The path to atheism

May 13, 2011 • 9:30 am

In response to my post about the nebulous theodicy of Jeffrey Small, I have an email from a reader who is allowing me to post this without revealing his/her name.

In a recent post on your website (“Moar Theodicy”), you closed by writing:

“The only good thing about this palaver concerning the impotent “power of being” is that, for many, it’s the first step to abandoning God completely.”

I’d just like to say that I am living proof of this statement.

I was raised by very devout Christian parents (of the non-fundamentalist United Methodist persuasion), and proudly(!) considered myself a Christian without ever pausing to ask, “Why?”. My path to atheism began when more liberal-minded, but still religious, friends in college asserted that Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection were not true. My parents and preachers had certainly never said anything about that possibility! I soon discovered books by John Shelby Spong, who espoused the “God as ground of all being” theology. This was a view of “faith” that my increasingly scientific mind could still cling to without imploding … as long as I didn’t think about it too deeply. Truth be told, it was a short hop from there to Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, though it took me several years to get there (during which time I really wasn’t thinking about religion much at all; I was simply tired of the subject). Now, in my mid 40s, I consider myself an atheist; it just makes the most sense.

So yes, “this palaver concerning the impotent “power of being”” can, indeed, be a stepping-stone to “abandoning God completely.” For this sample of one, at least.

There’s just one thing to add to this: it testifies to the power of Gnu Atheism, instantiated by The God Delusion, to, by striking the coup de grace, convert the faithful to nonbelief.  Many other such emails show that with the rejection of superstition came an increased acceptance of evolution.

What we have here, along with the hundreds of emails that Richard Dawkins has received (some of which appear in his “Converts’ Corner“) and the dozens I have gotten along the same lines, is evidence.  In cases like this, the plural of anecdotes is data.

Now if accommodation is so effective at turning the faithful to evolution, as Chris Mooney and others maintain, where are the hundreds of emails and letters from the faithful thanking Mooney, Josh Rosenau, the people of BioLogos, and their accommodationist confrères for—by showing that science and faith are compatible—helping them accept evolution at last?  I’m not aware of a single such piece of testimony.  All we have is the discredited fictions of Walter Smith, aka “Tom Johnson.”

And even if there are one or two such letters, they stand in opposition to the massive amount of personal testimony of the effectiveness of New Atheists in turning the faithful away from superstition and towards rationalism and science.

As far as I can see, we’ve already won.

_________

Update:  I’m not claiming that New Atheism is essential for converting the faithful, which of course is a ludicrous idea.  Nor am I claiming that it’s even decisive: that without Gnu “stridency,” all the other factors wouldn’t work.  My claim is more modest: that without N.A., there would be substantially fewer people abandoning religion and embracing rationality and evolution. All those emails are testimony to that.  And I’m aware of virtually no testimony supporting the effectiveness of accommodationism in bringing people to evolution.

As several readers pointed out, correctly, I’ve conflated some claims here.  One claim, which was the topic of the email, is the ability of in-your-face atheism to make converts.  That is indubitably true.  The other claim, made by accommodationists, is that atheist scientists are ineffective at “converting” people to evolution because their atheism turns people off.  I would contend that there’s plenty of evidence against this claim, in the form of personal testimony, and none in favor of it.  The third claim (the one I make here), is that I’ve seen no evidence that accommodationism—in the form of arguing that science and faith are compatible—has turned large numbers of evolution-denying religious people into evolution accepters.  I’m sure there must be some evidence on this point, but it hasn’t been publicized.

The final claim, for which there’s no telling evidence one way or the other, is that accommodationism has a better effect in bringing people to rationality and science than does the promotion of science by atheists.  But if you look at the strong negative correlation between the religiosity of countries and their acceptance of Darwinism, it seems clear that the real block to acceptance of evolution in America is our country’s pervasive religiosity.  (The US is highly religious and low on evolution, and this correlation holds across 34 countries.)

In the long run, I think, the way to get rid of creationism is not to show the faithful that religion and evolution are compatible—for that tactic doesn’t seem to have budged creationism in America over the past three decades—but to loosen the grip of religion on America: the goal of the Gnus.  Creationism is but a symptom of a pervasive disease that has many other, and worse, symptoms: religion.

Finally, when I say “we’ve won,” I mean that I believe an irreversible trend toward secularization has been set in motion, and it’s a trend toward less religion.  This, of course, will take considerable time. But when America becomes more secular, acceptance of evolution will follow, as the night the day.

123 thoughts on “The path to atheism

  1. My movement from Catholicism to atheism involved some dabbling with Unitarianism and with some New Age ideas too.

    But it was studying philosophy under atheist philosophy professors that eventually helped me to realize the improbability of god. This happened around 1990 when I was 27.

  2. Why else is there a wave of atheism spreading around the world, that the religionists everywhere (Pope being a good example)are are afraid of and so are bashing to keep their flock from leaving. It is indeed gnu atheism spearheaded by the 4 horseman, yourself, PZ, Greta, Ophelia, and all the rest of the gnus. It is the gnus that are clearly the only reason for this change. It is certainly not due to the same old accomodationist “be nice and they will come over to our side” philosphy. Such bullshit. The best way to convince people is to get those who have some “open to evidence” world view to hear the ridiculousness of religion by all the gnu arguments we use, and those people will change and stop indoctrinating their children.

    1. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Gnu Atheists are the ONLY reason for this change. I stumbled on Gnu Atheist blogs only after I had already been an atheist for several years.

      Strangely enough, I can credit my atheism to three things, in order from least influential to most. First, in college, I accidentally fell into a Women’s Studies major (good kind of accident), and it became difficult for me to justify accomodation. This doesn’t just apply to religion/atheism, but also sexism, homophobia, racism, and ableism, etc.

      Another major influence has been my family, which, while still somewhat religious, has never placed a serious emphasis on god or any of the more supernatural aspects of religion. Thanks to my family, I grew up understanding that my religion was a combination of ethnicity and descent, history (e.g. the Holocaust), community, culture, and ritual. Believing in god wasn’t as important as going to our family’s Chanukah party and eating latkes and not hurting my grandmother’s feelings by refusing to take home leftovers.

      Finally, the greatest reason why I’m an atheist is actually BECAUSE I’m Jewish. Part of being Jewish, in my family and in the communities I’ve belonged to, has been the pursuit of learning and understanding. We are encouraged to ask questions, to the point where questioning whether the Torah should be interpreted literally is a completely acceptable question (although perhaps a stupid one, considering the fact that it’s already been answered by years and years of rabbis and scholars arguing and writing and discussing: NO).

      The path to atheism for me was not that I was made uncomfortable. To be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt accomodated as a Jew living in a predominantly Christian society, especially such a privileged Christian majority. But even so, I never had anyone try to argue with me to sway my belief in god. I’m not sure how much I truly ever believed in god in the first place, since I always understood that when I prayed to god for some reason, nothing would probably happen, and not just because god might have more important things to do than to make sure my high school boyfriend didn’t break up with me.

      A lot of Christian sects and communities, although absolutely not all of them, discourage questions and critical thinking. I was protected from theism by virtue of my religion, one that insisted that I question and think critically. And if you question and think critically, then the answers are pretty painfully obvious: there is no evidence to suggest that there’s a higher power out there.

      1. “and not hurting my grandmother’s feelings by refusing to take home leftovers.”
        I found this to be such a sweet sentiment, that I think it should be part of the atheist calling card…

        Atheists: eating babies and refusing grandma’s left overs since 33 CE.

      2. There are Jewish fundies too. If you had been raised in a Hasidic family you might have had a different experience.

      3. …it became difficult for me to justify accomodation. This doesn’t just apply to religion/atheism, but also sexism, homophobia, racism, and ableism, etc.

        Great point!

        As to your comments about (a certain strain of) Judaism–sometimes I wonder why all non-Orthodox Jews aren’t atheists! Certainly a greater percentage of them are than are Christians & Muslims…

        Long ago in a local newspaper, a rabbi, in a piece about the Ten Commandments, stated, “We Jews have a long tradition of arguing with God.” Arguing with God. Just sort of captures an essential (if Sisyphean) attribute of Jewishness.

        As to the hasidim–scary!

    1. “We haven’t already won, but we are winning, and not in a Charlie Sheen way.”

      Forget it — I quit then. Back to religion I go. Who doesn’t want to be a “tornado of awesome”?

  3. Though I think the accomodationist stance is a bit silly, I’ll admit that Templeton had an influence on my journey. I wrote about it here:
    http://journal.nearbennett.com/2008/10/22/does-science-make-belief-in-god-obsolete/

    I was pretty sure god didn’t exist at that point, but I was interested in what “dialog” would look like. The religious arguments fell completely flat. At the time, I appreciated the civil (ahem) tone of the arguments. But around that time I was also influenced by PZ, Dawkins, Hitch, Dennett and JC. So for me it really was a mixture of all the approaches, civil and uncivil that convinced me.

    So, I still think you’re right to criticize accomodationism: all the voices are useful, not just the nice ones.

    1. So for me it really was a mixture of all the approaches, civil and uncivil that convinced me.

      I agree wholeheartedly.

    2. … all the voices are useful, not just the nice ones.

      Likewise agree, in part because I have at least a “toe” in the accommodationist camp. But your comment reminds me of an old joke, appropriately found on a religious site:

      There is a really old joke about a farmer and his mule. This mule was the most stubborn thing on four feet. When the mule decided it would not move, it would not move. At those times, the farmer tried everything. He would yell at it. He would pull on the reins. He even tried pushing it, but only once. The farmer realized that he would have to wait helplessly until the mule decided to move.

      One day, the farmer got a late start to go into town for supplies. He arrived, got his supplies, and quickly loaded the wagon so he could make it back home before dark. What do you think happened? You’re right. The mule decided it did not want to leave town yet. Jumping down from the wagon seat, the farmer launched into his usual tirade, even though he knew it probably would not make a difference.

      Another man was walking by at this time and observed the farmer’s emotional eruption. Looking at the farmer, the man said, “You are doing this all wrong. Mules should be treated with gentleness and kindness. You should not yell at a mule or yank on its reins. Be gentle with the animal, and the mule will respond obediently.” At this, the farmer said, “Well, mister, if you think you can do better, be my guest.”

      The other man walked up to the mule and began to talk to it in a quiet voice. Then, he reached down, picked up a big stick, and whacked the mule right between the eyes. At this, the mule staggered a bit, but then began to walk forward.

      The farmer was grateful that the mule was finally moving, but he was shocked by the man’s actions. The farmer shouted at him, “I thought you said the mule should be treated with gentleness and kindness.” The man replied, “It should, but first you have to get its attention.”

      I expect that the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” [Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers, Coyne] and their cohorts have at least finally got the attention of the fundamentalists and many of their more lukewarm fellow travelers …

  4. Watching Richard Dawkins “stridently” (read: honestly and uncompromisingly) argue with theists put the final nails in my “faith” coffin.

    Richard has recently posted a relevent passage from Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

      1. Hmm. HTML link doesn’t seem to have worked.

        Not sure how you included the link, but I expect you weren’t using the HTML codes to do so – as I tried to do originally myself. If you want to provide those type of links – which I certainly think improves readability – you might want to take a look at this site/page.

        But as a short intro you’ll need to prefix and suffix the link word with the “less than” [LT] and “greater than” [GT] brackets as follows:

        LTa href=”http://link”GTlink word(s)LT/aGT

        Note also that if you’re using a word processor you should make sure that the quote marks enclosing the http link are not the fancy versions.

        1. I’ve posted hyperlinks here before. Those are the tags I used. What’s interesting is that on the mobile site, the linkwords “relevant passage” appear in a different color but are not functional. On the full site, they only change color when the cursor is positioned over them. Not sure what this means. Perhaps I didn’t type them just so. As a professional musician, I spend most of my time interfacing with an altogether different sort of keyboard. 🙂 I am only moderately computer literate.

        2. If you use FireFox and Seamonkey, then download the BBCodeXtra extension

          It adds new commands to the context menu to insert BBCode/Html/XHtml codes

          This extension can really simplify your life with all forums that use BBCode or Html codes when posting new messages

          1. If you use FireFox and Seamonkey, then download the BBCodeXtra extension.

            Unfortunately I don’t use Firefox and instead have to use IE8, although I would like to as they seem to have a much easier to use and more developed system of add-ons. And part of the reason for that is that the fonts on IE8 look better and more legible with LCD screens, although maybe Firefox can be configured to provide the same but I haven’t found a way yet.

            This extension can really simplify your life with all forums that use BBCode or Html codes when posting new messages.

            I’m really not all that familiar with the use of those various codes – bit of a learning curve – but I notice that Ophelia Benson’s blog [Butterflies & Wheels] is “powered” or driven by the same software – WordPress – as Jerry’s. And the Editor box in the former has a couple of buttons to select either Visual or HTML format and the first mode seems to allow simpler creation of hypertext links, although I haven’t tried it out. So maybe “Why Evolution is True” might want to consider a few additions or modifications (hint, hint) …. 🙂

  5. I’m the reader who sent that email to Jerry. (And this is my first comment here.)

    I thought I should follow up to say that Jerry made a very valid point which I should have emphasized in my original email: It was indeed Gnu Atheism which delivered the coup de grace to my haemorrhaging belief in the supernatural. In my personal experience, blunt honesty is much more effective than wishy-washy (and, at the core, disrespectful of human intelligence) accommodationism.

    1. It was indeed Gnu Atheism which delivered the coup de grace to my haemorrhaging belief in the supernatural.

      By “shouting forced laughter” at you?

    2. Hey reader – I’m glad you commented, because I wanted to ask you something. Feel free to ignore me, of course.

      But if you feel like it –

      when you were at the stage of believing in God as the ground of all being – what did that mean to you?

      It’s not a trick question, it’s just that I always wonder exactly what Tillich and others mean by it. I wonder if it’s just a kind of verbal formula, like a placeholder, or if they really mean something (more than that) by it, and if so, what.

      But as I say: no prob if you don’t feel like answering.

      1. Hi Ophelia,
        When I was in the “ground of all being” stage, I thought of it as a representation of some mystical spiritual energy which imbued the universe with intelligence and purpose. Looking back, they were basically filler words to represent a concept I didn’t want to think about too deeply for fear of losing the sense of community I found in the church. When I did eventually begin to think about it honestly, I realized it sounded a lot like the Force from Star Wars, but without the cool lightsabers (I still want one of those).

        I don’t know what authors like Tillich and Spong really mean by it, even after reading four or five of Spong’s books. I guess that’s why it was such a short hop to reading The God Delusion and thinking, “This makes so much more sense!”

        1. :- )

          Thanks, reader.

          I made a determined effort to read some Tillich a couple of months ago, but oh dear, he made me squirm with irritation. “Yes but what does that mean.”

    3. Thanks for sending the letter to JAC, reader! Always gratifying to hear from a “convert,” not to mention to accrue data. 🙂

  6. It stands to reason that the “ground of all being” theology brings people closer to asking, “Why god?” This ethereal god is as good as a wink to a blind horse, methinks.

      1. Yes, I think it does mean more than it seems to mean to an outsider. Now, this is only in retrospect, but at one point I can remember thinking that Tillich’s theology — and his idea of the Ground of Being — made a lot of sense in the context of the whole process of Bultmann’s demythologisation. It may have been a false sense of substance, but it at least provided a sense of substance for the existential meaning of religious myth. So, while recognising myth as myth, one could hold (although now it seems to me an awfully precarious — and possibly empty — rhetorical trick) that there was a deeper signification of the stories which formed what might be thought of as the outward signs of of that meaning. So one could accept the stories as myth, but think of them as being in contact with a deeper strata of meaning towards which the stories could only gesture. As near as I can recreate what I thought I was doing then, this is what it looked like to an insider.

          1. Too bad that in those “of course you’re not to take this literally” stories of the OT, that Yahweh isn’t so much “gesturing” as “smiting.”

  7. I was starting to question my faith about 10 yrs ago when I posted some Christian b.s. on About Atheism’s forum. In all honesty, although my post was tripe, at the time I thought it would spark a discussion that would help me explore various issues that I’d been having with my faith. Instead, I was promptly called out for being an idiot and piled on. One pernicious commenter, in particular, took me down with a lovely variety of insults and accusations. S/he followed me around the forum for a while until, eventually, I fell back into lurking.

    That was my first introduction to gnu atheism. It took me about a year to delurk again, IIRC, and another year or two to deconvert entirely. In the meantime, I examined my own arguments more carefully, if initially for no other reason than to keep from being raked over the Internet coals again. It didn’t end up being the sole reason for later becoming an atheist, but paired with my involvement in “interfaith” events at my college, it was part of a one-two punch that started me down that path.

    1. That has to be one of the few times that I’ve heard someone say that their deconversion was influenced by someone being, well, a serious dick. An insulting, personal, harassing dick.

      Curiously, I found that the Penn & Teller brand of ridicule, insults and scorn did get me to rethink a lot of my beliefs. Based on what I’ve read on some blogs, there’s no way this should work but you know what, it doesn’t feel good to have people treat you like an idiot only to find that you don’t have any solid arguments to defend yourself.

      I know this is a small sample size but this is why I’m such a supporter of the Gnus. Not only do I find their arguments convincing but the ridiculous strawmen that the Accomodationists erect is, ironically, also effective 🙂

  8. Always nice to see someone else turned away from “the Dark Side” by the proponents of The Enlightenment. 🙂

    But I think it might be a little premature to be asserting that “we have won”, as “truthspeaker”, among others, also noted. While the Pew Forum statistics indicate that the “Unaffiliated” group [agnostic, atheist] shows the largest net increase – 9% of the adults in the population [pg 26] – there is still the highly problematic 33% of the population who believe their “holy” texts are the literal words of god [pg 31].

    1. It appears to be increasingly embarrassing to admit to being a theist; I think that’s a good thing. Why should I have to know or care about someone’s magical beliefs?

      1. It appears to be increasingly embarrassing to admit to being a theist; I think that’s a good thing. Why should I have to know or care about someone’s magical beliefs?

        I don’t know about “embarrassing”, although it certainly seems that many of the fundamentalists do a pretty good job of doing that to themselves. For examples, there’s the recent case of Bill O’Reilly, who seemed somewhat nonplussed over the reason for the tides, and also, similarly, the movie Inherit the Wind.

        But I’ll suggest instead that it will be a good thing if it becomes increasingly untenable to be a theist, at least a religious fundamentalist. Although I will also suggest that the best way to ensure that is for everyone to keep the kettle boiling, to keep the heat on – which would seem most readily done by starting from the aphorism “know your enemy”.

        As for a reason for that, it seems that religious fundamentalism, particularly Christian, is remarkably pervasive, if not pernicious – some 30% to 60% of the population believes that the Bible or the Quran is literally true – and entirely problematic – Richard Dawkins characterized all that as “the surreal cultural warfare rending America”. Seems to me that America is getting uncomfortably close to becoming a theocracy itself …

  9. This is how writing like Darrel Falk’s can be so convoluted. He knows he’s messing with explosives when he’s asking evangelical Christians to embrace the evolutionary process. The incompatibility is very difficult to hide.

  10. The comparison strikes me as odd and even non-sequiturish.

    You want to compare people who converted from theism to atheism via Gnu arguments with people who were converted from religious-based evolution denialism to evolution acceptance via accomodationist arguments? To some degree they are related, but what could one prove about the other?

    I can tell you for certain that Finding Darwin’s God has been highly influential in promoting evolution acceptance among churchgoers. I personally know people for whom that book played a key role in their rejection of creationism.

    But whether Finding Darwin’s God produced zero converts or a million of them, what the heck does that have to do with whether The God Delusion is effective?

    (I’ve picked FDG and TGD only as concrete examples here.)

    1. Remember, they attacked us first! 😉 I think a lot of us would be happy with any approach that works; but the accommos can’t leave it at that.

  11. I think my story may be rare — perhaps not. My parents *NEVER* took me to church – ever. Additionally, we never, ever had a single discussion about religion growing up. That’s right — the only times I have ever been in a church has been for either a wedding or a funeral.

    It wasn’t until I was in college that I actually labelled myself an Atheist — I honestly had not bothered to worry about labels before then. I started being rather vocal about my non-belief about ten years ago (I am 47 now).

    Now, here is the crazy part. My father is amazed and irritated that I am an atheist and that I lump Christianity in with all over religious fantasies!! Just goes to show you that we all start out as non-believers (naturally) and that religious belief is the result of indoctrination more than anything else.

    1. I think your story is likely more common. I was brought up a half-assed Presbyterian; church on Easter & sometimes Xmas now & then, but really, my Mom preferred to sleep in…As in your family, religion was never discussed. As an adult, I realized it had been just sort of assumed that I would pick up on the prevailing societal memes…NOT!

  12. Wait a minute: the reader who emailed you described a personal journey towards atheism, not towards belief in evolution. The so-called ‘accommodationists’ you mention (a term that I think is often far too broadly, casually, and condescendingly thrown around, even on this website) don’t usually have the goal of, as you say, “convert[ing] the faithful to nonbelief.” So it’s really kind of disingenuous to pretend that stories like this demonstrate the greater ‘effectiveness’ of Gnu Atheism.

    I don’t really follow the logic of the conclusion of this post. Yes, arguments in favor of atheism are undoubtedly effective leading people towards atheism. But are they more effective in convincing people to accept evolution? Perhaps, perhaps not. There’s plenty of evidence that people don’t have to be atheists to be evolutionists. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to imply that atheism is the best or only path to “rationalism and science.”

    I just think this whole ‘Gnu Atheism vs. Accommodationism’ meme is stupid and self-defeating on both sides. What would help is if we recognized a little more explicitly that the positions behind those silly labels represent different agendas, and stop acting like it’s a contest that one side has to ‘win.’ In fact, I think that one can easily be a ‘Gnu Atheist’ with respect to one’s personal commitment to creating a world in which religious superstition plays little or no public role, and an ‘accommodationist’ with respect to encouraging greater public acceptance of evolution.

    1. There’s plenty of evidence that people don’t have to be atheists to be evolutionists. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to imply that atheism is the best or only path to “rationalism and science.”

      I don’t think the gnus are saying that “atheism is the best or only path to rationalism and science.” We’re saying something more like 1.) rationalism and science are the best paths to atheism and 2.) religion is a poor path to rationalism and science.

      Getting people to accept the discoveries of modern science by encouraging them to reinterpret the Bible is a bit like getting people to accept the discoveries of modern science by encouraging them to re-cast their horoscopes. There’s a jarring disconnect there. Being right for the wrong reason is not a victory.

      1. It would be stupid to claim that the Bible is a good path to science. Nobody on the ‘accommodationist’ side is making that claim, though (or, if they are, then that’s a stupid argument). But that’s not to say that people who have religious beliefs can’t simultaneously hold rational beliefs about science, or that religious people necessarily are irrational. I admit that I don’t always see how believers juggle those worldviews, but clearly many do, and I don’t have a problem with it.

        My point is this: attack religion if you want to–there are perfectly good social/ethical reasons for doing so. But don’t pretend that’s the same thing as–or a necessary precondition for–educating people about science.

        1. There are some people whose religious beliefs preclude accepting and understanding science. I think we would both agree that for those people to accept and understand science, they have to change their religious beliefs.

          The accomadationists encourage changing to a set of religious beliefs that does not preclude the scientific method – which I will concede do exist, in the sense that there are religious traditions that do not discourage practitioners from practicing both ways of thinking as long as they comparmentalize them.

          The Gnu position is that, for those people, completely abandoning religion altogether is a preferable solution than changing to a less dogmatic one. Preferable for society as a whole, and also for the person changing his or her beliefs.

        2. Hallucigenia,

          Do you know or ever heard of someone refuting evolution based on some other scientific basis?

          Neither have I.

          I think this raises a rather obvious but unstated point: the only thing standing between people and their understanding of and appreciation for why evolution is true is… belief in some form of creationism… whether recent or ancient the only point of theistic contention. That belief, therefore, is the impediment. It is the link between theism and evolution.

          When people pretend that we can respect BOTH evolution AND the impediment to understanding and appreciating it, then we have a direct conflict between the two… and one that will not go away as long as we treat the belief to be equivalent for respect as we do for truth value. I do not see how we can get around this necessary confrontation… even though, as you write, it seems to be about two unrelated subjects. But when we’re talking about the public understanding of evolution surely you can appreciate that its major impediment must be considered a central issue.

        3. My point is this: attack religion if you want to–there are perfectly good social/ethical reasons for doing so. But don’t pretend that’s the same thing as–or a necessary precondition for–educating people about science.

          One can also attack religion for scientific reasons. At the very core of all religions are claims about the nature of reality. And they matter. Religious beliefs are the elephant in the room. It is not a good idea to ignore elephants, because sooner or later they mess.

          An education in science won’t just confine itself to teaching facts. The methods of science are grounded in developing an ongoing habit for honesty. As PZ Myers has said, “science changes the way you think.”

          Yes, people compartmentalize, and mentally and verbally tap dance around problematic ideas in order to hold on to them. You may not have a problem with that personally, but we — as in the general “we” of reasonable people — ought to have a problem with that in general. To the point where ‘people of faith’ are also reasonable people (and many of them are), they ought to have a problem with it as well. To assume otherwise is pandering to children.

          1. tildeb: Sure, but just because religious belief *can* lead to rejecting science doesn’t mean it *necessarily* does. And your statement requires defining ‘religion’ much more carefully than you do. There are plenty of varieties of religious belief that do not directly challenge science, so personally, I’d rather focus on those varieties that most explicitly challenge the scientific worldview. But in practice, I have nothing at all against trying to convince people on scientific or philosophical grounds that religion is unnecessary. I just don’t see it as a necessary requirement for promoting evolution.

            Sastra: well, I have problems with a lot of irrational beliefs that people have. I just read a story about a school district in California where a course on environmental science is being tampered with because of conservative board members who object to climate science on ideological grounds. That pisses me off a whole lot more than someone who–perhaps illogically–firmly believes both in a higher power and in evolution. To me, it’s a matter of picking my battles.

            But again, I have no objection to strident arguments opposing religion. I do not believe they do the ’cause’ any harm. I’m simply defending the argument that approaching people of faith in such a way that encourages them to understand science but is not overtly hostile to religion isn’t by definition a bad thing.

              1. I’m right with you there. And I wish we (as a community) could respect the way each other choose to fight our battles a little better (on both sides).

    2. You’re right, we do have different goals for the accomadationists – and yet they often criticize us for being counterproductive.

      So you really need to bring your complaint to them.

    3. I think that you’re right that many (all?) of the Accomodationists are generally set on promoting evolution and the Gnus are promoting atheism.

      That said, I think your broader argument is wrong. First, the Accomodationists are telling Gnus that the Gnus should shut up lest they drive people away. Whether that’s driving people away from evolution or from atheism, Jerry’s point about the idiocy of this argument is still valid. It’s demonstrably false.

      Second, the Gnus have all been openly supportive of a multiplicity of voices and paths. They have said that different people can be reached by different means and we should support them all. It is the Accomodationists who have said there is only One True Path, they have it, and all other people should stand aside and let them work. I’m not aware of any Gnu that says that atheism is the only path towards evolution, though they may say it’s a good path. I don’t think the Gnus are promoting a single path. If you do, perhaps you could share what you’re looking at.

      1. “Gnu that says that atheism is the only path towards evolution, though they may say it’s a good path.”

        I would go so far to say it’s the best path, but I agree it’s not the only path.

  13. The conflict between science and religion isn’t just a matter of different conclusions about how reality works; it’s about different methods in determining how to get to those conclusions. In many mainstream cultures there seems to be a tacit agreement that believing things “on faith” is a fine and noble thing, one which takes discipline and sensitivity. Being a “person of faith” means that you’re trustworthy and open.

    And if you don’t have faith, then there’s something seriously deficient in your life. This is the down side of even an ecumenical faith: it excludes.

    As it stands (or, rather, as it wafts), the vague “Ground of Being” God still allows people to maintain that they practice and value faith. They’ve given up the more obviously wrong versions of the supernatural but can still consider themselves part of the sensitive elite. The mantra goes: It doesn’t matter what you believe — as long as you believe.

    That’s bullshit. And faith is bullshit, too. It’s not a fine virtue that gives one character and strength: it’s a sloppy and self-gratifying vice that is the opposite of humility and discipline. No, it’s not hope; it’s not expectation. Hope and expectation are hope and expectation. It’s dogma stubbornly adhered to.

    And the faithful themselves see and understand this just fine whenever beliefs are held on to tenaciously in other areas of life.

    Gnu atheists point this out. Hell, someone has to. Accomodationism buys into the idea that faith itself is untouchable and admirable when it’s kept in it’s “proper” place. But if you care about method, it has no proper place. And if you really care about “bringing people together” you won’t advocate an implacable way of dividing them.

    1. It doesn’t matter what you believe — as long as you believe.

      My religious cousin said this exact phrase not two weeks ago talking with another religious relative. And then, sensing I could hear her talking, shut up.

      We did not discuss it further. Because I would have told her that believing in lies most definitely matters. The two fellows who blew themselves up in Pakistan this morning believed in lies. And on and on down the slippery slope straight to her smug self-satisfied belief that she’s the one who will have the nice apartment with the kitchen upgrade in the after-death.

    2. The mantra goes: It doesn’t matter what you believe — as long as you believe.

      And as the barmaid said…You are friends because you both pretend to know things that you cannot possibly know. It doesn’t matter that they are different things – it’s the act of pretending that you share.

      1. Amusing satire – thanks for the link. I like this one on the topic of “why be good unless god is watching” [or words to that effect]. Although it seems Karl Giberson is not amused as he, apparently, is somewhat of an apologist for Christianity.

        But it reminds me of a study I ran across recently by a psychologist studying religion who observed that:

        Specifically, it appears that believing in a vengeful, punishing God is more likely to relate to moral behavior than believing in a loving, forgiving God.

        Although my opinion is that arguing in favour of a belief in the former because of that “benefit” is sort of like arguing that as crutches are useful if one has a broken leg we should all have our legs broken.

    3. … The mantra goes: It doesn’t matter what you believe — as long as you believe. …

      I do sympathize and agree with large portions of your argument. Reminds me of a quote of Bertrand Russell’s which I think addresses the above as well as Kevin’s response:

      William James used to preach the “will to believe”. For my part, I should wish to preach the “will to doubt” … What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite. (Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays [1928]; quoted in Broca’s Brain, Carl Sagan, pg 51)

      But I also think that it is necessary to note different types of faith, that there’s a spectrum encompassing different varieties and philosophies. While I will certainly, happily and enthusiastically throw stones at the blind dogmatic faith of Biblical literalists at one end of the spectrum, there is the other end which seems consistent with a scientific and rational perspective, and which is best typified, I think, by a statement from Norbert Wiener, one of the progenitors of the science of cybernetics:

      I have said that science is impossible without faith. By this I do not mean that the faith on which science depends is religious in nature or involves the acceptance of any of the dogmas of the ordinary religious creeds, yet without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law. [Human Use of Human Beings; pg 193]

      Now, I think it’s debatable whether there’s a form of faith between those supposed limits that might properly be called religious and yet still retains the primary attributes of rationalism. But it seems to me – given the supposed limits to reason and science, briefly discussed by Massimo Pigliucci here (which I don’t entirely follow or agree with), among others – that, as suggested by Wiener, mankind will always be obliged to accept some things on faith which may or may not show some passing resemblance to what some might wish to describe as “god”. Sort of like a “default drive” – so to speak …

      1. I think Weiner is equivocating on the term “faith,” and using a casual secular version to make an unwarranted analogy to the religious definition. What you and he calls “faith” would be better described as either a ‘working theory,’ or ‘reasonable, but provisional, assumption.’

        Don’t confuse religious faith with pragmatic reliance. In science, the latter comes along with an ethical obligation to change one’s mind if the evidence seems to warrant it. In religion, faith comes with an obligation to remain loyal to a view as to a friend.

        I think that using “faith” in that sloppy way confuses the issue, and superficially papers over a very critical distinction between different approaches.

        1. The more science has advanced the more reasonable, and less provisional, that assumption becomes.

          As Anthony Grayling might say, it’s perfectly rational to hold that nature is subject to law, because the instances where this has been shown to be the case far outnumber the instances where it hasn’t (yet): the ratio is very many to one.

        2. Equivocation with respect to the word “faith” is where much of the problem lies.

          It can refer to confidence based on experience, or it can refer to blind, dogmatic adherence.

          I have “faith” that my wife will continue to be an exemplary mother to our daughter. But when I condemn the religious for their “faith,” they assume I’m also condemning “faith” in the former sense of the word. Suddenly I’m the monster.

        3. I quite agree with you that there are “critical distinctions”, but I also think that there are also some important similarities which can provide some useful common ground for productive discussions. And I think that it is somewhat unfortunate that, in many of the discussions to date because of the negative connotations of the word “faith” demonstrated by many religious fundamentalists, there has been a general loss of understanding that there are some benefits and values in the less pejorative definitions of the concept, notably definitions 1 and 6 in the following:

          faith:
          1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence
          2. a specific system of religious beliefs the Jewish faith
          3. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) Christianity trust in God and in his actions and promises
          4. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) a conviction of the truth of certain doctrines of religion, esp. when this is not based on reason
          5. complete confidence or trust in a person, remedy, etc.
          6. any set of firmly held principles or beliefs
          7. allegiance or loyalty, as to a person or cause
          Collins English Dictionary; [thefreedictionary.com]

          While I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the philosophy of science, it seems to me that a great many sciences are, and have been, based on a set of principles – axioms – believed without proof or certain evidence – Freudian psychology, for example, with its Id and Ego; and the example provided by Wiener.

          But I think that perspective opens up an avenue to attack the beliefs of religious fundamentalists by pointing out the difference between blind dogmatic faith and a version that is amenable to being modified based on available or new facts – a version that entails “an ethical obligation to change one’s mind”, as you phrased it. And one analogy I like to use in that regard is the “faith” held by Newtonian physics that space was Euclidean – a belief in something certainly held without proof – as opposed to the new “article of faith” of Einsteinian physics, that it is non-Euclidean, although I suppose that should be considered a fact now. Mind you, I don’t know how many “souls” I’ve actually saved with that particular argument …

          1. it seems to me that a great many sciences are, and have been, based on a set of principles – axioms – believed without proof or certain evidence – Freudian psychology, for example, with its Id and Ego; and the example provided by Wiener.

            Science isn’t based on a set of principles or axioms: even “nature is subject to law” is a posteriori — though as antallan points out, that particular working theory is pretty well established. Lumping regularities in nature in with Freud is a stretch: today Freud is generally considered a pseudoscientist and his “theories” nothing of the sort (unfalsifiable.)

            I still think that your quest for common ground between “faiths” is more of a bait ‘n switch that is likely to piss off both sides. Scientists will not see any reasonable analogy between a working assumption of consistency in nature –and belief in God and miracles — and fundamentalists are unlikely to be seduced into accepting science because the “faith” in Newtonian physics was modified by later discoveries and thus they see faith can do that.

            The only people likely to be entranced by the analogy are those theists who like to live in the vague gray area and slip towards whatever is convenient to them at the time. And they are the ones who come up with the analogy in the first place.

          2. I don’t see defintion #1 – “1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence” – as less perjorative at all. That’s precisely the kind of faith I have a problem with, and it’s what I’m criticizing when I criticize religious faith.

  14. I think this post, and your demand for competing anecdotes from accomodationists, blurs two different issues together.

    The first is whether some believers are able to come to some acceptance of evolution because they’re told that it is (or can be) compatible with their religious beliefs, i.e. The idea that “a spoonful of Jesus helps the evolution go down.” I’d be surprised if there aren’t a lot of anecdotes supporting that, though I doubt Mooney and Rosenau would be the likely recipients. But I suspect that Ken Miller and Francis Collins could produce many emails from Christians who decided it was ok to believe in evolution because of their example.

    Which doesn’t mean that Gnus should shut up and let the Millers and Collinses be the only ones speaking, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t criticize them or challenge their positions. It only means that their approach can be effective at getting some people to accept evolution.

    The second issue is whether the Gnus actively turn believers away from evolution. And there I agree with you, there’s only the fanciful tales of Tom Johnson in support.

    (There’s another blurred distinction too, that others have pointed out above, and that’s the issue of getting people to accept evolution versus the broader goal of getting people to think critically about religion among other things.)

    1. Wait – how am I blurring this distinction? My point was that Jerry was blurring the distinction between bringing someone to atheism and convincing folks to accept evolution. (And I certainly wasn’t demanding that Jerry or anyone else produce any anecdotes) I’m quite certain that Jerry and intelligent readers of this website can clearly distinguish between the two goals. I was just pointing out that, by using it to bolster a critique of ‘accommodationism,’ Jerry was presenting his reader’s email as evidence of something it didn’t really speak to. For all we know, the reader may have believed in evolution all along (and perhaps, since that reader has commented here, he/she might speak to that as an additional point of interest).

      Look, I’m not trying to stir up a flame war here. I do bring my points to people who are overly hostile to new atheism. But just because some people whom some of you call ‘accommodationists’ make objectionable arguments, I can’t also object to arguments made by Gnus? Truth Speaker seems to think this is a one-way street, but I never argued it was. I pointed out that this debate was “self-defeating on both sides.”

      I know and respect lots of people who could be called both new atheists and accommodationists. I don’t think anyone should shut up, and I don’t think anyone should tell anyone else to shut up. I’m not endorsing either position, since in fact I think they’re really positions towards different goals. I just think there’s been enough shouting and finger pointing–on both sides.

      A final point about terminology: Gnu Atheists seem reasonably comfortable (with perhaps a touch of irony) to use that label to describe themselves. I’m not aware of anyone who calls themselves an ‘accommodationist,’ though. In fact, I seem to remember that term coming up as an explicit analogy to Neville Chamberlain’s policy wrt Hitler. So it’s a term made up by, and used to belittle and caricature, a group of people. It’s also totally imprecise, since many of the people who are called ‘accommodationist’ differ wildly in their strategies and positions. Michael Ruse, Chris Mooney, Francis Collins, and Ken Miller, for example, hardly adhere to the same core set of values. Using an intentionally derisive, inflammatory, and condescending term to describe your opponents in a debate seems like a great way to ensure that no productive discussion will ensue (and yes, I’m aware that some people use the term new atheist derisively, and I think that’s wrong, too). So I’m just saying that maybe we can drop the labels and focus only on the arguments.

      1. I think you have misinterpreted my comment as a response to something you wrote. It wasn’t.

      2. Screechy Monkey was replying to Jerry Coyne. When you subscribe to comments on an article here, you get an email for every comment posted, not just the ones replying to you.

        1. Well, you got me there. I’d forgotten he’d written that. Michael is a good friend of mine, and all I can say is that I think he tries too hard to be controversial and sometimes says stupid things. Even though I often disagree with him, I think his heart is in the right place and he’s done really good things for science education. I also think his main point–which has to do with concern about how the supreme court may rule on future establishment clause cases–is often distorted and misunderstood. But that’s another issue.

          I blame him partially–but not entirely–for the level the dialog within the atheist/pro-evolution community. However, he definitely doesn’t deserve the slurs and smears that are directed at him constantly, especially over at Phyrangula, but even here sometimes. He’s been defending evolution since before many of these blog commenters were born, and I don’t like the frankly personal, uninformed attacks I often see on him. But he’s a big boy and can defend himself.

          1. My entry into the skeptical community was, in part, due to a critical piece about Dawkins that Micahel Ruse wrote that I felt was totally unwarranted. I had read the article in Skeptic magazine in 2004 (I think) and was so irked that I joined Shermer’s Skeptics forum to respond. In an ironic sort of way, Michael Ruse pushed me into becoming a “new atheist”.

            I see the mudslinging and general nastiness towards “new atheists” as having started from people like Michael Ruse. I have no respect for atheists that foster prejudice against atheism.

            I wonder if those doing the accommodating can do so without attacking “new atheists”? From my perspective, any slights directed at accommodationists (faitheist) by “new atheists” are responses to their claim that “new atheists” are hurting some cause (despite having no evidence to back up this oft repeated assertion.)

            Ruse invites the responses he receives. I much prefer those he criticizes; they come of as much clearer and more honest to me. In fact, my first reading of Ruse made me think that he purposefully missed what Dawkins was saying or that he was exceedingly jealous of the man. Nothing he has written changes my opinion.

    2. But I suspect that Ken Miller and Francis Collins could produce many emails from Christians who decided it was ok to believe in evolution because of their example.

      It’s not impossible but I’m not aware of any. Has anyone seen these anecdotes?

      AFAIK, the reason these religious evolutionists are trotted out is to keep debates on the science and not the religion, whether that’s in court or in public debates.

      I would love to believe that their work has helped shift people from Creationism to theistic evolution but I haven’t seen the evidence. Not that I think it isn’t happening, I just care more about atheism than evolution so haven’t looked much into the question. Maybe someone else has done this and can remember some good references.

      1. Heh. I went looking for some at the Biologos site, but I found very different kinds of anecdotes! There’s this one, posted by Collins (all edits mine):

        It happened again this week. I received an e-mail from a student at a major university who is in the midst of a profound personal crisis…. my correspondent was having a wrenching crisis of worldviews, and her deepest foundations were being shaken.

        She had been home-schooled by loving parents who were dedicated Christians, and who made sure that she learned the deep and profound principles of their faith. She made a personal commitment to that faith as a teenager, and her relationship with Christ was a central part of her life. She arrived at university fully aware that this secular environment might threaten her faith, but she quickly found other believers to share experiences with, and she learned to love the undergraduate experience.

        That is, until she decided to major in biology. For the first time, she had the chance to see the scientific evidence for the actual age of the earth (4.55 billion years) and the theory of evolution. Like 45% of Americans, she had based her previous conclusions on an ultraliteral reading of Genesis promoted in many conservative churches – that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that all species of animals and plants came into being by individual acts of special creation by God. But with gathering alarm, she could see that a veritable mountain of data from physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology and genomics made that interpretation of Genesis no longer tenable. She tried to think of ways that the scientific evidence could have been misunderstood, or even (as she had heard from some Christian friends) that there was a widespread scientific conspiracy to promote these false ideas, but she could not see how to dismiss the massive weight of evidence. She sought guidance from her professor, but he made no secret of the fact that he thought religion was a waste of time. The ice was cracking under her feet. If her spiritual mentors had been wrong about origins, might they have been wrong about other things? Was faith just an illusion? Was God really out there?

        Ironically, this illustrates one of my problems with Biologos and Collins. By Collins’s own description, here’s an educated young woman who, when confronted with the scientific evidence, isn’t running from the evidence, but is asking some necessary hard questions about her faith! And Collins is going to try to talk her out of asking those questions, or assuring her that they have good, faith-affirming answers!

        Anyway, to continue:

        She is not alone. Over the last three years since my book The Language of God was published, I have heard from dozens of individuals experiencing this same crisis. I have tried to provide reassurance, based on my own path from atheism to belief, and my own experience as a physician, geneticist, and Christian, that science and faith are entirely compatible….My college correspondent is still searching for the truth, but she was reassured to know that it is possible to embrace both science and faith, without having your brain explode.

        Source: http://www.biologos.org/blog/biologuration/

        This post is too long already, so I’ll just mention that at http://www.biologos.org/blog/why-biologos/ the foundation’s president Darrel Falk mentions another anecdote, of a former (Christian) student turned molecular biologist who identified himself as agnostic when Falk re-connected with him recently. Falk writes:

        John has lost the most important thing in his life, and it happened, as I see it, because the Church (including myself) had not been able to adequately prepare him theologically and biblically for what he would learn as he delved deeply into biology—especially he tells me, the biology of the brain. The pieces no longer fit for John.

        We often hear how supposedly it’s the fundamentalists who agree with Gnus about the conflict between science and religion. But here’s Biologos’ president agreeing with a basic Gnu point: that when confronted with contrary evidence, not all believers reject the evidence and stick with their faith.

        1. Interesting, thanks.

          It really sounds like BioLogos has been working to preserve people’s faith and it’s secular education which has brought about acceptance of evolution.

          I can’t fault them for starting their foundation but it certainly wasn’t their work which brought people onto the side of good science.

          1. Yeah, it sure looks a lot more like they’re trying to encourage scientists to become or remain Christian than to encourage Christians to become or remain interested in science.

        2. And Collins is going to try to talk her out of asking those questions, or assuring her that they have good, faith-affirming answers!

          Is it just me or is this disgustingly reprehensible behaviour on Collins part ?

          How dare he call himself a scientist.

    3. “But I suspect that Ken Miller and Francis Collins could produce many emails from Christians who decided it was ok to believe in evolution because of their example.”

      Maybe they could. But those Christians had to change their religious beliefs in order to accept evolution. As long as they’re willing to change them anyway, we offer an alternative.

      1. I agree with you, and I think the Biologos quotes I printed above further back you up.

        My original point was just that those anecdotes probably exist. But I admit that I’m engaging in Mooney-like speculation there.

    4. But I suspect that Ken Miller and Francis Collins could produce many emails from Christians who decided it was ok to believe in evolution because of their example.

      Be careful what you ask for! We’ve learned in the past that fundies think all kinds of deception are legitimate for the “higher purpose” of spreading/defending the faith. I can imagine a rush of faked letters now…(Which was also my reaction upon reading JAC’s statement in the OP that he thinks such don’t exist, as least not in great numbers.)

  15. “For this sample of one, at least.”

    Since I could have written and signed this letter without being dishonest, make that sample +1.

  16. In cases like this, the plural of anecdotes is data.

    Well, it is not good observation for a large number of reasons; I would wish for a real statistic. But I see your point and rise you one: it is somewhat useful data (as you show).

  17. I’ve been not-a-theist since my teens, but gnu atheists made me a gnu atheist (via arguments with fundies on Twitter). I was probably a mushy well-there-could-be-something-sort-of-“spiritual”-out-there kind of agnostic for a long time. (Sorry.) Discovering Jerry, PZ, Ophelia, Greta, and others online helped crystallise my worldview.

  18. I think new atheism goes beyond atheism, and that’s new territory for most.

    We are still unfortunately defining ourselves against theists, in other words, is our entire reason for living is to convert theists? That’s not true in my case.

    I have spent a good ten years having debates, discussions, building bridges, breaking bridges and generally involving myself into the realm of rational argument and non-fictional knowledge.

    After all that, I conclude that I simply want a religious free life. I’m not interested in debating with theists, I’m interested in building a better society without religion and harmful irrationalities.

    I suppose that makes me a bit more to the left of the atheist spectrum right now. So I’ll happily sit here until others come over, realising that it’s futile to persist with the idea that co-existence with religion in a modern world is possible.

  19. Dear Dr. Coyne: Allow me to add my story to your mounting mountain of evidence.

    I was once a Catholic seminarian, and I can tell you what (aside from curiosity and a thirst for “truth”) started turning me away from the Church, and eventually away from god belief: exposure to ideas that were withheld from me during my childhood.

    Two critical first “dominoes” were hearing for the first time at age 18 that Papal infallibility was a new idea and that the council of Nicea culled the Bible from a larger set of books.

    Hearing these ideas, and allowing myself the luxury of saying “What if this is true, and what if these aren’t the ONLY things I may be mis-informed about, by people with a vested interest in keeping me in the flock?” That exposure started the process.

    On this count alone, Gnu Atheism (and the internet) are responsible for starting the dominoes falling for millions. The more people we have publicly articulating ideas that your average religionist is not likely to hear while in “the bubble,” the better.

    As for winning? We must be very strong and willing to defend secularism. The religious in the past have proven willing to pogrom, and witch-hunt, and inquisition us out of the public sphere, and if this current bright moment is to last, all of us must be strong enough to come out, stand up and say, “Not this time!”

    1. I was once a Catholic seminarian, and I can tell you what (aside from curiosity and a thirst for “truth”) started turning me away from the Church, and eventually away from god belief: exposure to ideas that were withheld from me during my childhood. ..

      Interesting story and I’m glad to see that you’ve made it back from “the Dark Side” … so to speak 🙂

      But I am curious if you’ve read Dawkins’ The God Delusion and whether, in which regard, you might feel that you were “brainwashed” or indoctrinated as a child. He has a very powerful and moving chapter (among many) titled Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion wherein he argues that, almost as a paradigm, “horrible as sexual abuse [of children by priests] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” And in support of which he provides a great many anecdotes, examples and arguments, one of the foremost being from a British psychologist, Nicolas Humphrey, who argues that:

      … Children have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow path of their own faith.

      In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.

      And relative to that “duty to protect”, I would be curious to know how far you think that duty extends. You may know that the United States was instrumental in creating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and signed it in 1995 shortly after it was released. Although America has yet to ratify it – a rather odious and “embarrassing” (the word used by President Obama) status it shares with Somalia – largely because of opposition from “political and religious conservatives”. And it would seem that that opposition, at least from the religious, stems from the fact that one of the key rights mandated by that Convention is that children shall also have a right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Seems to me that should, by rights, seriously curtail those of parents to force-feed their children religious dogma, or at least ensure that religious education in the home and schools is a little more balanced.

  20. While it is evidence, I feel obligated to note that it is not evidence from a statistically representative sample of the population as a whole. As such, it does count as a demonstration of existence, but does not allow effective extrapolation or comparison of rates of effectiveness.

    Mind you, getting a representative sample would be a huge amount of work, and probably difficult to get study funding for….

  21. The other claim, made by accommodationists, is that atheist scientists are ineffective at “converting” people to evolution because their atheism turns people off. I would contend that there’s plenty of evidence against this claim …

    There may, in fact, be some problems and limitations with the accommodationist position, but it certainly seems plausible to me that “in-your-face” atheism is likely be a little off-putting, particularly for those who are religious but who are sympathetic to evolution. Like they say, one is likely to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And if the primary objective is promoting evolution then it would seem to be counterproductive to be overly disparaging of those in that camp with whom one might unite in a common-cause against those doing the most to forestall that objective. It seems that it is the religious fundamentalists who are the most problematic “flies in the ointment” and that tarring all “people of faith” with that brush only serves to reduce the effectiveness of any efforts made to reduce the influence of the former.

    For example, as you and a number of others here have noted, the Catholic Church itself is at least somewhat supportive of evolution even if they seem somewhat schizophrenic about it. And while one swallow (or two) doesn’t make a summer, there are some 13,000 churches which have signed the Clergy Letter and whose members “believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.” And they also seem to have weighed-in to support “21st century science in Texas schools”.

    And while one might argue with some justification that the “ground of being” theology at least is rather silly – which I would tend to agree with as I would prefer Vonnegut’s “universal will to become” – not everyone agrees with a categorical rejection of all philosophical and “spiritual” concepts which might motivate or underlie some religious perspectives. For example even Dawkins notes, somewhat testily or with some exasperation, “I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense” and on which he had elaborated with a quote of Einstein: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings”.

    If the primary objective is promoting the understanding of evolution, which would seem naturally to promote the secondary objective of increasing understanding of science and attenuating the influence of religion, then it seems critically and crucially important to differentiate between, in concept and in responses to, the “metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists” [among others], and the literal “interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language”. [Dawkins, The God Delusion; pg 41]

    1. And if the primary objective is promoting evolution then it would seem to be counterproductive to be overly disparaging of those in that camp with whom one might unite in a common-cause against those doing the most to forestall that objective.

      What is it to be “overly disparaging?” What is “in-your-face atheism?” Specifically.

      One of the major problems gnus have with gnu-critics is that these critics often fail to make distinctions between bringing up atheism in appropriate contexts … and proselytizing schoolchildren while shouting forced laughter into the faces of respectable theist allies. Who does that?

      I think gnu atheists are rather good at recognizing and making distinctions between various forms of God. That’s not really the problem. The problem is that pointing out that “ground of being” theology is “rather silly” and yes, still grounded in the same anti-science methods of thinking as theologies which are even more silly, is apparently considered a hindrance to getting more people to think scientifically.

      You may have it backwards, then. The primary objective is encouraging habits of reasonableness. Acceptance of evolution is a secondary goal.

      1. What is it to be “overly disparaging?” What is “in-your-face atheism?” Specifically.

        Fair question and one I probably can’t do a lot of justice to, in part because I’ve just started looking at that issue. But it seems to me that Massimo Pigliucci addresses that point reasonably well here (which also includes some rejoinders from several individuals at American Atheists), although I definitely do not agree entirely with all of his points. But relative to your questions his conclusion seems apropos:

        By the way, before anyone misunderstands me, I’m not advocating any sort of wishy-washy position about the existence of god. Let’s not throw around silly accusations of “intellectual dishonesty” or “accommodationism.” All I’m saying is that both the accuracy of the message and the way it is presented matter, at least if you wish to build a better society, which I assume is what we are all trying to do. If the goal is simply to feel superior by pissing people off, I’m not interested.

        But this article – to which Pigliucci also provides a link in his blog – may provide a little more of a detailed answer to your questions.

        And relative to your assertion that The problem is that pointing out that “ground of being” theology is “rather silly” … is apparently considered a hindrance to getting more people to think scientifically, I am wondering – turn and turn-about – who is it that considers that? I don’t recollect seeing any examples and I certainly don’t think so myself and have, in addition, frequently expended some effort in arguing that at least portions of such theologies are either silly or untenable. But, again, I think it important to differentiate between relatively minor differences in philosophical perspectives and, hopefully, major agreements on courses of action.

        You may have it backwards, then. The primary objective is encouraging habits of reasonableness. Acceptance of evolution is a secondary goal.

        You might be right that those “habits of reasonableness” are the ultimate goal, but I expect that we’re likely to get to “acceptance (or at least teaching) of evolution” long before we get to those habits – the latter seems to be a necessary stepping stone to the former. The Roman Catholic Church – and all such religions – weren’t built in a day and we’re not likely to substantially dismantle or modify them in a day. Seems to me that an important “habit of reasonableness” is to acknowledge those practical aspects. As Pigliucci puts it:

        Few people — possibly not even Dawkins — would disagree that, say, the fight for a true separation of church and state has to include a broad coalition of religious and non-religious groups, partly because the goal is in the interest of both parties, and partly because there simply wouldn’t be hope for just secular groups to prevail, considering that they represent a (sizable) minority of the population.

        1. Those articles seem to just raise more questions rather than providing any answers. Indeed, JAC has highlighted some of the problems already: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/o-noes-atheists-ignore-history/

          WRT to Pigliucci, he has a very checkered past regarding the Gnu Atheists. Heavy on criticisms, short on specifics. At best he seems to say it’s poor form to use any strong language but he does exactly this when discussing alt med and other ideas. Even the title of his book “Nonsense on Stilts” uses the sort of strong language that he criticizes the Gnus for using. It’s clear that this softly softly approach is only for religion, for reasons no one has ever explained.

          1. Indeed, JAC has highlighted some of the problems already.

            Interesting article and discussion – thanks. Quite a bit of convoluted back-and-forth; he-said, she-said. Reminds me of the saying that in any war the first casualty is the truth. Looks like a great many people on both sides of the question are quite knowledgeable but entirely convinced of the “rightness” of their positions and they’ll be damned if they concede a point – the “God is on our side” syndrome …

            Even the title of his book “Nonsense on Stilts” uses the sort of strong language that he criticizes the Gnus for using. It’s clear that this softly softly approach is only for religion, for reasons no one has ever explained.

            Haven’t read the book yet myself but I don’t see that characterizing a set of ideas as “nonsense” is much of a problem, either by Pigliucci, by the Four Horsemen, or by anyone else. The argument seems to be that the problem is the personal attacks – presumably on both sides – which tend to cause the discussions to degenerate. A “lose-lose” situation …

            Although maybe that is the nature of the beast. I guess we all invest some emotional capital in our various philosophies and positions and when they are attacked the responses tend to be somewhat disproportionate.

            1. Umm. . . these personal attacks are highly overrated. My piece in the New Republic the one that got me in so much trouble with accommodationists, was perfectly gentlemanly and respectful. I defy you to read it and find “personal attacks.” Nope, the Gnu Atheist are chastised not for personal attacks, but for speaking frankly about the problems of religion. We’re simply supposed to shut up about that stuff.

              1. Thanks for the link and the article – quite an interesting, thorough and detailed overview of the principles and people involved in the issue.

                But I certainly can’t see anything there that could be construed as unacceptable “personal attacks” – on the contrary you seem to have gone out of your way to characterize Gilbertson and Miller, at least, as “thoughtful men of good will”. Although on the point of “acceptable” personal attacks I note that Wikipedia [ad hominem fallacy] asserts that “in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue”. And in which case I would say that your “critiques” of some of the motivations of both of them, and by extension fundamentalists in general, were entirely appropriate and acceptable.

                However, my comments about personal attacks in general were motivated, in part, by Pigliucci’s comments on the issue and his conclusion that “the problem with the new atheism is that it looks a lot like the mirror image of the sort of fundamentalist rage that we all so justly abhor.” While I’m not sure what other cases he has in mind to justify that, my own experience on various discussion boards on related topics, consistent with his conclusion, is that the discussions are frequently marred by, at least, irrelevant and inappropriate references to “personal conduct, character and motives”.

                Although that seems hardly exclusive to any particular topic or discussion board – unfortunately. Several have commented on the apparent fact that “rage is all the rage” and even Pinker hints at the problem with a comment: “When sociobiologists first began to challenge [the Standard Social Science Model], they met with a ferocity that is unusual even by the standards of academic invective”. Maybe just a sign of the times …

                In any case, although not having any cases of such in front of me, I would think those who “chastise” the new atheists for their comments on the problems of religion – particularly those which are on an “even keel” like the ones you presented – are definitely out in left field and seem not far removed from trying to deny or curtail free speech. Interestingly and somewhat encouragingly, the Pew Forum statistics indicate that some 14% to 34% of the population agree – completely or mostly – that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves”: the longest journey begins with a single step …

                As for the article itself, while you certainly cover a lot of ground and present quite a number of arguments – many of which I agree with, it seems that several manifest some surprising or apparently incongruous positions – maybe due to the scope and complexity of the topic or my understanding of either them or your presentation. For instance, you note that “tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive Judeo-Christian sensibilities” [33%; pg 126], yet seem to suggest that the balance should be tarred with the same brush. While you transfer the problem to the realm of “philosophical incompatibility”, that seems quite a bit less of an issue than the practical actions and consequences of that particular minority.

                Also, you state that you are “not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason” – with which I agree entirely, yet make a categorical statement – “the reconciliation [of God and evolution] never works” – which seems to exclude – in effect – the other faith(s) you referred to. While I’ll quite readily agree with you that the traditional Abrahamic religions – at least the dogmatic literalist versions – are likely to be irreconcilable with science and secular reason, I’m not sure that it is justified to “abandon all hope” that the less dogmatic and literal versions might yet evolve into a more compatible form.

                But interesting article – thanks again.

            2. This is not an ’emotional issue’, nor a ‘he said/she said’ squabble, and you are inaccurate to frame it as such. It is a matter of principle – a starting position that assumes a respect for what is true over a respect for what some merely wish to believe is true.

              Accommodating respect for the belief side of this issue is tremendously dangerous and carries with it a very real and growing cost.

              For example, just look at what’s going on in medicine these days. To better accommodate those who wish to believe in alternative and complimentary woo, there is a dedicated effort to move away from respecting science-based evidence itself.

              By framing the argument about promoting why evolution is true to be one of utility rather than principle – one that should put aside criticism for those who wish to continue to believing in woo to improve the tone of the supposed ‘discussion’ – you utterly fail to uphold the principle of respecting how we know evolution is true. And we don’t know this because we emote the evidence and feel its value, nor because these experts are better qualified than those experts; we know it because we respect the role of evidence-based conclusions to build applicable, practical, and valuable real world knowledge.

              Casting aspersions on those of us who think such respect is essential for intellectual integrity as so many so-called atheist allies think appropriate is hardly a way to convince those who do not share this respect to suddenly start. Nor is criticizing the tone of gnu atheist criticism based on presumed and even imagined personal attacks against believers any way to solidify why respecting what’s true important.

              In either case, accommodationists harm the very principle upon which intellectual honesty and integrity stand. And it comes at a cost to all of us who are going to have to pay for this appeasement of principle in favour of accommodating the woo of potential allies in this particular issue.

              1. This is not an ‘emotional issue’, nor a ‘he said/she said’ squabble, and you are inaccurate to frame it as such.

                I don’t think I’ve really said that it is an emotional issue – although the evidence might suggest otherwise – or framed it as such, only suggested, in effect, that some people frequently, or many people periodically, or some always – on both sides of the debates – let loose with some intemperate, irrelevant or unnecessarily personal comments.

                Accommodating respect for the belief side of this issue is tremendously dangerous and carries with it a very real and growing cost.

                I’ll agree that there is at least some danger there. But obviously there’s some danger in getting out of bed in the morning or taking a plane – always a question of “risk management”. In which regard I notice that Jerry – in his Seeing and Believing article – notes that Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism. Seems that in such a “marriage of convenience” it should be possible in most circumstances for the agnostics, atheists and humanists to say, as a working principle, “If you don’t tell us that there is a literal God and Heaven, don’t get in our faces with them and don’t insist on making any social, moral or political claims based on their putative existence then we won’t tell all and sundry that you’re deluded and that, as far as evidence goes, you don’t have a leg to stand on”.

                For example, just look at what’s going on in medicine these days.

                Bit of a different issue I think, but I quite agree with you that there shouldn’t be any uncritical support for non-evidence-based medicine.

                Casting aspersions on those of us who think such respect is essential for intellectual integrity …

                Again, it seems that you’re suggesting that I’m trying to characterize all atheists in that particular way. Sorry if I’ve given that impression, but that was not at all my intent, described above – or what I’ve said, if I’m not mistaken. As a general policy, I think that “My country, organization, group or philosophy – right or wrong; you’re either for us or against us” are both rather dangerous habits of thought, potentially at least.

    2. The point remains to respect what’s true and respect how we know what that is. Evolution on this battleground will thrive quite nicely without anyone committing intellectual hypocrisy.

      As for the tired cliche of attracting more flies with honey than vinegar, xkcd to the rescue once again.

      1. The point remains to respect what’s true and respect how we know what that is. Evolution on this battleground will thrive quite nicely without anyone committing intellectual hypocrisy.

        Not quite sure what your terms of reference are there, but it seems one point is the different definitions of what is true and the different methods of reaching that determination. I don’t have any problem with agreeing that the traditional, literal, “thought-reading, sin-punishing” gods of the Bible & the Quran are highly improbable at best. But I also question the categorical assertions on the part of at least some atheists that there are no concepts of god with any utility or benefit or correspondence to “reality”.

        But I hardly think that making common-cause against a common enemy qualifies as “intellectual hypocrisy”, even if there are some differences in the philosophies of the relevant parties. Maybe that qualifies as expediency – horror of horrors – but it seems the other side of the coin, the other choice, is to insist on being on an ivory-tower purist – sort of like fiddling while Rome burns.

        As for the tired cliché of attracting more flies with honey than vinegar, xkcd to the rescue once again.

        Clever and amusing cartoon illustrating the limits or dangers of “conventional wisdom”. But I don’t think it disproves my point and only suggests a modern update of the aphorism. And under any formulation it is still seems true that some tools are better suited to some tasks than to others. And, as a case in point, it would seem that, in general, personal attacks are not likely to be terribly conducive in getting all people to consider the limits or flaws in a particular perspective or philosophy.

        1. The mistake you make is typical among accommodationists: that we should respect the utility of finding a ‘common cause’ with whomever seems agreeable to the conclusion we wish to promote, namely evolution. But you’ve misunderstood what that cause really is and presume it to be focused merely on collecting allies in pursuit of some wider acceptance of the conclusion for evolution.

          But that’s not it, you see.

          The cause for gnu atheists is to not to respect conclusions for their own sake but to respect the method of inquiry itself that has brought to understand why evolution is true. Part and parcel of that respect includes criticizing those who pretend that there is some other reliable and equivalent way of knowing without doing the heavy lifting of proving it. To pretend that believing in some form of oogity boogity is fine and dandy as long as evolution is respected (but allowing for a magical poof movement of divine intervention somewhere along the way) is hypocritical if one honestly wishes to respect the method of inquiry that has revealed why evolution is true. In this sense there is no ‘common cause’ with those who believe we must put aside and quiet our respect for what is true for utility’s sake, presuming as it does that we must do so in order to attract people who apparently cannot figure out for themselves without melting into religious fundamentalism why belief in oogity boogity is neither equivalent to nor compatible with this method.

          1. The cause for gnu atheists is to not to respect conclusions for their own sake but to respect the method of inquiry itself that has brought to understand why evolution is true.

            Aaaargh. Edit fail.

            This should read The cause for gnu atheists is not to respect conclusions for their own sake but to respect the method of inquiry itself that has brought us to understand why evolution is true.

          2. … that we should respect the utility of finding a ‘common cause’ with whomever seems agreeable to the conclusion we wish to promote, namely evolution.

            I don’t think I’ve said anything, particularly here, that we should be finding common cause with just anyone. As a matter of fact I think I’ve clearly said that religious fundamentalists, the Biblical literalists, are virtually beyond the pale: “they are the most dangerous minority we have because they categorically eschew the reasoned judgments of the majority”.

            But I am suggesting that, on a case by case basis, there’s quite a bit of utility in joining forces to defeat a common enemy. As I think Dr. Coyne’s description of Kenneth Miller’s “demolishing of intelligent design” and his courtroom testimony “supporting the rejection of ID” would clearly prove. One might even suggest that Miller’s books have done more to make evolution palatable to many of the religious who are less doctrinaire and literal – even if you and many others (including me) don’t happen to agree with his conclusions – than those of Dawkins and Coyne.

            The cause for gnu atheists is to not to respect conclusions for their own sake but to respect the method of inquiry itself that has brought to understand why evolution is true. …

            Actually, I have a great amount of respect for that “method of inquiry” you refer to – have made quite a decent living from it myself and it has underlain my own criticisms of fundamentalism. But “common-cause” really doesn’t entail – to my mind in any case – any support for divine intervention or pretending that belief in such is “fine and dandy”. However, I’m not sure that that method of inquiry is really an absolute or that there are not, as Pigliucci argues, some basic limitations to the scientific method and science itself.

            And, in any case, I’m hardly arguing that any or all atheists are obliged to be finding common-cause with anyone, although I think it might improve their credibility. And I hardly think it tantamount to hari-kari which quite a number of individuals and groups would seem to agree with. For instance, this group promoting the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which notably supports a child’s right to freedom of religion, thought and conscience which, one might argue, is likely to further the respect for the “method of inquiry” you refer to – is supported by a diverse spectrum of other religious and secular groups including a humanist – and atheist – one.

  22. The strongest influence on my atheism was – unwittingly – my parents. Although intelligent, curious people, they very noticeably refused to question religion, or allow it to be questions. The distinction was so marked that it stood out a mile and made it clear that something was going on. As I got older, it became clear that they had no good reason to believe what they did and later that there *was* no good reason to believe it.

    But the part that’s relevant to this post is this: I was by myself. I had nobody to talk to about this. I felt alone, afraid and miserable. If there were a few more vocal atheists about, refusing to be cowed by the religious, things would have been a lot easier. Nevertheless, the religion of my parents left its mark on me and for years I had a vaguely accommodationist outlook. I mistook the fact that I think people are welcome to believe what they like if they must, however wrong it might be, for the idea that they must be respected for doing so.

    It was the realisation that this made me part of the problem – the specific problem I had growing up – that led me to become increasingly more vocal about my atheism. I wanted to help people who, like myself, felt trapped inside their atheism rather than liberated by it. This is why it’s heartening that new atheism is becoming increasingly mainstream. People need to know that there are atheists out there, living and loving their lives and not in thrall to religion.

  23. Dr. C.: The God Delusion delivered the coup de grace for me as well.

    I had drifted away from religion for ages and hadn’t been to church or thought much about it for many years; but I still had that soft spot for it.

    Dr. Dawkins took care of that! Bracing and refreshing honesty and clarity. It flipped everything over. Now when I encounter honestly religious people, I’m puzzled and (at least) slightly disturbed by it.

    So raspberries to all you silly accomodationists!

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