Loretta Breuning retracts her characterization of atheists as “fundamentalists”

June 19, 2014 • 7:49 am

Over at Psychology Today, Dr. Loretta Breuning, who recently published explaining why atheists are like fundamentalists, has been roundly trounced in the comments. Some of the commenters are regulars here, while others are new to me. But nearly all of the critics have been remarkably savvy and literate. Look at this one, for instance:

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 10.07.11 AM Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 10.07.30 AM

Breuning finally responded, apologizing for using the word “fundamentalist.” But it’s a notapology that just rambles on, finally claiming that the whole issue is “semantic”:

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 7.38.06 AMOnce again Breuning seems clueless about the issue. She ran down atheists because, she said, they behaved like religious fundamentalists. When shown repeatedly how that was wrong, she just fobs off the issue as “semantic.” But it’s not, for she’s criticized atheists in a public forum for reasons that she now appears to disavow.

Instead of dealing honestly with the criticism, she simply avers her acceptance of evolution (duh!), and then says that she doesn’t feel the need to disabuse an old lady on a zoo tour for mentioning her belief in creationism. (Why, by the way, does it matter whether it was an “old lady” or somebody else? It is okay to coddle the beliefs of an old person but not a young one?).  The fact is that Breuning didn’t have to attack the old lady (who is not going to be converted anyway); she could have simply said, “Well, scientists have lots of evidence that animals and plants weren’t created but evolved. I’d be glad to recommend a book on that.” (MINE!!!).

Breuning’s answer to pervasive creationism is apparently to let creationists retain their beliefs.  Well, fine, but she should realize that OTHERS ARE WATCHING, as they were on the zoo tour. Silence in that case was complicity with the “old lady’s” creationism. How on Earth are we going to engage creationists without criticizing and dissecting their claims? What would Breuning have us do: pat all creationists on the head and say, “Yes, that’s fine. You’re welcome to your belief. I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”

What we see here, besides Breuning’s deliberate refusal to answer her critics about atheism, is fulsome accommodationism: the unsubstantiated view that if we simply coddle the religious, and don’t attack their views, they’ll eventually come around to accepting evolution. I hear this repeatedly, but those who hold that view never produce any evidence. They simply feel that it must be true.

As for Breuning’s advice to “cool down,” it’s simply condescending.  My advice to her is to think about what she said in her original piece, and how critics responded to it.

But that’s useless advice. The woman has shown that she can’t be reached by reason.


125 thoughts on “Loretta Breuning retracts her characterization of atheists as “fundamentalists”

  1. “It’s not a word I hear except in the news, and I avoid the news.”

    Prideful ignorance is her excuse? I agree… she can’t be reached by reason.

    1. She avoids the news, but that could not deter her from writing about the Amanda Knox case, including a recommendation to boycott Italy.

    2. So someone with a PhD is basically saying she is not literate enough to know the meaning of the word she used as the main crux of her argument. That’s worse than actually calling atheists fundamentalists, at least as far as her own reputation is concerned.

  2. Physicists make weird claims about transubstantiations? What an equivocation! Dr. Breuning has no shame.

    1. You beat me to it. When I read her comment about physicists and transubstantiation I thought WTF? I would love to see the work that her husband the physicist does on transubstantiation. I think she has her terms confused.

      Of course, if that were pointed out, she would probably say that it was just semantics.

    2. You mean you haven’t heard about the Dirac-Weinberg transubstantiation equations? How can you be so misinformed – they’re fundamentalist to our understanding vital forces.

  3. I see she now claims that the “I’m right, you’re stupid” position is not the democratic process.

    Whereas, presumably, her “I’m right, you’re self-righteous” position apparently is?

    She has not responded with any substance to the detailed criticisms her article has prompted, which suggests there will be very little reflection on her part, despite her welcome retraction of the ‘fundamentalism’ canard.

  4. Calling atheists fundamentalists isn’t more offensive than she realized. It’s more *wrong* than she realized (in fact, just outright wrong).

    See the difference?

    1. Yes. The killer comment “lol indeed” makes it unequivocally clear that labeling atheists as fundamentalists is just plain dead wrong, full stop. But she prefers to not admit that, rather she hides behind the idea that certain people are just overly sensitive to the “fundamentalist” label and it’s all just semantics anyway. She just wants us to STFU.

    2. I came here to say just that. You beat me to it.

      I’m sorry to say that I disagree with the article’s title, “Loretta Breuning retracts her characterization of atheists as “fundamentalists””. I don’t see where she retracts it all. She simply says that she’s sorry for *using* the word. She doesn’t at all admit that it’s incorrect to smear atheists with “fundamentalists”; she instead (as you pointed out) only notes that people found it “offensive”.

      It’s one of those purely left-handed “I’m sorry if I offended anyone (but my slur still stands)” non-apologies / non-retractions so beloved of politicians.

          1. It occurs to me that the first three letters of “sinister” spell “sin.”

            One notes the bias in “ambidextrous.” One doesn’t hear of “ambisinistrous,” eh? 😉

              1. Yeah, I thought about that as I was typing & wondered if the series writers considered calling Dexter ironic OR since Dexter only killed bad guys perhaps it was set up to question whether he was truly Dexter or Sinister. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

              2. ” . . . considered calling Dexter ironic . . . .”

                I haven’t watched, and am not that familiar with, Dexter. In addition to “ironic” would you consider him “iconic”? What is Dexter’s problem – manic-depressive bi-polar? Would that make him “ionic”? 😉

              3. Ha ha! Dexter is a psychopath that has developed a coping mechanism based on rules his father gave him.

        1. Yeah, “back-handed” was the word I wanted; thanks! (Although, isn’t “left-handed compliment” a term? I guess that should be “back-handed” too.)

  5. Maybe she thought, initially, that there are just so many religious people that it would be imprudent to upset them and that atheists were doing just that.

    Breuning, learn this: science works for us all. It is does not make allies with any one person. Religion does and most of its followers make alliances with doctrines that are harmful.

    1. My guess is that it’s more likely that in her personal life she is surrounded by liberal theists who elevate the “Live and Let Live” attitude on religion to the status of a primary moral precept. They would never try to convert her; so no atheist should ever try to convert them. Fair is fair. And we live in happy harmony, respecting everyone’s choice.

      It’s not just that all theists aren’t like this. It’s also that the refusal to convert is also a refusal to engage. And the refusal to engage is generally associated with the view that faith is a personal choice motivated by a loving heart. Believing in God carries moral import so it’s a moral question

      I do not think it is wise for atheists who are atheists because we approach the existence of God as a hypothesis to applaud, encourage, and refuse to challenge the view that this hypothesis is actually a challenge for the heart or an ethical commitment towards the Good. Talk about creating an Us vs.Them Good Guy/Bad Guy scenario. This is the ultimate division. I don’t wonder that they hate to be called on it.

      Breuning seems to be a victim of what I’m going to call Passive/Aggressive Apologetics (“Oh, it’s just so horrible when people try to use reason to force other people to believe or not believe in God, isn’t it?” … and all its variations)

      1. Hers is but a fancy version of the, “Why can’t we all just get along?” argument (her tack being that atheists, being just as “fundamentalist” as religionists, have no right to criticize them). This argument ignores completely the fact that people ACT on what they believe, which eventually affects all of our lives. If a person’s fundamental beliefs are erroneous, the actions that naturally spring from them, even if seemingly beneficial (religious charities; sense of belonging and stability, etc.), are still flawed and at best a case of, “Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
        It’s amusing to me that we will carefully examine a car or a house we consider buying to make sure it was made “right” and was kept up “right”, yet, in matters concerning truly vital questions like, “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why should we be good?”, most people just go with what they were raised with instead of checking their belief system as to its “rightness”.

        1. True. But it’s not just that people act on what they believe. The “Why can’t we all just get along?” plea is usually reserved for personal lifestyles, preferences, and tastes. There’s no right or wrong here, folks — so why are we arguing? Accept diversity.

          As far as I can tell the fact that God exists is supposed to be crucially important to theists. Discovering this is significant and life-shattering. Living according to what this tells us is life-defining. The truth really matters to them.

          So why are they suddenly whining as if someone at a Renaissance Faire told them their fairy wings weren’t historical, or that their music sucks? If they think they found the grand objective Theory of Everything then reasonable dissent — “I disagree: there are problems with this and I have a better alternative” — ought to at the very least be comprehensible and expected. It even ought to be respected. “Thank you for paying attention. Let me hear you out; perhaps I may change my mind.”

          But no, they frame it like they’re just doing their own little thing and some bullies came along. Imagine that people in science behaved like people in religion.

          “I have a new theory concerning black holes and dark energy.”

          “I question your interpretation of the data. You’ve made some serious mistakes.”

          “Why are you so focused on making me the enemy? You’re right and I’m wrong. You seem to have this need to force me to agree with you. Please. Can’t we all just get along??”

          Yeah, now I really question that theory, too.

          1. That’s a good analogy to think about. When confronted by anything remotely atheistic, true believers really feel as if someone is going to tear or has torn their fairy wings right off their back. I expect it is quite painful.

      2. Re: “My guess is that it’s more likely that in her personal life she is surrounded by liberal theists who elevate the “Live and Let Live” attitude on religion”

        Since she is a resident of Oakland, California this is extremely likely to be the case.

        1. I am familiar with the well-educated liberal “can’t you see that faith can be a virtue too” Christians of America. They are obsequious, unthinking and unfortunately not limited to zip codes of northern CA.

  6. Those ‘equations’ that we ‘believe in’ have proven time and time again to be a powerful source of what is true; e.g. the prediction of anti-matter. The priesthood, on the other hand…

  7. So the problem is that she really doesn’t understand what “fundamentalism” means, or that it’s actually a belief system that some religious people actually hold.

  8. If that little old lady is healthy enough to proselytize to the general public at the zoo, then she’s plenty healthy enough to fully engage in and lose the debate.

    This isn’t your dying grandmother on her deathbed; this is an old but seaworthy battleship sailing into harbor and firing “warning shots” in the general direction of the docks.

    And it’s a perfect opportunity to use her as a foil to clear up similar misconceptions in the kids who were presumably present. Remember, the audience is frequently not the person to whom you’re addressing your words….



    1. I have had little old ladies (or children with their parents) say something goddy when I was teaching about nature as a docent, or while volunteering for a school field trip. I always gently corrected them, and it always turned out well. I doubt I made a dent in those individuals, but you are right — they are not the real targets.

      1. Yes to you both. Further, we need to remember that religion usually isn’t a freely made choice. Most of us are brainwashed into a particular belief system while we are children and it is not until we get access to other information and different points of view that we are even able to make our own choices. Many have questions about what they’re told as children, and just hearing that there are other answers out there can be enormously empowering to them.

  9. Breuning clearly doest get it, although I gather from the comments and her reaction to them that it will be a while before she attacks atheists again. Even in her notapology she still subjugates atheism to faith. As though everything would be peachy if we would just leave the beleaguered faithful alone. Not to make a false equivalency here, in that I’m not comparing being an atheist to being an African-American living in the Jim Crow south, but when I recently watched a documentary about the Freedom Riders, I was struck by the manner in which the Freedom Riders were repeatedly referred to as “agitators.” Not that I’m comparing Loretta Breuning or Kevin Lowery to Bull Connor, I’m not, but their is logic is the same. The Freedom Riders rode through Alabama and Mississippi to challenge unjust segregation laws and were branded as “rabble-rousers” or “rioters” or, of course, “agitators.” When anyone, be they atheist or not, points out a gratuitous violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment, like in Lebanon Missouri, they are typically regarded in the same way. As though it’s our responsibility not to disturb a school district that wantonly violates its students constitutionally protected rights. Liturgical snitches get rhetorical stitches. It’s just the machinations of propping up an anachronistic system I suppose.

  10. ‘… are understandably defensive’?

    As the Baghdadi physician Razi (c.854 – c. 935) put it…

    “If the people of religion are asked about proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry, and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation and strive to kill their adversaries.”

  11. This use of “attack” to mean “criticise” is extremely irritating and misleading. It just seems like a weasel word to make valid criticism sound aggressive.

    “What do you do?”
    “Oh, I’m a Film Attacker.”
    “Great, I’m a Literary Attacker.”

    If you attacked an old lady for talking about god in a zoo then people would pull you away from her while shouting “what the hell are you doing?!”.

    1. Agree. I think the overblown language comes from a combination of the common perception that a person’s faith reflects their entire world view and thus stands in for their very self — and the ordinary truth that matters of faith are ultimately dependent on personal and social consensus for their survival and are thus weak and fragile under rigorous analysis. Protect them from that. They certainly can’t rest on being true.

  12. All such arguments can be reduced to their simplest form – correct or incorrect. She’s obviously incorrect – no ifs, ands, or buts.

    1. Accurate but, don’t you see how a much longer, belief based as opposed to evidence based, profoundly sophisticated explanation, would be prettier? Or something?

  13. I really enjoyed the entire exchange. Thanks so much for posting about this piece and linking to it.

    I even checked the “notify me of comments” box so I could read them as they come in. Oh, those comments were just spectacular.

    And Loretta? OMFG! What an embarrassing dimwit. She’s been laughed out of town and still she cannot hear the roar.

  14. She must not get to the South much. We have churches down here that proudly proclaim the term “Fundamental…” or “Fundamentalist…” in the name of their church! It’s on the sign out front, along with “come pray with us and support us…”

      1. Thank Prof. Ceiling Cat for CNN, NPR, and MSNBC!! I actually get a (small) kick out of the sayings posted on church signboards with catchy phrases…”Let the Son shine in.” Now I wish I had written more of them down.

  15. The woman has shown that she can’t be reached by reason.

    No, I disagree. She hasn’t shown that at all. She slightly modified her original stance by changing her mind on the use of the term “fundamentalist.” That means she moved. Not enough, not for the right reasons, not in the right way maybe — but there was obviously some consideration, some rethinking, and a concession there. Something got through. If nothing else, she didn’t double down.

    Anyone who has dealt with a fundamentalist who really, truly can’t be reached by reason at all, to any degree in any way even as a matter of principle (which actually isn’t that common) will appreciate the difference and yes, be grateful for it.

    And then use it for the next baby step.

    “If someone wants to believe that a God created this process (of evolution)I don’t feel the need to attack them. It’s just words … The more you treat them like enemies, the more they will act like enemies. Can’t we talk about this without the good guys/bad guys thing?”

    Breuning needs to think a little more clearly about what it means to “talk about this.” For one thing, what does she mean by “this?” And what does she mean by “talk about?”

    If Breuning thinks that every time an atheist argues against the existence of God to someone who is NOT a ‘fundamentalist’ they are creating a war and an enemy, then she is not interested in “talking about” the main issue. She is instead focused on what she wants to be the main issue: can’t we change the topic and avoid confrontation?

    Sometimes, sure. It makes sense. Other times, no. That doesn’t make sense. The problem isn’t that atheists are making a big deal about nothing. Theists are. Do not forget this. According to even liberal theists, whether God exists — or whether it doesn’t — is supposed to be THE most significant, important issue in our culture and in our lives. When speaking amongst themselves they emphasize this.

    Don’t be fooled by the polite fiction that atheists are respecting religion when they avoid the topic on virtually any occasion where they haven’t been backed into a corner and forced into it. That’s forbearance, not respect. And the favored majority is demanding it from the despised minority.

    Here’s a little thought experiment for Loretta Breuning: imagine a situation where an outspoken gnu atheist approaches the religious with temperance, understanding, respect, and kindness. Now imagine an accomodationist who loves to create strife and refuses to listen.

    Both are possible. If you think I’ve set up a self-refuting scenario, then please consider there is more going on here than meets the eyes.

    Well, your eyes. Understand where we are coming from before you use violent and hostile imagery and analogies to “explain” what the other atheists (the bad guy atheists) are doing. Don’t treat us like the enemy.

    1. “Something got through.”

      I don’t think reason got through. I think she just recognized massive pushback. Her responses indicate that there is little understanding of why she got the pushback in the first place. Otherwise she’d not claim that this was all about semantics.

      1. Her response at least indicated that she acknowledges that “fundamentalism” involves more actual force than just arguing. She’d probably back away from the term “militant” for the same reason, had she used it (which she didn’t but that may only have been because she accidentally dropped her dog-eared copy of The Gnu-Basher’s Handbook and winged it from memory.)

        What she wanted was a word which means “intellectual bullying.” And “judgmental” apparently wasn’t strong enough.

    2. I like the use of forbearance to describe choosing one’s battles with theism carefully and intend to use it in future when appropriate. I’m not so sure about the privileged majority demanding forbearance from the despised minority, though. It is instead obeisance, I think, that is demanded.

      1. Thought this over after it posted and I read it. The adamant theist actually does demand, insists upon as a right, forbearance. Overt opposition of any sort is insolence. Obeisance is desired, of course, and it is what is extracted from the impudent, social leverage permitting.

      2. I think the demand for ‘forbearance’ often does come from the privileged majority because in our modern culture they are just as likely to claim special status as they are to use power AS power. You shouldn’t take away our faith. You shouldn’t destroy hope. You shouldn’t insult our beliefs. You shouldn’t attack our community. You shouldn’t intrude into our happy lives with your empty, cold, heartless belief in nothing.

        We’re all just fine if you keep it private. Especially if you try to blend in with us or praise us for our faith.

        Fundamentalists may demand obeisance, perhaps. The more moderate theist seems to be a theistic version of an accomodationist.

  16. OMFSM.

    Someone please give Michael a microphone because he needs to drop it!

    (Would that out own Michael Fisher, who I haven’t seen around here lately?)

    1. Indeed, I never took a class in which atheism was pushed on me. I did have a general chemistry instructor whose first lecture included to the old ‘earth is just right for us’ chestnut.

  17. “pat all creationists on the head and say, “Yes, that’s fine. You’re welcome to your belief. I don’t want to hurt your feelings.””

    At some point there will be enough ‘out atheists’ that this “You’re welcome to believe nonsense if it helps you feel better” approach will have a lot of power because it implies a lesser ‘Responsible Adult’ status for the believer…

    1. Breuning is a little ambiguous about her stance on creationism. First she says (or implies) that she wasn’t really aware that religious fundamentalists reject evolution (really?) In her world, religious people all thought God worked through evolution. So that’s the group atheists shouldn’t be attacking.

      But then her example of the old lady who said “isn’t it nice that God created that” suggests that she IS including creationism (unless the elderly female senior citizen meant God created that adaption.) Or, perhaps, that we ought to forbear against the Little People of Creationism (like little old ladies.) Or maybe Breuning thinks that the forum was just too darn friendly. it would be like bringing politics up at a kiddies birthday party. Or something.

      In general, Accomodationism isn’t about making nicey-nice with Creationists. They intrude into science. Accomodationists want to keep overt religion out of science and politics. We agree on that.

      Accomodationism is about making nicey-nice with theistic evolutionists and theists who respect the separation of church and state. And by nicey-nice they mean “praise them for their enlightened stance and leave the God crap alone because who cares?” We don’t agree there.

      That’s why they want to frame us as going into coffee shops, knocking into strangers wearing religious jewelery, and grabbing them by the throat till they hear our arguments. ‘Cuz there’s nothing halfway between. We’re such extremists.

      No accomodationist would ever approve of “You’re welcome to believe nonsense if it helps you feel better.” The word “nonsense” is too loaded and hostile. The ideal would be “I don’t agree, but I sincerely respect your right to believe whatever helps you feel better and that’s why I hate Dawkins just as much as you do! *hugs*”

      It’s not True Accomodationism unless you also throw gnu atheists under the bus.

      1. I think there’s actually a variety and range of accommodationist positions from soft to hard. I don’t think an accommodationist necessarily dislikes Dawkins.

        One can simply think there’s a time and place to be accommodating and a time and place to be more confrontational.

        1. I agree. The problem is that as far as I can tell all the other gnu atheists agree too — with perhaps some quibbling over where the lines are drawn. It’s a continuum with all sorts of confounding factors in each situation.

          The view that we don’t — that all gnu atheists are as confrontational as possible all of the time — might be one of the signs of Hard Accomodationism 😉

  18. My comments might be trollish… What is one to do when a conversation with a creationist progresses to the point where the creationist accepts the loan of WEIT, then claims to have read the book but obviously has not done so? This happened to me recently. The creationist flatly stated that WEIT was anti-christian, but could not cite examples or recall any information in the book. If they refuse to read a book, but claim to have done so, what is one to do?

    “The fact is that Breuning didn’t have to attack the old lady (who is not going to be converted anyway); she could have simply said, “Well, scientists have lots of evidence that animals and plants weren’t created but evolved. I’d be glad to recommend a book on that.” (MINE!!!).”

    1. IMO the appropriate response is to someone who is lying for Jesus is to point out that they are lying for Jesus. If a believer isn’t willing to interact honestly, then there’s no point in trying to interact at all.

      I actually had a similar experience. In my case an old high school friend (from the 60s, to date myself) simply evaporated from the social space in which we had interacted (Facebook). I guess it was easier for him to disappear than engage in honest conversation.

    2. If they refuse to read a book, but claim to have done so, what is one to do?

      Express concern for their reading comprehension and memory and ask them if they’re worried that the same problem might have happened when they read the Bible. Tell them that now you’re worried about that one, too. Maybe there’s a psychological block? Just a suggestion.

      Offer to help them with one or two of the passages in WEIT which they’ve had problems with, reminding that there is no shame in needing help. You’re a humanist. It’s okay.

      There’s no aggression quite like passive aggression.

    3. I guess it depends what your goals are.
      If this is someone you want to or need to converse with on a regular basis, I would just avoid bringing up scientific topics and if they try to do so, I would flatly tell them that since they won’t examine evidence scientifically, I’m not interested in discussing scientific subjects with them.
      OTOH, if you still hold out some hope for them, maybe you can discuss scientific things that don’t impinge on the Bible, and then slyly point out how evidence was collected and evaluated to arrive at conclusions. If you can get them to better understand how science actually works, maybe you can bring them around to accept evolution later.

    4. Why not directly confront them: Come on, you didn’t read the book or you would remember fact X. Why didn’t you read it, does it make you uncomfortable? Did your local clergyman threaten your soul’s safety if you would?

    5. Thanks to all for the advice. At this point I would really just like my book back. I have little time for anyone who wishes to remain willfully ignorant. I will confine my conversations with this person to less intellectual discussions. Unfortunately this type of behavior is the norm for creationist. They didn’t reason themselves into fundamentalism… Just like Hamm telling Nye that no evidence could change his mind about the authenticity of biblical creationism.

      1. Ask for the book back. If they evade, and TrueChristians have been known to try to keep books they don’t agree with to destroy, tell them you hope that they aren’t considering keeping it without compensating you aka stealing.

        If you get your book back, take a moment to show them a passage or two since they are right there. “I’m sorry, you must have missed this part….”

      2. I hope you get the book back.

        When dealing with creationists, I almost never get into the specific science of evolution anymore. As you and others realize, that’s not really the issue for them.

        Instead, I focus on the fact that they have thrown out faith, made a Test for God, and have chosen to do so by picking something with a scientific consensus on the other side of their hypothesis. Let us explore all those implications together and see where we go …

    6. Keep a kindle version of WEIT on your tablet or laptop. When the creationist flatly states that WEIT is anti-christian, pull it out, open up the book and ask, “Where?”

  19. “Can we talk about this without the good guys/bad guys thing” and “let’s all cool down”.

    She does not get it.

    “Let’s all cool down” = “stop pointing out where I was wrong”. It’s a silencing tactic.

    And “good guys/bad guys”? Trying to correct harmful delusions is just a way of playing good guys/bad guys? Did she not read Michael’s full comment? If the effects of religion were limited to litte old ladies at the zoo thanking god for biodiversity none of us would care.

  20. I always understood zoos as a kind of museum, a place where one goes to learn, reflect, etc. (And perhaps other things, but at least that.) So what sort of museum guide doesn’t work to help visitors understand what they are experiencing?

    1. I would imagine the zoo does not wish to antagonize its guests. If I were a docent there and a visitor expressed a belief that God guided evolution in certain directions, I’d probably just shut my trap, too. If someone insisted that every species was individually created, I might point out that over 99% of all species are extinct, so it seems to be a pretty inefficient form of creation, but then I’d probably shut up at that point.

  21. Quite frankly I couldn’t make sense of her article and her comments made even less sense. Her comments did not help her article which made it appear even more muddled rather then clarifying. For a while I thought perhaps I was just stupid, or wasn’t getting enough sleep.

    I have arthritis (ankylosing spondylitis) and most of the time I’m sleep deprived, sometimes worse then usual. I try not to post then because I get cranky and stupid, but sometimes I can’t help myself, because, well, I get cranky and stupid. Perhaps she has a similar problem and her ego is getting in the way of admitting it. I’ve been known to have that problem too.

    I agree, there were a good many thoughtful comments, some excellent, many better then my own. None of them topped Mr. Coyne’s contributions here on his site.
    I thought a few people got a little disrespectful, but they were a very small minority I’m glad to say.

    Unfortunately, she seems to think that discussion equals disrespect, at least when it comes to atheists. She also seems to think we attack little old ladies on the street, at funerals and at the store if they dare to mention religion or God.

    The vast majority of us don’t, and think it would be disrespectful. But being respectful goes both ways. It doesn’t mean we are door mats.

    For the record, I haven’t berated and beaten any little old ladies at the zoo or anywhere else for at least a week. And I finally stopped eating babies thanks to Baby Eaters Anonymous. I just had to admit that I’m powerless to stop eating babies.

  22. Remember, disagreeing with or criticizing a Christian or their beliefs is “attacking”. Misrepresenting atheists by using absurd strawmen is just “semantics”.

  23. This is all very worrisome — this incessant fixation on “atheism” as an identifier, as a group with a membership. The reason is very simple: it is entirely possible to be an irrational atheist. That is to say, it is entirely possible to accept as true a particular metaphysics (namely one in which supernatural entities don’t exist) for epistemologically *bad* reasons. I have met many atheists myself — nominally the same as me — who, when asked *why* they believe what they believe, don’t have a good answer; who say “Well, I just like the community better” [a matter of taste], or “Well, I’m a scientist and all my friends are atheists” [an instance of social conformity], or “Well, religion just never worked for me” [a pragmatic rather than epistemological reason].

    If one can accept atheism for bad reasons, and one certainly can, then establishing alliances with others simply because they identify as atheists is totally misguided. It misses the point. Alliances should be formed on the basis of *the extent to which one’s beliefs are supported by the totality of available evidence*, and that’s it.

    In this way, the comment posted above totally misses the point. So what if atheists have never showed up at your doorstep! Certainly, they could. You can hold that supernatural beings are non-existent and also, at the same time, think that poisonous snakes aren’t poisonous. There is nothing about atheism that prevents such a mixture of beliefs.

    If fundamentalism is the position according to which one holds one’s beliefs without any possibility of changing them, then an atheist could indeed be a fundamentalist. Observe: “God doesn’t exist and there’s nothing you can say to change my mind. Ever.” The atheist who says this (and note that there is nothing about atheism *itself* that prevents such an attitude, or even inclines one towards fallibilism) isn’t any closer to my own position than the dogmatic Muslim. This whole focus, quite salient on this blog I’m sorry to say, on *being a member* of the group “Atheist” is very disheartening to people like myself who ultimately care about living in a more *reasonable* world.

    In my view, a reasonable world would indeed (almost certainly) be an atheistic one, but an atheistic world need not be reasonable at all. Epistemology, not group identity, needs to the focus. The commenter above totally misses this.

    [this was originally posted under the first image above; I’m reposting it here — my apologies!]

    1. In this way, the comment posted above totally misses the point. So what if atheists have never showed up at your doorstep! Certainly, they could.

      I think you’ve missed the point. It doesn’t matter if atheists can hypothetically do all the things which fundamentalists do — including ringing doorbells in a thought experiment. Loretta Breuning wasn’t doing a thought experiment. Nor was she tsk-tsking about a small minority of atheist outliers whom you and I and Jerry and the rest of us here would agree that gosh, yes — that sure is a dogmatic atheist. Atheism itself doesn’t technically preclude dogmatism. Right.

      But she wasn’t getting technical. Though she didn’t use the term, Breuning was more or less criticizing New Atheism. Atheists who don’t smugly wear the “Live and Let Live” accomodationist badge around nonfundamentalist theists are Bad Guys creating a war where there need be none. They should shut up.

      She meant us.

      So no.

      1. Sastra: I think you make some very good points, but I don’t see how they pertain to what I wrote.

        My comment wasn’t specifically about the Breuning article (although this is how the whole conversation got started). As I mention in the very beginning of my post, I’m commenting on the “savvy and literate” response that Jerry chose to post above. That post repeatedly talks about atheists, atheists, atheists, and what those atheists that Michael (the commenter) do and don’t do (as far as he “knows”). This fixation on group identity (and the various contingent properties of this group, like not knocking on doors and shouting from street corners) is misguided, and in my experience as a long-time follower of this blog is a conspicuous feature of Why Evolution is True’s approach. The main authors here care a lot about the atheistic worldview, which often occludes an alternative campaign that could focus on the epistemological foundations of good belief. (In other words: atheism, atheism, atheism.)

        Also, and relatedly, if fundamentalism is construed epistemologically (as it certainly can be), then there is absolutely nothing whatsoever about atheism itself that precludes one from being a fundamentalist. This is again one reason for Jerry *not* to laud posts, like the one above, that focus almost entirely on group identity / membership, and what those members happen, contingently, to be like.

        I think your last paragraph is right on, Sastra. Do you agree that focusing on atheism itself — a particular model of reality that includes only the natural — is a mistake? Do you think it’s possible to accept this metaphysics as true for epistemologically bad reasons?

        1. I still think you’ve missed the point because as far as I can tell the atheist group which is being discussed by all parties concerned is not “atheists” in general, but gnu atheists in particular. A particular form of atheism.

          As you point out, that first category is as broad as possible and can include many people who are atheists for bad reasons, as well as atheists who qualify as fundamentalists or anti-humanists or even anti-science.

          But the atheists who are being bashed and then being defended appear to be the outspoken science-based humanist atheists who are NOT going to be guilty of these potential inconsistencies (without an inconsistency.) I think it’s pretty clear from context that Michael and Jerry are talking about what gnu atheists do and don’t do because we are the subject. Getting off on a tangent to disqualify Stalin or someone somewhere who might conceivably go around knocking on doors is unnecessary (and a bit pedantic.)

          Do you think it’s possible to accept this metaphysics (naturalism) as true for epistemologically bad reasons?

          Of course.

    2. Observe: “God doesn’t exist and there’s nothing you can say to change my mind. Ever.” The atheist who says this (and note that there is nothing about atheism *itself* that prevents such an attitude, or even inclines one towards fallibilism) isn’t any closer to my own position than the dogmatic Muslim.

      Is it dogma to state that there’s nothing that could conceivably convince me of the existence of a married bachelor?

      As defined by theists, the gods are all either primitive pre-scientific superstitions (the rain-bringers, etc.) or self-contained contradictions (the tri-omni gods of the different Abrahamic religions). That this should be so is trivially obvious once one realizes that, objectively, the gods are merely plot devices in a certain class of fiction — entities whose sole purpose is to do that which cannot be done, and, by so doing, demonstrate their superiority. That fictional superiority is then leveraged by the priests as the basis of their own power in a confidence scam as old as civilization itself.

      So how on Earth could I possibly per persuaded that thunder really is the sound of Mjölnir, or that Jesus is all-knowing despite being unable to solve the Halting Problem?

      As the saying goes, it’s all well and good to keep an open mind, but not one so open that your brains fall out.



          1. No! Outside! The windows were closed. I’m just lucky they weren’t all smashed as Thor passed by.

      1. Ben wrote:

        As defined by theists, the gods are all either primitive pre-scientific superstitions (the rain-bringers, etc.) or self-contained contradictions (the tri-omni gods of the different Abrahamic religions).

        Oh, you are such an optimist! As defined by theists, there are almost as many kinds of gods as … well, I was going to say ‘theists’ but that may be too pessimistic. Let’s just say it’s not two.

        I’ll grant you that genuine self-contradictions are out of the game, but the primitive pre-scientific superstitions are almost too easy to imagine evidence for. It’s just harder to imagine that they are true AND our current understanding of science also holds. Just like I can imagine many things which would change my mind and convince me that the earth is flat. If I have to conceive of doing this today, however — as opposed to some hypothetical situation where all current knowledge is wiped and I become convinced through the scientific discovery that the earth is flat — then we’re getting into major conspiracy theories, powerful space aliens, and/or Matrix territory.

        1. Yes — exactly.

          Once upon a time, it could perhaps have turned out to have been true that the Olympians were real. Or, more precisely, what we understood about the world was not inconsistent with real Olympians.

          But we know so much more now — to the point that all miracles of all types belong in the same bin as Helios’s chariot. Ever since Newton it’s been indefensible to claim miraculous intervention for the motions of celestial bodies. Ever since Darwin it’s been equally indefensible to claim miraculous intervention for the origin of species. In the centuries since, we’ve slammed shut the door on all the rest of the miracles of the gods, as well as on any other miracles somebody might care to invent in the future.

          …again, with the ever-present impossible-even-for-gods-to-dismiss possibility of conspiracy theories….


      2. b&:

        Yes, I totally agree that God could be (and often is, as in in the case of a truine God) defined in a logically contradictory way — and in such cases we can be as certain that “He” doesn’t exist as that a man simultaneously taller and shorter than 5 feet doesn’t exist. Thank you for bringing out what was implicit in my comment (and which I should have made explicit): *insofar* as God is not self-contradictory, it’s a matter of evidence and therefore probability. As such, absolutely certainty is out of the question.

        1. *insofar* as God is not self-contradictory, it’s a matter of evidence and therefore probability

          But that’s just it: all the gods are self-contradictory, at least insofar as the claims of their worshippers go. And that’s the whole point of the gods! They exist to do the impossible, whether that be the bringing of the rain or walking on water or creating Life, the Universe and Everything. The gods begin where possibility end, for they Shirley have no place within the realm of possibility. Would you worship a god whose claim to fame was that he could drink a glass of water without coming to harm except when it went down the worng pipe?

          The gods were never meant to be real, not even by those who propose them. Their whole point is to go beyond and transcend reality into realms inaccessible to mere mortals.

          Well, that’s all fine and dandy, and we have plenty of words to describe that which is not real. Unreal. Imaginary. Pretend. Fantasy. But, of course, using language such as that invalidates the other purpose of the gods: for the priests to cloak themselves in the powers of their gods and, in so doing, arrogate unto themselves the authority of the gods…which is why there’s such a long tradition of insistence on the parts of the priests and their patsies that one must have faith and believe in the impossible.

          …and this, of course, despite the overwhelming hard empirical evidence put forth by Epicurus centuries before the invention of Christianity that there just simply aren’t any powerful entities with the best interests of humanity. If there are any powerful entities, they don’t give a damn about humans; if there are any entities that care about us, they’re utterly powerless to do anything about it. Of that you can be as certain as that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning; the evidence really is that ironclad.

          So, again: keep your open mind, but don’t let your brains fall out. Unless you think “it’s a matter of evidence and therefore probability” that perhaps Helios really does have something to do with the Sun’s motion across the sky — in which case you’re in dire need of the help of a qualified mental health professional — there’s no point in hedging about any of the other gods.



    3. Well, you started off well, but came adrift quite badly…

      “This whole focus, quite salient on this blog I’m sorry to say, on *being a member* of the group ‘Atheist’”

      I don’t think you’ve been paying attention then. The focus here is on valuing reason and evidence — science, broadly defined – as a way of fundamentally (ha!) understanding how the world works.


    4. @ 26 Baobab
      “If one can accept atheism for bad reasons, and one certainly can, ”

      I don’t understand this at all. The idea that there are bad reasons to accept atheism seems silly to me. Why does one need any reason at all, let alone a “good” reason? It seems to me one needs reasons to believe, rather than not believe. For myself, I was raised in a non-believing household, and I’ve never seen any reasons that would make me believe. If someone asked me why I don’t believe in God, I suppose I would say, “Why should I?” or, “because it’s stupid,” or something equally obnoxious. Are these “bad” reasons to accept atheism?

  24. Breuning’s answer to pervasive creationism is apparently to let creationists retain their beliefs. Well, fine, but she should realize that OTHERS ARE WATCHING, as they were on the zoo tour. Silence in that case was complicity with the “old lady’s” creationism. How on Earth are we going to engage creationists without criticizing and dissecting their claims?

    Yes, that anecdote revealed a great deal about the way Breuning thinks. Notice what she wrote: “I explained an animal adaptation while giving a zoo tour. One old lady said, “isn’t it nice how god created that.” The rest of the group just thought, “why not let an old lady have a comforting belief.””

    The rest of the group thought?

    How does she know what the rest of the group thought? Did she ask them? Take a poll? No, she just assumed everyone standing around her was thinking the exact same thing she was thinking without bothering to check. She seems to assume a lot of things.

    1. Good point. Even in her imagination she sees her own view as the mainstream standard and the religious view as a sort of eccentric but harmless quirk.

      If the rest of the group was actually thinking “isn’t it nice that someone finally spoke up against that pathetic know-it-all evolutionary atheist” or “why not let someone with more wisdom and humility tell it like it really is?” would this change the story?

      1. Ivory Tower syndrome, I suppose. She’s been surrounded too long by academics. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I consider anyone who holds the opinion that human beings are “basically reasonable” to be hopelessly out of touch.

      2. there is little doubt that she suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. the vanity publications are a clue.

        1. It’s possible — but I think there’s a lot of room for doubting a clinical diagnosis made by a non-expert over the internet based on flimsy evidence — “clues.” We’re safer saying she appears to be a bit too arrogant or self-absorbed.

  25. “passerby’s”

    Augh! The plural of “passerby” is “passersby”–not “passerbys” and certainly not “passerby’s”! 🙂

    I applaud the commenter’s clear and extensive articulation of the many ways in which atheists are not at all like religious fundamentalists. Nonetheless, I cannot allow improper plurals and abuse of the apostrophe to slide.

    1. Ah, the Racerunner is Chief of the WPP (Word and Punctuation Police)? Hey, Prof. Ceiling Cat, da rules…

  26. I agree with the comments about atheists not pushing their views on others. The number of times I have been approached by religious people is many times. My response is always the same when i tell them that if I am interested in joining their group then I know where to find them and that I do not appreciate people coming to my door or stopping me in the street.

  27. So first she knowingly uses the words like fundamentalists, sects, religion with the sole purpose to insult atheists, and now she backs down claiming she was misunderstood because of semantics?

    How lame.

  28. When religion had the POWER, we would all be burn’t at the stake for saying the earth wasn’t created in six days. So no peaceful way to stop their silliness!

  29. I liked the comment from the ‘conservative atheist’ who claimed that ‘liberal atheists’ were in essence just like how ‘fundamentalist’ atheists were described in the article.

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