Dan Arel, trying to show that New Atheists are white supremacists, lies about New Atheists

July 14, 2017 • 11:00 am

A while back, Dan Arel, who labels himself an “author, journalist, and activist” was a rational man—and an atheist. Then somehow he jumped the rails, following C. J. W*rl*m*n in his misguided and vicious misrepresentation of New Atheism.  Now Arel’s lost not just his cool, but his rationality, flailing about at his enemies like a bull pricked by a picador. Arel’s new schtick is that New Atheists are all a bunch of bigots, Islamophobes and white supremacists—morally and tactically in the same league as Nazis and right-wing Trumpites.

The Dissolution of Arel is on view in at (appropriately), The New Arab, in a smear piece called “New atheism’s move from Islamophobia to white racism” (I hate linking to this, but feel obligated to). Read it for yourself: he paints not only Sam Harris and Dave Rubin as “white supremacists,” but can’t resist putting me in that camp:

Rubin, like Harris, doesn’t bring these guests on to challenge their views, but instead to give credibility to their previously held biases. Both hosts claim to defend the “free market of ideas”, yet only support one side of those ideas – and that side is chalk [sic] full of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the like.

The rest of the movement is full of defenders of this practice – such as retired biology professor Jerry Coyne, who recently attacked Mother Jones for calling Rubin part of the “right’s independent media personalities”.

Yeah, I’m a huge defender of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. (I note that Rubin, Harris, and I are all secular Jews, which doesn’t give us a lot of cred for being white supremacists!) But put that aside, for I want to note that Arel, in this nasty hit piece, has repeated the recent and widespread slander about Sam Harris, misrepresenting words Sam said on his podcast with Maajid Nawaz.


Harris even more recently went as far as to ask: “What is the [expletive] point of having more Muslims in your society? It seems perfectly rational to say, we don’t want any more. We have enough. And certainly increasing the percentage is not a help to anyone who loves freedom of speech and anything else, any of the other liberal values.”

This came during a discussion on his podcast with Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz. During the show Harris argued that US immigration policy would need to figure “out some way to keep the number of Muslims down in any society, whether we’re honest about this or whether we do this covertly. Clearly it’s rational to want to do this.”

While this still reeks of Harris’ previous anti-Muslim rhetoric, it is also a prominent white nationalist talking point. He even went on to say he knows someone like neo-Nazi Richard Spencer would agree.

Arel’s link is to an Alternet piece, but if you went to Harris’s podcast itself, and listened to the discussion starting at 1:10:50, you’ll see that Harris is posing a hypothetical question to Nawaz, espousing sentiments that Harris doesn’t believe. He’s trying to see how Nawaz would react to the hypothetical. This quote by Sam has been used all over the Internet as evidence of Harris’s Islamophobia and bigotry, but it’s taken completely out of context by many, including Reza Aslan and now Arel.  I posted on this egregious cherry-picking not long ago.

Arel fancies himself a journalist, but he’s guilty of either not doing his homework, or (my guess) deliberate distortion. And really, “New Atheism” is full of white nationalists? What a crock!

I’ve responded at that site to Arel’s lies:

And another commenter reminds us of what Arel said less than eight months ago:

I found this one, too:

Sounds like extremist New Atheism! And Islamophobia! Even I wouldn’t say “Fuck Islam”!

Poor Dan.

For more on the pervasive misrepresentation of Sam Harris, see the Areo Magazine article by Malhar Mali, “The Sam Harris Outrage Industry“. One quote:

Until very recently, it was utterly perplexing to witness supposedly rational people reveling in the fanatical joys of degrading someone who has defied any accepted norms of thought or speech regarding the issue of Islamism, but now it’s commonplace enough to be something nearer to sadly boring. Harris’ mistreatment is but one good example of the fate awaiting those who wish even to approach the periphery of this debate. I have watched with growing trepidation: Douglas Murray called a “hate preacher” by Massoud Shadjareh on the BBC; Maajid Nawaz (astoundingly) labelled a “Porch Monkey” by Murtaza Hussain; the late Christopher Hitchens considered a bigot for his strong stance against Islam and the ludicrous notion of “Islamophobia.” These are only the most well known instances. Ex-Muslims and liberal Muslims are constantly defamed for questioning Islam or seeking to implement some type of change.

(By the way, they’re doing a Patreon to support Areo, so check out Areo, and if you like it, you might consider kicking in a few bucks.)

The crazies reveal themselves

May 20, 2017 • 10:00 am

As Grania predicted, it was only a matter of time until Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s “hoax” article on the conceptual penis was construed as hate speech by Regressive Leftists—even though the reviewers and the journal saw the paper as pro-feminist and progressive.

And, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades, we have our first Offended Person, flailing his horns around like a bull stuck by a picador:





The poor lad was SO infuriated he even thought that hoax paper was written by DAWKINS!

But wait–there’s more!

You will find other attacks on Boghossian and Lindsay on the thread of my original post. Bleeding Heart Libertarians published a critique of this hoax, calling it a “big cock up” because the journal was poor, but they missed the point, a point that one prescient commenter made:

I don’t know what all this proves, but it’s entertaining, like a soap opera unfolding.

Finally, for those misguided souls who argued that a publication in a substandard journal doesn’t prove anything, and that the standard of scholarship in other feminist or culture studies journals is high, see here, here, here, and here.

Atheist Noam Chomsky disses New Atheists

April 11, 2017 • 10:00 am

Noam Chomsky, linguist, writer, and political activist, has long admitted—is “admitted” the right word now?—that he’s an atheist. Nevertheless, according to the Ideapod and Attack the System blogs, he has no love for the ideas of New Atheists. These quotes appear to be about ten years old, but I thought they were worth reproducing here.

(Note: the quotes appear identically in two places, but I haven’t been able to ascertain the original source.  They might come from a series of videos featuring Chomsky at the University of Wisconsin, but I haven’t had time to go through them all. If the quotes aren’t accurate I’ll simply withdraw my responses.) Here we go:

As an atheist myself, I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment. First, none of the prominent ones are genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists who can, for instance, examine the cultural, historical, literary, or linguistic contexts in which the varying parts of the Bible were written to provide an explanation of why fundamentalist biblical literalists are, well, mistaken and ignorant. There are plenty of genuine scholars of religion whose work examines religious beliefs and sacred texts within their proper framework, such as Robert Price, John Loftus, Daniel Barker, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, and D.M. Murdoch. These are the skeptics who are worth paying attention to.

Earlier in the quotes (not shown), Chomsky mentions Hitchens, but I’m sure he also has Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in mind. And yes, people like Price and Dan Barker were steeped in religion as erstwhile believers, and have attended seminary or worked as ministers, and so know the Bible, but I contend that one can forcefully criticize the truth claims of religion without such a background. After all, just ask any Christian two questions: “What is the evidence for your beliefs?” and “How do you know that your religion, as opposed to Hinduism, Islam, or Mormonism, is the correct religion?” Any intelligent laymen who isn’t a religious scholar can still take apart those arguments.

Further, explaining the context of how the Bible was written is not going to convince fundamentalists that they’re “mistaken and ignorant”. That may show the rest of us that they are, but we already know that, and that’s not the main goal of New Atheism.

True, scholars like Price, Loftus, and Ehrman have more ammunition than most of us.  They may know more than we, for instance, about how there’s no extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of a Jesus person, or that archaeologists find no evidence for the Exodus. But to a large degree this exegesis and historical reconstruction is unnecessary. For the task of New Atheism is different from the task of religious scholars, cultural anthropologists, and so on. The brief of New Atheists is to examine (and thus dispel) the evidence undergirding religious beliefs, and to call attention to the harms of believing in the absence of good evidence. That is, our job is to show that faith of any sort, but especially religious faith, is not a virtue.

The task of the others is narrower: to examine (and dispel when necessary) claims of scripture, to find out who wrote religious scripture and when the Bible, Qur’an, etc. were written, who copied who, and to dissect the historical origins of religious belief. All of that can promote nonbelief, but for most it’s not their explicit aim. If you’re concerned with skepticism, as Chomsky seemed to be, The God Delusion is in fact a more powerful argument for nonbelief than are the narrower (but still often excellent) writings of, say, Bart Ehrman. And, in fact, writers like Loftus and Barker often make arguments that are identical to those of New Atheists like the “four horsemen.” What Chomsky is doing here is raising the Credentials Argument without realizing that it’s largely irrelevant to New Atheists.

He goes on:

Second, they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever. See Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, and Mencken.

Note that none of these people were “genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists”!

And no, New Atheists don’t conflate atheism with a political viewpoint; it just happens that most New Atheists are on the Left. I’m not aware of any of the big voices in new atheism deliberately conflating nonbelief with politics in an “intersectional way,” though some, like P. Z. Myers, insist that “proper” atheism must go along with a particular left-wing ideology. For most of the rest of us, atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods and the tenets of religion. And some of us, like me, feel that promoting nonbelief will be speeded up by changing society in progressive ways.

Third, like the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.

This old canard doesn’t deserve refutation. Suffice it to say that the writings and talks of New Atheists have indeed changed the minds of thousands of people, and they’ve admitted in in places like Dawkins’s “Converts Corner”. In contrast, I doubt that Chomsky has ever turned a single believer into a nonbeliever! The “antagonism” and “bigot” cards are simply played by those who can’t answer New Atheist arguments, and raising those is unworthy of Chomsky.

NOTE ADDED LATER: It’s possible that up to this point I haven’t been quoting Chomsky, but Keith Preston, whose name is given on this post from Attack the System. (I say this because there’s a line between the quotes above and those below. I haven’t yet been able to check the attribution to Chomsky. If the quotes above are from Preston, consider my refutation that of Preston’s ideas, not Chomsky’s.

Chomsky goes on:

. . . I haven’t been thrilled by the atheist movement. First, who is the audience? Is it religious extremists? Say right-wing evangelical Christians like George Bush (as you rightly point out)? Or is it very prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)? Or is it the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been Washington’s most valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years (note that Bush’s current trip to the Middle East celebrates two events: the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 75th anniversary of establishment of US-Saudi relations, each of which merits more comment)? If those are the intended audiences, the effort is plainly a waste of time. Is the audience atheists? Again a waste of time. Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven? If so, only the most morally depraved will deliver solemn lectures to her about the falsity of her beliefs. Is it those who have religious affiliations and beliefs, but don’t have to be reminded of what they knew as teenagers about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literal truths, or that religion has often been the banner under which hideous crimes were carried out (the Crusades, for example)? Plainly not. The message is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds. Who, in fact, is the audience?

Here Chomsky says, wrongly, that believers already know that the Bible isn’t literally true or that religious scriptures inspired violence (viz., Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong). Chomsky’s wrong. Literalism is the watchword of most Muslims and many Christians: millions of Americans believe in the literal truth of Genesis, the creation story, and Adam and Eve, and the Catholic Church insists that Adam and Eve were the real ancestors of all of us.

The audience for New Atheists is clear: those who are on the fence about religion, young people, and believers who are willing to be open-minded in examining their beliefs. This has been noted repeatedly by New Atheists. And none of us want to hector the “grieving mother”, for crying out loud! I’m surprised that someone of Chomsky’s considerable intelligence could write a paragraph like that.

Furthermore, if it is to be even minimally serious, the “new atheism” should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim — arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. In brief, to be minimally serious the “new atheism” should begin by looking in the mirror.

Without going on, I haven’t found it thrilling, though condemnation of dangerous beliefs and great crimes is always in order.

Here Chomsky is demanding an intersectional atheism aligned with his own political stansd. There is no necessary connection between believing in God and your views of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. What Chomsky is doing here is simply asserting that atheists shouldn’t engage in extend to “state worship.” While there is a psychological connection between, say, the manipulation of people by religion and by the ideologies of Stalinism and Nazism, it’s by no means clear that adhering to U.S. policy, or generally to a government’s agenda, is “secular state worship.”

I needn’t go on; we all know that sometimes Chomsky goes off the rails, blinded by his own “religious” desire to blame America for all the world’s wrongs.

h/t: Nicole Reggia

David Sloan Wilson: There is a god, and it’s the “superorganism” of insect colonies and group-selected humans

December 5, 2016 • 12:38 pm

David Sloan Wilson is known as an ardent promoter of group selection, the evolutionary idea that the unit of selection is not the gene or individual, but groups of individuals whose differential extinction and reproduction (group “splitting”) can give rise to traits that are maladaptive within groups, like purely altruistic behavior. (E. O. Wilson, not a relative of D. S., shares this view). But Wilson’s many attempts to push this view haven’t won over most evolutionists, for we have very little evidence that this kind of selection has occurred in nature. I won’t dwell on the group selection debate today; if you want to see a good critique of the idea, read Steve Pinker’s excellent Edge Essay, “The false allure of group selection.

D. S. Wilson is also engaged in other enterprises promoting his view of evolution, particularly his website The Evolution Insittute, which, along with his other projects, has been generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. And, as with so many Templeton fundees, Wilson shows the expected weakness for religion. After all, that’s what Templeton loves, since Sir John T. started the Foundation as a vehicle for showing that science gives evidence for God. And although Wilson himself is an atheist, he osculates faith on a regular basis.

Case in point, his new essay on  “Does a God exist? Actually, yes.” Now that’s weird for an atheist, right? Well, not for a Templeton-funded atheist. But what is the kind of God that Wilson envisions if not the theistic one?

Before getting to his god, Wilson disposes of several others, including a theistic God that intervenes in the universe. (Wilson does say that it’s possible that a nonfunctional and vestigial deistic God could exist.) He then looks for other kinds of gods using these definitions (his emphasis):

God (or Goddess): A superhuman being worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes.

Worship: An act of devotion, usually directed toward a deity. The word “worship” is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning honor shown to an object, which has been etymologised as “worthiness or worth-ship”—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.

Well what could qualify as a god that can be worshiped if not a theistic one? Wilson brings up the Gaia Hypothesis of Lovelock, the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating “superorganism” in which both living creatures and their physical environment are coadapted—and self-regulating—in a way to keep life safely and happily on our planet. Wilson properly dismisses this idea, which I’ve never found to have any merit, as it’s quasi-teleological, lacks a mechanism for the self-regulation, and is susceptible to evolutionary changes in organisms that are detrimental to other organisms or to their environment.

So Gaia is not a god.  But Wilson manages to find one! And, mirabile dictu, it turns out to be the “superorganisms” that comprise social insects and humans, and Wilson’s own line of work. Here’s what he says:

Superorganisms do exist, even if the whole earth does not qualify as one. Scientists agree that social insect colonies such as bees, ants, wasps and termites qualify as superorganisms because they are products of between-colony selection. The general rule is that any biological unit acquires the properties that we associate with “organism” when it is a unit of selection. Organisms and social insect colonies qualify and the whole earth does not.

Is it accurate to say that honeybees worship their hive? If by worship we mean subordinating ones [sic] own interest to the interest of a larger whole, then honeybees do worship their hives and the cells in our bodies worship us. If we wish to define worship in a way that requires conscious intent, then it would be a more distinctively human phenomenon. It is fascinating to note that religious believers themselves often compare their communities to bodies and beehives, as in this quote from the Hutterites, a Christian sect that leads a highly communal lifestyle:

“True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.”

Well, the notion that social insects are products of between-colony selection is controversial at best. To most evolutionists eusociality—insect societies that have castes, some of which are usually sterile—are explained more easily by kin selection: the relatedness of ancestral social insects to their offspring, who may have stayed in the same nest (with that relatedness enforced by the haplodiploid genetic condition of Hymenoptera). And kin selection is not “group selection”—at least not in a way that makes individuals “subordinate their own interest to the interest of the larger whole (the nest or hive).” In fact, what happens is that genes in individuals that reduce their own reproduction but still enhance their propagation through queens or other individuals leave more copies than “selfish” genes that allow workers to reproduce. There is no “worshiping”, even in this sense. To even use the term “worship” in this way is invidious—an unconscionable nod to religion. And if bees worship their hive by subordinating their own genetic interests to the whole (they don’t), then soldiers worship their army and volunteer firemen, who often die in the line of duty, worship the fire station.

But wait! It gets worse. For Wilson believes, without the slightest evidence, that humans are also “superorganisms,” with many of our behaviors (especially altruistic ones) shaped by group selection. (E. O. Wilson proffered the same thesis in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, which I reviewed—not positively—in the Times Literary Supplement. You can see a copy of my review here.) When you read the bit below, remember that Wilson’s statement that “small groups [of humans] are thought to have been units of selection,” really means “I, D. S. Wilson, think that small groups of humans were the units of selection”:

Recently, the concept of superorganisms has been extended to human evolution. Small groups are thought to have been units of selection, in the same way as single organisms of solitary species and social insect colonies. Individuals work on behalf of others and their group as a whole, sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they are morally obligated even if they don’t want to. Do such individuals worship their groups? This strikes me as a valid statement, based on the face value definition of “worship” and its etymological origin. Moreover, when people worship gods of their own construction, these gods are usually symbolic representations of their groups, as Durkheim proposed long ago and a great deal of scientific evidence has affirmed since. The gods don’t exist in a literal sense, but the groups that they stand for do exist.

Today, there are innumerable cultural entities that deserve the status of superorganisms, at least crudely, because they have been units of selection. Some are called religions, others are called nations, and others are called corporations. All of them call upon their members to work on their behalf. Those that are not called religions often have the same trappings as religions and use the same lexicon of words. Kings are worshipped and often regarded as divine. In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article titled “The Market as God” the theologian Harvey Cox shows how Capitalism has all the trappings of a religion. The pantheon of superorganisms in modern life is like the pantheon of Hindu gods, some strong and others weak, some benign and others malevolent.

Well, I belong to a group of evolutionary biologists, but I don’t worship it. I belong to the University of Chicago faculty, but I don’t worship the University, either, though I like it. Do workers at Ford Motors worship their CEO? I doubt it. Yes, individuals do like belonging to groups (after all, we evolved in them), and sometimes make sacrifices for them, but more often then not we gain more than you lose by joining a group. Most human groups are not “superorganisms” in which members of a soccer club lose their well being for the greater glory of Manchester United, or workers at the Planters Peanut factory sacrifice their well being for the sake of Propagating Peanuts.  Just because one type of human group is religious, and believes in supernatural beings that must be propitiated (my definition of religion), doesn’t mean that all of them are religions or engage in the act of worship. And peanut companies aren’t supernatural.

In the end, Wilson jumps the rails by praising the work of the muddle-headed Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who had a teleological theory of human evolution. Humans, said Teilhard, were being propelled (by God) to some apex of perfection called “The Omega Point.” No such teleological forces have been identified, of course, and Teilhard is regarded by all thinking evolutionists as a crank.  (If you want to see a hilariously splenetic takedown of Teilhard’s views of human evolution, read Peter Medawar’s review of his book The Phenomenon of Man. Both Richard Dawkins and I think that this is the best review—in terms of dry humor and devastating criticism—ever written of a popular science book.)

By praising Teilhard’s book, and even the teleological idea of the Omega Point, Wilson completely jettisons his credibility:

Recent developments in evolutionary thinking called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis are overturning conventional wisdom that evolution is always undirected. The French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was prescient when he described humanity as just another species in some respects but a new process of evolution in other respects, which began as “tiny grains of thought” and then coalesced into larger and larger groups. Looking forward, Teilhard envisioned a single global consciousness called the Omega Point. The main updating required for Teilhard’s vision is to note that there is nothing inevitable about reaching the Omega Point. It is something that we must steer toward by mindfully selecting our practices with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. If this isn’t worshipping a Goddess that actually exists or can be brought into being, what would be?

Note to D. S. Wilson on the last sentence: no, it isn’t worshiping a Goddess. It’s just people trying to improve their lot.

Admittedly, here Wilson notes that the teleology might be not in the forces of evolution but in the hands of humans, who do act with purpose. But by noting that the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis says that evolution can be “directed” by something other than natural selection, Wilson is making a statement that is wrong. There is no such evidence, except perhaps perhaps the long-accepted view that evolution is restricted and channeled by developmental and genetic constraints. But what Wilson is talking about here are dubious ideas that evolution is “directed” by the organism evolving “evolvability”, producing mutations that are adaptive when needed, and creating a physiological system that, without being selected, can nevertheless respond adaptively to environmental change. Only a few outlier biologists have this view.

So we see in this piece Wilson acting deviously in two ways. First, he pretends that evolutionists agree that there are novel ways that evolution is directed—ways that severely violate modern evolutionary theory. More important, he gives people the idea that evolution itself has produced gods in the form of superorganisms that are “worshiped” by their constituent individuals. Both of these are misleading distortions: one of science and the other of society. What Wilson is doing, like so many of his Templeton-funded colleagues (viz. Martin Nowak at Harvard), is both promoting his own controversial biological agenda at the same time as he’s giving credibility to religion. This is a good case of natural theology: Wilson doesn’t believe in God, but he doesn’t mind using science to buttress those who do. Well played, Templeton!

JONATHAN COHEN/BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY David Sloan Wilson, a professor in Biological Sciences at Binghamton University, photographed Thursday, November 9, 2006.
JAC note: I didn’t pick this photo of D. S. Wilson to make him look weird. It’s the one he chose for his website. Photo by Jonathan Cohen, Binghamton University

h/t: Kit P.

A weird CfI workshop suggests that science is too laden with emotion and needs to adopt the more rigorous standards of “religious truth”. WTF?

October 11, 2016 • 10:45 am

I have to say that although I support the work of the Center for Inquiry in America, I haven’t been a huge fan of their organization. A while back they went through a repellant Social Justice Warrior phase (they seem to be recovering), and sometimes they do stuff that’s just plain weird. (By the way, this doesn’t hold for CfI Canada, which I support unreservedly.) Here is one example, brought to my attention by reader Gary. His comment:

I’m concerned about a strange sounding workshop from Center For Inquiry- Los Angeles.  It may be of interest to you, even for a note on your website.  If it is, I’d be very interested in your comments and comments from your readers.  The title is this:

Beyond Reductionism:
Confronting Both Religious Fundamentalism and Scientism to Be Better Freethinkers

And here’s the complete description of the two-day workshop, which costs $25. I’ve bolded a few bits.

All of us who value science and reason as indispensable remedies with which to challenge ignorance and largely emotional behavior around us take stable comfort in the power of scientific methodology to keep us safe from the biasing effects of human emotion. But in practice, can science itself fall prey to the same kinds of emotional pitfalls, fallacies, and even fanaticism we more often associate with religious literalists and fundamentalists? The word “scientism”—used to refer to any worldview that attempts to answer all human questions with science, often allegedly at the expense of other resources in the humanities—is considered an irritating but ultimately empty insult by many scientists.

However, given the capacity of every human being to be swayed by emotions and appearances in contrast to hard evidence, would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking? Is there not some value in working towards a common set of standards for meeting any of the foreseeable challenges and questions we may face as a species?

In this workshop, academic philosopher of science Dr. David Koepsell, author and professor specializing in the philosophy of religion J.I. Abbot, and phenomenologist and poet Dr. Charles Stein will lead panel discussions and small group sessions on the range of topics in the emerging “religion and science” field that can be food for thought in facing such present and future human hurdles. A keynote lecture by Dr. Stein on the evening of Friday, November 4, 7pm on the history and philosophy of science will set the parameters and tone for the exchanges to follow all day Saturday, November 5, from 9am to 4pm.

Now this sounds like a workshop funded by the John Templeton Foundation, though there’s no indication of Templeton dosh here. But in fact the description is invidious if not disingenuous: of course science can fall prey to emotional pitfalls. Many scientists are so wedded to their theories, which of course buttress their reputations, that they are loathe to give them up in the face of evidence. The debate between Brasier and Schopf on the supposed earliest microfossils are one example, as is Steve Gould’s unconscionable adherence to punctuated equilibrium as a mechanistic as well as a descriptive theory of evolution.

The thing is, though, that science has an inbuilt methodology to guard against such confirmation bias: the practice of testing assertions, of replication, of building consensus through reason and observation, and, above all, of doubt.

Religion has no such way to check the veracity of its claims. That’s why, of course, different religion have not only divergent claims, but conflicting ones. (How many gods are there? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the son of God/God, or just a prophet? Is evolution true? Is there an afterlife? A hell? Can women be priests? These are the questions that have repeatedly fractured religions into sects and cults over the last 20,000 years.) Religion is, as I argue in Faith Versus Fact, the very instantiation of confirmation bias. Yes, some religions can change their claims, like accepting evolution, but they do so only after science has shown these claims are wrong.

So it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims. Let me give you some news, Drs. Koepsell, Stein, and Abbot: religion has NO rigor in its truth claims, but an emotional commitment to deities and their will that lack any supporting evidence. It is science that has the hard standards, and religion that should adhere to the standards of science when adjudicating its claims.

Of course if religion did that, there wouldn’t be any religions—except for ones that don’t accept the supernatural. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hindusim—gone in a poof!

Now it’s possible that the “we” in the bit above means “rationalists and skeptics” rather than “all people, including believers.” If that’s the case, though, and the workshop is asking us to apply uniform standards of skepticism to all empirical claims, then my response is this: WE ALREADY DO! So what’s the point of this workshop?

This workshop is not just silly, but mendacious, insulting, and misguided. If I were a member of CfI, I’d complain bitterly about it.

Reader Gary added this comment:

I have always trusted CFI to stick to the rational, but this workshop makes me wonder.  The qualifications for the instructors include references such as “Western Mysticism and Esotericism” and “Indo-Tibetan thought”.  I find this very discouraging as I have been a paying member of CFI.
And I’ll put below the mission of CfI from its webpage. It certainly doesn’t comport with the workshop above!


New York Times column by atheist touts real miracles produced by incipient saints

September 7, 2016 • 11:00 am

We’ve already met Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, when, on NPR, she gave credence to “miracles” supposedly caused by a postmortem Mother Teresa. Duffin, an atheist, has studied the Vatican’s methods for ruling out naturalistic causes of the cures used to validate sainthood (it takes two such miracles), and she agrees with the Vatican’s assessment. These things have no naturalistic explanation, and thus are “miracles” by Duffin’s lights (see below).

Well, Duffin is dining out on her god-of-the-gaps arguments, for she has a new and similar piece, “Pondering miracles, medical and religious” in the Opinion section of the New York Times. Here she discusses a remission from acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which led to a woman’s long-term survival—an apparent cure.

This is very rare, but Dr. Alex Lickerman, a medical colleague of mine, combed the literature and found several examples of cures of AML without treatment (the “miracle” cure was accompanied by treatment, presumably chemotherapy). So these aren’t unknown, and there’s no mention of prayer in the other cases of cures. And, although Duffin claims that we can’t understand the cure she mentions, there are definite factors associated with remission and cures in the published cases. One is the specific mutation causing AML. The other is the presence of viral or bacterial infection: getting infection makes you more likely to have a remission or be cured. That’s presumably because those infections activate the immune system, which then fortuitously attacks the cancer cells. (In fact, one doctor tried “infection therapy” against AML, with perhaps some limited success.)

The correlation of spontaneous cures and remissions with particular mutations or infections suggests a naturalistic rather than a divine cause. After all, God and Mother Teresa should be able to cure all AMLs, not just particular types.

The bit that makes Duffin say her case is a genuine “miracle” is that after treatment the AML patient had a remission, then relapsed, was treated again, and had ANOTHER remission—this time a permanent one. She doesn’t know of any cases of double remission leading to cure, and indeed, there may not be any reported in the literature. But does that mean that, according to Hume’s principle, divine intercession is more likely that natural causes? I don’t think so. Even the most deadly diseases can sometimes spontaneously disappear, and since cases are so rare, we don’t know why. Again Duffin is falling into the God Gap: validating miracles because we don’t have a naturalistic explanation.

I’ll write more about this later, perhaps for another venue, but I want to quote a few paragraphs showing how credulous—and postmodern—Duffin is, to the extent of both dissing science and equating it with “faith.” Excerpts from her article are indented; my comments are flush left.

If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle. She had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care. The church finds no incompatibility between scientific medicine and religious faith; for believers, medicine is just one more manifestation of God’s work on earth.

I’m not sure why the importance of “the best of care”? Wouldn’t miracles be even more convincing without care? And why are the remissions always for diseases in which we know of spontaneous remissions and cures without prayer? After all, as has been pointed out repeatedly, we don’t see missing limbs and eyes regrown, yet miracles should be able to produce these as well. (“Why won’t God heal amputees?” is even a website!) That itself is one of the strongest arguments against medical miracles.

Duffin’s piece goes on (my emphasis throughout):

Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.

Note the bit in bold. Pure science-dissing, and I need say no more. But wait! There’s more!

I also learned more about medicine and its parallels with religion. Both are elaborate, evolving systems of belief. Medicine is rooted in natural explanations and causes, even in the absence of definitive evidence. Religion is defined by the supernatural and the possibility of transcendence. Both address our plight as mortals who suffer — one to postpone death and relieve symptoms, the other to console us and reconcile us to pain and loss.

More postmodernism: Science-based medicine is just another “system of belief”! Sorry, but there’s a huge difference about how we establish the “facts” in science versus in religion. You can read Faith Versus Fact to see the argument, or my Slate article “No faith in science.” Here we have, however, more postmodernism. Finally, Duffin’s last paragraph:

Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.

Notice the scare quotes around “facts”. This implies that religious facts, like miracle cures, are pretty much like scientific facts. The last sentence is both ludicrous and invidious, touting the po-mo principle that “lived experience” always denotes “truth.” Well, just because someone thinks a miracle is supernaturally based doesn’t make it so. They used to think that lightning and magnetism were supernatural phenomena, but we’ve learned otherwise. Were they once “miracles” but no longer? Here Duffin is mouthing words that have no substance behind them, but fall sweetly on the ears of believers and faitheists.

I discussed this article with a colleague who made some trenchant and critical remarks. Asked whether I could name him/her, the person responded:

How about my being identified as a thinly disguised anonymous colleague and friend, for plausible deniability should I ever need surgery?

And my colleague’s take, quoted with permission:

So how can an atheist, and a doctor, publish such tripe? It’s dangerous tripe, too, because people at the margins who read it could tilt their treatment (or worse, the treatment of their children) toward prayer rather than reality. Three things are going on here, I think:

  1. Many doctors don’t think like scientists. Professionally, they are descendants of medieval barber-surgeons and apothecaries, and at various times in the history of medicine, there have been efforts to inject scientific standards into the profession (including the urge for evidence-based medicine today—why isn’t that a tautology?).
  1. “The history of science” is largely a postmodernist discipline, and I wonder if that’s true of the history of medicine as well.
  1. The Second Culture of humanities-oriented public intellectuals is sentimentally attached to religion, perhaps because they think the enemy of their enemy (scientific thinking) is their friend.
  2. Note, too, the key conceptual confusion in the article:

a. Science can’t explain everything, because many phenomena in nature, particularly in biological systems, are stochastic, and scientists are not Maxwell’s demons who can keep track of the position and velocity of every molecule.

b. Science can’t explain everything, because there are occult phenomena in nature that are  beyond its reach.

Robert Wright’s rant against New Atheism

May 26, 2016 • 9:00 am

On his Templeton-funded “MeaningofLife.TV” site, Robert Wright fulminates about New Atheism (click on screenshot below). I’m pleased to see that both Krauss and I are included on Murderers Row along with the remains of the Horsepersons (sadly, Wright identifies me as a “paleontologist,” which is bizarre.) His beef: New Atheists lack “intellectual humility,” instantiated by their belief that “we’re sure that God doesn’t exist”. But that’s not true: we think it highly probable that God doesn’t exist, which is the scientific attitude. (See The God Delusion.)

We’re also said to be advocates of “scientism” and that we see no good products of religion. The “scientism” accusation is a canard, and I’m sure that most of us accept that religion can sometimes motivate good works. The claim is not that, but, on balance, that religion is inimical to human progress.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 11.52.29 AM

As he’s done so often, Wright argues (25:50) that there may be some teleological force behind the universe—something that may, for instance, have created the laws of physics. Although he, like John Horgan, claims to be a nonbeliever, they both fit Dennett’s definition of “believers in belief”: those who say, “Well, I see no need for religion, but it’s really good for all those Other People.” In fact, he’s loath to find any endemic problem with religion; when religion behaves badly, it’s often caused by people who criticize religion (43:30)! The lesson: we should stop criticizing religion, and I think Wright would be really happy if we’d do that.

The bit goes on if you click on the section called “the holy war against religion.” Here Wright takes out against antitheism, the attempt to dispel religious notions held by others.

As I said, MeaningofLife.tv was begun last year with a grant from the Templeton Foundation, and I’m sure they love the attack on New Atheism. So long as somebody attacks the antitheists and also leaves room for the possibility of the divine, as Wright does, the money will keep coming. I just found out that Wright also has an 18-month position as a Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at the Union Theological Seminary, with the mission of finding compatibility between science, spirituality, and religion. Wright’s position is, of course, funded by Templeton. 

UPDATE: At lunch I watched an hour of the 90-minute Union Theological Seminary debate between Wright and Lawrence Krauss, and I recommend it. There’s an epic quarrel about the question of “how do you get a Universe from nothing?”, and that alone is worth the time.


h/t: candide001

The humiliation of Ahmed Mohamed

September 18, 2015 • 10:15 am

Last Monday’s detention of 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed in Texas—a bright young man who was arrested, cuffed, and taken to police headquarters for bringing a “device” to school, which turned out to be an electronic clock that was a science project—has aroused tremendous discussion throughout the U.S. A lot of this discussion centers on whether he was detained because he was a Muslim, and we need to have this discussion (see below). But largely neglected is another point: whether, in the U.S., we have created such a climate of fear that kids of all stripes are being humiliated and mistreated for “infractions” that are trivial and dumb. But let’s back up and discuss three questions:

Was it proper to detain Mohamed?  Clearly not; it was reprehensible. The kid was humiliated, taken out of the school, and put in handcuffs. Having been arrested, cuffed, and thrown in a paddy wagon for protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy, I know how frightening that is, and I knew it was coming. But imagine how much more humiliated Mohamed was to have been perp-marched to jail in front of his school peers. The photograph of the cuffed child is heartbreaking: it shows a kid who has suddenly come into conflict with society for reasons he can’t fathom—a kid who in a matter of minutes lost his innocence.

The school and cops could have done many other things that would not have scared and humiliated Mohamed. They could have, as Cenk Uygar notes in the video below, simply taken him to the principal’s office and waited until the “device” was inspected and cleared. Then they could have apologized for what they did to him. They have not.

But there are two silver linings that came from his arrest. The first is that he’s garnered tremendous support from Americans, including President Obama, has prospective employers contacting him (he plans to go to MIT), and, I suspect, has a bright future. The second is that it may allow us to reassess what we’re doing to our schoolchildren with these draconian regulations, as well to continue our discussion of “Islamophobia” and do some soul searching about how we treat Muslims.

Was his being a Muslim the main reason he was detained? This is not yet clear, and may never be. The school and police have said that Mohamed was treated like any other child, regardless of who they are, but I’m not so sure about that. The anti-Muslim accusations are apparently based on a single statement by a policeman who, arriving at the scene, said this: ““Yup. That’s who I thought it was.”  That’s suspicious. And although the school and rest of police haven’t said anything that implicates the boy’s religion in their behavior, we don’t know what went through their minds, or whether the school acted as they did because they knew he was a Muslim. As skeptics, we shouldn’t immediately assume that this is what happened.

Of course it’s not just Muslims who have been treated horribly by schools for innocuous behavior. Ken White, a first-amendment attorney who writes at Popehat, gives some other chilling examples:

In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile. Ahmed lives in a world where children’s lives are limited by the stupid, ineffectual fear of the petty and the ignorant. He lives in a world where school administrators strip-search thirteen-year-old girls to look for ibuprofin and suspend eight-year-olds for making pretend finger-guns while playing cops and robbers. He lives in a world where police arrest seven-year-olds for bringing a nerf gun to class and perp-walk twelve-year-olds in front of their peers for writing “I love my friends” on a desk with a marker.

. . . Did the putative adults pestering Ahmed do it because his name is Ahmed Mohamed and he’s brown? Maybe. “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” said one officer mysteriously upon seeing him. But on the other hand, this is the era of zero tolerance and of institutionalized paranoia and of petty little people using fear to hold on to power. This is what our kids’ lives are like, and we’ve decided to accept it. Schools are safer now than before, but we’ve decided to feed on the fear the media feeds us and accept that they are more dangerous, justifying harsher treatment of kids. Kids are safer than ever, but we’ve consented to being constantly terrified about various menaces to them. Cops are safer, but we’ve decided to accept their narrative that they are the targets of an unprecedented war, and hand them the power they say they need.

We need to stop detaining any kid for innocuous behavior under these stupid “no tolerance” policies. As White points out, perhaps Mohamed’s detention would have happened regardless of his race or faith, or perhaps it’s a simple example of racism: because his skin is a different color than that of most other kids. Or perhaps it’s a true example of “Islamophobia”: what I consider the demonization of individual Muslims because of their faith—not the criticism of the religion. I doubt we’ll ever know the answer, and we certainly shouldn’t rush to judgment with cries of “Islamophobia!” As atheists, we’re supposed to rely on evidence rather than preference. But we still need to search our souls about whether we harbor overt or covert bigotry against Muslims. (More on this below.)

Was atheism responsible for the “climate of fear” or “fear of Muslims” that led to  Mohamed’s detention? Here I say, “I think that’s a dumb and irresponsible accusation.” Yet some people have pinned the detention of Mohamed on anti-Muslim sentiments aroused by atheists. In the Young Turks video below, for example, Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian discuss the incident, and Kasparin says this at 7:50:

“. . . [Mohamed is] a victim of the fear-mongering we’re talking about now, Cenk. The same atheists who spend all their time debating about which religion is the worst and coming to the conclusion that Muslims are the most violent and they should be the most feared and we should put all of our attention on them—okay, that’s the kind of fear-mongering that leads to an innocent 14-year-old being arrested for doing a science project.”

Now Kasparin’s statement is palpable nonsense for several reasons. (The rest of Uygur’s and Kasparin’s discussion seems quite reasonable). First, the teachers who called the cops and the cops who arrested the boy were almost certainly not atheists (this is Texas, remember?). They may have been bigoted against Muslims, or acted out of racist rather than antireligious motivations, but I doubt that any of them have even heard of Sam Harris or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If they were anti-Muslim, that almost certainly came from the kind of bigotry that arises from Christianity or xenophobia. But let’s not pin it on unbelievers. That is “atheistphobia.”

This brings up the distinction between dislike of Islam and dislike of Muslims. The latter is often called “Islamophobia,” but I’d prefer to call it something like “Muslimophobia” to draw a distinction between bigotry against individuals and criticism of the harmful tenets of Islam.

It seems the most rational (and effective) course of action to criticize the tenets of religions while avoiding demonizing believers.  On this site I criticize Christianity far more often than Islam, although I consider Islam at present the more dangerous faith. This is because I’m more familiar with the excesses of Christianity, which come to my attention more frequently (often from readers). Further, Christianity is in the process of discarding its pernicious doctrines, while Islam retains many of them, including institutionalized discrimination against women and gays, and the belief by many that it’s proper to kill apostates or nonbelievers. But make no mistake about it: I dislike all forms of religion, which I see as superstitions. But let us not say that all faiths are exactly equal in how much hatred and discrimination they inspire.

And let us not discriminate against people simply because of their faith. That is true “Muslimophobia,” and is not becoming to atheists or secularists. If humans do something bad in the name of their faith, we can criticize them, arrest them, and so on. And if we think that religion makes people do bad things, by all means criticize that religion and its effects on the human psyche. But remember that there are plenty of good religious people, Muslims and non-Muslims, and they deserve the same individual treatment and respect as does everyone else.  So yes, I stand with Ahmed Mohamed, I stand against anti-Muslim bigotry, and I stand against the culture of fear that is making us suspect that any innocent child with an aspirin, a clock, or a nerf gun is a terrorist.

h/t: Robert D.

Why do many atheists hate the New Atheists?

September 13, 2015 • 12:00 pm

One thing I don’t fully understand is the depth of rancor that many atheists have towards the “New Atheists,” especially people like Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. We’ve all seen it, and I’ve written about it many times. One example is a new book by An Atheist Who Shall Not Be Named, The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, discussed on The Godless Spellchecker‘s site. (Hemant Mehta has just written his own take on the book.)

The critique of New Atheists by other atheists seems to consist largely of ad hominem accusations, distortions of what they’ve said (Sam Harris is particularly subject to this), and, most of all, complaints that they dare criticize religion publicly. As Nathaniel Comfort said in the comments section of his own Nature review of Dawkins’s new autobiography:

I do say. You’re making an absurdly large leap and insulting the many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine. Dawkins, et al. are evangelists for atheism. That’s what I’m criticizing. Just as not all straight people are homophobes, not all atheists are eccesiophobes. And you can be scientific without being scientistic.

This is an explicit statement that if you publicly and passionately criticize religion, you’re the Wrong Kind of Atheist. You’re insulting the Quiet Atheists.

Now I’m perfectly happy accepting that it’s not the style of some nonbelievers to openly declare their atheism, much less to publicly criticize religion. But why go after the ones who do, especially when they’re simply articulating the reasons why the non-vociferous atheists have rejected religion?

I can think of a couple of answers. The first is simple jealousy: some atheists haven’t achieved the fame or public profile of people like Hitchens, and so attack their character rather than their arguments. It’s also a way to get attention for yourself if you feel unappreciated.

The second is the feeling by the Quiet Atheists that “New Atheists don’t represent me,” and so they must be called out. But since when have prominent New Atheists ever said they represent all atheists? They are representing their own views, and I doubt that any of them have said that they speak for all nonbelievers.

The attacks by atheists on New Atheists stand in strong contrast with how religionists act when they disagree. Christians, for instance, don’t spend lots of their time attacking the character and arguments of other Christians like William Lane Craig or Pat Robertson. Yes, I know that there is some criticism along those lines. But I can’t think of a Christian or a Muslim who makes their living writing article after article criticizing individual coreligionists. Nor, do I think, do believers try to damage other believers by consistently misrepresenting their positions or questioning their characters. When they do engage in such criticism, they’re usually straightforward about their disagreements, not prone to distortion, and are rarely snarky.

Finally, believers who do criticize coreligionists—Maajid Nawaz and his criticisms of radical Islam, for instance—usually don’t engage in character assassination or personal attacks: they go after what they see as the palpable dangers of extremist faith.  If your response is that “well, some atheists see New Atheism as extremist, too” I’d reply that the New Atheists aren’t even close to damaging society in the ways that Boko Haram or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS organization are. New Atheists just write books and give talks; they don’t urge their followers to kill people, forcibly impose their views on others, or urge the murder of those they oppose.

These are just some tentative thoughts, but the rancor of atheist criticism about New Atheists repeatedly surprises and saddens me. And I don’t fully understand it. Readers are invited to share their opinions below.

h/t: Barry

On admitting error

June 2, 2015 • 3:00 pm
It is a fact universally acknowledged that an error, once discovered, must be admitted and made public—especially when you are a scientist or a skeptic, for what is skepticism but winnowing away the error to find truth?

Hemant Mehta (the “Friendly Atheist”) is to be commended for pointing this out on an issue that has been extremely corrosive and inflammatory on atheist websites; so corrosive that many, myself included, chose not to write about it at all. I’ve deliberately refrained from accusing others of criminal acts, harassment, and the like on this site, for I feel that serious accusations like these are properly adjudicated by the authorities—usually courts of law—rather than by the commentariat of blogs, who, inflamed by rhetoric, often bay for blood.

But there comes a time, and the time is now, when those who traffic in such accusations must be called to account, particularly when they’ve erred, tarred someone’s reputation, and then, when their accusations prove to be false, quietly ignore them rather than admit error. This behavior is shameful and reprehensible, and Hemant properly calls it out. Go read his piece.