Guest post: The five most awful atheists. Orly?

August 4, 2012 • 4:26 am

Some joker at Alternet, who must have taken a Grumpy Pill before he wrote it, has made a short list of the five most awful atheists.  Affronted, Grania Spingies of Atheist Ireland has sent me her take on the piece.

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Just sayin’: The Five Most Awful Atheists

by Grania Spingies

No, they’re not Mao or Stalin. This isn’t in fact the latest offering from the risible if thoroughly repugnant Conservapedia. It’s an opinion from Ian Murphy, self-styled alternative journalist, posted over on Alternet.

One must assume that Murphy just likes hyperbole, in the same way as teenage girls might tell you that there is nothing worse than messing their nail polish before it’s properly dried. It must be the hyperbole thing, or else Murphy lives in such a sheltered world that he thinks that people expressing ideas that he dislikes, disagrees with or objects to, is really The Most Awful Thing.

Standing in the dock, the accused are Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Penn Jillette, Bill Maher and S.E. Cupp (yeah, I had to look that one up, too). Their “crimes” are essentially espousing ideas that Murphy doesn’t agree with.

Personally, I’m all for criticising ideas that you think are ill-advised, ignorant or dangerous. You’re even entitled to dislike the person for espousing those ideas. However, if your primary skill is making lists rather than actually engaging in and rebutting the ideas you abhor, then I suppose making lists is what you do. And I suppose calling your list: ‘Five atheists I saw on American TV that I don’t like’ would be a little less punchy.

Blistering critiques such as  “not knowing things is not a good reason to be an atheist”—a charge leveled at Jillette, and one that I’m sure stings him sorely—are a dead give-away to the real motive behind this little Rant on the Internet.

Actually, not knowing things is a very good reason to be an atheist, or at very least an agnostic. What Murphy really means to say is: “I don’t want people I disagree with to be in my club”. Life is such a bitch, isn’t it?

This is so abysmally clichéd that it shouldn’t have to be said at all, but here we go again: there is no High Church of Atheism, nor any Creed that we must all profess. Some atheists are smarter than you; others, not so much. Some you will agree with on almost every point of politics, philosophy and science; others again, not so much. And, occasionally, someone we vehemently disagree with might even have a point.

At the risk of belabouring the hyperbole point, to call someone “most awful” is arguably to condemn them to the ranks of history’s most dangerous, terrifying and insufferable. It is hard to see how a man most famous for magic routines and for popular skepticism TV shows comes close. It’s even harder to see how a woman who fled the misogyny of Islam and devoted her life to speaking out against that religion’s worst traits in defiance of pervasive and still active death threats somehow fits this category. Or a neuroscientist famous for writing books and speaking about difficult, complex and sometimes taboo subjects. Their opinions are controversial, and many disagree with them for a variety of reasons. But “most awful” doesn’t begin to describe them, except perhaps in the original sense of the word, which implied someone who was impressive and worthy of respect.

There was one thing that annoyed me more than Murphy’s diatribe. I originally caught sight of the article when it was posted on Facebook by Atheist Alliance International. Here’s a screenshot:

I have some sympathy for people manning (or womanning) a FB page on behalf of an organisation they volunteer for; indeed, I had this job myself a while back. This job involves a constant need to provide fresh content for the page and your readers, but doesn’t necessarily confer upon you the authority to provide an editorial comment for fear of misrepresenting your group. That is understandable—but in this case also lazy. It was only when readers posted their disagreement that AAI (a very worthwhile organisation that does great work promoting secularism and atheism around the world) decided to disavow any endorsement of the screed they had linked to:

Indeed. Sharing does not mean endorsement. So then just say it already! Sharing something on a Facebook page is often taken as implicit approval unless you add something to prove otherwise. If you want to remain neutral, just take the faint-hearted approach and say: Here’s an article with some heartfelt opinions criticising some notable atheists. What is your opinion of it?

There really is no such thing as “Just saying”. You either approve, disagree or have some issues with it. “Just saying” is the cowardly way of expressing your view or looking for attention while trying to avoid taking the heat for it.

100 thoughts on “Guest post: The five most awful atheists. Orly?

  1. Poor PZ, how will he bear the shame of missing out on being most awful? I have to agree regarding SE Cupp, she is thoroughly awful.

    1. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but this article doesn’t read like satire to me. Also, it’s an odd venue for it, no? Or is AlterNet known for doing the parody thing from time to time?

      Cheers,
      David

    2. What’s he satirising, then? People who don’t like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, etc.? Doesn’t seem very likely.

      The piece reads like the work of someone who really does dislike those five people, and for the reasons given. Maybe there’s some other point that he’s trying to convey indirectly – though I’m struggling to see it, if so – but surely that much is clear enough.

    3. Could you point to some specific sentences which flag this as satire? I didn’t see any.
      Perhaps some tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, but it looks as if he basically means what he says.

  2. Oh, the ironing…Mr. Murphy’s thesis is that these five hurt their primary goal with problematic positions on other subjects.

    And yet, that’s exactly what Mr. Murphy himself has done with this article.

    He raises legitimate complaints against each of these five people. Maher really is an anti-vaccination lunatic, and Jillette’s over-the-top Randite Libertarianism is legendary. Sam and Ali both go too far in their (purely rhetorical, to be absolutely certain) attacks on the Muslim world. And I have no clue who this Cupp person is.

    But by branding them as “the five most awful atheists,” Mr. Murphy has eliminated the possibility of discussing the merits of his complaints. Instead, all the discussion is about how ludicrous it is to paint these five with such an extreme and unwarranted label.

    I’ll give Mr. Murphy the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he was going for satire or hyperbole. But, if so, that would only make him the most awful satirist in the dozen billion year history of the entire galaxy, if not the Local Group as a whole.

    Cheers,

    b&

  3. The Alternet piece does not look like satire to me either, but, on the other hand, I think this post does go over the top on the hyperbole angle, if not over the top as a reaction, period. I recognize all five names but I’ve only seen or read enough of Harris, Jillette, and Maher, to risk a semi-informed opinion. I don’t have the time to check out all the accusations in the Alternet piece, but at least some of the criticism sounds plausible to me in relation to those three. I think the real issue is viewing each of these people as “atheists.” Is that how they should be viewed for all public purposes and is that the real problem? Are public atheists so uncommon that anything they say is reasonably viewed as being related to their atheism? Do we view Xtians that way and when, if ever,would it be reasonable to do so?

    1. Wait — I’m confused.

      Mr. Murphy labels five run-of-the-mill atheists in the public sphere as “most awful,” Jerry complains that Mr. Murphy must have taken a grumpy pill before writing the screed…and it’s Jerry who goes over the top on the hyperbole angle?

      Either you could have better phrased your opening sentence or I’m really missing something here….

      b&

      1. Did you read GS’s guest post? “At the risk of belabouring the hyperbole point . . . .” I wasn’t referring to our esteemed host.

    1. As Anthony Paul pointed out, are there so few public atheist figures that whatever political and social beliefs someone might hold, should those said beliefs automatically be conflated with someone’s lack of belief in a supernatural entity? I think Murphy makes some valid criticisms, but I fail to see how that makes them bad atheists?

    2. Not at all. It is highly embarrassing for anyone claiming to be a spear bearer for human reason to hold egregiously stupid beliefs in any other subject. What exactly is Ayn Rand’s contribution to economics? How many prominent awards (John Bates Clark, Nobel etc) did she garner? What is her citation rate like in the field of economics? Okay, let’s lower the bar even lower, though now it’s starting to get pretty ridiculous How many peer reviewed papers did she publish? Excuse me, how many was that again? Zero? The bottom line is Ayn Rand was an intellectual wanna be who wrote mediocre works of fiction. She was considered to be a clown in her own time. And the passage of time hasn’t been kind to her. Nobel prizes continue to be won that build on the foundation of John Maynard Keynes and everything we know on altruism and neuroscience has shown Ayn to be just as categorically incorrect. Even the 18th century mind of Adam Smith who recognized self-interest as one in a multitude of factors shaping markets would have recoiled: He also penned “The theory of moral sentiments” and eloquently argued one of the greatest perils to healthy markets is lack of regulations that keep plutocrats in check. Ayn Rand died knowing she was neither a good fiction writer nor a serious thinker, much less an economist in any way, shape or form. If such a remarkable under-achiever is on your pedestal of luminaries, it seriously undermines any claim you have to superior reasoning faculties. Nothing circuitous about this.

      1. Ayn Rand is admired for celebrating capitalism and making capitalists seem like great heroes and producers, and also for making their critics and opponents seem like weenies and “looters”.

  4. Having now been introduced to S. E. Cupp, unknown to me before this post, I might start my own list of atheists I dislike. My list is specific to atheists who won’t vote for an atheist for the sole reason that the person for whom they might vote is an aethist. What?! But this is what Ms Cupp declared recently on the air. Check it out: http://news.yahoo.com/atheist-e-cupp-never-vote-atheist-president-025658535.html. In her opinion, an individual is not fit to govern unless they believe in a higher power. Really!

    1. She isn’t really an atheist. There are conservatives who think it clever to start their arguments with “I used to be an atheist but was introduced to Jesus and my eyes opened…” Or “I’m also a hip disbeliever who is disgusted by militant atheists who belittle the deep historical and philosophical traditions of Christianity…” so on and so forth. You know very well such people could not eloquently defend atheism if their life depended on it. They’ve just stumbled across a novel way to take a jab at atheists because the nut-job conservatism they truly sympathize with bore no fruit through honest debate. I know SE Cupp only through Real Time with Bill Maher and the occasional blog post. Calling her an intellectual featherweight is being overly generous. PZ Meyers nailed it by calling her out for what she really is: A dimwit believer who peddles disingenuous arguments and almost never has anything incisive or remotely interesting to say.

  5. The top ten movies list was much much better.

    Here’s some alternatives.

    Worst atheists:
    Stalin, Mao (keeping in mind Hitler was not an atheist!) and Marquis de Sade

    Worst Christians:
    Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Pope Alexander VI, Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, Fred Phelps, David Koresh, Jim Jones.
    (Easier to make this list longer than 1st and it has living people on it too!!)

    Favorite 20th/21st century atheists (not necessarily best, just faves):
    Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry, Daniel Dennett, Daniel Radcliffe, Joss Whedon, Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins
    (a slight bias towards astronomy and science-fiction here)

    Favorite 20th/21st century Christians:
    Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Arthur Eddington, US Prezes Carter & Obama, and “non-theist Christians” Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong.

  6. S. E. Cupp is probably too inconsequential to make anyone’s ‘worst list’. She’s is bad, but is basically just another Barbie in Fox’s stable of Kens and Barbies.

    As for the rest of the list: there are a few things I dislike in each of these people, but hardly enough to put them on a ‘worst list’.

  7. It seems to me that the atheist movement has become so large that factions have begun forming. The most obvious group which has delineated itself is the FreeThought/PZ fans. This article is tailor made for that audience, and if you go visit Pharyngula, you’ll see a lot of them are eating it up.

    According to about anybody on FTblogs, Sam Harris is a racist who promotes torture and wants to drop a nuclear bomb on Muslims. Also, his book The Moral Landscape is automatically deemed terrible because ‘any intellectual should know’ Hume proved you can’t get an Ought from an Is…mind you, you can tell most haven’t bothered reading it.

    Just about anyone who doesn’t fall in line with their brand of feminism is deemed a sexist mysoginist pig…I believe that’s what Penn Jilette has apparently been accused of. I’d be curious to know why exactly.

    And Ayaan Hirsi Ali, hilariously, is accused of being an islamophobe.

    I think the whole elevatorgate fiasco and subsequent Thunderf00t ban has exposed a large rift in our community and it’s not a type of diversity I approve of, because its the opposite of diversity. PZ and other FTbloggers don’t allow for differing opinions on complex issues where intelligent people will often reach different conclusions, which simply puts an end to debate, understanding and overall progress.

    Am I the only one who notices there are sheep among us claiming to be cats?

      1. Lay off the name-calling, please. And both of you: statement like “your concern is noted” add NOTHING to the discussion.

    1. Of course PZ and other FTBloggers allow for differing options on complex issues as they themselves often reach different conclusions from one another. However, FTB was set up to foster a particular set of values (beyond simple atheism) and Thunderf00t showed himself inimical to that set of values from the beginning. Not unreasonably, he was asked to stop pissing on the carpet or leave.

      /@

      1. [FREE THOUGHT Blogs] was set up to foster a particular set of values

        Is it possible that you don’t see the problem with that statement?

        The entire tone of your comment would not be out of place in a statement from a member of some religious hierarchy.

      2. I can totally see how FTBlogs would kick TF for pissing on the carpet, because he did enter the house with clear intent to piss on the carpet.

        I do believe his intent on the whole was commendable. He was looking to stir things up, because he noticed there was a growing problem of bullying and intellectual dishonesty at FTBs, which goes against what most of us atheists stand for.

        His arguments may have been off-base, but rebuttals consisted of straw men, insults and ‘you just don’t get it’. “Concern noted” is another typical response. This is a huge problem according to some of us.

        There might be different factions amongst atheists, but I do believe intellectual honesty, curiosity and debate are the core ideals all atheists should espouse. Those core values are more all encompassing than simple atheism. There are such things as secular false beliefs and they need to be challenged as well. Opposition to any superstition and dogmatic belief is more important than simply not believing in a deity.

        That’s why I think it’s intelligent to know who our so-called leaders really are and what they stand for. FTBs comprises a pretty significant part of the American atheist community, but they seem to be sure of things we can’t be sure of, which, according to me, is at best hypocritical when mocking the religious.

        For all I know, I’m some bigoted sexist islamophobe, but no one has cared to tell me why. If we can show patience and respect when debating a one-sided issue like the validity of creationism, I expect even more patience and respect when debating complex sociopolitical issues.

        There are clearly some rifts in our community, and I think it would be wise to understand why and then possibly get rid of some bad apples. First step towards that is honest debate. Maybe Dawkins is a misogynist or maybe Rebecca Watson is a manipulative person with a hidden agenda. Maybe Sam Harris is a racist, or maybe some of his critics didn’t actually read his material before critiquing it. Maybe neither is an accurate assessment, but if someone’s going to get thrown under the bus, let’s not go about dogmatically with our blinders on. Let us debate.

        I’m aware I’m not actually debating the finer points I’m referring to. I’m simply trying to show why it is important to do so. Feel free to delve deeper.

  8. RE Grania Spingies’ response: I found this rather weak. Other than correctly noting the hyperbolic tone, she has not much to offer.

    She offers no one worse who was left off the list, who could not be objected to on grounds that Murphy included only living persons.

    She does not deal with any of Murphy’s numerous, documented criticisms other than to wave her hand and claim that these people merely disagree with Murphy, or differ with him politically. I’m sorry, this simply does not hold up. Take Bill Maher’s vaccination denial: this is merely a “political difference”? Pththththt. This is not merely a political difference. There is sufficient evidence to consider one side to be right and the other wrong. Deal with the substance, please.

    1. She does not deal with any of Murphy’s numerous, documented criticisms other than to wave her hand and claim that these people merely disagree with Murphy, or differ with him politically.

      Murphy’s criticisms of Sam Harris are ignorant and stupid. For example, in attacking Harris’s position on torture, he claims that Harris “failed to notice that torture rarely produces reliable intelligence.” But in the very piece that Murphy links to, Harris explicitly acknowledges that torture is not reliable and explains why that fact doesn’t matter to his argument.

      1. But in the very piece that Murphy links to, Harris explicitly acknowledges that torture is not reliable and explains why that fact doesn’t matter to his argument.
        .
        He acknowledges the unreliability of torture, but proceeds with several elaborate thought experiments based on the likelihood that it is reliable. He then makes a tu coque comparison of torture to other bad things done in the name of war. Not quite what Murphy said, but still pretty awful.

        1. He acknowledges the unreliability of torture, but proceeds with several elaborate thought experiments based on the likelihood that it is reliable.

          The penultimate paragraph of the Harris piece Murphy links to is devoted to an explanation of why torture may sometimes be justified even in scenarios where its chances of success are judged to be very low.

          1. Said penultimate paragraph is actually pretty horrific. Sam starts by equating torture with dropping bombs on people…but, rather than come to the obvious conclusion that bombs are bad, he somehow jumps the tracks and argues that torture is good. He even misses the boat on the utility argument: bombs used against military targets (munitions dumps, airstrips, that sort of thing) are known to be effective in achieving military aims, whilst terror…er, “torture” is universally accepted amongst skilled interrogation practitioners as not merely ineffective but the absolute most counter-productive thing you can do. The military analogy wouldn’t be with strategic targeting of suitable and legal military assets, but rather with mining your own harbor.

            Then the rest of the paragraph reads not unlike the pro-torture arguments presented in 1984, except of course that Orwell was painting a dystopian portrait of a nightmare and Sam was arguing that this should be part of the American Way.

            Definitely not Sam at his finest hour, to put it in the most mild of possible terms.

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. Sam starts by equating torture with dropping bombs on people…but, rather than come to the obvious conclusion that bombs are bad, he somehow jumps the tracks and argues that torture is good.

              No, he doesn’t “equate” them; he argues that there’s no relevant difference between them with respect to the question of whether they are sometimes justified. Nothing in that argument implies that bombing is never justified. And in fact there seems to be broad agreement in our society that bombing sometimes is justified.

              He even misses the boat on the utility argument: bombs used against military targets (munitions dumps, airstrips, that sort of thing) are known to be effective in achieving military aims, whilst terror…er, “torture” is universally accepted amongst skilled interrogation practitioners as not merely ineffective but the absolute most counter-productive thing you can do.

              This is nonsense. Show us how you think you know that “‘torture’ is universally accepted amongst skilled interrogation practitioners as not merely ineffective but the absolute most counter-productive thing you can do.”

              And bombing most certainly is not “known to be effective in achieving military aims” in all cases. Sometimes it’s effective, but very often it is not. Studies of strategic bombing campaigns have found that aerial bombs frequently miss their targets or do not have the intended military effect on their targets.

              1. Gary, I’ve already written that this is neither the time nor the place for a discussion on torture…yet, here you are, doggedly arguing unabashedly in favor of torture.

                So, rather than address your questions or even note that you’ve yet to actually present any reason why torture should even hypothetically be considered useful, let me turn this upside-down.

                What the fuck has you scared so shitless that you’ll happily torture people in the desperate hope that you might somehow escape?

                Or is it some sort of sick power thing, like Orwell’s depiction of a boot forever grinding into your victim’s face?

                Both?

                Really — I’m deadly serious. What’s the goal you wish to achieve with torture?

                b&

              2. Gary, I’ve already written that this is neither the time nor the place for a discussion on torture…

                Then stop discussing it. As long as you continue to attack Harris for his position on torture, you may expect that other people will continue to defend him.

              3. Gary, do a search for the word, “torture,” on this page, and the first hit you’ll find is somebody listing things that Sam gets tarred with on Freethought blogs.

                The very next time the word appears is when you yourself, out of the blue, brought it up in response to Reginald Selkirk’s note in which he didn’t even hint at it. Since then you’ve continually sought out every possible opportunity to evangelize the Torture Gospel.

                And you fucking have the nerve to accuse me of being the one to keep bringing it up?

                b&

              4. You’re hilarious. Murphy’s attack on Harris was almost entirely about Harris’s views on torture. Reginald Selkirk complained that Spingies “does not deal with any of Murphy’s numerous, documented criticisms.” For the reasons I explained, Murphy’s criticisms of Harris’s position on torture are stupid and ignorant.

              5. Gary, I will continue to note that you’re the one flogging the torture horse.

                And, if you’re going to do so, then I just might be compelled to observe how only the most shameful of cowards will advocate, as you so doggedly do, the use of torture.

                Your victim is in your custody and utterly defenseless against you. And yet, what do you wish to do? Inflict upon him horrors unimaginable to those who have not experienced them, horrors that your victim cannot possibly defend against himself against.

                You’re not just kicking a man when he’s down. You’ve bound and gagged him, and then after you’ve finished kicking him in the balls, you clamp electrical leads to them for good measure.

                And that’s just the warm-up act.

                So, again, do please tell us: what is it you hope to gain by torturing your victims?

                What do you fear your bound, gagged, and tortured victims might do to you that you’re so convinced they won’t if you torture them?

                Or is it just that you’re a sick fuck who gets off on that sort of thing?

                b&

              6. As it usually does, your argument has degenerated into ad hominem attacks.

                When “the man” — or, rather, “the ‘man'” — in question is advocating mock execution by drowning, there’s really nothing more that need be writ about his character.

                And you’re still not doing anything to further your case. I’ve given you multiple opportunities to explain just what advantage you hope to gain from the use of torture, and you’ve done everything in your very limited power to try to turn the subject away from that.

                I therefore present Gary W as Exhibit A in the case against torture: even he, a vocal proponent, is unable to express the benefits to be had from its use.

                Considering that said benefits are clearly a combination of cowardice and sadism, it’s hardly surprising that this is the one challenge you will absolutely not even attempt to address.

                What I’m amazed that you’ve still yet to figure out is that all you’re doing by continuing to advocate for torture is even more firmly cement your truly sadistic cowardly nature.

                Keep it up, and you’ll have your fellow torture advocates abandoning their position in droves, leaving you out to dry. It’s what cowards do, after all. Too bad you’re the one stupid enough to set yourself up for the fall.

                Cheers,

                b&

      2. It’s true, Harris does discuss (though not necessarily accept) the argument that torture produces unreliable intel. And it’s true, he offers what he thinks is a justification for it regardless.

        This justification is completely invalid though. Firstly, in the same paragraph, he makes the rhetorical statement “The bomb has been ticking since September 11, 2001.” What bomb? The bomb in the hypothetical ticking time-bomb whose eminent destruction of thousands or millions of lives justifies torture? Clearly Harris is not suggesting there has literally been sun a time-bomb somewhere. But by misusing *his own thought experiment* by invoking it figuratively, he has demonstrated one great flaw with the argument: that whatever might be justified in a real ticking bomb scenario, in reality torture is much more likely to be justified by fear-mongering with rhetorical references to such scenarios, rather than actual scenarios. KSM was tortured with water-boarding… to stop a ticking time bomb? No, of course not. It was to gather generic intelligence and false confessions.

        Secondly, his cost-benefit defense of torture is equally specious. He wrote, “If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.” For one, notice he hasoved the goal posts from preventing the imminent murder of millions of civillians from a nuclear time bomb to “leading to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda”. But also, consider the implications of what he’s saying: it would be worth getting useless or counterproductive intel 999,999 times out of a million as long as one fbthose times gets something useful. This implies that all of those other times were cost-free. I dot know about you, but when it comes to a ticking time bomb, I don’t like them odds. I have an idea: how about we focus on the intelligence gathering methods that don’t give you faulty intelligence 99.9999% of the time, so that instead of wasting time and resources on human rights violations and war crimes, we can find the ticking time bombs, or weapons of mass destruction, or whatever it is we think we’re looking for.

        1. Firstly, in the same paragraph, he makes the rhetorical statement “The bomb has been ticking since September 11, 2001.” What bomb? The bomb in the hypothetical ticking time-bomb whose eminent destruction of thousands or millions of lives justifies torture?

          No, the “bomb” of Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. It’s a metaphor. Read the preceding text.

          Clearly Harris is not suggesting there has literally been sun a time-bomb somewhere. But by misusing *his own thought experiment* by invoking it figuratively, he has demonstrated one great flaw with the argument: that whatever might be justified in a real ticking bomb scenario, in reality torture is much more likely to be justified by fear-mongering with rhetorical references to such scenarios, rather than actual scenarios.

          He’s not “misusing” it. The ticking time bomb scenario describes an extreme example of a situation in which the use of torture may be justified. But Harris does not claim that the TTB scenario is the *only* type of situation in which torture may be justified. In fact, he explicitly argues that it may also be justified to procure information that “will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda.”

          consider the implications of what he’s saying: it would be worth getting useless or counterproductive intel 999,999 times out of a million as long as one fbthose times gets something useful. This implies that all of those other times were cost-free.

          No it doesn’t. It implies only that the combined cost of the 999,999 failures is less than the benefit of the 1 success. But your complaint here is a quibble about numbers, not a categorical argument. If you think 1 in a million is too low to justify torture, I’ll change it to 1 in 100 or 1 in 10. If your position is that torture is *never* justified, then your argument has to cover all possible scenarios.

          I have an idea: how about we focus on the intelligence gathering methods that don’t give you faulty intelligence 99.9999% of the time,

          We can (and do) “focus” on other methods. That doesn’t mean torture is never justified.

          1. You’re right.

            Even if torture were 100% effective, it would still never be justified.

            Why?

            Because, amongst civilized people, excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

            And if we won’t even inflict cruel and unusual punishments upon those who have been convicted of a crime, what on Earth could possibly justify their use on mere suspects — or not even suspects but “parties of interest”?

            I know you’re not going to answer this question any more than you’ll tell us why you’re a coward, but it has to be asked, anyway.

            Why do you, Gary W, so hate America and the Constitution upon which it stands that you wipe your ass with it by advocating for torture?

            b&

            1. Because, amongst civilized people, excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

              Yet another argument that is completely nonsensical. Torture is not a bail or fine at all, and torture can obviously be used for purposes other than punishment. But even ignoring those howlers, no one is obliged to accept your subjective judgement about what “civilized people” do anyway. You’re just stating your personal preference, not offering any kind of argument for it.

              1. So, you’ve implicitly agreed that torture would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and that its use as such would be unconstitutional.

                And, yet, you still insist that you must have the right to torture the innocent, even though torturing the guilty is off the table.

                First rule of holes, Gary. First rules of holes.

                b&

    2. Thank you!! It’s been very distressing to see people object to that list purely on the relativistic grounds that everyone’s opinion is somehow valid.

      We have a moral responsibility to CARE about reality, especially where things like disease or torture are concerned. Blithely not caring about reality because you have some paranoid 24-style fantasy about ticking time bombs is NOT morally acceptable no matter how many other idiots out there have made it a mainstream value.

  9. Indeed. Sharing does not mean endorsement. So then just say it already!
    .
    So that’s her complaint with AAI, that they do not include a specific disclaimer on every post they make disseminating an article which is surely of interest to their membership?
    .
    BTW, Jerry did not include a specific disclaimer on this guest post, so I think exchange between Anthony Paul on Ben Goren is wasted, because using GS’ criteria, it is entirely fair to apply all criticism of her post to Jerry.

  10. Consider if the headline was “5 Atheists I Disagree With”. Would it be featured here? Would anyone have read it?

    Alternatively, consider if the article covered Mao and Stalin (whose atheist cred is in doubt, actually). Whats the point of that? Do any of us need to be convinced that Mao and Stalin were bad people?

    So, yeah, the headline is hyperbole. The purpose is to get you to read it and share it. And you have… so it worked.

    Many here are focusing on the style of the article- and that’s fine to do if polemic isn’t your style- but not covering any of the substance. Spingies goes immediately on tilt and fails to actually refute any of Murphy’s specific criticism of the five.

    Let’s be clear here: Murphy isn’t calling or the arrest of these people, or threatening to not let them open a chicken sandwich join in his city. He’s not attacking atheism in general (I’m not familiar with his work, but I got the impression that he is, in fact, atheist, writing for an atheist audience). He’s expressing his opinion that these five individuals, who are not just atheists, but proudly and publicly adopt the label and act as self-styled ambassadors of atheism, are poor ambassadors of atheism. Spingies criticism here, since it is not on any of the substance of Murhpy’s article, is self-contradictory: Is Murhpy not allowed to have opinions with which other atheists disagree?

    Now I like Maher’s show, but mostly for the interplay of his guests, which present a remarkably varied political spectrum. But Murphy’s criticisms are spot on. Maher is preachy on a number of things of which he knows little more than what a PETA flyer might tell you. He does betray anti-vax leanings. Have you seen Religulous? It’s chock-full of inaccuracies (such as on Egyptian mythology) that a high schooler could have fixed by a trip to Wikipedia. Cupp (who I know mainly from her appearances on Maher’s show) has said that she’d never vote for an atheist for president. In terms of attacking atheists, Cupp’s assaults seem a little more worthy of condemnation than Murphy’s. Sam Harris is an advocate of torture and racial profiling. Penn (and I guess Teller?) are Randroids.

    These are not people who just happen to be atheist. They are people who have made their atheism a major part of their public persona. Penn’s implicit argument is that if you’re an atheist because you’re skeptical of religious claims, you should be a libertarian because you’re skeptical of government. Except that libertarianism is not the null hypothesis, and it’s not the only political/economic system that’s skeptical of government (take anarchism, for example). As for Sam Harris, I’m not comfortable with someone whose fame is mainly from being an outspoken atheist also being known as an “intellectual” who thinks its okay to torture. And if his arguments in the realm of national security are so poorly considered, what does that say about his other positions?

    About the only thing I disagree with Murphy on is that Teller never speaks. In fact, when he’s not performing, he speaks all the time. There are many examples of him giving interviews.

    1. You can get a lot of people to pay attention to you by flinging poo. However, if you do so, you should expect people to pay at least as much attention to the poo-flinging as to whatever it was that you were trying to draw attention to by flinging the poo in the first place.

      There are situations where the cost of poo-flinging is worth it. This just isn’t one of them.

      Murphy could have titled his piece, “Five Atheists who Just Don’t Get It,” and drawn almost as much attention to himself and a lot more positive discussion of his topic. But explicitly putting these five on a par with the man who ordered the slaughter of tens of millions of people, the worst mass killing in all of history? Please.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. “But explicitly putting these five on a par with the man who ordered the slaughter of tens of millions of people, the worst mass killing in all of history?”

        Actually, the only one did that to was SE Cupp, by comparing her (obviously tongue-in-cheek) to Stalin.

        I think it’s a valid argument to say that if the majority of the intended audience is overly focused on the style of the article, then the author shares part of the blame. It’s not clear that’s the case here, because Spingies doesn’t necessarily
        represent the majority of the intended audience, and even in the comments here you can see disagreement with her response (beyond just mine).

        But even if that is the case, a savvy reader can still endeavor look beyond what issues they may have with the style and focus on the substance (and some here, to their credit, have done that).

        Slinging poo in response to slinging poo just gets everyone involved covered with poo.

        1. “But explicitly putting these five on a par with the man who ordered the slaughter of tens of millions of people, the worst mass killing in all of history?”

          Actually, the only one did that to was SE Cupp, by comparing her (obviously tongue-in-cheek) to Stalin.

          Sorry, that doesn’t fly. The exact quote:

          In an atheist integrity contest, [S.E. Cupp] loses to Stalin by a mustache. That’s not hyperbole; she doesn’t have a mustache.

          Murphy actually said that Cupp has less integrity than Stalin, and went out of his way to declare that he really means it, even if he’s typing it with a smile on his face.

          The only way to get away with that sort of thing is if everything is over-the-top. In contrast, Murphy’s piece is mostly serious with the random insult thrown in for emphasis.

          Maybe if he had also written that Maher need not apply, that Sam should step away from the LSD pipe, that Penn should stop beating up kids for their lunch money, and called Ali “Muslima,” then maybe then he could have gotten away with the Stalin slur…but, even then, it’d have to have been set in a bawdy comic nightclub or similar context.

          No, this is just op-ed journalism at its worst, no matter how you care to look at it. Either Murphy doesn’t know the first thing about how to write good satire, or his wit is as dull as a sledgehammer, or he really thinks the over-the-top hyperbolic nonsense he spewed, or some combination of the above. Regardless, this is one piece that his editor (does he have one?) never should have let see the light of day.

          Cheers,

          b&

    2. As for Sam Harris, I’m not comfortable with someone whose fame is mainly from being an outspoken atheist also being known as an “intellectual” who thinks its okay to torture.

      Who cares if you’re not comfortable with it? The idea that torture may sometimes be justified is not exactly a marginal view. It is widely held among both the general public and moral philosophers. If you only want to be associated with atheists who share all of your views on important social and political issues, then you’re probably going to find yourself in a very small subset of the atheist community.

      1. …which is actually one of my concerns with Freethought Blogs.

        Don’t get me worng. I probably wind up being in near-lock-step agreement with PZ and the Freethought set of ideals.

        It’s just that atheism really doesn’t have much to do with the Freethought movement, even if the Freethought movement is an entirely atheist one.

        I don’t want my atheism to be associated with Randite libertarianism, even though Rand was an atheist and atheism is rather well represented in the modern Libertarian movement.

        I do, however, want those atheist Randite libertarians on my side on matters of atheism, particularly when it comes to things like Creationism in the classroom.

        And it is for that reason that I also don’t want my atheism associated with my alignment with Freethought ideals.

        By so closely eliding atheism and liberal politics, PZ is acting to drive a wedge in a naturally-fractious minority. This is not helpful.

        Now, don’t get me worng. I most emphatically do not want PZ to shut up about Freethought ideals. I just wish that there were a space where people could come together in common support of godlessness without being simultaneously driven apart on other matters.

        I want to be able to laud Sam as a hero of rationalism on matters of religion and a serious thinker on modern ethics while reserving the right to rake him over the coals on matters of foreign and domestic policy. I want to feel comfortable citing Thunderf00t as somebody with a wickedly-sharp wit when it comes to eviscerating creationists but also feel comfortable calling him a misogynistic pig. I want to herald Richard as the greatest living champion of woo-free public education of science while also ripping him a new one for his “Dear Muslima” post on Pharyngula.

        Is it too much to ask that we accept that people are complex, and that my ally on one front might be my enemy on another, and that we can work together on the one whilst fighting each other on the other?

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. The only “Freethought Ideal” has been that if you write horrid blog entries of putrid quality on a subject you’re ignorant about in an attempt to bash the blog you’re on, you’re not welcome to have a spot there.

          As for, “Is it too much to ask that we accept that people are complex, and that my ally on one front might be my enemy on another, and that we can work together on the one whilst fighting each other on the other?” how is that NOT happening? Is it too much to ask for something that doesn’t need to be asked for? Yes.

          1. Freethought blogs, of course, is under absolutely no obligation to give a forum to somebody who stands opposed to their core values.

            My moaning is more general. For whatever reason (and, let’s be honest, a good part of that reason is successful self-promotion), they’re starting to emerge as the public face not merely of Freethought, but of the atheist movement itself.

            Again, to be clear, I want to live in a world where more people, preferably even the overwhelming majority of people, believe in the Freethought ideals. And, to that end, I wish the Freethought movement the absolute best for the future.

            What I don’t want is for people to start assuming that all atheists are members of the Freethought movement or — even worse, that the Freethought movement is somehow representative of atheism. Contrary to PZ’s numerous posts on the matter, the two really are orthogonal. Indeed, you can even be a Christian and still find yourself largely aligned with the Freethought movement on everything but the topic of religion.

            I guess that’s what I’m getting at. The Freethought crowd is presenting their set of ideals as the only logical conclusion to arrive at after accepting the reality of the lack of gods, and they’re getting a bit heavy-handed on preaching that conclusion. But lots of other atheists have reached other conclusions, and this “you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality that Freethought Blogs is setting up just is Not Helping™.

            No, don’t give a forum to people who stand against your ideals. But also don’t, as PZ often does, do things like rail against “dictionary atheists.” Doing so is as silly and as counter-productive as whipping out a brown paper bag to decide whether or not somebody should be allowed to join you in your civil rights march — or, worse, insisting that they must don said bag over their heads in order to march with you.

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. Hmm… I’m not sure that I agree with you about the FtB mentality; others seem to be more aggressively declaring themselves as being against FtB. Anyway…

              I’m sure I disagree with you about “dictionary atheists”, though. I think PZ is right to criticise anyone who says only “I’m an atheist because I lack belief in any god or gods”. It is a truism that shows a lack of self-awareness, which would seem to be a flaw in anyone who self-identifies as an atheist and espouses atheism as a rational point of view. How can you defend that if you can’t articulate the reason(s) that you are an atheist; that is, the reason(s) why you lack belief in any god or gods?

              /@

        2. You are obviously free to say whatever you like about Sam Harris, but attacking him for his position on torture or some other issue every time his names comes up in a discussion, regardless of whether that issue has any relevance to the discussion, is not conducive to building alliances or cooperation to promote atheism or other causes on which you agree with him.

          1. Eh, I’ve been quite careful to not be the first mention the specifics of my disagreements with Sam, instead referring to them with vague handwaving such as “foreign and domestic policy.”

            Call it SIWOTI if you like, but once somebody starts explicitly defending torture, I feel compelled to speak out against torture apology and make clear that torture is, in no uncertain terms, a horrific violation of everything all civilized people must hold dear.

            But you’re right. This isn’t the time or place for such a discussion, so I’ll make a deal with you. Don’t specifically argue in favor of torture, even in response to somebody who expresses discomfort with it, and I won’t argue against it.

            You do realize that you’re the one beating the torture drum here, don’t you?

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. You do realize that you’re the one beating the torture drum here, don’t you?

              On the contrary, I only mentioned it in the first place in response to Reginald Selkirk’s defense of Murphy’s attacks on Sam Harris and the other atheists on his list. Murphy’s attack on Harris consists almost entirely of his views about torture.

              1. Then you need to polish your rhetorical and diplomatic skills.

                It doesn’t take much in the way of reading comprehension to note that I’ve multiple times in this and other threads expressed my opposition to Sam’s positions on torture and nuclear war, and yet not only have I not put it in so many words before you started evangelizing torture, nobody (including you) felt compelled to respond to my objections.

                You, on the other hand, came out with both torture fists swinging — and you’re surprised at the results?

                Puh-leeze.

                If you’re not actively trolling as you so love to do on energy topics…well, regardless, it really doesn’t change my assessment of your intellectual capacity in the slightest.

                b&

        3. When it comes to rational debate, I agree with you: it’s possible to separate what someone says and does in one domain from what they say and do in another domain.

          But that’s avoiding the political and credibility angles.

          For instance, you write, “I want to be able to laud Sam as a hero of rationalism on matters of religion and a serious thinker on modern ethics while reserving the right to rake him over the coals on matters of foreign and domestic policy.” Okay, fair enough. But presumably there is a point at which Harris’ views are going to bring with them such a cloud that you won’t want him being seen as a hero of rationalism on matters of religion or ethics. Hypothetically speaking, if he started calling for the mass internment, forced conversion or liquidation of all Muslim populations, I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t be so keen for him to have your back on school prayer issues.

          I don’t claim Harris has crossed over a line like that, and short of that, politics of course makes strange bedfellows (although an anti-accommodationist blog is certainly a strange place for such kumbaya scenarios). But different peoples’ lines fall at different places. Mine falls right around advocating torture.

          That’s the political angle- sometimes alliances of conveniences are good, sometimes they’re not. There is also the credibility angle. Take Bill Maher. He has been so misinformed on a number of issues like Egyptian mythology, vaccinations, etc. that, while I happen to agree with him on the subject of the existence of gods, I don’t have much confidence in his reasoning to reach that point. In this case, his demonstrable lack of relying on a rational (or at least, informed) basis in other areas calls into question the basis for his atheism. He’s fine if you want someone caustically mocking believers, but is he a good advocate for atheism? I would say not. I like his show; I like his stand-up routine, but there’s no more reason for him to ever appear on This Week than for Jenny McCarthy to, unless it’s to discuss the comedy business.

          1. Good points.

            And I wouldn’t argue that you’ve picked the worng place to draw the line with respect to Sam and his policy positions. (See, Gary? That’s how it’s done.) For me, I’m still on the “can work together” side of the line, in so small part because Sam himself goes to such efforts (rightfully unsuccessful) to distance himself from these certain radical positions. (Unlike what you’re doing here, Gary.)

            Maher is a comedian, and one who’s as inciteful as Carlin was insightful. He deserves and, I think, gets a proportionate amount of respect on matters of substance: some, but not much. He can be a good source of zingers to quote-mine from, but I don’t think anybody is taking him seriously on any subject. If I were a Randite Libertarian, I could see using Rush Limbaugh in a similar manner.

            Both are playing different parts in the struggle against the gods, and all those roles are useful if not vital.

            Do I wish that they didn’t chip away at some of the good parts of the foundation of society while extracting the cancer of religion? You bet your ass.

            But I’ll even coopt Stalin to the cause, if only in the sense of, “Oh, were it but for the fact that he failed to abandon his atheism and embrace the true love of Quetzalcoatl, Russia would have been spared the purges!” So why shouldn’t I steal a line from Maher or quote an extended passage from Sam?

            Cheers,

            b&

          1. …thanks. Which would be a big part of the reason why I so much prefer to hang out here than at FTB, even if I tend to find myself more closely aligned with PZ’s positions than our host’s.

            b&

      2. “Who cares if you’re not comfortable with it?”

        Who cares what you care about what I care? Seriously, “who cares?”? What is this, fourth grade? Well anyway, clearly you care enough to comment!

        “The idea that torture may sometimes be justified is not exactly a marginal view.”

        The idea that a magical being created the universe and gave humans immaterial souls is not exactly a marginal view, but that doesn’t mean it’s valid.

        “It is widely held among both the general public and moral philosophers.”[Citation needed]

        And anyway, there are many aborrent views that have, at various times, been held widely by the general public and moral philosophers, but that doesn’t mean I have to be associated with those who held them.

        Let me be clear here: I already don’t associate with Sam Harris, because I’ve never met the man. When I say I’m not comfortable with his views on the subject this doesn’t mean I am uncomfortable being around him or socializing with him. I think his arguments on these topics are specious and irrational, and I would not hesitate to tell him that (and why I think that) were we to discuss them in person. I further think it degrades from his ability to be an effective spokesperson on atheist positions. Maybe he’s fine with that, and that’s okay, as long as he’s not committing war crimes, I guess.

  11. A point about one of the few areas of substance that Spingies did touch upon:

    Murphy’s comment about Penn’s atheism was admittedly off-base: the atheism part of the statement is fine enough- a perhaps simplistic comment about the burden of proof. However, it’s worth pointing out that Penn was being somewhat disingenuous, based on what he said in 2005:

    “I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.” (source http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557)

    So yes, technically, he can say he’s an atheist because he ‘doesn’t know’. But by own admission, his belief goes further than that, and what’s to say that further step is not the real analogy to his libertarian belief?

    1. That’s kind of an odd thing to say as it inverts what many theists (and agnostics) understand by atheism; i.e., always the “strong” sense of believing that there is no God, rather than the “weak” sense of “just” not believing in God.

      I think I’d say I “believe” that there’s no (theistic) God; ie, my view is that that is the only rational conclusion based on the overwhelming absence of evidence for such an intecessionary supernatural agency. (Ditto fairies at the bottom of the garden; a green Manalishi with a two-prong crown; &c., &c.) I’m also very dubious that the concept of a deistic god is meaningful.

      But I don’t think my reasons for that conviction get me anywhere near Penn’s libertarian “belief”. Penn’s might be different, of course. But I don’t think that he’s in any real sense beyond atheism.

      /@

  12. Who cares what you care about what I care?

    No one, probably. You’re the one who said you’re not “comfortable” with Harris because of his views on torture, as if that should matter to the cause of promoting atheism.

    The idea that a magical being created the universe and gave humans immaterial souls is not exactly a marginal view, but that doesn’t mean it’s valid.

    I didn’t say it did. The point is that Harris’s views on torture are pretty clearly in the mainstream of political opinion. If you don’t want to be associated with other atheists simply because they hold a mainstream political view that you disagree with, you’re probably going to confine yourself to a small and lonely corner of the atheist community.

    “It is widely held among both the general public and moral philosophers.”[Citation needed]

    For the general public, see the series of polls conducted by Pew. They have consistently found that only about 1 person in 4 believes that the torture of suspected terrorists is never justified. For the views of moral philsophers on torture, see, for example, the entry on torture in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    1. “You’re the one who said you’re not “comfortable” with Harris because of his views on torture, as if that should matter to the cause of promoting atheism.”

      Yes, that is an accurate representation of what I said.

  13. Gary W: This is nonsense. Show us how you think you know that “‘torture’ is universally accepted amongst skilled interrogation practitioners as not merely ineffective but the absolute most counter-productive thing you can do.”
    .
    Let’s start with Ali Soufan

    1. New Yorker interview of Soufan, May 2012:

      The claims (advocate of the effectiveness of torture Jose Rodriguez)’s recently been making about the success of the harsh techniques are the same false claims that have appeared in now declassified C.I.A. memos, and which have been thoroughly discredited by the likes of the Department of Justice, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the C.I.A.’s Inspector General.

    2. My Guantanamo Experience: Support Interrogation, Reject Torture
      by Jennifer S. Bryson
      September 9, 2011
      As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches, I have come to the conclusion that America needs interrogation in its war arsenal and that we must reject torture. Oxymoron? Absolutely not. From 2004 until 2006 I was an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. I speak from experience…

    3. Tortured Logic
      by Matthew Alexander
      “Matthew Alexander is a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised more than 1,300 interrogations in Iraq. His latest book is Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist. Alexander is currently a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California-Los Angeles.”

    4. None of your citations demonstrates that torture is “universally” accepted by “skilled interrogation practitioners” to be ineffective and counterproductive, or even claims to.

      Do you really not understand the basic requirements of a valid argument? Your argument here is like a Christian making a claim about, say, what “all” Christians believe, on the grounds that everyone in his particular congregation believes it.

      1. …and, yet, not only will you not offer a counterexample, you won’t even dare tell us what purpose you hope to gain from torture.

        At least the Christians have the guts to tell us that they’re Christians because they’re afraid of hellfire and damnation. You’re so much of a coward that you won’t even admit out loud the fear that drives you to embrace torture.

        b&

        1. and, yet, not only will you not offer a counterexample

          I don’t have to offer a counterexample, any more than I would have to offer a counterexample to the nonsensical argument “All Christians I know believe X; therefore all Christians believe X.”

  14. Enough, please! Nobody is going to change their minds, and two or three people are dominating the thread. If all of you admit that your minds are made up and can’t be change, why continue?

  15. Jerry,

    Could you please do something about Ben Goren? His habit of making personal attacks against commenters who disagree with him has gotten completely out of hand. It’s not just that he does this so often, but that his attacks are so vicious. See his comments here, or his comments to your post on global warming last week, for numerous examples.

    1. It’s ironic that a torture apologist complains about the viciousness of a verbal attack made to someone who has the freedom to go away and not read it.

      1. There’s nothing ironic about it. Ben Goren’s frequent and vicious personal attacks on people who disagree with him clearly and egregiously violate Jerry’s comment policy. I’m not the first person to complain about his behavior.

        I also think it is absurd to describe people like Sam Harris and me who oppose the absolutist position that torture is never justified under any possible circumstances as “torture apologists.” It’s another tactic intended to simply smear one’s opponents.

        1. apologist – a person who makes a defense in speech or writing of a belief, idea, etc.

          I don’t see how you could reasonably contest that.

  16. Those might be called “bad belief” atheists, and I think that Communists are the champions there. North Korea has even reinvented god kings.

    Another sort of “bad atheist” would be one who accepts atheism for bad reasons, like:
    – Conformity
    – Rebellion
    – Trolling

    Still another might be someone with a craving for religion, like S.E. Cupp. Alain de Botton seems to want an atheist church, and a century and a half ago, Auguste Comte founded one, a “Religion of Humanity” whose practice was a ripoff of Catholicism.

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