between different usage definitions, a bad habit …

              …or a canny strategy, depending on the user. One could accuse him of semanticism.

  10. You could have made this post a lot shorter…

    Fuck you, Massimo. You just don’t get it and never will because you’re intellectually incapable of seeing anything other than your own reflection in the mirror.

    Said without one iota of anger, BTW.

  11. “We have confidence in using science and reason because they’ve been shown to work.”

    Do you not think it rather circular to use inductive reasoning to justify itself?

    In the end I believe science simply has to be taken as axiomatic.

      1. “Justify” is strong – it’s like “establish.” It’s one of those things one wants to be cautious about claiming to have done, in case one hasn’t. :- )

        And it really is circular to claim to justify an assertion by repeating the assertion. But having confidence in tools because they work isn’t doing that. What Jerry said isn’t circular.

        1. Isn’t taking it by fiat (I mean…what’s the alternative) pretty darn reasonable?

          I really don’t like this logic of science being circular or you have to say it’s axiomatic.

          What’s the point? Those are wordgames that don’t really get us anywhere. They may in a philosophical sense be logically true, but that same philosophy doesn’t give any useful insight in why it might have to be regarded so even in the evident lack of competitive theories. And it surely doesn’t state we should “teach the false equivalence” similar to evolution creation debate.

          Let’s revive that whole mire of ‘circular reasoning’ or ‘has to be taken axiomatic’ when there’s a contender to the throne of practically explaining the world? Another axiom that gets further then the statement of axioms!

          I know that in theory we could all be in the Matrix. But is that knowledge and all it’s derivative alternative unprovable theories like god, unicorns on mars, we are the dream of a lonely child on the shores of the cosmic ocean in your quark-spirit of quantumbeingness, that could all be true somehow or another but can never be proven so, really an interesting discussion to have instead of plodding on with the only current uncontested way known to even prove or disprove these theories right, wrong or valid to investigate?

          What’s the alternative ‘axiomatic’ way of describing/finding out all the recorded facts of gravity and motion? (that works…)

          I honestly really don’t understand that this discussion is still often being had or brought up among intelligent people who could be advancing knowledge in productive ways…

          I may be wrong and this philosophy (of what I would say a sort of nihilism at this point) could be on the brink of some major breakthrough, but is that really the case by any standard? I’m not saying no-one should engage in it, just that until it advances beyond semantic nuisance, why bother serious people with that!

          We got fusion, the standard model, m-theory, space travel, genetic modification, creation of life, all kinds of interesting science going on. It may be all wrong. But it’s working so far and there’s no competition from other ‘axiomatic’ theories? Let’s engage in it to it’s limits, then explore what’s next or take serious the alternative when it crops up.

          Does anyone seriously believe that it might? A while new ‘reality’ might crop up? Well who knows. Interesting thought, but right now, quite unproductive and pointless, it seems.

          1. Bunge’s solution to the “Humean skeptic” is actually quite interesting and deserves more expansion than he gives it. Gist: the *history* of an approach gives inductive evidence in favour of something. This includes itself – it is circular, but not vicious.

    1. Except that there’s nothing inductive in pointing out that science works and the ‘alternatives’ don’t. Science could, in theory, discover that it doesn’t work, but I’m not holding my breath, which, I suggest, is as (pragmatically) a rational approach as you’re ever likely to find.

  12. I also take issue with this part of Massimo’s statement:

    I get it, a lot of atheists are recovering from religious indoctrination, often of the harshest fundamentalist kind, and they are therefore angry about all the time they have wasted and all the emotional suffering they have endured.

    You don’t have to have been a fundamentalist believer to have anger over great swaths of time spent studying text that principally does not matter at all as far as life and factual knowledge goes (culturally it matters, of course) and even provides one with utterly false information. Also, that is but one reason an atheist (or even a faith switcher) might have to be angry. For me, I am much more angry with religions for the way they have me in a stranglehold politically because I am gay. Other minorities might find similar reasons to be angry with religions. As an atheist, I do not like how religions constantly find ways to subvert our secular government, some of which are now grandfathered in as “tradition” even though they have only been there since the 50s.

    I also feel that Massimo gets a little New Agey in his reasons for why “anger is bad”. I would like to see evidence for his assertions about anger. Suffice it to say, “citation needed”.

    Also, I just went up to Tennessee, and I can tell you that it is not that bad–at least parts of it are not. Other states in the Bible Belt are much worse, much more in your face.

  13. Wot a coincidence; I’ve been trying since yesterday to get him to withdraw the incendiary announcement that ” the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying.”

    It of course doesn’t mean any such thing, since error is possible – which he admits himself, but not until the end of the following paragraph. Yet he replied to my second urging, explicitly saying he sees no reason to tweak the first claim.

    Honestly. That’s just not…whatever. Decent; fair; appropriate; grown-up; right.

  14. Perhaps this is a bad first comment from somebody who is generally in agreement, but I think that Pigliucci was right about the ad.

    Yes, it is possible that `scam’ is read in an accurate way, but as Ed himself stated, billboards do not leave room for developing a philosophy. The first impression of this billboard will be for many what it was for me: a general accusation of knowing dishonesty on the part of priests and religious leaders. The target audience defense is also rather weak. Billboards simply do not select for atheists.

    Pigliucci’s (1) and (2) are not controversial, so far as I know. I just read an equivalent on Skepchick. It might be fair to insist that it be introduced in general context, bringing us to (3):

    Though the stereotype should be avoided and qualified and contested, there are many `angry atheists’ of the stereotypical variety, ones who have not so much thought out their positions as reacted to a bad situation. It’s legitimate to note this, but I do think it should be presented in the context of a general truth for religious affiliations. There are also many stereotypical angry fundamentalists who are just mad about not getting a larger piece of the economic pie, or sexual frustration, or damaged goods, or whatever. I don’t think that his paragraph was `invidious’, though I’ll agree that there is certainly a somewhat condescending undertone. It might not have been intentional, though.

    1. “The first impression of this billboard will be for many what it was for me: a general accusation of knowing dishonesty on the part of priests and religious leaders. ”

      That’s precisely why I like it.

      1. But it’s more than that: it also says “you know” it’s a scam. That’s a very big claim! And not likely to be true – it won’t fit everyone who sees the billboard.

        1. They were talking about The Billboard on The Atheist Experience TV show last Sunday, and one of the hosts pointed out that if you see a billboard with a gigantic picture of a cheeseburger, that proclaims “You know you want one!”, no one would bother to complain that it was inaccurate to say so in all cases. As a billboard, it’s supposed to make a splash. It wouldn’t be a very good billboard if it didn’t.

          1. `Making a splash’ is a worthwhile goal, but it does not legitimize doing so in an arbitrary way. The Phelps family also makes a splash. (Note: This is not to say that this ad is like the Phelps’ message.)

            In other words, we shouldn’t say “oh our message got on national TV, therefore great success and rounds on me!”

            It’s also not an issue of being accurate in all cases, but being accurate of representative, majority, or uncontroversially and recognizably common cases.

            When most people think of the world religions depicted in the ad, they are not thinking of Popoff. They are more likely to be thinking of themselves or a pastor they know. I do not consider the pastors I know to be scam artists, not by a long shot. In the case of a billboard, we are talking about an ad whose audience is the general public. We have to think about how they would think.

            Atheist ads in general have been successful at making a splash and provoking discussion, among other things. We can make a splash in an easily defensible, accurate, and careful way. The recent ads juxtaposing bible verses and secular statements are a good example, as is the “Good without God” campaign. The former is still `aggressive’ in a way, but the message is still accurate, clear, and important.

            We can make strong public statements which convey a clear and accurate statement while drawing publicity. We know we can do that, so let’s do it better.

            1. You may not consider these pastors you know to be scam artists but they are, they are pedling lies to people in order to get their money off them. How much more do need to declare a scam?

              1. Deliberate dishonesty. Intent for personal gain at the disadvantage of others.

                You know, minor details.

                My friends, pastors and not, know my views on the truth of their religion. Insofar as they say religiously inspired things which are wicked on inspection, I let them know.

                But `scammer’ is hardly the best word here.

                If you read the Dennett/Lascola interviews Coyne referenced, you’ll find examples of pastors who are knowingly dishonest and are partly in it for the paycheck. But even then, `scam’ artist is a bit harsh, because their intent is not to fleece the flock. Rather, they think they can do good things for others and the community by staying in their positions.

                Here, `scam’ is still fair in many ways, but I do not see how the claim that most religious leaders deserve the title of scam artist can withstand scrutiny under normal standards of clarity in language.

              2. Jesse – consider a pyramid scheme which I think we can all agree is a scam. You can find many people who are out selling membership and doing it earnestly, without any attempt to deceive (since they have themselves been deceived). Does this mean that it isn’t a scam when these people sell it to you?

                While “lying” probably requires some sort of intent, I think “scam” must have more to do with the structure and features of the offer rather than the mindset of the salespeople.

              3. Tyro,

                You have a valid point about the structure, but there are crucial differences here which make the `pyramid scheme’ analogy shaky.

                Your average religionist is not involved in a top-down extortion attempt, and the investments into this scam are not usually servicing some concealed profiteering. This is only fair as a generality to the extent that it could characterize donations of any sort, which in part go to sources unknown to the giver.

                Again, you make a valid point in that `scam’ can be fairly characterized in such a way. My central point is that up to an advertisement, it’s inaccurate with respect to expected impressions.

                Also: Even if it were accurate in this case, the ad would need to have been clear in identifying organizations as opposed to religions themselves.

              4. Jesse,

                which make the `pyramid scheme’ analogy shaky

                I wasn’t making an analogy nor comparing them to religion. I was illustrating that intent is of little importance in deciding whether it was a scam or not.

                the investments into this scam are not usually servicing some concealed profiteering.

                Does it need to be concealed to be a scam? Certainly that would be shadier but the mechanics remain.

                Regardless, I do sort of agree that the argument for churches & religion being a scam isn’t clear but I also think that the counter-argument isn’t clear also. Since a weak case can be made I figure it’s good enough for a billboard 🙂

            2. Jesse,

              I don’t disagree with anything you say. I would point out that when the Phelps clan writes an inflammatory slogan, they appear to be saying exactly what they mean — but what, exactly, did the American Atheists mean by “You KNOW they’re all SCAMS”? Is it solely meant to be inflammatory? Or is it a statement of fact?

              A case could be made for the latter, as others have commented here. The Faithful are being fed a line about the historicity of the events in the Bible, etc. etc., which their pastors know, or really ought to know, is not supported by reasonable evidence. Hence: scam, in the sense of a knowing deceit for gain.

              There’s a press release about The Billboard by the American Atheists. It says in part, “all religions are scams — they tell you how to live, and then they take your money, all in exchange for an afterlife that does not exist.”

              It doesn’t say “in exchange for an afterlife that they know does not exist.” That suggests to me that whoever wrote this, and the slogan on The Billboard, hadn’t really thought through the implications of the word “scam”, as we are doing here. I hope that the AA have learned something from this episode, although I also hope they don’t publicly backpedal. Even if the use of the “S” word was ill-advised, they can still use the notoriety of this slogan as a springboard promote their other efforts.

              1. Quite true. As I think you understood, my comment on Phelps is only meant to illustrate the qualified good of splash making.

                I don’t think we disagree anywhere. The press release by AA is part of the reason I disagree – though elsewhere in these comments, I think – with Pigliucci’s use of “lying” in his post to describe AAs use of this ad, though it might have been intended to make an ironic point.

                I think AA was a bit incautious and had not fully thought the word usage out. I think they’ll take the criticism seriously and consider it in the next campaign.

        2. Marshall’s used to have busstop ads with a picture of a smiling woman saying “You’ve got kids, right?” Well I don’t have kids. Was that ad dishonest because it wasn’t directed at me?

          The American Atheist ad is directed at two groups of people – atheists who already know all religions are scams, and closeted atheists who suspect they’re all scams but have never said so publicly.

          There’s nothing dishonest about it.

        3. I take issue with “You know…” addressed to the general reader.

          A more productive and incontrovertable sequitur would be “You know they can’t all be true… probably none are.” – which goes well with the tents or tabernacles or whatever they are.

    2. But religion is used as a true scam by some and held to be ultimate truth by some *others*. So what is your point? Do you really deny that religion is used to scam people?

      Personally, I would always prefer to be a “fraud” and “conartist” than a “true believer”. The latter is IMHO much more insulting.

      1. No, I don’t deny that in some cases religion is a scam, and neither did Pigliucci. He stated the contrary, actually.

        And to summarize my point: We should be striving first and foremost for accuracy in our message, and this striving involves sending messages which are taken in an accurate way. Of course, no matter how nice and accurate we are, we’ll get a backlash, as in the “Good without God” campaign, but it’s always nice to face a backlash which is obviously misguided and keeps us in the right. Why give a valid gripe when we need not do such a thing?

        Tone is also a valid consideration, but it is a secondary one. I think the ad fails on both counts, in addition to simply being unattractive.

  15. My anger is not necessarily at the trauma of indoctrination. My religious education wasn’t harsh, literal and without discussion. However, having recently taken a foray into some books on biblical archaeology and textual criticism, what angers me most is the known and unknowing lying. Its not just lying about evolution and science, although that is certainly part of it. Religious education for pastors teaches them that a good chunk of the Bible, Genesis through to just before David did not happen. And more importantly, that all the OT before and after that is essentially partisan propaganda from a people that could never really get their ideas of glory and empire off the ground. In the NT, the story of Jesus isn’t backed up by any of the many, many contemporary accounts, the Gospels don’t agree with one another except when they use Mark as a source, and the letters of Paul are the earliest source about Jesus. Instead, they just tell the stories of the NT as one big slurry, put red text on things that Jesus was supposed to have said and attribute the Gospels as eye witnesses that they never were.

    This information is never filtered down to the common people, and certainly not to the children. The church leaders definitely do know, but they either teach it as literal truth or as a super important divine story. But the impact of knowing the real history is so dramatic to me. So much of my childhood Christian education hinges on the actions of Moses, Joshua, David, and Jesus, and yet the Pastors that taught it know that its all unattributable at best and myth at worst. Its like a scientists knowingly teaching alchemy. Its lying, and it makes me so very, very angry.

    1. I don’t know if I would say I was indoctrinated but I was certainly inculcated. I grew up in the church. I don’t have much anger about that anymore, but there was a time when I was damn angry. But for me, the emotional reaction went hand-in-hand with intellectual awakening. It was never just about the way in which I felt I had been personally harmed. But if someone remains angry their whole life about their religious upbringing I wouldn’t look down on them or hold it against them one iota. Perfectly fine by me; maybe even the right way to be in some cases.

      My anger now is about the kinds of things Jerry mentioned in the post. But along the lines of what you’re saying, I’m angry at all religious inculcation, particularly Christianity. In my view it represents a form of child abuse. It it clearly taking advantage of the malleability of children’s minds. Christianity isn’t true. We KNOW this. Parents are not only foisting a falsehood upon their children, they’re warping the way they think. They’re instilling prejudice. They’re profoundly influencing the children’s view of the world at the most fundamental level. And they’re doing it out of pretensions to knowledge and ignorance and stupidity. For me, the fact that someone hasn’t gone to seminary is no excuse for religious upbringing.

      1. Me three. It takes all approaches to reach the various audiences out there in billboard-reading land. “Good without God” reaches a different subset of undecideds/closeteds than “You know they’re scams” does.

    1. As do I.
      Incidentally, it could be rendered as totally accurate with a tiny rider:
      “You know they’re all SCAMS. Either that, or you are ignorant.”

  16. This is a great post. Someone send the final paragraph straight to Massimo.

    I think the billboard is fine. Would I have phrased the message that way? No. Point taken. But, it is a billboard, so it engages in exactly the kind of eye-catching sensationalism and exaggeration for which billboards are well known. When the SEARS store near my home puts up a billboard that says “The sale of the century!” we don’t sit around and pick nits about the exact veracity of that claim. Why? Because we understand it’s obviously meant to be something of an exaggeration. It’s a billboard, not a peer-reviewed paper.

      1. I prefer a tongue-in-cheek alternative:

        “All religions are fairy-tales (except yours)”

        Isn’t this what every religionist really thinks? And the humor would attract the people they are trying to attract without (really) giving believers too much to get upset about.

        1. I like your slogan.

          Going with a playful but provocative premise is more likely to be successful.

          And it’s how my own path to atheism started.. I tried to differentiate the ‘evidence’ of ‘false’ religions objectivel compared to my own and that process opened my eyes.

  17. One would have hoped it was obvious that lack of supporting factual evidence isn’t enough to convict one of “lying.” But maybe it’s not as obvious as I’d hope.

  18. … is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying.

    Ergo, all religion is lying.
    Thank you Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D.

  19. The accusation that “many” atheists are just angry because of their indoctrination in youth reminds me of this exchange from Futurama:

    “You’re just jealous!”

    “No I’m not! Oh wait, I am. But my point remains valid!”

    So what if we are angry about it? It doesn’t change the validity of our arguments!

  20. Pigliucci seems to be indulging in a bit of superiority, wanting to acknowledge his intellectual difference to the great hoard of atheist barbarians. He even projects this out with his final sentence of the article, believing that he isn’t playing that game at all. I’m reminded of the irony and blind sightedness of people like Sarah Palin who seem incapable of seeing their own hypocrisy.

    However, we are perhaps taking the word ‘atheism’ too seriously, because it doesn’t stand for a moral or intellectual movement.

    There is nothing dishonest about the ad, it is both honest and provocative and I applaud American Atheists for doing it.

    As for anger, I’m not angry but passionate. I grow more passionate when intellectuals become tiresome and feel more superior to those they supposedly speak on behalf of, or represent. As if their strain of atheism is the pure one, and we great unwashed don’t deserve to use the term.

    This kind of posturing seems prevalent among self-described sceptics, who feel it’s their duty to always appear ‘more’ sceptical than other sceptics that have accidentally become dogmatic or deluded.

    To me, there is an element of the religious moral principle at work here. The purification of the true atheists from the not true atheists. This works only when making rational points, but Pigliucci makes sloppy points that just don’t add up to anything.

    1. Pigliucci seems to be indulging in a bit of superiority, wanting to acknowledge his intellectual difference to the great hoard of atheist barbarians.

      I come across this from time to time; atheists with a philosophy background who seem to resent any atheists who don’t have the same credentials as they do, or a library as well-stocked as theirs.

      To them you can’t be born an atheist and simply avoid being indoctrinated into religion; apparently, you have to earn the right to say that you think it’s a all evidence-free nonsense.

      It’s like the scorn a self-made tycoon has for an inherited millionaire. You can kind of see their point, but when it comes down to it, the result is the same.

      1. They seem to believe that religious faith is an idea that deserves to be considered seriously even if you ultimately end up rejecting it.

        I strongly disagree with this.

  21. I’m no angrier about having been religious any more than I am about being duped into believing in Santa Claus. I have mostly fond memories of the days before I stopped believing; I don’t feel cheated. What does get me worked up is when other people try to pass laws and make policies as though Santa is real, and we’ll get a lump of coal in our stockings if we don’t.

    1. Indeed.

      My experience was much the same. “Conventional” Christian upbringing (whatever that might be). No trauma, no abuse, no fundamentalist ranting, no threats of eternal damnation.

      But I never believed any of it. Never. Not that my non-belief got me out of going to church every Sunday (where I mostly sat in silence trying not to think “fuckedyfuckfuckfuck” during every prayer).

      But I have extremely fond memories of the people there. I counseled at the youth summer camp, played on the church sports teams, and all the rest. It was fun. Idyllic, even.

      My anger is reserved for those who claim they know what an invisible, silent almighty is thinking and for the undeserved respect those claimants have in the halls of power. When most of them KNOW (yes, Massimo, it’s a SCAM) that the whole proposition is a house of cards. A fiction.

    2. When I was a kid I was angry about the Santa Claus thing. Really. I was indignant about all the calculated lying. Grown ups repeatedly lying to a kid – I thought it was truly unfair. Abuse of power kind of thing.

      1. I am the oldest child, so I was entrusted with the great secret before everyone else. To me it was a privilege to learn an adult thing. It would be great to make everyone feel like that about religion.

      2. I agree with Ophelia. When I felt my leg was being pulled as a child, I greatly resented it. Talk about the power of bullies. It’s as if I knew I was programmed to be credulous as a child, so that learning from the experienced could expedite my education; that seemed to demand a scrupulous ethicalness on the part of the grown-ups. It was also something I felt strongly as a parent. The evolutionarily derived trust my children couldn’t help but exhibit placed a huge responsibility on me not to violate it. (Not to mention the fact that I wanted them to grow up to be critical thinkers!)

          1. Let’s apply the same argument to faith in government (“The God that Failed”).

            Atheists define themselves by their opposition. I’m a materialist. That is, the only things that require explanation are observations and the only things that count as explanations are observations.

            I have presented a stripped-down version of Garrett Hardin’s argument (Science, 1968) on Christian, socialist, and libertarian websites. Only the Christians remain civil.

            “What is the proper response to all this religiously-inspired nonsense? Anger, of course. No, you don’t have to be a red-faced, sputtering jerk when confronting the faithful, but controlled anger is without doubt the right response to a form of superstition that wreaks uncountable harms on humanity.”

            Perhaps I should feel the same about socialism, which caused over 100 million deaths in the twentieth century, but I don’t. I know that decent people may disagree.

            Christians would condemn me to Hell and Socialists would condemn me to prison. Since I don’t believe in Hell and I do believe in prison, I fear Socialists more than I fear Christians.

            “I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks.”

            How ’bout teachers in government schools? A job in a K-12 school is to a child molester what a job in a candy factory is to a chocoholic.

            1. Show me a school board covering up the crimes of molesting teachers, shuffling them around quietly to new schools, threatening parents and children with condemning the abused to expulsion for reporting the abuse, etc. then we can talk about how the situation with the church is equivalent.

      3. I always feel a bit left out in these conversations. I have no memory of ever learning that Santa Claus was my parents; as far back as I can remember, I just knew. I also have no memory of the first time I was told about Santa Claus, so I don’t know whether I believed it at first.

        I do remember the first time they told me about the Tooth Fairy, and I knew that was bollocks from the start. I didn’t turn up my nose at the quarter under my pillow, though.

        1. My memory is very patchy too – but I do remember thinking at some point “Santa Claus seems very unlikely but he’s real [the adults all tell me so], so God [who also seems very unlikely] must be real too.” Tight reasoning for a child, wouldn’t you say?

          I also remember later thinking [it seems to be partly physical memory – I was in the science classroom – !] that it was all an unfair deception of a child.

          I fill in the rest with supposition – clearly I did believe in SC at some point, albeit with doubts. Or rather, I took people’s word for it, which is precisely what irritates me about the whole thing.

  22. In my country of birth-Iran-college students suspected of opposing the regime were flung out of windows while the vigilante attackers chanted religious recitals.
    But I’m not supposed to be angry.

  23. Studies shows if one acts out their anger, then that leads to escalation. However, feeling and expressing anger not only does not lead into acting out in anger, it is a boon to mental well being.

    I am guessing that one of his doctorates is not one in Psychology?

    If such a billboard flushes out accommodationists, then the billboard has paid for itself. I like the phrasing, myself, it is so on target that it is brilliant. Religion is a scam and most believers know this, they just work hard to keep this bit of knowledge compartmentalized. It is hard work to do this, and that is why they don’t want their wobbly beliefs to be challenged like they are by activist atheists.

    As for Pigliucci? Meh.

  24. I like Massimo Pigliucci and I enjoy listening to his podcast. I agree that he can come off as arrogant when he dismisses contrary opinions as “stupid”, but I’ve also seen him respond to criticism by reevaluating his position. As long as someone is willing to do that, I don’t view them as being truly arrogant, merely confident and assertive.

    That said, I generally side with those who have disputes with Massimo. Even on the podcast, I normally have greater sympathy for the positions advocated by his co-host, rather than Massimo’s, even though he has a greater degree of eloquence in defending his position.

    As for the “scams” sign, I like it and don’t see it as dishonest at all. Religion itself can be considered a scam without the proponents of it being dishonest. Amway is a scam, but probably a lot of those representing the company aren’t aware of that.

  25. I love the paragraph on what you’re angry about! I may have to refer people to it from time to time.

    As an aside, I love how Shinto got mention in the atheists’ ad. I’d love to have a talk with someone who actually believed in Shinto, just because I never have. Most of Japan is only culturally religious, and have nothing but a vague belief in “some god” (not even “gods” – how boring!)

  26. Aside

    …we Jews (SECULAR Jews!)…

    You must be pretty damn secular if you had an xmas tree and sang carols as a child.

    And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

  27. The problem with calling religion a scam is that it’s not clear who is or isn’t in on it. It looks like a scam from the outside but we probably need a different word for people who deceive themselves when they should know better, and then go on to deceive others.

    The most appropriate term is bullshit, which applies to claims made without any interest in factual content on the part of claimants. I guess you can’t put it on a bus, though.

  28. This seems so basic, but it seems to be overlooked most of the time; or not considered at all:

    Even the most brilliant people in the universe usually become a little more humble when they finally realize how ignorant they are of more things than not.

  29. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in her book, Infidel, “However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”

    I thought of that line when rereading Greta Christina’s blog on atheist anger. It seems to fit Dr. Coyne’s sentiments as well.

  30. I have just found the other line that came to mind when rereading Greta Christina’s post and Jerry Coyne’s post. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an article, “The Policitcs of Politesse” in the December 23 & 30, 2002 The New Yorker, “But they [antebellum Southerners] had few other virtues; in fact, it was the practice of nicenss that helped to keep other values, such as fairness, at bay. Fairness sometimes requires that surfaces be disturbed, that patterns of cordiality be broken, and that people, rudely and abruptly, be removed from their place. Niceness is the enemy of fairness.”

  31. This may be taken a bit too seriously. Pigliucci’s main point was that this ad could be counterproductive and, considering the way people understand the word “scam”, that this can hardly be interpreted as anything but the charge that all the church apparatuses know that their respective dogmas are false.

    When he calls the latter an extraordinary claim that would need extraordinary evidence, he is spot on. It is much more parsimonious to assume that clergy do what they do – often enough taking positions that cost them church members, or in some cases take personal hardships or risks – because they actually believe. As sad as that is, in the case of some of the sillier or more obnoxious beliefs.

    When he writes that atheism is not synonymous with rationality, he is just stating a plain fact. It is nothing more than disbelief in one specific thing, but an atheist can just as well believe in shape-shifting reptilian aliens planning to install the dreaded New World Order. And some do.

    And when he implies that anger is neither healthy if maintained for too long, nor conductive to critical reasoning, who can actually disagree with a straight face?

    I have several disagreements with him, even in the piece in question, but it would be useful to remember that he is an outspoken atheist himself, so it seems rather strange to fault him for criticizing (all) “the atheists”.

    1. Why do you assume that all apparatuses of any scam are aware?

      Believe it or not, clergy are not unique in suffering personal hardship, risk and, loss of companionship during their lives. Sometimes even when their beliefs actually are correct. Of course, there would be a possible loss of revenue the clergy might suffer but that probably isn’t all that infrequent either, businesses can lose income sources.

      Can you produce evidence of the shape-shifting reptilian alien’s atheists? Sounds like it could be interesting.

      atheism is not synonymous with rationality

      I’m not aware of anyone claiming that type of relationship. However, I think rationality with atheism is common and would be a logical progression from either position, that is, rationality to include atheism, or, atheism to include rationality.

      I can disagree with the “always angry” assertion because the application is false. Its a true statement but not applicable to atheists generally. Atheists are angry about certain issues (with very good reason) but not always angry. If you are interested in people that are always angry you probably could find some among the christians. I’ve read some of their blog topics – you probably should too, their topics are often embellished with violent themes with demands from their god-ideas.

      Sure, just like very one else, Pigliucci will make mistakes. I don’t understand your objection to the mistakes being noted.

      1. I said that he does and that it is important to note them. I just do not believe that he actually deserves all that is piled on him in this thread, if you read through his original post.

        He is an atheist himself, so the whole “he criticizes the atheists” heading of Jerry Coyne’s post is already rather strange to begin with. Kinda like saying “the president criticizes the population of the USA” after reading that he has expressed his personal opposition to certain policies implemented in, say, Arizona.

        1. The problem is that your parsimonious claim has been proven wrong…
          Many people do know that they are using religion as a scam. Therefore, the reverse of your argument would apply: if you imply that all religious are true believers you are a. insulting the intelligence of con artists and b. cynically underestimating the overall intelligence of the ‘flock’.

          Since either claim is definitionally inaccurate, I’m fine with both.

          The evidence was provided by Dr. Coyne in his post (!!) and countless anecdotes provide additional evidence.

          Also, if Pigliucci was merely stating the painfully obvious (some atheists are jerks, anger sometimes bad, etc.), why did he say anything at all? It’s vacuous nonsense.

  32. Down in the lower left corner there is space for a disclaimer:

    NOT intended for mooneyites or other unknowing christian

    See, everybody is happy now.

  33. Unfortunately, Pigliucci is right on this one. On all three points. I prefer the contemporary atheistic world-view to any other, but the scientism and lack of actual skepticism is so mind-boggling it’s amazing.

    You may regret the “But-I-uniquely-understand-the-philosophical-underpinnings-of-these-issues” card (I think “But-I-understand-the-philosophical-underpinnings-of-these-issues” is more accurate), but it’s true. It’s really a shame.

  34. Deist, Miklos Jako calls the notion that Yeshua was a great moral leader, even by some atheists, the scam of the ages in “Confronting Believers!’
    Ti’s the same with any argument in favor of supernaturalism as all arguments for it lack evidence, and John Hick notwithstanding, this is not an ambiguous matter!
    Peter Medawar maintains that Teilhard de Chardin first deceived himself before he deceived other with his argumentation.
    These are intellectual scams!” Faith doth that to people1!” Fr. Griggs
    Aratina and H.H. know the score! So, ti’s self deception as well as deceiving others. How do we know that the sign will turn other off? Sure, many people of faith, the we just say so of credulity, perforce won’t buy the slogan, but it is certainly the way to get them to fathom that we gnu atheists mean business! It takes emotions to get people going! We have to get their attention vigorously.
    And then, we must also take a nicer manner!
    We are calling woo woo!
    No evidence can ever exist for this extraordinary claim that Carneades keel hauled eons ago! A square circle is impossible, and God is that square circle [ Google arguments about Him-that square circle to see why we naturalists/rationalists have empiricism on our side whilst supernaturalists ever use the arguments from incredulity and from ignorance and ever beg questions.
    “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs

  35. While the tone of Massimo’s article may have been slightly arrogant (I personally didn’t find it that arrogant sounding at all), I thought it was very well reasoned and mostly thoughtfully statement. And when I compare this with a response that comes across (to me) as much more insulting, I’ll side with the former every time.

    I find it sad that there are those in the atheist community who have created a term (accommodationalists) to use in scorn for atheists who think that it is much more productive to be be respectful towards people who are religious.

    I agree with Massimo that calling religions all scams is an extraordinary claim that requires a whole lot of evidence to back it up. And I think a the fact that there are some religious leaders out there who scam people isn’t enough evidence to make such a claim.

    1. I find it sad that there are those in the atheist community who have created a term (accommodationalists) to use in scorn for atheists who think that it is much more productive to be be respectful towards people who are religious.

      Atheists have been respectful for millenia. What do they call people that do the same thing over and over expecting different results?

      I agree with Massimo that calling religions all scams is an extraordinary claim that requires a whole lot of evidence to back it up

      No, actually it doesn’t. Religions make claims, gathering followers. Support those claims, or it’s a scam.

  36. I, for one, was never indoctrinated, and nevertheless I’m angry.

    Ditto, & bravo for the list of unimpeachable reasons that follow. I would only add that, as a parent, I’m angry that my (grown, freethinking) children have faced and will continue to face kneejerk prejudice simply for having evaded indoctrination; that they are inheriting a world still so steeped in Iron Age (if not Stone Age!)mythology; and that the very livability of their only planet is threatened by same…Religion is NOT a victimless crime!

  37. We naturalists do not use scientism but rather evidentialism in whatever field that people are in like art,etc.
    John Haught begs the question of other venues of knowledge when he excoriates us for insisting on rational ways.

  38. The problem with Pigliucci’s first denunciation is is its (intentional?) ambiguity. He wrote:

    “First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers.”

    But, what is the “preposterous claim”? There are potentially two: one is that: they (at least the five religious traditions depicted) are a scam. Although it is this claim that most commentators have taken as the bone of contention, it is hardly contentious in the atheistic community: we all accept that they are scams, and the evidence is overwhelming, hardly something Pigliucci would claim to be a lie.

    No, Pigliucci was actually referring to the knowledge claim—the statement that any given “you” KNOWS that they are all a scam: if there is even one such “you” who doesn’t know that then, necessarily, the claim is false. And, of course, such people are legion.

    The offensive nature of Pigliucci’s first claim is that he plays precisely on that equivocation of interpretation to make his point (as evinced in most of the the comments). Ophelia Benson has been saying this all along (although I suspect she thought everyone else already got it). The “lie” in Pigliucci’s first objection is the claim that “we” (the collective “you” in the ad) all KNOW, not the remainder of the ad copy.

    Now, Pigliucci is smart, so I assume this use of the equivocation fallacy on his part is deliberate (he has without a doubt read Aristotle’s de sophisticus elenchis in which this fallacy plays a prominent role). In any case, his *technical* claim in his “first” point is true, but it wasn’t about the use or meaning of the word “scam” in the ad as a lie (indeed, how could he: as an atheist he necessarily assumes all religious claims are nonsense). But, he certainly led many, by virtue of the equivocation fallacy, to think it was.

    To make it clear: there are two claims in the ad: first, that they (the five religions) are scams, and second, that “you” meaning everyone of us (as Pigliucci reads it) KNOW that. Pigliucci’s first point only makes sense regarding the SECOND of these claims. That they are all scams is left untouched, and is easily shown to be true (so his claim about not being able to prove it must apply to the second claim). And it does, only if one takes a completely inappropriate interpretation of the ad as of some universal statement of knowledge. But, except for some pedantic accommodationist, who would take that reading? We all know what is meant (and I just used that meaning here): As in Cohen’s song (“We all know the dice are loaded, we all know the game is fixed, …”), the YOU in the ad is appealing to the sceptic, possibly the cynic, in all of us. And it is *that* literary “YOU” that was meant (and, of course any minimally half-intelligient person already “got”), not some thumb-sucking, god-fearing twit that Pigliucci conjures to contradict the claim.

    1. Actually, I think Pigliucci was also arguing that “scam” is an inaccurate descriptor for religions since scams imply an intention to deceive. But if religions are actually collections of honestly deluded individuals, then they can’t rightly be called “scams.”

      I think he’s splitting hairs, though.

      1. No. That is NOT what he says in that “First” point. That, rather, is what many have taken him to mean. His only claim to any kind of veracity (to allow the ad to be a “lie”) was to the claim of to KNOW, and then only in a ridiculous interpretation of what was intended.

        My intent was to take on his interpretation of the ad statement as a “lie” in that, as he stated, evidence to support that claim could not be proffered. As that claim cannot in any way apply to the latter part of the statement (as evidence can and has for hundreds of years been advanced to support just such a statement—and in any way is an empirical claim), his statement must necessarily apply to the first part of the the ad, the “KNOW” claim.

        IF Pigliucci was arguing as you (and almost all of the those who think he had a point) argued about the meaning of the word “scam”, then he did it other than in his first claim, and, if not, his statement that the ad is a “lie” is specious and irresponsibly stupid. As I don’t believe either of those conclusions regarding Pigliucci are warranted, then I think my interpretation is the more charitable: He is just wrong.

  39. While I thought the “scam” bit was unclear, and the “you know” part patronising, I was more annoyed with this arrogant “Telling the Truth since 1963” rubbish.

  40. If we are inconsistent it is because we are NOT a religion straight-jacketing people into a certain conformity. We broadly share a similar view – that the universe is the result of natural processes & does not require any god/s to explain causality.

  41. Just what emotions does Pigliucci feel when he sees the injustices of the world, many of which have religion at their core ?

    That he sees anger as inappropriate makes me question if he has the ability to empathise with others.

  42. Having looked at all the posts, including Massimos responses on his original thread I have come to the conclusion that 1) The advertisement is, well, a bit crap. I don’t know what their intentions where but it is worded in such an ambiguous way that it is possible to have reasonable objections to what it says. It also looks awful! As I think Rebecca Watson said, it looks like someone has stolen a banner from a geocities homepage, circa 1998!
    2) Massimo’s objections are over the top. The ambiguity of the wording and the possible interpretations of it pointed out here and on his own blog do not warrant Massimo’s claim that the AA are lying.
    3) Let’s not forget that the AA do not speak for all atheists, just themselves, so if their intention was simply to drum up some controversy and publicity for American Atheists rather than promote atheism per se then perhaps the advertisement could be seen as a success.

    1. Well, that’s it. This is the American Atheists billboard. They have a long & proud (to them) history of being in-your-face. (They were also politically visible when almost no other pro-atheist group in the US was.) They’re not the group I most identify with (now that there’s quite a choice!) but, go AA!

      –Diane, big tent atheist

  43. Dear Jerry,

    I find it strange that you manage to agree with my fundamental point about the AA board, and yet somehow go on with what from my perspective looks like a long rant covering territory that we have covered ad nauseam before. Funny also that you are so offended by my treatment of “atheists” (as if I were not one), while Ed Buckner, Dave Silverman and the leadership of AA found my post measured and constructive. Several commenters have hailed our exchange as a rare example of positive dialogue in the blogosphere, and even some of your strong supporters, like Ophelia Benson, had words of praise for it. Oh well.

    Moreover, I am sad to note that you have already broken the recent truce about personal attacks that I thought we had agreed upon just a few months ago. Unless you think the following appellatives that you hurtled at me are not to be taken personally: “haughty and supercilious,” “lack of humility is his own besetting fault,” “condescending and invidious.” Is this your idea of a civil dialogue? Because if so, you could learn a thing or two from both Ed Buckner and Dave Silverman (his response to my post on AA will be published today).

    Oh, and you are really, really, really, angry. I get it. Perhaps that explains your attitude, but too much anger is really not healthy, for the person or for the movement.


    1. So I take it you are not angry when you how so many religious people treat women, or how the Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse by its priests.

      Personally I will take Jerry’s anger over your apparent indifference.

      1. Covered up? They are still actively engaged in the cover up.

        Give the “Dogma Free America” podcast a listen to – they cover all manner of stories dealing with these issues (with humor – it’s not an “angry” podcast if you need a fainting couch like some people), and the stories from here and abroad are horrific. Maybe it’s easy for some people to not empathize and be moved by the horrors done in the name of religion, but…what else can be said…

        1. “Covered up? They are still actively engaged in the cover up.”
          E. G. West
          “Schooling and Violence”

          Hyman and Penroe
          Journal of School Psychology.
          “Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse…Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States….”
          “…schools do not encourage research regarding possible emotional maltreatment of students by staff or investigatiion into how this behavior might affect student misbehavior….”
          Maybe this will arouse you.

      1. Yep! Sorry about that your invitation must of got lost in the post. Pity really as the general hedonism. Debauchery and orgies where awesome:-) and the fried babies where delicious as always. You will just have to get on our emailing list in future.

    2. Some level of anger expression really does seem healthy. Did Dr. Coyne sound so over the top to you that you consider his anger a threat to his health?

      As Michelle said:
      “Studies shows if one acts out their anger, then that leads to escalation. However, feeling and expressing anger not only does not lead into acting out in anger, it is a boon to mental well being.

      I am guessing that one of his doctorates is not one in Psychology?”

      As alluded to, expression of anger *might* be healthy:
      “Our findings suggest a more complex pattern of associations between anger and CVD than previously described. Contrary to our expectations, we observed a protective dose-response relationship between anger expression and risk of stroke. Moderate levels of anger expression were protective against nonfatal MI, though we did not observe a dose-response relationship. We did not find that anger expression was significantly related to risk of total coronary or cardiovascular disease in the overall cohort; however, anger expression was significantly protective against total CVD among participants less than 65 years old. Among men with preexisting coronary disease, more frequent feelings of anger significantly increased the risk of recurrent coronary disease in multivariate analyses….constructive anger expression may be inversely related to resting blood pressure (49). Furthermore, socially assertive expression has been negatively correlated with serum cholesterol and low-density/high-density lipoprotein ratio (50). Item analyses revealed that the item “I express my anger” was significantly protective against total stroke in a dose-response relationship, whereas items associated with sarcasm or hostility (eg, “I make sarcastic remarks” and “I say nasty things”) were positively associated with stroke risk (data not shown)…”
      Psychosom Med. 2003 Jan-Feb;65(1):100-10.
      Anger expression and risk of stroke and coronary heart disease among male health professionals.
      Eng PM, Fitzmaurice G, Kubzansky LD, Rimm EB, Kawachi I.

      [better references would be appreciated, btw]

    3. Massimo…this is putting it a bit too strongly:

      Several commenters have hailed our exchange as a rare example of positive dialogue in the blogosphere, and even some of your strong supporters, like Ophelia Benson, had words of praise for it.

      I didn’t have any words of praise for the exchange. I said I agreed with you about the ad, which is true; I did. I didn’t say any more than that because I didn’t want to wake up any sleeping dogs – but if I had I would have disagreed with much of what you said. I disagree with you about anger. Of course there can be such a thing as too much of it, but I think some anger is necessary and healthy (in literal and figurative senses).

      1. Plus, consider the Miller-Morris debate over Creationism where Miller goes out of his way to praise Morris. Hands up who believes that Miller means half of what he says.

        Not saying that anyone is acting like a Creationist but let’s at least agree that some soft words are often a rhetorical device and not always genuine. When it leads to the belief that you’re a “rare example of positive dialog” especially if you then wield this like a cudgel, you can be pretty sure that you’re puffing yourself up and not reacting to real impressions.

        1. Indeed. In politics & often in academia, when anyone begins with “my esteemed colleague,” it’s time to duck.

    4. “too much anger is really not healthy”

      Again, you can’t just assert this like an armchair psychologist. It has precisely no value without evidence and qualifications.

    5. The ever-popular call to civility?

      Just pretend Jerry’s comments were created in situ by some deity yesterday. Since you say scientists can’t say anything about that, you have no cause for complaint.

    6. Why should one not be angry about sexual abuse of children?

      Why should one not be angry about being forced to live by unsupportable assertions (see: Blue laws)?

      Why should one not be angry about misogyny?

      Why should one not be angry about sectarian violence?

      Why should one not be angry about job discrimination?

      Why should one not be angry about religion being forced into science classes?

      To quote a popular bumper sticker: If you’re not angry you haven’t been paying attention.

  44. I have a “no solicitors” sign on my door. Every once in a while, some foolish salesperson decides to ignore it. The ensuing discussion always starts the same: Did you see the sign? Yes. Why did you knock? Because I’m not a solicitor, now, do you want to buy…

    That’s when my blood boils. A few simple facts and an inescapable conclution, but they ignore the obvious and treat me like I’m stupid.

    I feel that same reaction starting during some religious discussions. Never to the same degree as I described above, but then whoever I’m having the conversation with usually isn’t that blatent.

    The bottom line is: if you perceive anger in my words, it’s probably because I’ve perceived intentional lies in yours.

  45. “First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers.”

    Am I the only person who sees that by this definition, all religious claims are lies?

    1. I, surprisingly, find lots of Google hits, though it’s hard to get a definition. Sounds like it means “fantasy politics,” or the proposing of naive political utopias…Showing up on philosophy boards–seems to be yet another put-down coinage to keep we non-elite in our place…

      1. In the main there is a choice of Coke or Pepsi – Fanta is the alternative to the bland indifference of the main choice. as I understand it…

  46. Yes, I am angry for many of the reasons described by Dr Coyne and for other reasons. But that expression of anger is fueled by hope for better. It is the primary emotions of love (for humans) and fear (for their suffering and for the loss of awaking that science brings) that spark my anxiety and manifest my anger – not the indoctrination I suffered and got over. It is the repression of this kind of anger that is caustic not its expression. Seems like Dr Pigliucci is lacking some of that wisdom he claims to love.

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