Kerfuffle! Keith Kloor won’t stop biting the leg of atheism

December 31, 2012 • 1:12 pm

When Keith Kloor first posted on his Discover blog about the perfidy of the New Atheists, lumping me with Dawkins as strident “fundamentalist” atheists, wrongheaded in our dislike of accommodationism, I got a strange feeling about him. He seemed oversensitive, much like Robert Wright or Chris Mooney. In that post, Kloor claimed that atheist stridency was aimed at “making enemies of the whole world,” and that we also hold all religions as equally bad.

Somehow I sensed that Kloor was one of those thin-skinned accommodationists who can’t let well enough alone. Their downfall is always their inability to resist responding to criticism, no matter where it comes from..

Sure enough, after I replied to Kloor, he wrote a second post in response.  I didn’t deal with that one because it was lame, citing “authorities” like Saul Bellow and Clifford Geertz to show that religion has substantial value, and suggesting there were things in heaven and earth not dreamt of by us materialists. (Kloor really has a weakness for the numinous.)

In the meantime, P. Z. Myers took out after Kloor at Pharyngula. Kloor’s statement that most ticked off P.Z. was this:

To wave away the persistent questions and yearnings that still drive the religious impulse as merely the last bastion of ignorant superstition is, as I wrote here, “inconsistent with the spirit of science.”

The assertion that religion and science are incompatible has become an article of faith for some–a kind of dogma that I recently discussed in this post. Aside from this being a form of fundamentalism, I also said that I saw no constructive use “in making an enemy of virtually the whole world” by broadly denigrating all religious believers.

Myers offered a withering response:

I’m not waving away the yearnings, they’re real enough, and we all have them. I’m waving away the goddamned answers as inadequate, contradictory, and false.

You do realize, Mr Kloor, that that’s what religion promises? Not more questions (if that were the case, it would be philosophy), but deep cosmic truths, answers hallowed by nothing more than generations of prophets pulling stories out of their asses? It is “inconsistent with the spirit of science” to simply accept those claims unquestioned, to assume that there is some validity to them because you’re afraid that pointing out the flaws might be regarded as “denigrating all religious believers.”

If telling people that they are wrong is denigrating, then my profession of education is dedicated to denigration.

I guess it also makes me a fundamentalist, if your definition of fundamentalis is lacking in reverence for the unsupported authoritarian dogma of religion, and feeling no respect for faith at all.

Thin-skinned as he is, Kloor has now put up a third post, and—oy vey!—promises more of them! Here’s his latest (today) from his Discover blog, a piece called “People who live in glass houses.” I post it in its entirety because it’s short:

To make sure the reader understands what he’s saying, Kloor begins with a picture of a glass house, and then proffers a small rant, now lumping me with Myers instead of Dawkins.

This exquisitely designed house would be perfect for PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. I’ll expand on that (and more) in the New Year (later this week). Meanwhile, here’s something from Margaret Atwood that reminds us why religion is not so easy to stamp out in the 21st-century:

“I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring…by religious strand, I don’t mean any particular religion, I mean the part of human beings that feels that the seen world is not the only world, that the world you see is not the only world that there is and that it can become awestruck. If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution.”

You’d that think the atheists who are evolutionary biologists would be able to process this with their super-rational minds. And that they (Myers, Coyne et al) would be smart enough to recognize that one-size-fits all denunciation is likely counterproductive to their goal.

Indeed, for Margaret Atwood is surely an expert on both religion and evolution, and therefore stands as the authority on the evolutionary genetics of faith! Here Kloor promotes Atwood’s tenuous statement as something that evolutionists like Myers and I should acknowledge as truth.

But it’s complete garbage.  I’m not going to discuss into the many theories for the origin of religion, but most of them argue not that we have hardwired “genes for god and spirituality,” but that religion is an epiphenomenon of our biology interacting with our culture: something that has piggybacked on humans’ evolved childhood obedience to authority, or on our desire to impute agency to inanimate objects or events.  Only a chowderheaded biologist would argue that “religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution.” We simply don’t know that! In fact, we know very little about the original source of the religious impulse, except that it can be eliminated relatively quickly (viz., Scandinavia). So if it’s “hardwired,” it’s extraordinarily malleable!

So why, exactly, are we supposed to accept the “scientific” conclusions of a novelist—granted, a good novelist—in the absence of evidence? It would behoove Kloor, since he’s writing for a science site, to stop touting people like Atwood as experts on the evolution of human behavior.

As for our one-size-fits-all denunciation of religion, Kloor still hasn’t absorbed the fact that almost no New Atheist denounces all religions as equally bad.  Fundamentalist Christians and Catholics are far worse than Quakers.  Scientologists are far more harmful than Unitarian Universalists.  Insofar as religions accept the supernatural, they’re all bad in contributing to the denigration of reason, but they’re not equal in their pernicious effects on society. Some proselytize more than others, or try harder make their religious views into public law. Kloor should just quit purveying lies about what New Atheists believe, get back to writing about science, and stop embarrassing the Discover website.

I’m done with Kloor; he lacks the originality of thought to interest me, and his deliberate misrepresentation of New Atheists is intellectually dishonest. Let him put up as many posts as he wants promoting accommodationism, and let him cite as many famous people as he can to show the virtues of faith. All it will do is make him look foolish—at least in the eyes of scientists.

One last point: I find it curious that atheists like Kloor spend a lot more time going after fellow atheists than after religion.  That could only be justified if atheists were hurting science more than religion does, but that’s surely not the case. And we’re far less harmful than even moderate Christians.  You don’t see atheists throwing acid in the faces of schoolgirls, terrifying children with thoughts of hell, or trying to regulate people’s sex lives.

UPDATE: I was right; Kloor has just put up another post (his second today) accusing P. Z. and me of “atheism fundamentalism.”  He even uses the old Chris Mooney tactic of saying that our reaction to him is proof that he’s “hit a nerve”!


66 thoughts on “Kerfuffle! Keith Kloor won’t stop biting the leg of atheism

  1. Hard-wired? What are we, desktops? The only “wiring” we may have is a preference for story telling or conspiracy theory. Religion is definitely the former.

    1. There’s rather more wiring than that. Besides story-telling, our host has already mentioned our wiring to impute agency to others (and, by extension, to inanimate objects) and, as children, to accept the authority of adults. We also have wiring for looking after (small) children, aversion to death (at least of self or of family members) and for some forms of social justice such as the detection and punishment of cheating. Doubtless there are more. But all of it is subject to conscious adjustment.

  2. kloor is killing me with these posts. the best i can assume is that he’s just having fun at this point, considering that the leg he’s standing on is pegged.

    someone needs to show him your recent talk about science/religion, which is an excellent discussion on this matter.

  3. Are they just annoying? I’m tempted to dismiss them as unoriginal and sloppy, but I sometimes worry that there’s something sinister going on here. I don’t have a reason to doubt their intentions, but there’s something perverse about trying to get individuals to ignore or put aside their principles for “the cause,” however they choose to define it. It reeks of anti-intellectualism.

    1. Looking at the post that Kloor references from there, it appears that his problem is that he is unable to distinguish emotion and religion. Admittedly the boundaries of religion are impossible to pin down precisely, but if you can’t distinguish those two things you should probably keep away from this sort of discussion.

  4. “If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution”

    I’m detecting subtle hints of the naturalistic fallacy in this person’s writings: it evolved, therefore it’s good. Evolution 101, just because something is good in one environment (Pleistocene) doesn’t mean it’s good in all environments. If that were the case, then everyone with sickle cell anemia would be all roses and rainbows.

    Second, just because something evolved doesn’t mean it’s was good even when it came about. That’s dipping into the same pool of fail as most pop-evolutionary psychology. It could be just a piggyback on some other beneficial trait, or it could just have no net benefit/detriment in the population.

    Fail, Mr. Kloor. Fail.

    1. Kloor states: “The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.

      Strawman much, Kloor? Never heard of religion as opium of the people? That’s Marx daring to acknowledge that religion is at least as valuable as opium.

      1. I disagree with (your interpretation of) Marx there. If I was in (physical) pain, I’ll take opium (or some derivative thereof) over religion any day.

        But I agree, every atheist has heard of that ‘opiate of the people’ quote and it’s a double-edged sword – one the one hand religion may be some consolation to oppressed people, on the other it may keep them sedated enough so they never throw off their chains. I think Marx had the second meaning in mind.

  5. Atwood is correct to the extent that there is indeed much more to the universe than what we perceive directly with our own senses. And the reason we know that is because science tells us so. Not religion, not intuition, but science. Anything else is just guesswork, not knowledge.

  6. Kloor obviously subscribes to the school of “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, try to befuddle them with bullshit”. It’s pretty funny – he grabs at words and tortures them just as creationists do.

    1. Spot on! This whole “debate” exists because of an almost maliciously willful equivocation over terms like “religion” vs. “religious thinking”; “compatible” vs. “coexistent” and others. It’s strawmen all the way down.

  7. I’d just like Kloor to admit that his strategy of acconodating religious feelings isn’t the only, or even the most effective, strategy of getting people to accept scientific truths.

    There are many different methods, tactics and strategies that can, will, and do work.

    Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” is a very clear case in point.

    1. Argh typos! “Accommodating”, Yeesh.

      Can Kloor point to any evidence that his method of coddling believers feelings is effective, at all? Can Kloor show some evidence that being assertive about scientific facts alienates believers and turns them against science?

      1. I don’t see how it could be, unless patting people on the head and telling them patronizingly that they should not listen to the mean old atheists was so sweetly nauseating that people gave up on religion in order to avoid it!

  8. He hasn’t actually made a case for his side yet, just uses quotes and names of those who agree with him. Nothing would be accomplished done if that is how intelligent people debate. I’m not accusing Kloor of being unintelligent, just in this case.

    From his latest post: “I’m merely highlighting observations about the human condition made by literary artists—observations that speak to an important facet of this debate between science and religion.”

    I agree that religion can be a good source of fiction and it has some cultural historical value in it’s writings (he thinks this was an argument he made earlier, it’s not), but then so does Homer and Shakespeare. But as for an actual debate between religion and science there is none. Not until religion can produce something. Science can produce good fiction, Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clark but I’ve yet to see religion do something science couldn’t do better. I would take the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider over any temple or monument.

    1. “I would take the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider over any temple or monument.”

      Indeed, without falling into the pit of “science is just another religion”, one could argue that the Hubble and the LHC are the cathedrals of today, requiring the cooperation of large numbers of people over long periods of time to generate something awe-inspiring.

      This makes our inability to build another Chartres today something less to be regretted. {I like and admire Sagreda Famiglia, but only as architecture, and I have a strange feeling about it – somehow the more conventionally religious it is (or parts of it are), the less I like it (or them). I admire the Sydney Opera House in much the same way – where it succeeds as architecture, it fails as a concert hall or opera house.}

  9. In a similar manner to your awesome takedown of Paul Nelson (A Marshall McLuhan moment with creationist Paul Nelson) it would be informative to get the reactions of Saul Bellow and Margaret Atwood to being dragged into this kerfuffle.

    I’m not familiar with Saul Bellow but I’ve read enough of Margaret Atwood and heard her speak to know that she is no woo-meister and would probably elbow her way to the front of the line for the Keith Kloor smackdown.

    To get a flavour of Atwood’s take on religion I recommend “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

    1. Saul Bellow passed away several years ago. I don’t think we’re going to get comments from him, unless we’re all wrong about reality.

  10. I would rather be on the internet reading intelligent people argue than at any party I could have been invited to. Happy new Year. X

  11. Re Kloor’s efforts, one is reminded of a Mencken comment:’one horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is vastly more intelligent’.

    1. This by P.Z. Myers induced a horselaugh from me (and envy that I didn’t think of it first):

      … generations of prophets pulling stories out of their asses.

  12. I think there is fundamental disconnect about what “compatibility” of science and religion means to Kloor and Drs. Coyne and Meyers here. When people like Kloor claim that science and religion are compatible, they generally point to the fact that there are a large number of scientists who are in some sense “religious”. It only shows that human beings can compartmentalize and rationalize and hold two incompatible ideas in their minds to be “true” simultaneously. That is they can be a reasonably good biologist or chemist or physicist (perhaps during the week) and at the same time believe in some kind of a god (on weekends :-)). It is not surprising that we can find people who claim to believe in the theory of evolution and still continue to believe in the Adam/Eve, fall of man, original sin story. The nature of the two beliefs and the paths to the beliefs are very different and yet the same person can have both.

    When Drs. Coyne or Myers say that science and religion are incompatible they mean that if one is demonstrated to be true implies that the other is not true and hence needs to be revised or thrown away. Science and scientifically supported ideas have undermined religion/ religious ideas consistently.

    It would be interesting to test the nature of religious belief of the “religious” scientists against the degree of their understanding of evolution. I would posit that the better their understanding of evolution, the more their religious beliefs will tend towards deism than theism.

    1. Accommodationists like Kloor never bother to understand what the New Atheists mean by compatibility, they just assume it’s a synonym for coexistence and then point to obvious examples like we were just too dumb to notice. It reminds me of when a creationist claims that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics without wondering why no scientist has ever noticed.

    2. …and then it dawned on me, the charge that atheists are always angry…. has to be projection. Having to answer the same question over and over, no matter how patiently explained, would make anyone frustrated, and, eventually “angry”. Thus religionists see the statements that the supernatural does not exist, repeated again and again, and they envision repetition creates anger.

  13. Now this is a testable strawman:

    The assertion that religion and science are incompatible has become an article of faith for some–a kind of dogma that I recently discussed in this post.

    All we need to prove religion right is one observation of creation/miracle/efficacy of intercessory prayer.

    That would simultaneously reject incompatibility, say in the form of the observation that science is in the business of replacing belief with fact while religion is in the business of replacing fact with belief, since religion would inject one testable fact.

    Pray tell, Keith Kloor, how can a testable hypothesis become an article of faith?

    It is beyond mindboggling, it is downright spineextruding. Accommodationists have no spine left*, they can’t even argue the facts straight up but has to argue behind blatantly erroneous strawmen.

    * If they ever had a spine to begin with, a proposition that I feel is less and less clear.

    Their only reasonable argument is that accommodation of social purposes can win religious over to do good and accept, if not science, so science rightful existence. It seems to be a wholly unsubstantiated idea by way of its lack of results, but at least it is an upright question to ask.

    But how often do you see this old idea put in its wheel chair and paraded around nowadays? They never wanted to test their presumed success, it was believed to be a given based on accommodationist belief in belief, and now that lack of support has come around to haunt them.

    If telling people that they are wrong is denigrating, then my profession of education is dedicated to denigration.

    I guess it also makes me a fundamentalist, if your definition of fundamentalis is lacking in reverence for the unsupported authoritarian dogma of religion, and feeling no respect for faith at all.

    Ha! Perfect.

  14. As atheists, why should we mind when someone opines that a religious tendency is hard wired in us? Even if true, it doesn’t favo(u)r the validity of religious belief. If anything, it shows the opposite: that religion is a quirk of human nature.

  15. I have never had any religious impulse and I am not alone. My favourite stories about “how I became an atheist” are the ones about people who as kids were surrounded by religion but who never believed any of it. They are in the minority but still plentiful. I don’t consider myself one because although my father packed me off to Sunday School my mother was an atheist so I had support.

    I’d like to understand more about the sort of personality which can be surrounded by religion but still have the ability to see right through and call bullshit, even of only inside their heads.

    The nearest I have come to a religious experience was when I spent a little time when I was sick looking at galaxies and characterizing them for Zooniverse. But it gave me a clearer understanding of the size of the universe and made the idea of a creator god look even more laughable.

  16. “You’d that think the atheists who are evolutionary biologists would be able to process this with their super-rational minds.”

    Sure. Religious impulses may (or may not) be hard-wired, but that does not mean that the beliefs they represent are true. We are hard-wired to imagine that sequential images changing more than about 16 frames/second show movement, but that doesn’t mean that the images really do move.

    There. Processed.

    1. Nice!! There are quite a few visual illusions that are created within the mind, distilled as a result of hunting successes (I postulate). But, they are recognized for the illusions that they are.

  17. Happy New Year Prof. Coyne.  There’s so much I want to thank you for I don’t know where to start.  Thank you for your love of cats.  I have six strays I feed by the carport at my apt. building.  Your talk in Edinburgh is one of best I’ve watched.  I also greatly enjoyed Sean Carroll’s movin naturalism forward, all those great minds in one place, it was(to use an overused word)Awesome!  Lastly, thank you for your posts, blogs, tweets, for trying to make this a better world. Wish you the best this coming year.


  18. Kloor’s screed is based on his implicit assertion that the atheists he criticizes believe that “the seen world is … the only world.” But even assuming, consistent with the principle of charity, that Kloor means the perceivable world (or “observable universe” as it is usually called), rather than just the world that which can be detected through the sense of sight, his assertion is wrong.

    Even the most hardcore atheists, including the most adamant physicalists, do not limit themselves to what can be perceived directly; they accept that which can be logically inferred from what is directly observable (otherwise, historical sciences, such as big-bang cosmology and evolutionary biology, would be impossible).

    In addition, they are willing to accept — provisionally, but skeptically — the predictions of well-founded theory (such as the multiverse), even where those predications lie beyond our current means of observation and experimentation.

    They are also willing to keep an open mind as to assertions regarding other matters beyond current powers of perception so long as those assertions are not refuted by what can be demonstrated scientifically.

    What they are not willing to do is accept on faith alone assertions that lack any supporting evidence, or to keep an open mind about those that are contradicted by well-established fact.

    Channeling Margaret Atwood, Kloor argues that they should be willing to do so, or that they should at least be willing to pay deferential respect to others who do, based on an inchoate analysis of mankind’s inherent capacity (and desire) to experience the universe with a sense of wonder and awe.

    But for those who have made the journey, the liberation of this sense of wonder and awe comes with freeing them from the Procrustean bed of unsupported, and unsupportable, received religious doctrine.

    1. They are also willing to keep an open mind as to assertions regarding other matters beyond current powers of perception so long as those assertions are not refuted by what can be demonstrated scientifically.

      …provided, of course, that the assertions in question are capable of refutation. Assertions so vague or noncommittal that no conceivable evidence could refute them deserve no particular respect because they neither tell us anything interesting nor suggest any way of finding anything out.

  19. “I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring…”

    Hey Margaret, this bumper sticker’s for you: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

    And if it’s hardwired, why are eg the Catholics and Muslims in such haste to browbeat this crap into the heads of little kids at the earliest opportunity?

  20. For the longest time Kris Kristofferson, Ken Kesey, and I were doing just fine. Then the whole goddamned Kardashian Klan came out of nowhere. Now this klown Keith Kloor shows up. Look what they’ve done to our initial! Kerfuffle, indeed.

      1. My grandparents came to the U.S. from Slovenia in the early 1920s. They were both born in Slovenia in the last decade of the 19th Century.

        They kept in close contact with the family in the “old country” throughout most of their lives. As the oldest grandchild, I was the one they shared many of their stories with. They never mentioned anyone from Croatia who fit your grandmotther’s description.

        But the name is sufficiently rare that you never know. Also, one thing my father’s family always missed (since my grandparents were the only members of the family to come to the U.S.) was having regular contact with their extended family.

        So I’m more than happy to welcome you aboard as (an at-least honorary) cousin.

        Happy New Year!

        1. I rechecked my understanding of my origins. Kukec was not her maiden name, it was her married name. My grandfather was from Slovenia.

          They migrated to Campbell, Ohio where my grandfather worked in the steel mill.

          My email address is if you have more to ask of me.


  21. He even uses the old Chris Mooney tactic of saying that our reaction to him is proof that he’s “hit a nerve”!
    I always wonder if they use the same logic for The God Delusion

  22. From Kloor’s original piece: “The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.”

    Kloor probably doesn’t realize it but this statement of his fairly nicely summarizes everything that one needs to know about the evolution of belief in the supernatural and reliance upon religious authority: a)lack of intellectual ability to think beyond simplistic explanations and b) willful ignorance.

    Despite his claim to be an atheist, I wonder where Kloor believes he falls on this continuum.

  23. So often have I seen or heard Hamlet’s condescending brush-off to Horatio quoted against science and philosophy! (Ironically, Professor Coyne riffs on it in this post) When the disturbed young Prince of Denmark, walking the ramparts of Elsinore with his (only) friend Horatio, ‘sees’ his father’s ‘ghost,’ he is frightened but not surprised. It is Horatio who is confounded (‘Oh day and night, but this is wondrous strange’). Hamlet and Horatio have both been to Wittenberg University but evidently studied very different things while there. The latter appears to be an Aristotelian, not expecting spectres; but Hamlet, what does he know?

    ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

    One can almost hear the contempt in Hamlet’s pronunciation of ‘philosophy.’ I’ve always thought that Horatio should have rejoined: ‘Perhaps, my lord, but if so you don’t know what these ‘things’ are either!’

    Horatio’s children have found out some of these many, many things. Hamlet’s have continued to be princes and priests.

    1. “Hamlet’s have continued to be princes and priests.”

      And as Denis Diderot (sort of) said, the rest of us will not be fully free until the last of the former has been strangled with the entrails of the last of the latter (which, speaking for myself, is meant solely in the strict metaphorical sense).

  24. @10 Alex S: “He hasn’t actually made a case”
    That struck me too. I am a kind of an accommodist – I don’t see either why religion and science are incompatible at beforehand. That might change after I have finished Herman Philipse’s latest book though. Anyhow, Kloor should just give the relevant quotes of Dawkins, PZM, JAC etcetera and then show why they are wrong. I don’t do that because I’m not interested enough. My atheism doesn’t depend on the outcome of the debate.

  25. Hardwired?

    The human brain is also hardwired to believe that optical illusions are true – yet these are trivally just that, illusions.

    Then there’s the hardwiring that makes us not want to eat a turd-shaped piece of chocolate, not want to touch a sterilised cockroach…examples of totally irrational behaviour abound.

    Hardwiring proves nothing about the truth behind religion.

  26. of course Kloor “hit a nerve”, most idiots who continue in their willful ignorance “hit” the nerves of people who get tired of their lies and nonsense. Kloor, dear, the fact that people get tired of you and show you how pathetic you are is nothing to be proud of.

    1. Re: Kloor ‘hit[ting] a nerve”

      As with birds and worms, pigs and truffles — even a blind oral surgeon will occassionally “hit a nerve.”

      It is not ordinarily taken as a sign of competence.

  27. The glass house metaphor works even better in the case of a poo-flinger like Kloor than an actual rock-flinger. His sole motive is to proudly admire the harmless yet smelly dripping splatters he makes from all possible angles.

  28. I am sure that just pointing fingers and shouting insults at the faithiest will actually just denigrate me. Therefore, considered argument from knowledge and understanding is the better strategy. I couldn’t help noticing how complimentary the Judaic Christian Islamic’s are becoming in the US. Is it possible that in the fight against increasing disbelief this holy trinity will join hands in a new religion under the name of Slamjudanity?

  29. The sick part about KK is he isn’t a science writer, he is a marketer of all things terrible. All of his entries are hit peices on science and scientists and others who object to GMOS, Nuclear power or any other industry that is awful or at least needs much more research. He is a a prostitute for Monsanto and the Koch bros. He tries to appeal to the easy targets for marketing and selling bullshit “science” to, the religious. It is sad that *Discover* facilitates the corruption of science for the profit of the few under the guise of a science magazine.

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