Evidence against New Atheism: Exhibit B?

May 27, 2011 • 5:28 am

[JAC note: Reader Sigmund and I had some correspondence about the paper discussed below.  This inspired me to ask him to write a guest post about it, and he kindly complied.]

by Sigmund

While there may be fifty ways to leave your lover, there is only one way to teach evolution.

At least that’s what we’ve been told. The accommodationist strategy of recent years advocates that the public voice of evolutionary science should exclusively be that of theistic evolutionists.

According to Chris Mooney,

I would try to empower the messengers that they (religious folks) will listen to, people who are more like them, people who they trust.  That means people in their community, pastors, scientists who are religious, people who are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them.  It will still be very hard.  You will still trigger a lot of resistance, but I think there will be more openness than, kind of, the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common: an atheist.

In contrast, the alternative approach, supported by the Gnus, emphasizes the advocacy of accurate science without recourse to religious views.

Until recently, however, little study has been done on the question of which approach works best or whether additional factors may enhance or detract from the success of particular strategies. While no single study could hope to address all the variables that affect this question, it should be possible to address individual elements.

One such analysis was recently published in a science journal, attracting claims from commenters on the Richard Dawkins forum that it discovered ‘the bleeding obvious’,  from Uncommon Descent that it was a ‘push poll’ (a dishonest marketing technique win which biased questions are used to push one particular viewpoint) designed to attack ‘Intelligent Design’, and even from The Intersocktion, claming that it showed the error of the new atheist approach and the value of the accommodationist strategy.

According to Jamie L Vernon, the new contributor to Chris Mooney’s blog The Intersection, we finally have what we’ve all been waiting for—evidence that proves the dangers posed by the New Atheists.  “Surprise!—the most effective tactics are not those used by Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists.”

Well? Are any of those accusations correct?

Well, no, no and no—although not necessarily in that order.

Let’s briefly go through the paper to see what questions the authors addressed, what results they found, and, finally, what conclusions we can draw from this analysis.

The study in question, “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution”, by Jessica L. Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason P. Martens, was published by the online journal PLoS One at the end of March. The authors, based at the Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver and the Department of Psychology, Union College, Schenectady, New York, described their aim as being to examine “the psychological motives underlying widespread support for intelligent design theory (IDT), a purportedly scientific theory that lacks any scientific evidence; and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (ET), a theory supported by a large body of scientific evidence.”

The authors began with a hypothesis: “heightened mortality awareness would lead individuals to embrace IDT and reject ET; in other words, shifting one’s opinion on these theories is a “terror management” strategy, stimulated by the basic need to maintain psychological security”.  This is a complicated way of saying that thinking about dying will make people less supportive of materialistic views of life and more supportive of teleological ideas such as ‘Intelligent Design’, presumably because ‘Intelligent Design’ is frequently associated with a supernatural designer, namely God, who supposedly offers a handy life extension in the form of an eternity in heaven.

The authors carried out five separate studies to address the question.

In all five studies, the authors began by manipulating “mortality salience” (MS induction) in their test subjects. What this means, in effect, is that they got the subjects to think about their own mortality, by getting them to write about feelings aroused by thinking of their own death.  As a control, half the students were asked to write about feelings aroused by imagining a generalized negative thought, in this case dental pain. This allowed the authors to examine whether heightened thoughts about death and mortality have an effect on the acceptance of one or other of the subsequently presented test options.

The test was a two-part procedure. Following MS induction, the participants were asked to read two passages of text, both 174 words long, that were pastiches of views on evolution or intelligent design. The first (the ‘Evolutionary Theory’ choice) consists of sentences from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, while the other (the ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ (ID) choice) consists of sentences from Darwin’s Black Box, written by Michael Behe and from the foreword to “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, by Behe, William Dembski, and Steve Meyer.

Both texts are similar in tone and content, and advocate for their choices by suggesting that the respective theories are of fundamental importance in science, are overwhelmingly backed by the evidence and are supported by many scientists and philosophers.

(If you know anything about biology, the Behe text will automatically induce a reaction of WTF!)

Importantly, neither text makes an explicitly religious claim—the Dawkins text has nothing in it that could not be said by theistic evolutionists such as Ken Miller or Francis Collins.  The passages did not present the reader with a choice between philosophical naturalism and ID but, rather, between the current scientific consensus of evolutionary theory and ID.

The second part of the test was a series of six questions that, according to the authors, assessed the participants’ “views about the author’s expertise and their belief in the theory referred to in the passage.” Specifically, participants rated each author, using a 9-point scale, on intelligence, knowledge, agreement with his views, and truth of his opinion. They then rated their agreement with two statements, on a 5-point scale: ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is a solid theory supported by a great deal of evidence’’ and ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is the best explanation we have of life’s origins.’’

The use of six questions in this analysis, rather than a single agree/disagree choice, allowed the authors to employ certain statistical techniques, common to the social sciences,  that test the internal consistency or reliability of a series of test scores from a sample group. This method also allowed the authors to examine whether the results reflected negative reactions to the authors, Dawkins or Behe, rather than to evolutionary theory or ID.  In the words of the authors: “we wanted to ensure that results are not due to an effect of mortality salience on attitudes toward these two authors but not the theories, so we also ran all analyses using 2-item scales comprising only the last two items, which asked about views toward the theories but not the authors.”

So, does heightened mortality salience (MS) affect whether a test subject chooses Evolutionary Theory or Intelligent Design?   According to the paper the answer is yes, but in ways that differed depending strongly on which type of subjects were tested and whether additional factors were involved.

Five separate studies were performed on either groups of psychology students, life science students, mixed university students, or a group of nonstudents selected to represent the general population.

The results from the first three groups studied (psychology students, general university students and general public) seemed to show a partial agreement with the authors’ hypothesis—mainly showing that increased MS caused a drop in support for evolutionary theory rather than an increase in support for ID in groups 2 and 3. Group one, however, showed increased support for ID without a significant drop in support for evolutionary theory.

The last two studies, however, are of particular interest.

Study 4

The authors looked at 269 UBC psychology students, with half the students instructed to read a passage by Carl Sagan. The text in question encouraged a naturalistic search for meaning in the universe.

There is a two-part result for this study. The first group, who didn’t read the Sagan passage, produced a result very similar to that of study one (no significant change in support for evolutionary theory but a statistically significant increase in support for ID after MS stimulation.) But the second group—those people who had read the Sagan text—provided very different results, showing a significant increase in support for evolutionary theory and a significant decrease in support for ID.

No control text was read by the non-Sagan half of this study and this point is noted by its authors, who suggest that a control would have been a neutral passage, which they think would have been of little use.  It is questionable whether that is the correct interpretation.  An alternative explanation might be that reading an additional text supporting the scientific consensus in the Dawkins text and described to the participants as coming from ”one of the world’s most famous scientists” might be construed as an argument from authority that would increase support for evolutionary theory.  In such case a suitable control passage might significantly alter the result.

Study 5

This involved 99 UBC undergraduate and graduate students from the life sciences who followed the same protocol as study one. This group showed a similar result to the ‘Sagan group’ of study 4 (increase in support for evolutionary theory and decrease in support for ID following MS stimulation.)

In other words biology students, in contrast to the population at large, are immune to the negative effects of induced mortality salience and, in fact, become even more supportive of evolutionary theory in such circumstances.

*******

Okay, so how do we interpret these results? Are we confident that they are accurate, and reflect how psychological manipulation affects acceptance of evolution in society at large?  There are clearly some problems with the study. The samples involved are not particularly large, I am wary about the way the authors altered the protocol for study group 3 and, as I mentioned before, the result of study 4—the most novel of the entire analysis—is at least questionable due to the control problem  On the other hand, some of the trends discovered seem to be replicated within the study.  For instance, the result of study 1 is mirrored in the first (non-Sagan) part of study 4 and the result of study 2 reflects that of study 3, indicating that amongst the general population an increased MS causes a negative response to evolutionary theory (although it doesn’t increase support for ID).

But does the study say anything about the value of accommodationism versus confrontationalism?

Perhaps. The result of study 4, if validated, indicates that emphasizing a naturalistic search for meaning in life (the Sagan passage) strongly ameliorates the negative effect induced by heightened thoughts of mortality.

Interestingly, however, this naturalistic approach is not one that theistic evolutionists advocate! Rather’ it’s much closer to the public approach of prominent Gnus like Dawkins. The passage from Sagan, below, disavows the supernatural aspect that is the common feature of theistic evolution.  While it doesn’t attack religion per se, it is essentially a passage promoting a viewpoint of philosophical naturalism, or to put it in its proper scare quotes, “atheism”.

It is very reasonable for humans to want to understand something of our context in a broader universe, awesome and vast. It is also reasonable for us to want to understand something about ourselves. And understanding the nature of the world and the nature of ourselves is, to a very major degree, I believe, what the human enterprise is about. Truth should be pursued, and science helps us pursue it; science gives us meaning. All we have to do is maintain some tolerance for ambiguity, because right now science does not have all the answers. This tolerance goes with the courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations and knowledge tell us. The more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from something outside science, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves.  If we are merely matter that is intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less, or does that make matter more? We make our purpose.  And we have to work out what that is, for ourselves.

In summary, the study suggests that public advocacy of evolution might be most effective when combined with an appeal to a materialistic approach to the search for meaning in life.  At present this is more a suggestion than a conclusion (the ‘Sagan effect’ was unfortunately tested only on psychology students rather than the general public).  The finding that distinct groups react in diverse ways to the same stimuli suggests that an optimal approach should include multiple approaches. Whatever way you look at it, this study is not good news for the accommodationist strategy.

I think we can agree with Intersocktion poster Jamie L Vernon that “this article offers fertile territory for discussion on ways to improve communication strategies for those of us who wish to effectively reach those in the religious community,” although one suspects that Jamie didn’t realize that message of the paper is actually that advocating atheistic world views improves the acceptance of evolution.

53 thoughts on “Evidence against New Atheism: Exhibit B?

  1. It is very frustrating to see Chris and his allies resurrect Sagan under their banner. It is as if they have never read The Demon Haunted World. In the comments there, I pointed out several passages from Sagan that would make any Gnu proud, but then suddenly, Sagan suddenly becomes unimportant. Ugh.

    1. Amen.

      Sagan and Dawkins both sing from the same sheet of music. the only difference is that Sagan is (was) a baritone and Dawkins is a tenor — and that Sagan sounded like he just finished a bowl of pot while Dawkins sounds like he just finished a pot of tea.

      But if the accommodationists think that all we need to do to wean people off of ID is to bring Sagan back into the classroom, who’m’I to argue with them? If we replaced every elementary / junior introductory science course with a Cosmos marathon, we’d revolutionize science education.

      No, really. Which would you prefer: an ignorant uneducated backwater superstitious git sneeringly ignoring the very fundamentals of the subject he’s distorting, or the greatest lecturer of the previous century telling the greatest story ever told?

      Of course, with a foundation such as that, the teachers of the advanced classes wouldn’t be able to get away with half the shit they pull, which is why I’m sure it’ll never happen.

      Cheers,

      b&

      P.S. There are lots of amazing, wonderful, fantastic science teachers out there. But there’re also a depressingly large number of IDiots, and it’s (of course) the latter class I’ve just been railing at. If we were to treat (and pay) teachers as professionals akin to doctors and lawyers…but that’s a rant for another day…. b&

    2. Your comments there are brilliant, J.J.E.

      Truly, they were good enough to make me (again) regret that I so often have so little to add to remarks of that significance, beyond “agreed”.

    3. but then suddenly, Sagan suddenly becomes unimportant. Ugh.

      It’s incredible.

      One thing I would like to say is that this is not about Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins.

      ORLY, Vernon? Then why did you title it “Carl Sagan wins again. New evidence for the rejection of new Atheist communication strategies” and illustrate it with a blended image of Sagan and Dawkins?

    4. It was Sagan, not Dawkins, who shifted me from a default atheist to an argumentative one. It was The Demon-haunted World and a couple of interviews he did when it was published – on Science Friday, and Fresh Air – that shifted me. I did not take any kind of Mooneyesque deferential message from him. Not.at.all.

    5. It is as if they have never read The Demon Haunted World. In the comments there, I pointed out several passages from Sagan that would make any Gnu proud,

      Unfortunately I don’t have it at hand, but you can also find similar quotes, as well as science passages that would likely sound rather dry when torn from context, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, where the study’s authors took their quote from.

    6. It is very frustrating to see Chris and his allies resurrect Sagan under their banner.

      +1.
      Every time you hear a theistic evolution scientist make some excuse for how God could still be involved in the process I keep thinking Sagan would bring up his dragon.

  2. Nor have they read Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Where he, Dawkins, explains very early on what Sagan stands for. Or Einstein, for that matter.
    Where have they held those studies? Do I smell fishing in very murky Templeton waters? In Salt lake City, perhaps?
    Lastly: too much MS indeed leads to death. Most know that.

  3. authors of the study:

    Individuals respond to existential threat by becoming more accepting of a theory that offers a greater sense of meaning by depicting human life as having ultimate purpose (while appearing consistent with the scientific worldview), and/or less supportive of the theory that is the true mainstay of the scientific worldview but seems to offer little in the way of existential comfort.

    Appearing consistent? Ultimate purpose? Existential comfort? This is more than a teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go done. They’re admitting to mixing in bullshit with science where people can’t tell the difference. They didn’t seem to consider that what they were measuring–existential fear–isn’t necessarily religious-based.

    Now Pigliucci, in a blog post titled “Sagan beats Dawkins…” seems to want the study to be about Dawkins’ dickishness as a general indictment of New Atheism when all the authors do is put the fear of death into a subset of North Americans (hardly necessary) and chalk it up to priming, or something.

    The study’s didn’t compare relevant passages between Dawkins and Sagan and Dawkins and Behe. The authors use a passage from The Selfish Gene rather than one of Dawkins more polemical works, such as “Unweaving the Rainbow” or The Devil’s Chaplain. So while they can say this type of writing is less effective (under rather artificial conditions) they cannot say Dawkins is a less effective writer than Sagan based on the passage from The Selfish Gene.

    For example, Unweaving the Rainbow:

    The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

    After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

    A better way to go about this study would be to come up with a list of all the so-called priming words and phrases and run a match throughout all their works, then tally the number of hits.

    1. That’s exactly what I meant when I wrote above that they’re singing from the same sheet of music.

      There’s more than one passage that each wrote that could just as easily have been written by the other — and that extends equally well to the Gnuish bits as well as the numinous ones.

      The one was an astronomer and the other is a biologist…and I can’t think of any other characteristic of significance that distinguishes between the two as far as the subject at hand is concerned.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. What’s needed is a true “Pepsi Challenge” or single blind experiment between Dawkin’s and Sagan’s writing style across their body of work. Simply asking the participants to not consider the authors of the passage in their response is woefully inadequate considering the notoriety of the authors in question.

        In any event the consequence of this gave accommodationists an excuse to misinterpret the results into generalizations about Gnu Atheist communication strategy.

        In the comments to the Pigluicci post notice how he backtracks from his general indictment of Dawkins–supported by a really real scientific study!–to claiming he was only expression his personal impression of Dawkins’ writing after Ophelia calls him out on it. Then why mention the study in the fist place?

        1. snerk

          I’d forgotten about that post. Saw it when I googled to find what I thought was the new one. Didn’t remember that I’d posted on it. I wonder what I said.

            1. Actually, after reading Pigliucci’s post and the study he cited I was expecting you to respond at length on it in a post. I think you got scooped.

  4. When I first read that post, I thought “way to miss the point again” – when will they understand that often when we criticize religion, we are not doing to increase acceptance of evolution? They still seem to want to focus on one small part. Eliminating superstition and uncritical thinking is a goal in itself.

  5. One thing that accommodationists (e.g., Mooney) tend to do is argue from a psychology of persuasion angle. They often talk about motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance theory, and other such psychological theories that indicate that the “in your face” approach would lead science-deniers to more strongly hold their beliefs.

    This is true to some extent. However, there is also social psychological theories like the elaboration likelihood model, which would indicate that peripheral route (using flashy tactics or something other than reason) of persuasion only leads to short-term attitude change. This is opposed to the central route (using reason without sugar-coating) which leads to long-term attitude change. Of course, people that are unable to listen to or understand the central approach should start with a more peripheral route, but the “New Atheist” approach is, in my opinion, helpful for long-term attitude change.

    Furthermore, and I was arguing this with a friend recently about PZ Myers, norms need to be taken into account. Studies show that norms have a huge effect on our attitudes and beliefs. One thing that I think the Gnus do well is create visible group, that allow “closeted” atheists to feel comfortable enough to start “coming out” in public.

    I, for one, benefited from that presence. I was fairly closeted, pretended to pray with family or whatever, and even started out thinking Dawkins was a jerk. However, if it wasn’t for the openness of the Gnus, I would still be hiding my beliefs.

    What they do is create this “norm” that other people are out there and it is ok. Without this visibility, people may stay hidden. I was shocked how many atheists I was surrounded by when I decided to become vocal about it. And me becoming vocal, allowed others to become vocal as well. Therefore, yes, most people that are pretty far on the theistic side are probably not going to be persuaded by the Gnus, but those that are in the middle, that are just looking for an “ok” probably benefit from the Gnu approach…..I think I just thought of a new study I should run (copyright!).

    Sorry for the long post. Had a lot on my mind.

    1. “This is opposed to the central route (using reason without sugar-coating) which leads to long-term attitude change.”

      And which has the very considerable advantage that it’s stable. There’s no lurking worry that at some point you will have to admit you were sugar-coating, or that this will be noticed without your having admitted it.

  6. So people believe in ID because of the stupid, denialist, panicky relation they have with death.

    And the proper answer to that is to cater to their fears? Why not trying for them to overcome and override their fears? What do we do with five year olds so they won’t be afraid of the dark? Couldn’t we do something similar in this case?

    Living in constant fear is lame. Ignoring that fear and living as if it wasn’t there until you’re 80 is not cool either.

    1. So people believe in ID because of the stupid, denialist, panicky relation they have with death.

      Ironically, using a skeptics tool-kit to confront these fears and expose them as irrational was a topic in Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World.” The subtitle is important: “Science as a candle in the dark”

    2. Actually, when I first read the blurb about these articles, I had a very different reaction. Probably because I am an atheist and I didn’t read it. I am a budding social psychologist and know quite about about TMT. When I read the blurb I thought, “when mortality is made salient, people become irrational”, makes sense. They have shown this before within the field…..

      I was not aware that they took this angle.

      1. Sheesh, need to proofread.

        “know quite about about TMT” shb “know quite a bit about TMT”

  7. Others have already said much of what I was going to say.

    From the study:

    In contrast, on its face, ET does not confer any sense of greater meaning or purpose, instead asserting that human life is the result of the same natural forces that produce viruses and cockroaches. Although scientists may find meaning and purpose from the notion that all life is connected by virtue of resulting from the same explicable biological forces, for the average non-scientist ET may seem existentially bleak.

    I don’t like this. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “on its face” with regard to communicating science. That these connotations appear to some to be “on its face” or inherent in ET – bleak, cold, dead, meaningless, diminishing – is not due to anything inherent in the naturalistic approach but the result of centuries of religious campaigns to characterize nonreligious views (and reality itself) in this way.

    As others have noted,

    ET is typically presented as the highly materialist and utilitarian process that evolution is; as Dawkins explains, “unordered atoms… group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they end up manufacturing people.” Only when individuals are also told, “If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less, or does that make matter more?”—implying that naturalism can reveal purpose in human life—do individuals reject IDT in response to heightened MS.

    is a mischaracterization of Dawkins’ and others’ presentation. Many people reading the quotes from Dawkins and Behe are going to add much more to the Behe quote themselves, regardless of whether it talks about religion explicitly, because that bias out there in the culture. But a quote from Dawkins, Coyne, PZ, Shubin, or Rachel Carson could have been substituted for the Sagan one with equal effect. The point is presenting science-reality in a way that doesn’t cave to the distortions of religion, which is what people like Sagan and Dawkins do (or did) and what the accommodationists work against. That nonscientists can be reached in this way, “naturalistically,” in the real world is shown in the influence and book sales of these authors.

    (And I don’t understand why they tell the subjects that the quotes are from Dawkins and Behe. What’s the point of that?)

    1. The point being: if they didnt tell the names, it d be less likely that they d get the right answers.

    2. (And I don’t understand why they tell the subjects that the quotes are from Dawkins and Behe. What’s the point of that?)

      Exactly what I thought. Doing so means any results they get are as likely due to kneejerk reactions to well-known names as to any attention paid to the content of the quotes themselves.

  8. Vernon*:

    Take a look at the excerpts used in the study and try to understand why one is more effective than the other.

    Effective at what? If you’re comparing these authors on the effective communication of evolutionary theory, Dawkins, as an evolutionary biologist, is stronger. If you’re comparing them on communicating the poetry of science and nature, they’re quite similar, and both outstanding. The study, for its purposes, uses out-of-context quotes intended for different purposes. The Sagan quote doesn’t communicate any science content at all. What’s wrong with these people?

    (I’m annoyed that someone’s posting at the Intersocktion using my ‘nym. I mean, I don’t own the initials, but grr.)

    *(who’s evidently quickly assimilated to the Intersocktion culture: “Comments are interesting! Can’t discuss! I’m doing far more important and super awesome things! Look at me!”)

    1. “Comments are interesting! Can’t discuss! I’m doing far more important and super awesome things! Look at me!”

      I know, right? God I hate that. “I’d love to comment but I’m way too important.”

    2. The Sagan quote doesn’t communicate any science content at all.

      Quite right. The style in the Sagan passage verges on prose poetry and the content could be classified as rhetorical. Cosmos has more actual science communication than some of his books (e.g., The Dragons of Eden, Pale Blue Dot, Billions and Billions).

  9. It would be nice to have some data to support the “Gnu” approach–

    I was recently at the Secular Coalition for America biennial meeting and got a chance to speak to researcher Greg Paul about this issue. (If you don’t recognize the name–he’s a researcher who has done some important research on the correlation between government policies and religious belief–)
    He said he wasn’t personally interested in investigating it (he studies broader trends) but he thought sociologist Phil Zuckerman (author of “Societies Without God”) might be interested in studying the phenomenon.

    Does anyone here know Phil Zuckerman–or how to contact him?

    1. I was recently at the Secular Coalition for America biennial meeting and got a chance to speak to researcher Greg Paul about this issue.

      I ran across that site recently and was impressed with the range of issues that they are weighing-in on and also with their Advisory Board which includes Dawkins, Pinker, Hitchens and Dennett. I have been thinking of contacting them to find out if they know of and would be prepared to address another issue which I think would be consistent with the other ones and which I, apparently among quite a number of others, think of some importance and relevance. And since you’ve indicated some connection with them I thought to ask your opinion on the issue as well as on how I might proceed.

      I’ll try to keep this brief, not go off on too much of a tangent, although the issue seems entirely apropos of the general discussion on evolution and its teaching in schools. For starters, there is the Wikipedia article on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which most countries in the world have signed and ratified – apart from the “embarrassing” exceptions of the US and Somalia. Supposedly or potentially one of those rights – the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion for children – would curtail the efforts of religious fundamentalists to indoctrinate their children and those of others.

      And many, including Jerry, have argued that that indoctrination entails or condones the worst forms of child abuse. And Dawkins has a very powerful and moving chapter (among many) in his “The God Delusion” 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.

      So, seems to me that one of the most effective tools to end that type of abuse is the one provided by that UN Convention – all that is required is to pick it up and apply it. Although that is of course easier said than done and the legal issues seem convoluted at best. And I happened to note in one of Pigliucci’s blogs, though I don’t have the link handy, that he is not convinced, from recollection, that religious education generally qualifies as child abuse. However, many others apparently disagree with him and I would like to see if the SCA can take a run at the issue. And I would appreciate your opinions and thoughts on the matter, if at all possible. Thanks.

        1. It is indeed a complex issue – on which it is probably wise not to go charging off madly in all directions.

          But, no, I am not a parent so only have second and third hand evidence regarding the issues and difficulties that parents probably have to face. I’ve often wondered whether there is some pedagogical justification for a religious education – sort of like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”. But I think it still important to draw the line somewhere quite a bit short religious indoctrination in matters of religious education of children.

          In regard to which you might want to take a look at a site in Australia referenced here awhile ago. It seems that their system allows a general religious education in schools starting as young as 4 or 5, but it also seems that religious fundamentalists have been riding roughshod over that system. I think I have yet to see a more odious and egregious example of “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”; give them a hand and they’ll take your whole arm. Price of freedom and all that …

      1. Steersman, are you an American? Because I would hope every secularist American is aware of the SCA and supporting them. Hasn’t the word gotten out by now? They’ve been mentioned by every humanist/atheist/freethinker organization that operates in the US!

        1. No, actually I’m a Canadian and just recently ran across the SCA in my search for humanist / atheist organizations here.

          Definitely impressed by the range of issues they’re involved with and may try to push from this side as well on several of them. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child seems the most important.

          Somewhat of a different ballgame here: that Convention is “ratified” here and we don’t have quite the same “States-Federal” rights issue to contend with but we also don’t have the “separation of church & state” law to provide a backstop or basis of action.

          1. Oh, Canada. ( 😉 )

            Regarding the last clause of your last graf–funny how we can sound so good on paper but not so much in practice, eh? (But of course it’s not a law, per se, not even in the Constitution in so many words, thus endlessly disputed by the godbots.)

  10. This sentence from Mooney jumped out at me:

    …I think there will be more openness than, kind of, the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common: an atheist.

    I’m married with a daughter. I have a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I buy a new car every few years. I play in a tennis league. My daughter goes to gymnastics. My wife and I are the leaders for her Girl Scout troop. I have a 9 to 5 desk job. In short, I’m living the American Dream. And I’m an atheist. It seems to me that I have very much in common with my friends, neighbors, and co-workers, despite us having different views on religion.

    If Mooney thinks that Christians think they have ‘very little or nothing in common’ with atheists, then it sounds like the solution is to change the perception of atheists, and you don’t get that by telling atheists not to talk about their atheism.

    1. This is what I most dislike about accommodationists like Mooney: They argue from the point of view of anti-atheist bigotry and try to justify their conclusions from that perspective. That argument is unethical, its an argument that we should be cowed into invisibility and silence by anti-atheist bigotry. Its counter-productive, it is short-sighted, to coddle bigotry that way. Doing that rewards those who promote such bigotry for self-interested reasons. We don’t make progress by empowering bigotry.

    2. If Mooney thinks that Christians think they have ‘very little or nothing in common’ with atheists, then it sounds like the solution is to change the perception of atheists, and you don’t get that by telling atheists not to talk about their atheism.

      Hear, hear!

      In a related matter, my main disappointment with Sam Harris is his backing away from the word atheist.

  11. Thanks for the writeup!

    This is exactly the sort of research I would like to see done more (and more carefully).

  12. ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is a solid theory supported by a great deal of evidence’’ and ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is the best explanation we have of life’s origins.’’

    Did they really confuse Evolution & Abiogenesis in this study?
    Yes I see they did. That the whole study was about that. It would have been nice if they recognized that the religious community combines these 2 concepts in ID but they are separate fields in science.

  13. I’m not sure I understand the study so I will read it again later with more care… however it sounds like the study doesn’t take into consideration how much exposure the general public has to both accomo’s vs gnu’s.

    I would assume that the gnu’s or just the “atheist” movement will get more press than the accomo’s because they are more visible and actually have something called opinions which gets the opinions of the press.

    So even IF (*IF*) a softie approach does have more of a mind-changing effect, if they don’t get more press than the gnu’s their approach still loses.

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