A good short piece on science, philosophy, and religion

November 9, 2011 • 4:49 am

On Nov. 1 the Bristol University Atheist, Agnostic, and Secular Society met to hear three talks:  Julian Baggini on philosophy, Sheikh Ramzy on religion, and David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London who spends  lot of time refuting pseudoscience and alternative medicine, on science.

Colquhoun’s talk wasn’t recorded, but he’s transcribed it over at his website, DC’s Improbable Science.  After the mish-mash of theobabble we’re used to, this piece is short, straight, and to the point. And he takes issue with Baggini’s criticism of New Atheism. An excerpt:

Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).

I disagree, for two reasons.

Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident.  Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one.  It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much  notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.

The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect.  There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science.  Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine.  I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors.  Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply.  All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed.  The only thing that has worked was public derision.  A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”.  Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like

“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked.  Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

I’m getting pretty tired of the stridency argument.  I challenge anyone who makes this argument to produce a list of offensively strident comments from, say, God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or Breaking the Spell, and then I’ll make a list of equally (or more) strident statements from theologians and preachers. What offends me is how accommodationists—even the atheist ones—focus exclusively on the former and completely neglect the latter.  It’s another example of the hands-off-faith position, in which “lack of faith” isn’t given the same consideration.

Colquhoun also refers to his October 28 piece that will certainly rile up people, “Why philosophy is largely ignored by science.

I have in the past, taken an occasional interest in the philosophy of science. But in a lifetime doing science, I have hardly ever heard a scientist mention the subject. It is, on the whole, a subject that is of interest only to philosophers. . .

74 thoughts on “A good short piece on science, philosophy, and religion

  1. Is New Atheism just New Anti-clericalism?

    Without theology people would just be superstitious – without clergy people would replace church with the state or personalities. We are a superstitious species – our brains our psychology gives us the supernatural as a coping mechanism – it is the face of the placebo effect. Being atheist requires as much faith as being religious because of what our own brains will tell us. Look in a mirror for 5 minutes straight you will see something – if your child is sick or if your child dies you will believe in heaven in a safe place you will want to believe it will take an effort of will to not believe you will see her again it is part of the grief cycle/process. Pain itself will make you ask for help from the supernatural. How can anyone ask or deny God to a suffering person or to happy person? It is an attitude. Just as it is after a while ok to not believe in Heaven – it is the time and the place the moment that matters most – This is what clergy is for – to keep the church and the faith for people when they need it. Because it will happen anyway no matter how irrational.

      1. +1!
        Ted, this is nonsense.
        “if your child is sick or if your child dies you will believe in heaven in a safe place you will want to believe it will take an effort of will to not believe you will see her again it is part of the grief cycle/process.” I think some punctuation was missing there, but I think what you are saying is that because you want to feel comfort that means that clergy or a church is a necessary thing?

    1. Sorry, no it doesn’t take “faith” to be an atheist. Repeating lies won’t make them true. It only takes the observation of reality to be quite sure that there are no magical bogeymen.

      And, wow, so we should not dare let theists know that they are wrong because they supposedly “need” it? Sorry, I have a much greater expectation of humanity than to just allow them to have their pap and pacifiers. Happiness in a lie is worthless and suffering with only delusions of succor is also worthless.

      Religion infantilizes humanity, expecting to have some nice little fantasy to help with the rigors of reality.

    2. Ted, not one of your sentences speak to any facts nor can they be backed up. Several of them are outright lies. Which hack pseudo-theologist did you copy and paste?

    3. Ted, I’ll refrain from the rest of your post but will hazard an answer to the first question:
      “Is New Atheism just New Anti-clericalism?”
      “New Atheism” is closer to a form of scientific skepticism directed towards the supernatural claims of religion.
      I suspect that “Old Atheism” is more anti-clerical than new atheism, which is, on the whole, happy to let people chose their own private beliefs so long as they don’t try to force them onto others.

      1. I wouldn’t characterize new atheism as “happy to let people choose their own private beliefs so long as they don’t try to force them onto others.” That sounds more like the accomodationist position: leave liberals and moderates alone, and only criticize the extremists. It’s a pragmatic social matter.

        Although gnu atheists will of course diplomatically choose to leave people alone on a personal basis, exercising forbearance and tact when reasonable, the problem with religion is not seen as simply a problem with the individuals who try to “force” it on others. The problem with religion is that it is (almost certainly) not true, and faith is not a virtue.

        That’s an important point, and it shouldn’t be lost.

        I am NOT “happy” to let people have faith in God, use homeopathy, exorcize ghosts, plot astrology charts, reject evolution, perform magic rituals, believe in psi, redefine science, and advocate pseudoscience as long as they keep it to themselves. Are we not all connected? I’m unhappy about people believing in nonsense in principle. I can leave individuals alone — sure — but the issue doesn’t always and forever reduce itself to individuals having “freedom.” It’s a social issue, a public issue, a human issue, a cultural issue, and a scientific issue — and we do not have the epistemic freedom to believe whatever we like. Rational persuasion and argument aren’t a form of “force.” The religious tend to frame it this way because they know they can’t rationally support their views, and they want to forestall just criticism.

        1. Sastra, you are confusing private beliefs and public policy.

          It is not accommodationism to say that you can have whatever you want for your personal beliefs in the privacy of your own head. I doubt you seriously are trying to forcibly change people’s internal thoughts.

          I believe you are interested in stopping them from forcing their personal thoughts onto others via law, public education, or other public forums. (Key word here is ‘forcing’)

          There is a significant difference between those two things.

          1. What is the difference between forcibly trying to change people’s internal thoughts — and persuading people to change their view on an issue you both care about?

        2. I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one – even though I think we are pretty much on the same side.
          My own feeling is that converting people to our point of view is an inherently inefficient process. I don’t tell religious people they are factually wrong as a way to convinced them to change their mind. I do it to encourage them to keep their ideas private – and to maintain idea in the public consciousness of the value of evidence.
          Europe has gone from a majority faith position to a largely agnostic/atheist one (at least northern Europe) not though clever conversion tactics, but through non-religious views being kept in the public domain, and thus the newer generations growing up in an environment where being non-religious was a valid option.
          The oldest generations in Europe are still about as religious as Americans, it is the younger generations that skew the data towards atheism.
          My goal is to create a ‘cost’ for public religiosity – a religious person is free to make a religious claim in public, however the cost for that will be a request to back up that claim with evidence. I think the internet is a great weapon in this regard – look at any comment section after a religious piece and you will see plenty of requests for evidence for these claims.

          1. I know we basically agree — but my own feeling is that we normally don’t attach concepts like “force” and “conversion” to matters we argue about. Religion seems to be a special case — and it shouldn’t be.

            Obviously, any belief kept totally private can’t be argued with, because we won’t hear about it. Mentioned briefly in passing — depends on the person, and the situation. But, as you point out, once it’s in the public square people can’t then cry that their beliefs are “personal” and private.

            Years ago I helped out at a freethought booth at the State Fair. When angry theists would come up to argue, one of my co-workers would always try to deflect their criticism by reassuring the believer that our booth was not trying to ‘take away anyone’s faith.” The booth wasn’t for them. It wasn’t meant to sway believers away from believing in God. It was there solely as a resource for people who were already atheists. We weren’t out to convert people.

            After watching this for a day or so, I finally made a decision and spoke up. “I am,” I protested. “I’m trying to convert people — to change their minds. I think you’re wrong, and if this topic interests you then this booth is for you.”

            Because it suddenly seemed such a farce. If our booth had been a political booth, or an environmental booth, or a booth on ANY other issue, would we have done the big song and dance about “respecting” the present views of those who disagree? Would we have felt we needed to duck and shuffle and pretend that there was something really bad about presenting our viewpoint to just anyone — because that’s “converting” people? Since when? What the hell is so wrong about trying to change people’s minds? “Don’t worry, we’re only here for the people who are already Democrats: if you’re a Republican rest assured that we’re not going to try to take that away from you by force.” With a pickaxe. Because that is of course what would be standard and expected.

            When I tell religious people they are factually wrong, I do do it as a way to change their minds. However, being realistic, I recognize that just getting them to hesitate or question their own beliefs is also a benefit. Any movement is good — and maybe good enough. But deliberately giving up on the entire purpose of debate? I’m not going to do it.

            1. The problem with religion is that it is (almost certainly) not true, and faith is not a virtue.

              That’s an important point, and it shouldn’t be lost.

              I’m totally with you, Sastra. Great subthread here.

    4. No, new atheism is not anti-clericalism, because the gnus also object to non-heirarchical supernatural belief. New Age beliefs in collective probably being a good example.

      1. Right. A proper accomodationist would presumably not have their teeth set on edge by “I’m not religious — I’m spiritual.” They’d smile and relax.

    5. Pure garbage. My brother died when he was 19 (I was 17 at the time). While it would be very comforting to believe that he is in some magical place and that I’ll get to see him again, I don’t just give in to wishful thinking. You don’t give people enough credit. Tragedy is no excuse for abandoning standards of belief. Pain has not caused me to ask anything of the supernatural. How could it? Why should suffering turn us into slaves? After my brother died, my family and I were disgusted by the religious sentiments we received, sentiments such as: He’s in heaven now; or God only takes the best; or God must have needed him. What utter garbage! So yeah, speak for yourself, man.

    6. if your child is sick or if your child dies you will believe in heaven in a safe place you will want to believe it will take an effort of will to not believe you will see her again it is part of the grief cycle/process. Pain itself will make you ask for help from the supernatural.

      Having lost a child, I can honestly say that at no point in the grief process did I ever consider god/heaven/meeting again. The grief process is never easy, whatever your belief, but belief in the supernatural is not automatic in the face of grief.

      1. indeed, our experience is that if ideas challenge an individual’s status quo beliefs there is an immediate fear response: fight (personal attacks usually), flight (run away, block,deny), freeze (repeat same thing over and over, etc.)

        seems mainly instinctive protections from uncomfortable and scary feelings in the moment…you see this dominating the web and media…e.g., Fox

    7. “Being atheist requires as much faith as being religious because of what our own brains will tell us.”

      No it doesn’t.

      This is an assertion without proof.

      Religion requies early and intensive brainwashing of children, lack of education in what reality is, backed up by social conformity and the occasional murder of defectors.

      Hitchens: Xianity lost its best argument when they stopped burning people at the stake.

    8. “if your child is sick or if your child dies you will believe in heaven in a safe place you will want to believe it will take an effort of will to not believe..”

      This isn’t true.

      Some religions don’t even have an afterlife. Judaism, the parent of xianity, didn’t for at least one major sect, the Sadduccees. The Jewish afterlives were borrowed from the Greeks and Hindus. Some today believe in reincarnation. You aren’t going to see anyone you know if you are reincarnated.

      The Hindu and Buddhist afterlives don’t involve meeting your affiliates. You may even end up a pet dog or tapeworm of one of them.

      And there are nearly 1 billion atheists in the world, the third largest sect if they were a sect. Believing in fairy tales is just believing in fairy tales. It doesn’t make anything feel better.

  2. What Colquhoun says on the irrelevance of philosophy of science on science is true of some philosophy of science, but not of all philosophy of science. Indeed, the physicist John Bell would have received the Nobel Prize in Physics if he had lived a little longer for research on what Abner Shimony has aptly called “Experimental Metaphysics”.

    1. Hear hear. Some names of people in philosophy departments that have contributed seriously to our understanding of QM, and have (I think all of them) have published in good physics journals: Arthur Fine, Tim Maudlin, David Z Albert,Jeffery Bub, Abner Shimony. Shimony was co-author on famous paper that made Bell’s inequalities testable, and the fact that he had a job in a philosophy department allowed him to support experiments that got John Clauser virtually ostracized.

      1. There is a difference between philosophers contributing to science and philosophy contributing to science. Philosophers have published valuable papers on physics in physics journals. But so have mathematicians, computer scientists, chemists… and so on. Talented people are found in every academic department. They found ways to make contribution outside their home departments.

        The point being made, however, is that philosophy of science is ignored by scientists. In other words, physicists might find a physics paper written by a philosopher important, but they don’t go read more philosophy of science and hope that it will help their work in any direct way. Physicists (and other scientists in general) do learn computer science, mathematics, chemistry, and other skills and integrate them into their work. But not philosophy.

        This is almost like a counterpoint to the famous “unreasonable effectiveness of math in physics”. Philosophy appears to be unreasonably ineffective in physics (and science). In other words, you’d think philosophy should be very very important to scientists. You’d expect professors encouraging students to take classes in philosophy. You’d expect scientists eagerly waiting for the next issue of Journal of Philosophy of Science to see some concepts clarified or some unexamined possibilities proposed. But it simply doesn’t happen. Why is that?

        1. Your point about math is well taken. Colquhoun mentions that statisticians have made more advances in (understanding) inductive inference than philosophers. I’d add another example: Newton solved Zeno’s problems after literally thousands of years of failed attempts by philosophers. Yes Zeno, you can measure infinities with a finite number of steps. Its called calculus.

          But more general than that, the great strides in all treatments of infinity have come from mathematics rather than philosophy.
          The same is true for causa causans and bootstrapping problems. These issues are/were problematical for philosophy for thousands of years. Who eventually provided a useful handle on these topics? QM, and scientific/mathematical concepts of iterative algorithms and feedback loops.

          Its not that philosophers can’t make advances. They certainly can. Its that, as a field, mathematics seems to get useful answers quicker.

          Scientists are pragmatists. If we have to bet on which horse will win the next race – solve the next deep problem – we’re going to bet on the horses that just won a slew of races. That’s science and mathematics. We aren’t saying the philosophy horse can’t win. Of course it might. But we aren’t betting on it.

          1. And now add the biggest chestnut of philosophy–thinking and the human brain. Consider all of the science of the brain now emerging that is shaking the foundations of centuries of philosophy with respect to free will or psychopathy or behavioral addiction.

            Much (not all) of philosophy appears to me a logical exploration of theoretical space. Science deals with actual space–reality. Much of the philosophy that we consider “good” or “correct” appears to have been bolstered by the evidence furnished by science and not always better philosophy.

            Sam Harris’s paper using fMRI to examine belief affirms “Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true”. He was right to characterize this point as conjecture. Ask yourself: if Harris’s results completely contradicted Spinoza’s philosophical musings about belief, which version would you start to doubt?

        2. “You’d expect scientists eagerly waiting for the next issue of Journal of Philosophy of Science to see some concepts clarified or some unexamined possibilities proposed. But it simply doesn’t happen. Why is that?”

          This might be the case because…no such journal exists! There is, of course, Philosophy of Science, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science etc.

          As for scientists not caring about philosophy of science:

          “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

          Who wrote those lines? They were written by Albert Einstein:

          ‘Late in 1944, Albert Einstein received a letter from Robert Thornton, a young African-American philosopher of science who had just finished his Ph.D. under Herbert Feigl at Minnesota and was beginning a new job teaching physics at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. He had written to solicit from Einstein a few supportive words on behalf of his efforts to introduce “as much of the philosophy of science as possible” into the modern physics course that he was to teach the following spring (Thornton to Einstein, 28 November 1944, EA 61–573).[1]1
          (Don Howard: Einstein’s Philosophy of Science,

          You think Einstein was simply kind and supportive? No, in his Replies to Criticism (Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Cambridge University Press, 1949) Einstein, while stressing the inevitable “opportunism” of scientists, declared:

          ‘The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is — insofar as it is thinkable at all — primitive and muddled.’

          As for modern physicists not being interested in foundational questions of distinctly philosophical nature, may I suggest that people interested in this question go and test their ideas by reading what is published in http://arxiv.org/
          Just click Quantum Physics…

          1. Argument from authority.

            Einstein was, besides being a good empiricist, interested in axiomatic theory. Today, after the advent of computer science and algorithmic theory, we know that axiomatic methods are small islands in a sea of algorithmic space.

        3. Philosophers who write on theoretical issues in physics aren’t “making contributions outside their department”. One of the guiding principles of naturalistic philosophy is that philosophy is continuous with the sciences, that there is no sharp dividing line between what a theoretical physicist does and what a philosopher of physics does. Assuming that anytime someone makes a contribution they aren’t doing philosophy rigs the counting to get the conclusion you want.

          1. So you have to rig the conclusion right back at empiricists?

            The qualitative distinction between empirical science and philosophy is not hard to make, nor making the observation that nothing of philosophy is used while doing observation, theory, test.

            And “naturalistic philosophy”? Please, we live in the 21st century, natural philosophy died some 300 years ago after Newton’s et al efforts. Do try to keep up!

          2. I’m not sure I’ve heard of this ‘naturalistic philosophy.’ I’ve taken philosophy of science, of mind, of language, religious, midaeval, classical, symbolic logic, etc…but I’ll be damned if anyone ever mentioned a subdiscipline called Naturalistic. Is that some new thing?

            If it is, and its trying to get philosophers to focus on testable, repeatable (etc.) claims, then great. But I suspect not.

        4. Very good point on philosophy track record. I may have to steal that (unless I remember who to attribute it to)!

      2. We can use the outsider’s test on philosophy:

        – What use is it?
        – What evidence would convince you that your belief is false?

        When we quickly conclude that philosophy is the “epistemological” equivalent to religion. For example, Colquhoun mentions examples on both accounts. (No empirical use, but harm; empirical evidence is not enough.)

        Some names of people in philosophy departments that have contributed seriously to our understanding of QM,

        This is the equivalent of the accommodationist claim that religion is compatible with science because some scientists are religious. Now we see the claim that philosophy is useful for science because some scientific papers have contribution from philosophers.

        Of course this is a sham claim. I don’t know of any testable theory of quantum mechanics out of philosophy. Instead they do exactly as the religious. They claim that variants of QM are equally empirically valid “interpretations” because you have to accept them on faith. That, say, decoherence seems tentatively testable (there are seeming observations) is a QM theory development that doesn’t register.

        I have asked before for areas where philosophy has contributed to science, and the usual reply is that science comes out of “natural philosophy”. Again irrelevant, since empirical science has been fighting hard to raise out of a philosophical and religious historical basis.

        1. I am sorry to say this but the comment
          ‘I don’t know of any testable theory of quantum mechanics out of philosophy. Instead they do exactly as the religious. They claim that variants of QM are equally empirically valid “interpretations” because you have to accept them on faith. That, say, decoherence seems tentatively testable (there are seeming observations) is a QM theory development that doesn’t register’ makes little sense to me.

          Btw., I did not intervene in this discussion to score points or “win” any argument, but simply to provide some reliable information on the topic under discussion. So, in that very same spirit I want to point out what people working in this field are really doing:


          Consistent to my intention, I shall from now on respond only to comments that show some genuine interest in foundational research in physics.

    2. It seems a foundational question is needed: What can philosophy, with only natural language to work with, really add to predictive knowledge?

      It seems very little now. Especially with brain research taking off, that is most philosophical questions are now a matter of neurons.

      The core problem with philosophy of science is there is no unified domain of human study as “science” — there are only what we call scientific studies and data, which seem infinitely variable.

      1. Why do you think that philosophy only has recourse to “natural language”? Ordinary language philosophy and pure conceptual analysis haven’t been the methodologies in philosophy since the 1950s. So, you’re about sixty years behind the times.

        I think people get confused sometimes because human language is still one of the major topics of study in philosophy. Philosophers (along with linguists and psychologist) want to explain how language has semantic content and what that semantic content is. That is completely different from thinking that you answer questions about physics, the brain, etc… by looking at natural language.

  3. “It’s another example of the hands-off-faith position” – that is so true. They say we must take care not to offend anyone because of what they believe, even if that belief is idiotic. No one has a right to NOT be offended. People have a right to not be abused for something that is beyond their control, but a cultural concept like religion should be open to criticism or the possibility of being mocked. If it is a strongly held belief they should not mind. I think what they really fear is free thought, for when people think for themselves (a bit rare admittedly) then religion is in trouble.

  4. Good piece indeed.
    It says a lot about the state of the debate that such basic, self-evident things need be told at all, and repeated.

    David Colquhoun’s remark in the Q&A gave me pause for thought:
    Religion is what we had before the enlightenment.

    Not quite. I was reminded of an observation jotted down by Flaubert in a letter, and quoted by Marguerite Yourcenar in her Carnet de Notes at the end of The Memoirs of Hadrian:

    “The Gods no longer extant, and Christ not yet there, a unique moment came to pass, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when only man existed.”

    There was no historical determinism in the subversion and destruction of Mediterranean civilisations by monotheistic religions, with the latter subsequently spreading from the Atlantic to the South China Sea. The Dark Ages were not foreordained. A different culture was in the making; a different future was possible. Just like the good people of Mississippi yesterday, the people involved had a choice, every step of the way. The Enlightenment, to stick with this Whig cliché, was born out of fifteen centuries of unnecessary travails.

    1. Its always tempting to think what might have happened if the battles of the Milvian Bridge, Yarmuk and Manzikert had gone the other way.

      Maybe monotheism is so virulent it would have taken over anyway? Monotheists only need to get lucky once.

      However, most of India retained Indo-European polytheism despite large areas of it being conquered by moslems, so maybe not.

    2. This is true, although I would push back the period in which the Gods were no longer extant from Cicero to the Hellenistic Period. In De Natura Deorum, Cicero is reporting on developments from centuries before.

      1. Plausible objection, but I was just quoting the very perceptive phrase by Flaubert, courtesy of Yourcenar.
        At any rate, my interjection with regard to David Colquhoun’s off-the-cuff remark is meant to highlight two points:

        1. The progress of civilisation and enlightenment, such as it may be (and here I’m referring broadly to ideas like those set out by Steven Pinker in his recent book, and about which I am somewhat skeptical) is never linear. Enlightenment does not simply follow religion. Religious rule and obscurantism may very well follow enlightenment; it has often done so.

        2. The basis of our civilisation is fragile, and may be easily overturned if a majority of constituents are misguided enough to betray and forsake it. In MS yesterday, 58% of the voters refused to shoot women in the womb. Politically, that’s a landslide. But historically, 42% voting against sanity, that’s a vociferous and dangerous minority. Minorities this big and thus misguided have been known to achieve power, to universally dismal effect.

        1. I agree except for the skepticism about Pinker. He’s not claiming that world spirit or the universe’s providence is driving humans to become less violent. He identifies the social changes that have been driving the trend. Those could change, and we need to stay vigilant to make sure that they don’t.

          1. I would hope Pinker is right, just as I would hope Ralph is right, and your presence in the vicinity of the Institute of Strategic Seismology perfectly innocent 🙂

            However, I still have serious question marks appended to almost every word in the phrase “He identifies the social changes that have been driving the trend.” The trend, the factors driving the trend, the reality of the changes, their nature, social or otherwise, the correct identification thereof, and the methods used to identify them: as a student of both ancient history and quantitative methods, I am not yet convinced. But, as Churchill said, I am just shaking my own head.

  5. The claim of “stridency” is only put forward by those who want atheists to “sit down and shut up”. Happily, we have you, Dr. Coyne, and so many others who will not bow to such pathetic appeals to stop rocking the boat so no one is “offended”. I have yet to see one theist who isn’t offended by the simple existence of atheism.

  6. The stridency that they complain about is the Gnu’s insistence on clarity and the Gnu’s refusal to play the make believe game with them..


    1. Does anyone think the little boy who cried out “The Emperor has no clothes” in the Hans Christian Andersen fable was being “strident”, I wonder?

  7. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

    What Tom Jefferson said right after penning the Declaration:

    In the middle ages of Christianity opposition to the State opinions was hushed. The consequence was, Christianity became loaded with all the Romish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery & even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion. —Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October, 1776). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 256.

  8. I’ve met a very few atheists who seemed to fit the straw-man characterization of the “strident” gnu atheist. As I recall they’ve either been very young, very old, or — imo opinion — a bit “off” psychologically.

    My guess is that if you hang around large groups of people organized for any cause (especially an ideological cause,) you’re likely to be able to pick out those who seem to take things a bit too far. Religion, health, environment, cooking, politics, fandom. It’s probably inherent in the nature of large groups, and those who join in.

    I sometimes suspect that the critics of gnu atheism have some of these over-enthused outliers in mind. Since the extremists are vocal about how they’ve been inspired by the gnu books and writers, they’re taken as representative examples of ‘what happens’ when the views are applied. Trouble is that these extremists were probably already like this before they read The God Delusion or whatever.

    1. I sometimes suspect that the critics of gnu atheism have some of these over-enthused outliers in mind…

      Quite often they name Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris specifically.

      1. Yes, but in general they don’t quote anything specific by them — or if they do it doesn’t seem to be to the point. It’s as if they think the awful strident rude horrible stuff simply must be in there somewhere.

    2. Or it is due to a double standard which is the result of people being used to certain behaviors by theists but not by atheists.
      So if an atheist is outspoken about his unbelief and criticism of religion, he is labeled ‘strident’.
      On the other hand, a theist who is similarly outspoken about his faith or condemnation of godlessness (or other faiths), his behavior isn’t perceived as extraordinary. Why, his religion even demands it (and sometimes even more that that).

      1. I think its more about the subject than the speakers. Make the same negative comment about someone’s religion or politics, and the religious one will be viewed as more objectionable even if the comment is identical.

        1. What? Other than the first sentence, isn’t your comment supporting the same position? Well, other than you’ve moved the contrast to politics.

          The jebus lovers are still getting an unearned pass for their unsupported position.

  9. Has anyone got any information on the following? In looking for the reasons for religious belief and why it is almost immune to the importunities of science and the blandishments of common sense, could there some deeper mystery for this perversion hidden within our genes? For this to happen there has to be a significant evolutionary advantage. I have just read the book by J. Anderson Thomson “Why we believe in Gods” which explores some possible gene based strategies but I’m not convinced that we yet have the complete answer. If we look at gene centred theories which assume “for the good of the cause” strategies there are dangers of necessarily invoking the very unfashionable group theory proposition. There are counter arguments to the dogma that group theory will always fail due to the action of low level subversion and we could look at Islam, for example, where peremptory death awaits the apostate and paradise promised to the martyr. The population is enslaved as surely as any worker bee or ant and subversion from within is very effectively crushed. Those citizens who do not embrace the religious delusion will not prosper and breed as effectively as the happy copulating conformists. I realise that this aspect of religion would have to be a wrought within the eons of deep evolutionary time for it to be incorporated into our genetic structure but who can tell what path we took to get to where we are? Any comment or criticism here would be appreciated.

    Robin Ducret

    1. Forget the “gene” arguments – crude biological reductionism – see Steven Rose’s writings on this.
      If you want to understand people’s need for religion, look at psychological and emotional reasons, starting with fear of death, pain of loss of loved ones, fear of taking responsiblity for one’s own life choices, fear of uncertainty/chance. Much easier to cope with painful experience by saying it was “god’s will”.

    2. could there some deeper mystery for this perversion hidden within our genes? For this to happen there has to be a significant evolutionary advantage.

      No to the last. If its genetic (which I doubt), it could be a rider, a spandrel, or due to genetic drift.

    3. could there some deeper mystery for this perversion hidden within our genes?

      There’s probably going to be a complex network of reasons, given that religion is such a complicated (and varied) phenomenon.

      I strongly suspect that at least some of the roots of religious belief lies in the human brain’s lazy habits of attributing agency, telling stories, and categorizing things by their “essence” — coupled with the egocentric tendency to confuse our inner worlds of thoughts and feelings with the outer world of objects and events. And before wondering if these sorts of orientations were selected for, I would ask if they weren’t already there in our non-human ancestors. The ability to reason our way out of intuitions may have been the novel adaptation. I don’t know.

      1. I look at it this way. It can benefit social animals to have a proportion of the population be “mindless followers,” or predisposed to accept authority figures. So that predisposition is maintained in a species at some frequency via selection. Religion is the culture capitalizing on that tendency. IOW, yeah, promoting freethinking is more difficult than just getting the information out. In the worst scenario, defeating religion would involve coming up with some substitute, “benign” authority to replace the religious one. That’s very depressing.

  10. Yes, the stridency straw man is just silly avoidance. We just got banned by Eric McDonald from his fake-freethinking blog: Choice in Dying.

    Apparently we were too strident in our questioning free will and the silly, unscientific accommodationist nonsense that Michael Gazzaniga is being used to promote by the media. McDonald is also suppressing that the Gifford Lectures are just the Scot version of Templeton dishonesty. Predictable.

    Here is our latest exchange.


    I’m sorry, I have some reasonable standards of civility. You haven’t met them. This has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with standards that I expect people to observe if they want to comment here. So far, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, you have not shown me that you have much to contribute by way of sound argument. But it’s your hostility that turns me off. I certainly am interested in discussing ideas, but I’m not going to put up with a lot of verbal bullying. Sorry.

    choiceindying. (Eric MacDonald)

    It should have been Dear Ms. sleeprunning!

    Our response:

    “No you are a bully like all extremists. New ideas make you emotionally uncomfortable so you revert to the standard fear responses: fight, flight or freeze.

    Don’t delude yourself you do it for “civility” that’s the same scam all bullies use, after they have been uncivil.

    Our little team looks forward to talking about your personal issues all over the web and sharing that you blog is only an echo chamber for your personal views. Typical.”

    Is that too strident? Hmm? Sounds like an honest reality check to us.

    1. Is that the royal “we” or are there many of you?

      For the rest of us to understand your problem with Eric MacDonald, I think we should appreciate a copy of the post that prompted his response on his standards of civility

      1. We’re not here to defend what we say, that’s for others to decide. We see our role as to express what we have learned as clearly as possible.

        Since we focus on primary peer-reviewed research, most of what we learn and share challenges ideologies.

        Defensive personal attacks are the most common response like EM’s. Predictable.

        1. We see our role as to express what we have learned as clearly as possible.

          That is exactly what Haggis asked for: please express for us the comment that got you banned, so that we can understand it as clearly as possible.

        2. And please respond to the “royal we” question.

          Also, “talking about your personal issues all over the web,”

          …sounds more like bullying than anything I’ve ever heard from Eric, and

          “sharing that you blog is only an echo chamber for your personal views.”

          . . .uh, just what it your definition of a blog?

  11. While I accept Dr. Coyne’s over-all thesis that theologians are much more strident
    than those who write in support of science, I must take this opportunity to once
    again try to convince people that Sam Harris’s work shouldn’t be praised on this site with respect to stridency.

    In “End of Faith”, Harris discusses anti-Semitism and quotes a letter to the editor printed in an Egyptian newspaper as his “evidence” for Egyptian anti-Semitism.

    Now this is plain silly. Newspapers commonly print letters with all range of viewpoints.
    They frequently print extreme viewpoints so as to frame the outer limits of the debate or
    print letters with extreme viewpoints in order to shock or amuse their readers. You can find similar extreme viewpoints printed as letters in American newspapers. I read Egyptian newspapers, and they also frequently print, not just letters, but full-length opinion pieces that argue for understanding between Jews and Arabs and remind readers that passages in the Koran command the faithful to respect Judaism.

    For Harris to assume, as he does, that this one lunatic letter proves Egyptian society is anti-Semitic is ridiculous. But such idiocy is typical Sam Harris fare. (By the way, the Egyptians are themselves a Semitic people. Harris believes that “anti-Semitism” refers strictly to hatred of Jews, and go on to argue that case, saying that despite the word’s “mistaken roots”, it REALLY means hatred of Jews only. Another “loony-tunes” interpretation by Harris that flies in the face of facts.)

    I could easily find similar hate letters in Israeli newspapers referring to Arabs as “roaches” and similar ethnic slurs. For that matter, we have scientific writers, such as James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA configuration), who has, on several occasions, spoken of females and people with dark skin as being genetically programmed to underperform. While such people exist, they do not typify the over-all population.

    Harris thinks that they do, and that is one of the many reasons his strident writing should be ignored.

    1. Style of writing and speaking is an ad hominem fallacy and just another distraction to learning and problem solving.

      Statements are either logical, and evidence based or not regardless of the tone or even language they are expressed in.

      But the “civility” politeness tactic is a popular one because it has immediate emotional purchase with an audience and stops serious intellectual discussion. It’s like yelling “fire!” The immediate and instinctive brain response to charges of incivility and impoliteness is strong and deflects attention from ideas. Clever.

      Our question with SH, and we have asked him this in person, is where is the evidence that religious words cause violence. Yes, there is correlation but we all mean that is not causality. This is flaw of all anti-theist arguments.

      Chances are, especially given the contra evidence to free will, that religious utterances have little driving force with harmful behavior.

      We know any utterances/consciousness are post hoc behavior “decisions” and drivers in the brain.

      It is likely religious or any other utterances mean or cause much of anything.

      As a neuroscientist SH know2s this. His repose to our questioning him on this was “Words matter.” Our response was “We need evidence to prove that.”

    2. I agree with your statements about letters to the editor not being in any way necessarily characteristic of a population as a whole.

      You are spectacularly wrong about anti-semitism, though. Yeah, we all know what is included under the Semitic umbrella, ethnologically. But the term anti-semitism is and has a huge history of being solely related to Jew-hating. And sure, obviously, it isn’t perfect etymologically. But that in no way negates its obvious meaning throughout Western history.


  12. Colquhoun also refers to his October 28 piece that will certainly rile up people, “Why philosophy is largely ignored by science.“

    Thanks. It was indeed interesting, and I learned some new problems for science and education I didn’t know about.

  13. Dave Colquhoun has single handedly routed the racket in pseudoscience degrees which a number of British universities have been dishing out in recent years for no other reason than to raise cash.

    After finally getting his hands on the course materials of these degrees – courtesy of the Information Commissioner, not the universities, who told him to piss off when he asked for copies – he published some of the stuff on his website.

    That was all it took. The stuff was self-evident BS. As were, consequently, the BScs which students were being awarded.

    Don’t know how American universities stand for teaching subjects like acupuncture, homeopathy etc, but if they are taught, and if science degrees are handed out for them, maybe Dave could serve as a role model.

  14. It is interesting to see how many scientists, all the while relying on and indeed expounding as central to their discipline such ideas as radical individual fallibility, falsifiability as one of a theory’s main virtues, and the social character of science—all of which were formalized and clarified by Karl Popper. Without too many people noticing, or giving him credit for it, Popper’s ideas have become the mainstream in science, in a way they weren’t 50 years ago, when Thomas Kuhn could still find a considerable following with his (in many ways completely contrary) ideas.

    For a great introduction to Popper, I cannot recommend enough David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality. In Deutsch’s view (he himself is a rather renowned physicist), Popperian epistemology and general philosophy of science is one of the four most important ideas in the history of ever.

  15. Tit for tat with Eric MacDonald. Everyone has to stand up to bullies, not accommodate them.

    Research shows the more diverse the views, and more stongly defended the better the learning for the group overall.

    Eric MacDonald just wants commentators to sooth his fears and tell him he’s right. So much for critical thinking and freedom of speech.

    For ideologues, you are uncivil when you disagree with them and speak up. Predictable.

    Yes, even in the skeptical community we have our ideologues and censors as well.

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