Please Don't Drink the 'New Atheist' Kool Aid
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 02:44:43 AM EST
The issue of the invective hurled by certain atheists against religious believers is heating up. As I wrote last week, the invective of Sam Harris is great news for the religious right, whose manichean world view is framed by the forces of "secularism" vs. Christianity. Funny thing about that: it's almost a fun house mirror image of the thinking of what the Associated Press calls the "New Atheists."  

I had not intended to write about this again so soon. However, the running battles over harsh, anti-Christian and anti-religious rhetoric at Daily Kos, (for example, here,)  in the past few days, and the  Associated Press story about the "New Atheists," suggests that this ought not wait.

First a reminder about Talk to Action site policy: Debates between theism and atheism are off topic. Our interest is in finding and sustaining appropriate and civil ways to discuss the religious right and what to do about it. Religion bashing in general is off topic and religious bigotry is grounds for banning.  By the same standard, secular bashing is off topic and bigotry against atheists is grounds for banning. Theological debates are off topic, and we are not interested in evangelism from any camp. It has been our experience that such conversations hold back rather than enhance thoughtful conversation about the religious right and what to do about it. That said, we have no litmus test for anyone's religious views as long as you agree with the terms of use and to abide by the site guidelines.

That is one reason why the aggressive behavior and caustic rhetoric of the New Atheists, as described in the AP story below is so concerning.  

BOSTON (AP) - Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who's leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

Among the millions of Americans who don't believe God exists, there's a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called ``New Atheists.'' ... The most pre-eminent New Atheists include best-selling authors Richard Dawkins, who has called the God of the Old Testament ``a psychotic delinquent,'' and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. They say religious belief is so harmful it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason....

Next month, as Harvard celebrates the 30th anniversary of its humanist chaplaincy - part of the school's chaplaincy corps - Epstein will use the occasion to provide a counterpoint to the New Atheists.

``Humanism is not about erasing religion,'' he said. ``It's an embracing philosophy.''

In general, humanism rejects supernaturalism, while stressing principles such as dignity of the individual, equality and social justice. If there's no God to help humanity, it holds, people better do the work....

But Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away....

``The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies,'' he said. ``The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them.''

I think this is very much on point: Not because I am at all invested in a debate between atheists and humanists. Rather, because when the New Atheists say they seek to eliminate religion -- their rhetoric matches their views, such as when, for example, Harris says "Science Must Destroy Religion".

The standard come-back is that religious liberals do not allow criticism of religion or are too sensitive. This is, at once, an irrational view and a disingenuous claim. Any rational person knows an insult or indeed, a threat, when they hear one.  The New Atheists claim they are just stating their views -- but they must certainly understand that they are not merely being intellectual here, but aggressively hostile -- and that the message is being received loud and clear.

But let's consider this from a slightly different angle:

As Sam Harris wrote in his recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, by his formulation, extreme, moderate and liberal religious believers, whatever their differences -- are "every bit as delusional."  This kind of rhetoric removes all possibility of rational conversation. Religious people get it that Harris, or anyone who thinks like him, consider them "delusional" -- so why would they ever see such people as trustworthy allies?  By the same token, why would atheists, who consider themselves "rational," cooperate with people they consider "delusional?" Harris et al, are in the business, wittingly or unwittingly, of sewing distrust and wreaking havoc among people who ought to be allies.  As I previously noted, if they did not exist, the religious right would have to invent them.  

People who seek allies and coalition partners need to be able to come to the table, or indeed, to the blogosphere, with sufficient respect and tolerance of one another to earn a place at the table.  This is true in any political movement or party, and is most certainly true of any and all coalitions stitched together to address the religious right.

It may be early to say, but it seems likely that the practitioners of smug, anti-religious, borderline eliminationist rhetoric -- will find themselves with fewer and fewer people who will consider them trustworthy political partners:  And that, from where I sit, would be a shame. We all need each other to be strong in the face of the theocratic political movements of our time, and we need greater capacity for communication and understanding, not distrust and division.

So please folks -- don't drink the New Atheist Kool Aid.

Update [2007-4-4 14:24:19 by Frederick Clarkson]: Let's be clear about the consequences of breaking the site rules. The comment or diary may be deleted; if its eggregious enough or if the person is a repeat offender, he or she may be banned from posting on this site. We are not here to debate theism vs. atheism. Period. What's more, gratuitous nasty remarks about other people's beliefs, or lack thereof, are rude at best; divisive and counterproductive at worst; in any case a clear violation of the site rules. Case in point from a deleted comment:

Therefore logically, it could be that "God" is playing a really nasty joke on just you." Sounds to me like your God is a pointlessly manipulative and deceptive asshat, making the possibility of his existence even more unilkely, not less.

The Harris' and Dawkins' of the world like to hide behind the mantle of rationalism in their pursuit of spiritual aesthetics. This claim lacks integrity and thus reduces their arguments to the level of whining which seems to insult so many people of good will.

In order to neutralize this acidic argument, you must understand it's errors. First of all, atheism is as much a statement of faith as any theistic creed. Just as one cannot objectively prove the existence of an omnipotent being, one cannot objectively disprove it's existence either. There is no way to make any claim about the question in a scientific manner. Without the ability to issue a falsifiable statement on the subject, any position must be a matter of faith.

Secondly, all people are people of faith. Since no one can predict the future (you cannot know what it is that you do not know), any action requires faith and no goal from which an action extends can be rationally justified. There is no more rational justification for taking your next breath or going to bed expecting the sun to rise than believing Jesus is coming back.

The objective description of the universe does not give purpose, purpose must come from within ourselves. You can choose that purpose to take on any number of aesthetic forms, but you cannot objectively show that one choice is superior to another without relying on some subjective, impossible to rationally justify, goal. If you are looking for rationalism to provide authority for your aesthetic choices, you are committing a logical error.

Many on the religious right recognize this, it's the expression of this idea that they call moral relativism. This has led to an abandonment of the rational identity, neo-cons following Strauss, market fundamentalism, appeals to Natural Law and the religious right resorting to fundamentalism and literalness.

The argument is actually easier to win with the Harris and Dawkins crowd. They make a claim to the rationalist identity, in doing so, they must defend the integrity of their claim.

What they do not understand is how to rationally criticize should statements. Any proposition for action, whether to cure cancer, throw a party or commit to a faith has a basic logical construction. It must state a goal and a proposal for how to achieve that goal. Identities are a collection of goals, in other words, if I claim the rationalist identity, I claim to argue without committing logical errors. If I commit logical errors, then I diminish the integrity of my claim to identity. Since rationalism has no answer to the Liar's Paradox, the integrity of objective claims are the only way to determine if a statement has information content or is meaningless.

By Harris and Dawkins or any of the bomb throwers at Big Orange claiming that they uphold the rationalist identity while arguing that the aesthetic choices of all theists is "delusional", lacks integrity and thereby reduces such statements to meaningless noise. It tells us more about the logical errors that some people are prone to than anything regarding it's intended context. The shame is that I do not believe one can maintain a claim to the Liberal identity without also maintaining a claim to the rationalist identity.

Some people advocate ignoring these meaningless statements. I prefer confrontation of the inherent logical errors. If it wasn't this particular argument that these logical errors were committed in, it would be some other. It is better to focus on correcting the underlying misunderstandings that lead to these logical errors, in doing so we may achieve a pedagogical goal of advancing rational argument and finding reasonable solutions to our shared goals.

by cjohnson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 11:27:51 AM EST

I've included the assumption of continuity in my critique of Harris & Co. in the past, but I think you have more training in this area.

May you could take some Harris writing ( there's a bit on the Huffington Post ) and pick it apart ? That would be useful.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 11:40:03 AM EST

I didn't see anything recent, and the really relevant posts by Harris or Dawkins are their basic claim of delusion against theists. I don't know what else to add. Their basic premise denies the integrity of their claims on it's face.

Reading through Dawkins' Why There Almost Certainly Is No God, the entire body of assertions has no meaningful content. Dawkins, like Harris, rants about the primacy of his own aesthetic choices as if they were supported by rationalism.

Harris and Dawkins appear to both have accepted the "culture war" or "clash of civilizations" framing so loved by the right, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. They see atheism as something that must prevail over "religious delusion". Harris and Dawkins represent a fad, they feed off each other and promote themselves by shocking people's senses.

The enlightenment thinkers that Dawkins likes to invoke were full of the same "religious delusions" he would like to rail against. Perhaps he see's Thomas Jefferson as an atheist trapped in a society deluded by religion, what he calls "atheists of a poetic disposition". From the evaluation for rationalist content, this article, like most of Dawkins' is crap. It appeals to an aesthetic concept of verisimilitude that has been falsified in academic papers for over 10 years.

Neither Harris nor Dawkins have any insight for anyone who has seriously studied these questions. Their claims to rationality are unserious, there is no underlying integrity to them.

I do not know what else to say about it, other than reading recommendations. For the basic underlying ideas of irrationalist commitment, especially against the backdrop of Liberal Protestantism, see Bartley's "The Retreat to Commitment". For the logical arguments disproving certainty and the falsification of aesthetics as truth see David Miller's "Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defence" as well as his more recent "Out of Error". For the assertion that all actions require subjective goals, it is useful to read Mises "Human Action", or at least the first few chapters.

The ideas presented there simply obliterate the assertions of Harris and Dawkins, as well as those that parrot or improvise on their arguments. I recommend seeking to insure that your own understanding of rationalism and ability to separate objective knowledge from subjective knowledge are not suffering from their own errors. If you do that, then it won't matter what they come up with next, the solution will appear obvious.

Personally, I'm waiting to see which one first claims that view can't be criticized by theists due to some inherent delusion which they have magically avoided. That's usually next after you strip them of their rationalist identity.

by cjohnson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 02:30:55 PM EST

I wasn't trying to say that Harris or Dawkins, in their avowed militant atheism, actually advance rigorous arguments.

The problem is that they've been widely persuasive.  They haven't been aggressively challenged and so they've run amok and are doing a lot of damage. Sam Harris' language deployed to vilify Islam and Muslims is strikingly similar to that thrown out by apocalyptic dispensationalists such as John Hagee in order to, I believe, further inflame the climate and provoke war.

That's the real danger in my mind. I can't say whether or not Sam Harris believes he is advancing a valid argument or not, but in practical terms it doesn't especially matter because PR and agitprop doesn't have to be in the slightest bit rational to have an effect.

Here's on of Harris posts ( not recent ) that I thought especially atrocious: 8615.html

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 03:20:14 PM EST

I don't think many here take the arguments of Harris or Dawkins as serious on their merits. I understand the larger framing issue, however, I believe the best way to combat it is to point out the underlying logical errors, which is hard to do if you have your own logical errors. I find that many who are attempting to fight against this type of thought, have a hard time elaborating on exactly why Dawkins and Harris are wrong. It's as if people of good will instinctively know that this line of thought is wrong, but don't know how to explain why without leaving the bombthrowers plenty of room to maneuver.

The entry you linked to is in the same boat as Dawkins writings. The errors start early by associating suicide bombing with Muslim origins. Anyone who has read a few books on the history of Islamic terrorism ought to know that this tactic was first adopted by the Buddhist Tamil Tigers.

The rest of this screed on the inherently anti-social nature of Islam is a joke. How does the largest muslim nation, Indonesia, manage to avoid large scale warfare with it's neighbors? Indonesian terrorists are a marginalized fringe. It would be just as easy to see a right wing Christian or Zionist violence on par with Indonesian muslim terrorism if the US had a similar ratio of population vs. enforcement dollars.

But back to your framing question, which I think has more value than picking through Harris or Dawkins. The question is how is it that either one of them are taken seriously in the media?

Well, for one, the media likes bombthrowers, stories about shocking bombthrower types keeps the emotional level up that advertisers like. If you allow them room to maneuver or allow them to appear as anything but entirely self-contradicting, then the emotional shock is maintained. If you diffuse them entirely and point out the meaningless and useless of their statements for objective purposes, they are neutralized. Their arguments become old hat, much ado about nothing. That is where we want them. The contain errors, they should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Personally, if anyone knows anyone at Oxford, they may want to question why a man like Dawkins, that so misrepresents science, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University? Does the Royal Society, the most prestigious of all scientific groups, actually condone this appallingly incorrect view of science? I mean really, it doesn't even pass the smell test laid out in Popper's "The Logic of Scientific Discovery".

Dawkins and Harris are going about bandying their own brand of Intelligent Design. A set of unscientific theories that they are trying to dress up like science. My point is not to defend religion against them, this is a battle that you will lose because it requires you to accept their framing. Attack their claim to be scientists. They are clearly being unobjective and denigrating the integrity of the rationalist identity which they repeatedly claim.

However, attacking the integrity of the rationalist identity is really only successful if you yourself understand it. That is itself a problem, the technical details of objectivity haven't had a good publicist like some other ideas. I find a large number of people who are quite knowledgeable and educated hold views about reasoning and rationality that are in error.

In summation, my advice is to understand rationality and attack these critics on that basis. They are not attacking your foundation, as theism (and atheism) and rationality are compatible, they are attacking a made up foundation, one that does not exist. If you defend it, you will fail. You do not even have to defend the real foundation for your beliefs, you can simply attack theirs.

Hope that was clearer.

by cjohnson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 04:49:26 PM EST

"In order to neutralize this acidic argument, you must understand it's errors. First of all, atheism is as much a statement of faith as any theistic creed. Just as one cannot objectively prove the existence of an omnipotent being, one cannot objectively disprove it's existence either."

The proof offered to show the existence of God is contradicatory to nonexistent. As Dawkins pointed out the explanaiton which states that the universe is so magnificently complex that a God must surely have created it ignores  the obvious question as to where this even more amazing God came from. Refusing to believe in anything for which there is no real proof is not faith but reason.

"There is no more rational justification for taking your next breath or going to bed expecting the sun to rise than believing Jesus is coming back."

Obviously you never tried handicapping the ponies. I am in good health, have breathed for many stupid decades and, unless I can summon the requisite courage, have every expectation of breathing for even more annoying years to come. The sun rises because the world spins and no known force can stop that in the near future. Since Jesus predicted that he was going to retrun "soon" and it's two millenia later, I think it stand to reason that he was full of shit.

How nice of you to stand up for reason while actually rejecting it.

by Hieronymus Braintree on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 05:50:00 PM EST

Refusing to believe in anything for which there is no real proof is not faith but reason.

That's positivism, perhaps empiricism. Both have been falsified for over 70 years. You're starting off with an irrational assertion, not a good sign. If a being is omnipotent, it could purposefully be obscuring evidence from you, by definition, you can never know if it did or did not exist unless it wanted you to. Therefore logically, it could be that "God" is playing a really nasty joke on just you. I believe Douglas Adams crafted a career around this premise.

Obviously you never tried handicapping the ponies. I am in good health, have breathed for many stupid decades and, unless I can summon the requisite courage, have every expectation of breathing for even more annoying years to come. The sun rises because the world spins and no known force can stop that in the near future.

That's exactly it, you expect life to continue. You have no more rational basis for believing that you will take another breath or suffer a brain aneurism and die. It's the same thing with the sun rising. You assume that the universe will continue to operate the same way it has operated. Without perfect knowledge of the universe, you cannot know that the sun will rise tomorrow. When you assume that the sun will rise, you have faith that the universe will continue to act in the same way it has before. In order to be intellectually honest, to achieve certainty, that the sun will rise you would need to rule out all other possibilities. This is physically impossible due to the physical laws of the universe and the energy costs of information. At best, you can make a probability calculation based on a model that provides scope. A statement that you should take some action because the sun will rise tomorrow is still a statement that must be taken on faith.

Since Jesus predicted that he was going to retrun "soon" and it's two millenia later, I think it stand to reason that he was full of shit.

And his dad described a process which apparently took about 14 billion years as taking only six days. I'm pretty sure that "soon" is open for interpretation. I suppose you could be pedantic about it if you like, but that's generally considered bad form, if not plain rude, while impugning someone's integrity.

How nice of you to stand up for reason while actually rejecting it.

I'm afraid that your definition of reason may be what is in error. I've mentioned a number of books in this thread that may enlighten you as to exactly what reason is and what the limits of criticism are. They also contain the logical proofs, in case you wish to falsify them.

The reason that you are espousing is more of a common sense type of reasoning, what many people assume to be reason. It's useful for getting along in the world, but better suited to heterogeneous environments. If you mean reason, as in objective knowledge and being able to know what it is that you know, then you are far off the mark. Better luck next time.

by cjohnson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 06:51:25 PM EST

I was fascinated to find out, several years ago while reading about Chaos Theory ( or whatever it might now be called, Nonlinear Phenomenon perhaps ) that there is an extremely small but real possibility that the Earth, which actually has a chaotic orbit around the Sun, could simply fly out of its orbit one day, perhaps out of our Solar System even. Or, that was the suggestion I read. Maybe that was an exaggeration. But, if that is true it would be an illustration of a case in which the Sun might not rise. For people on Earth anyway.

I have faith the Sun will rise, and I think my faith is well founded. But my expectation is faith, not logic.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 07:04:05 AM EST

Our best models say that the sun will rise tomorrow, and since most of us have goals that relate to tomorrow, we take action based on this assumption. The point is to recognize that certainty is not required, or even desirable. It is logical then to act consistently with the outcomes of our models constructed to assist us with our goals, but it is only logical as long as our goals involve tomorrow. If our goals to not include tomorrow, then the entire question is meaningless, it has no bearing on our attempts to falsify a proposal for reaching such goals.

It is similar to the idea behind the Christian teaching that we are all sinners. We are born ignorant of the world around us, we must learn even the most basic things about the world we live in, like how objective knowledge is transmitted. The probability that we are in error is greater than the probability that we are out of error. Only through falsification of assertions and the reconciliation of contradiction can we become less in error than before. Just as we might say that someone who maintains the Christian identity will remember humility because they are a sinner, we can say that someone with the rationalist identity will remember humility because they are born in error.

Karl Popper once said about falsification, "On the pre-scientific level, we are often ourselves destroyed, eliminated with our false theories; we perish with our false theories. On the scientific level, we systematically try to eliminate our false theories -- we try to let our false theories die in our stead." I believe students of Christian theology will see the parallels in this quote, it has always struck me as an unintentional allusion to salvation.

Our false theories are like sins against the rationalist identity, the impugn our integrity and separate us from our chosen goals. We use reason, the distillation of objective knowledge, to wash our false theories away. We are no longer condemned by our false theories, we have a way of identifying them and correcting our thinking.

by cjohnson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 11:05:49 AM EST

...that's where your conclusions will end up.

"First of all, atheism is as much a statement of faith as any theistic creed."

Atheism isn't any sort of statement, whether a "statement of faith" or not. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. It's not a religion, philosophy, ideology, worldview, or belief system. It can be a part of such things, just as theism can be, but it isn't one all by itself.

So long as you aren't even able to accurate describe what atheism is, you certainly won't succeed in explaining where you think certain atheists are going wrong.

"...any action requires faith and no goal from which an action extends can be rationally justified."

This depends upon an equivocation among multiple definitions of the word "faith." The "faith" that one has in the sun rising isn't the "faith" that a Christian has in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The above might be excused as simple ignorance, but the latter here cannot.

"I prefer confrontation of the inherent logical errors."

Equivocation is a basic logical fallacy, FYI.

by Austin Cline on Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 06:20:46 PM EST

I don't know about your rule discussing atheism. It has become a shibboleth that politicians wear their religion on their sleeves. Why is it wrong to point out that believing in a supreme being is an irrational act?

by editor25 on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 02:10:27 PM EST
when you signed up. I also reiterated them in this post. Try reading it.

To answer your question: If you wish to say for yourself in the context of what ever you are writing about, that you, or anyone is an atheist, fine. If you want to add that you would consider belief in a supreme being for yourself, an irrational act, fine. But if you start accusing others of being irrational, you are in the realm debating theism vs. atheism, and even of insulting religious believers.

All are equally welcome, religious and non-religious; Christian and non-Christian, to participate in our conversations here, but this site is not about atheism vs. theism.  Period.

Along the way, people of some faith traditions sometimes have side discussions about one or another aspect of theology or history -- "soteriology" popped up recently for example. Stuff like that gets a bit far afield of the site topic, but at least they are not engaged in bashing atheists of people of other theological tendencies. Facts; history, all good.

Our site topic is the religious right and what to do about it.  While there are legitimate gray areas, people who stray very far are reminded:  sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. It is the job of everyone to keep the conversation focused on the site topic, not to look for excuses to write about something else.

I recognize that what we do here, is different than other sites, and that it can take some getting used to.  But you can have conversations here, that you probably won't have elsewhere, with people you might not ordinarily have the chance to meet. What we have here is much more like the kind of coalition needed to address the religious right, than any site that is just Christians, just atheists, just feminists, or just whatever. The site rules are intended to facilitate civil discourse and to keep us focused on the site topic. No more, no less.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 02:38:53 PM EST

over at Daily Kos, become completely derailed by people who are apparently parroting Harris and Dawkins.

Their method is offensive, divisive and counter productive. The rationale seems to be that they can be as rude and insulting as they wish, beacuse, well, religious people are delusional and either directly involved in or enabling things that are disastrous for the world.  

I imagine that this will eventually come to a head, and not only at Daily Kos, and that the political results will not be pretty.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 03:11:54 AM EST

I think the key issue to keep in mind is loving one another. We can hold to our principles, to be sure. It was Scott peck who wrote in his book A Different Drum that there will be no community without conflict, and if you get through the conflict you can arrive at concensus. Not compromise, which he maintained was a shotrfall, but concensus.

I have come to see this as true. As a Buddhist American, I believe Christianity, a dualistic, hierarchal, paternal religion that will always promote war of some kind, as actually dangeraous. However, for this life cycle, some people need that , and have chosen that path. Our Constitution grants them the right to worship as they please. We need to consider that as we present the equally valid truth that no man's or God's religion is supposed to mingle with our political structure, and that equality of man is granted to all.

Maybe it won't be pretty. But maybe if we can visualize a path that works through the conflict to reach concensus, it will have an end we can all be happy with.

by Leckey on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 08:30:26 AM EST

certain religious dogmas are rather incompatable with science.  Biblical Literalism for instance.  But when  Harris won't target the specific dogma, he will target all religious people including moderates who don't hold that dogma and that is where the trouble comes in.  Also, how are moderates enabling people with this view.  Will he please explain this?

by strayroots on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 04:44:41 AM EST
Who Sam Harris might have called moderate "enablers" of fundmentalism.

Odd thing is :

Much of American fundamentalist is calling for a religious war against Islam. Sam Harris seems to be calling for one too.

Go figure.


by Bruce Wilson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 07:34:22 AM EST

I don't play into this. I am not interested in forcing my religious beliefs on others, and I am not interested in having people force their beliefs, or lack of them, on me.

It seems that the appearance of the Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses in response to the theocrats proves one thing, each action has its equal and opposite reaction.

by khughes1963 on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 07:18:49 AM EST

Sam Harris has turned into a one man wrecking ball targeting the middle, religious and otherwise.

Harris "death to religion ! Light Atheist Brigade" might merely be silly, but it functions to validate the frame of the Christian right that there is an ongoing war between the religious right and a "secular left".

There's a lot of media trained on Sam Harris, so he needs to be challenged.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 07:39:29 AM EST

Sam Harris is being manufactured to be the official atheist. He is given far greater public attention than his ideas merit, and he is taken far too seriously by otherwise intelligent people, who are being turned into rude and divisive figures while thinking they are merely articulating The Truth.

This is not good.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 02:15:47 PM EST

What bothered me most about the tone of that debate was how counterproductive it was.

As a Catholic I will support any athiest's right to believe what they choose to believe and just as I would demand of any believer in God their right to defend their poisition as long as it were done in a respectful manner, intelligent manner.

Anything less hurts both the athiest's cause and will be hurled back to disable the Liberalism of both the believer and non-believer alike.

I just hope that the Greg Epsteins of the world prevail.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 07:35:02 AM EST

There will always be believers- whether in the rhetoric of hard atheism or biblical literalcy- we will always have to contend with these polarities.

Neither should be allowed to come into power, because they spell disaster for all beneath them.

It seems that people are so polarized that there is no room left to be Centered. And from where I stand, being in the center is probably what will save us from being consumed by fanaticism on both sides. I see hard-core atheists and hard-core believers as equally irrational.  

Yes, it would be interesting if people who claimed to speak directly to God were gently dissuaded from their delusions. And it would also be interesting if those who wish to strip all traces of religion from our culture were similarly disuaded of their futile task.

We're hard-wired to experience mystery. Stimulus to our temporal lobes can generate terrifyingly realistic images of mysterious things. I saw this happen first hand when my agnostic brother had a temporal lobe siezure. Suddenly he was seeing demons, angels, and all sorts of things- and they were real to him.

We should take advantage of what we know and use it to reorient ourselves for the greater good. It can be done, but people must be ready to give up their own illusions to do so.

by Lorie Johnson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 10:02:10 AM EST

Your comment includes several powerful frames and phrases.  Some I like (with reservations).

To highlight only one [brackets are my edits]:

I see hard-core atheists and hard-core believers as equally irrational.  Neither should be allowed [a social or political hegemony]...  It seems that people are so polarized that there is no room left to be Centered.

I agree that there are qualities of mind and heart which render people unfit to wield political office or to determine mass attitudes.  And I'm OK with the implication that the phrase "hard core" can carry the meaning of this psychological disqualification as it manifests in both atheists and believers.

But I think the phrase needs some unpacking before it can contribute to a discussion which allows a meaningful role for genuine faith or genuine doubt.

I think you take a good step toward inclusiveness when you represent the antidote for "hard core" to be "centered" instead of "soft core."  Because there are not many positive or vital religious connotations that can be attached to the concept "soft-core believer," even for a liberal theist like myself - to say nothing of its lack of appeal to an emotional evangelical.

If anything, the phrase "soft core believer" might describe an adolescent or 20-something who accepts the principle of spiritual reality but can no longer accept the structure of the belief system in which he or she was raised.  And a "soft core atheist" might be defined as an open-hearted and still-reasonable agnostic who is uncomfortable using theistic language.  Both these kinds of seekers have roles to play against totalitarianism.

The problem for me is that it is not clear that by "centered" you mean anything other than a self-sufficient place of ultimate detachment from convictions about things that cannot be proved.  This, in my opinion, is not enough if we seek a common ground against the religious right that is suitable for all kinds of serious doubters and believers.

I think "hard core" atheists and believers are similar in that they are too prone to prematurely cash out the pure value of their practical light and knowledge in exchange for the inflated coin of their own strong convictions.  These convictions gather around perfectly natural and "reasonable" ideals of truth which reason has the power in itself to propose - but not to solve.

It is easy, instead of bringing fresh beliefs out of experience, to face the opposite direction and practice the relish of strong convictions as sufficient "experiential proof" for previously held beliefs or disbeliefs.

It is easy to mistake the vigor of emotion for a brush with truth, but emotional conviction is neither knowledge nor faith.  Conviction is only belief, and strong beliefs are not adequate guarantors of one's near adjustment to reality, nor (ever) a warrant for prophecy.

God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 07:37:02 PM EST

My take is that we're not going to make any real headway against intollerant religion w/o damaging its notoriously undeserved reputation for superior goodness and morality. That means demonstrating both its falsity and nastiness in a big way.

Look at how far Fundamentalism has gotten against rationalism these last few decades. You think they did it by being nice? I mean have you read the Left Behind series for example? The bastards are gloating about how great it's going to be when we're all tossed into the eternal lake of fire. From where I sit a significant amount of Kool Aid was involved and it made them big and strong.

But religious folks can also act nice which works too.

The way I score it, we need both. We need people who are conciliatoryh AND people who aren't willing to take any shit. That is we play Good Cop/Bad Cop. One group acts to demoralize and cow while the other to seduce the holy jerkweeds into adopting more civilized attitudes.

I saw Dawkins on the Colbert Report and he came off as a very cheerful, humorous  and likable man. Not at all the sort of angry flamethrower you're portraying him as.

And BTW, where do you think Voltaire or Twain would be on this? Because, you know, they were such uninfluential writers.

by Hieronymus Braintree on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 06:13:49 PM EST

Involves Harris' summary dismissal of the problem posed to his claim, that religious belief is uniquely culpable for world problems, by the rather substantial body count achieved in the 20th Century in wars, massacres, purges, Gulags, and genocides, carried out by secular governments both fascist, communist, and sometimes simply nationalist.

Sam Harris, with a magical stroke of his pen, dismisses the problem posed to his argument by 20th Century history by declaring ; that killing was carried out governments that were under the sway of ideologies that actually amounted to religions !

For Harris, it seems, any government or nation that perpetrates evil and atrocity is under the ['evil'] sway of religious belief. Religious belief seems, to Harris, to be a magically protean thing. Communism is a religion, Fascism too. Everything is a religion, I suppose, except for Sam Harris-ism, the only objective belief system based in logic and reason.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 07:27:30 AM EST

Harris is right in this sense: the systems of belief that have caused the most damage are systems that are closed belief vs open belief. That is, systems that presume themselves to be correct and can only interpret information in such a way as to prove their rightness vs those that are open to being disproved. Communism, like Christianity must, according to its aderents, always be right. Communism leads workers to freedom and never mind Joseph Stalin or the Great Leap Forward. Christianity, makes poeple more loving and moral and never mind the crusades, the inquisition or the fact that the American South, the most religious part of the country, practiced slavery and then Jim Crow and today constitutes our leading bigots against homosexuals. Heck, I still run into people who insist that GWBush must be an honest man on the grounds that he's a Christian. Closed belief.

If you prize defending a system of belief over monitoring reality, you're going to have atrocities. Like feminism when it decided that there was a national epidemc of Satanic Ritual Abuse/Multiple Personality Disorder because it played into their notions of patriarchal oppression and established a cottage industry of lawyers who sued and destroyed the reputations of fathers for abuse that never happened. Or neoconservatism which got is into Iraq.

Open belief systems, like the scientific method, accept the possibility that they could be wrong but demand evidence and questions the evidence to make sure that it's both sound and relevant. That's what separates empiracism and healthy skepticism from Stalanism, Christianity and modern-day Republicans.

by Hieronymus Braintree on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 12:51:23 PM EST

Communism, fascism and other forms of secular tyranny are just as culpable as religious tyranny. Trying to demarcate according to which aesthetic expression of absolute certainty has done the most damage is meaningless. All such expressions are capable of tyranny. All of them have used misrepresentations of science and objective knowledge to support their errors. Promoting views of science and objectivity that are less in error, deflates the danger from all quarters.

You claim that Harris is arguing for a system of "open belief", yet Harris is arguing for a system that is "open" in the same sense that Plato's Noble Lie is the "truth". To act as if a non-theistic choice is somehow superior to a theistic choice due to the authority of science is to ask science to comment on an issue that science has stated it can make no meaningful statements about.

Open belief systems, like the scientific method, accept the possibility that they could be wrong but demand evidence and questions the evidence to make sure that it's both sound and relevant.

The problem with your description is that you fail to note what is "both sound and relevant". How do I independently determine if some proposition is "sound and relevant"? How do your concepts of "sound and relevant" handle Hume's problem of induction or Kant's claims about categorical imperative?

That's what separates empiracism and healthy skepticism from Stalanism, Christianity and modern-day Republicans.

You are not practicing "healthy skepticism" though. What you are doing is picking a fight with theistic believers using science as your bludgeon. It is dishonest to act as if your position inherits authority from science when science not only doesn't confer authority, but claims no position at all. The error you unintentionally commit is the same error that the Salinists, Christian Right and Republicans make. Fortunately, there is a paper by David Miller available online that should clear up questions about skepticism, Being an Absolute Skeptic.

by cjohnson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 02:40:19 PM EST

we have gotten rather far afield from our site topic and its time to bring it back around.

We get it that Harris et al, think science debunks religion and that's that; and we understand the position that science can neither prove or disprove faith, so a different approach is required in these matters.

The reason this comes up at all, is primarily for reasons of framing, and of allowing other kinds of discourse to take place among people who really need to talk about the religious right and what to do about it. Many of those people are religious believers, many are not. Many are in transition. That is reality. Let's get used to it and get on with the project at hand.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 04:01:09 PM EST

It has been refreshing to read you.
God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 07:39:29 PM EST

While there are those who can criticize Dawkins and Harris for being intolerant or alienating those who could be potential allies, they are still performing a useful service. What this is, is forcing into the open the dislike of atheism by those with strong religious beliefs.

Fewer people say they would vote for an atheist in the US than would vote for an ex-felon. Hence their program of challenging such attitudes. Whether their approach is the best one only time will tell.

A more interesting take on modern attitudes is that of Daniel Dennett. His concern is with the popular attitude of many that even examining religion using the same techniques of psychology, sociology and anthropology that are common when studying other aspects of humanity should somehow be disallowed.

For example just this week a UN group on human rights (which is dominated by Muslim countries) tried to get a resolution passed that would make it an international crime to offend religious sensibilities. It was blocked by several European members who felt that things like the Danish cartoons should be allowed under freedom of speech.

So the real issue seems to be not which religious beliefs are "true" (a never ending discussion), but whether investigating religion itself as a scientific activity is to be allowed at all.

Once some areas of thought are made off limits the chances for mischief increase. One doesn't have to point to religious dogmatism to see the dangers, the brain washing of the Nazis, Maoists and USSR are good enough examples.

Even the US has not been immune. For those interested in history read up on the Palmer raids during WWI which were aimed at socialists, trade unionists and pacifists - solely because of their beliefs, not their actions.  
-- Policies not Politics
by rdf on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 04:43:52 PM EST

has exactly what to do with the site topic, rdf?

The Harris material was raised not as an attack on atheism, but to point out the fracturing nature of what he and others are doing to the project of addressing the religious right, and our ability to even talking about it. Indeed,my argument, which has gone unadressed by the knee jerk Harris/Dawkins defenders, is that they are playing directly into the hands of the religious right itself.

The absence of political judgment of these folks is astounding.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 05:11:52 PM EST

This entire thread is disappointing, but this particular comment stands out for its disingenuousness and needless hostility, Fred.  You're letting your frustration get the better of you.

I've admired this site and you in particular for quite a while.  I've been a regular reader here from practically Day 1, and have tried to lure in others.  I've always lurked rather than commented, but now I'm prompted to write because I take personally your denigration of anyone and everyone who thinks there is (or may be) value in forthright criticisms of supernatural claims.


You brought up the topic.  It's sad to see you then making sneering accusations that commenters are off-topic when they simply offer respectful disagreement and indicate why and where they think Harris's arguments are on point.  And I can't help but notice that you're selective with your admonishments.

There is no "New Atheist Kool-Aid".  Your use of the phrase is a kind of ad hominem--consistent with your overall attitude toward Harris and Dawkins.  It's obvious you think their approach is counterproductive, but some of us honestly and sincerely aren't convinced that that's the case.  "Astounding" perhaps, but there it is.

Really, I'm stumped.  Why isn't a vigorous and assertive secular movement part of the solution to the problem of the religious right?  There is zero danger of atheist totalitarianism in this country, no matter how much people want to pretend otherwise.

by SL on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 03:28:58 AM EST

I appreciate your kind words even as you are angry with me and disagree on a number of things.

Unfortunately, in your taking personal offence, you are making the same error others have made in response to my critique of Harris. I have no quarrel with anyone who does not believe in anything supernatural. I also support people's general right to critique, religion in anyway they want to. (This site, however, is not the place for that.)

My issue is this. In the case of the new atheism, we are not talking about study or critique of religion -- we are talking about a political program, based on a set of presumptions in which all religion is defined as destructive, and that this in turn, justifies whatever one says about it, no matter how caustic or offensive. I think that there is a difference between what you call "forthright" --and the borderline, and not so borderline eliminationist rhetoric of Mr. Harris and those who echo him.  But those of us who in addition to finding some of their ideas specious -- find their behavior profoundly politically counter-productive -- are going to continue to speak out, as is our right as well. It is my experience,and it really should come as no surprise, that some people who become militant antireligionists spout the same talking points, and the same invective. Otherwise thoughtful people, with whom you and I might agree on many if not most things, snap into a rude, politically counter productive persona with whom normal political conversation becomes impossible. I have seen it often enough online and in person now to be quite concerned. So yes, the metaphorical kool aid term is apt for many, and I stand by it. Those who read Harris, or anyone else more thoughtfully, obviously are not kool aid drinkers.

That said, I also do site moderation here and enforce the site guidelines as necessary.  While it is inevitable that my many impefections may show up along the way, that goes with the territory. Like anyone else, I do the best I can. But I do not think I have fallen down in this instance and there is some history here which I do not care to review. I have done a great deal of site moderation, covering quite a range of matters, little of which is publicly visible. So all I can tell you about your perception of selectivity, is that you couldn't be more wrong whether or not you happen to agree with me on anything in this thread.

As I have said many times on this site and repeated on this thread: This site is not for debating atheism vs. theism. Additionally, those who cannot resist taking swipes at other people's beliefs, are probably not a good fit for this site where there are people of quite a range of religious and non religious sensibilities present. Learning how to converse productively in this, and any environment, is usually going to mean learning to be respectful of others. Seems pretty basic to me.

As to your last point, I have no problem with non-religious people getting organized politically. The Secular Coalition for America has been mentioned a number of times on this site,for example and seem to be doing good work.  I have not said anything about alleged secular or atheist totalitarianism, so please do not ascribe to me the views of others.

What I am concerned about here is, caustic antireligionism passing itself off as The Truth and influencing people to behave badly, even to the point of religious bigotry.  This is politically counter productive, at best and it is not hypothetical; it is already happening.  

As we all go forward in trying to address the theocratic politics of our time, we all will come to places where there are disagreements small and large.  It is worthwhile addressing them. Sometimes it will be messy.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 05:06:30 AM EST

"What I am concerned about here is, caustic antireligionism passing itself off as The Truth and influencing people to behave badly, even to the point of religious bigotry.  This is politically counter productive, at best and it is not hypothetical; it is already happening."

I see that on campus every time I go near Cooper hall on Wednesdays.  There is a militant atheist group that actively proselytizes and the signs and posters they put up are sometimes very offensive (saying much of the same stuff as the new atheists).

On the other side- you have the jackleg preachers condemning everyone and calling people names and telling everyone that God is angry at them and going to send them to hell.  So the students are stuck in the middle between two extremes.

I will say that I've never heard the atheists getting loud or vocal or verbally insulting- unlike the preachers.

Funny- but I've never observed the two getting into it, nor have I heard of any confrontations!  You'd think that the two would be at each other's throats.

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 10:16:48 AM EST

That is the question that strikes me when I read what the "new Atheists" say.

My observation- based upon conversations I've had with a few people who indicated they were atheist- was spiritual/emotional damage caused by fundamentalism led them to their viewpoint; but at the same time they didn't seem nearly as hostile as what Harris has written.  A person I know who is an A/G walkout (like myself) says that it is not unusual for walkouts to become very (if not militantly) atheistic- so it may be a backlash against the sort of nonsense that we fight against.  In any case- like you said, Frederick- don't drink the Kool Aid!

The interesting point is that the scientists I know are not atheistic- and many, if not most of them reject the sort of argument Harris is giving as unscientific- just as "intelligent design" and creationism are rejected.  That is my stance.

As far as the "atheist-theist" debate, the reality is that all anyone can do is argue.  Sometimes arguments can be inspiring and enlightening- but not in this case.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 10:33:26 PM EST

Important discussion, so I thought Id just throw this in there. I generally agree with some of the criticisms by FC et. al. of the "New Atheists," with one qualification. I dont think it's fair to use the term eliminationism when referring to them. Eliminationism on the right (advocating "elimination" of liberals and liberalism) has been underway for a very long time and has reached a stage of advancement that the New Atheists havent even come close to in terms of an organized, significant mass movement. To use the term referring to them trivializes the very real and threatening eliminationism from the far right  that is brewing and continues to grow.

I also think the strategic critique of Harris as reinforcing the right-wing's narrative that they are being attacked is valid, but has limited utility, because they are going to claim martyrhood at the hands of their opposition no matter what. At a certain point, you simply have to stand up to bullies even if that risks allowing them to be seen as "martyrs," because the consequences of not standing up to them are much, much worse.

As a veteran of the environmental movement, I am familiar with the difficulties of coalitioning. The way it shaked out in my neck o' the woods is that, when things worked well, the mainstream enviro groups kept a distance from their more radical allies without stepping on their shoes, unless what they were doing was clearly and obviously counterproductive. We should feel compassion for the "New Atheists" in that they are acting from a place of extreme frustration. If nothing else, they make liberal religious groups seem more mainstream; there are strategic advantages in this. So while the Dawkinses and Harrises of the world may be practicing their slash and burn, let's do what we can to refocus their ire on the far right. I think Harris and Dawkins would have to admit, if asked, that they are much more concerned about the political agenda of James Dobson and Pat Robertson than they are about the political agenda of Frederick Clarkson. So maybe the best tack is to keep the focus on politics, not religion. After all, Id think that virtually no one would care what any religious person does, until such point as their religion starts to impact political life. THAT's the rub, and that's what will unify us, IMHO.

by Splash on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 02:33:20 PM EST

I think Harris indeed engages in a version of eliminationist rhetoric and in fact, has an arguably elminiationist agenda, although it certainly is different in character than say, the eliminationist views of anti-gay activists.

First, Mr. Harris is quite clear that religion must be eliminated. Second, that it is a matter of urgent national and international safety. Third that liberal and moderate religionists are enablers of terrorists and dominionists by virtue of their alleged shared beliefs and in his view, preventing criticism and indeed, ultimately the elimination of their militant beliefs. There is much that is wrong with this; and while it may as you say, make others look moderate by comparison, in fact, it is better to stop the hate before it spreads. We do this first by naming it and challenging it so that thoughtful people can seriously consider who they look to for leadership.

It is also worth noting that Mr. Harris's views are not to be confused with liberalism. Indeed, he attacks tolerance and pluralism in general and liberalism in particular. As he has made clear, he views the world through the lens of 9/11 and blames all religious people for the acts of a few.  Mr. Harris's argument and his version of atheism seems to me to have much more in common with the cynical political atheism of Leo Strauss than the warm rationalism of Carl Sagan, and bears further scrutiny, although that is probably beyond the scope of this site.

That said, we will discuss those matters that inhibit or enhance our discussion of the religious right, as well as discuss obstacles to effective action, and those things that facilitate effective action.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 07:36:25 PM EST

I confess I have not read Harris's writings, so I appreciate the clarifications. Thanks.

He seems pretty out there even with respect to the scientific community. Your points are well taken.

I'm just coming in from a tactical point of view. My point stands, I think, that politics is a more effective framing than, e.g., faith vs. no faith or science vs. religion. The frame of pluralism is crucial, and when you say Harris rejects pluralism, that's quite enough for me. Pluralistic politics is precisely what the Framers utilized to check tyrannical power. (See Madison, Fed Papers 10? or 47? Cant remember.) That's how we can check it too, and by the way, it's also a potent argument to throw back at Harris: the Framers understood the the greatest bulwark against religious tyranny is the guarantee of religious liberty for all - certainly not the "elimination" of religion.

by Splash on Thu Apr 05, 2007 at 08:24:02 PM EST

on the matter of framing.  Faith vs. no faith is the religious right's framing. Science vs. religion is simplistic, boring and a political non-starter. (Is it any wonder that Dawkins is an ivory tower professor and Harris is a grad student?)

Our framing needs to be based on religious freedom and democratic pluralism; standing within the broad,inclusive and progressive tradition of the Constitution, and the struggle to extend full equality to the citizens.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 03:00:58 PM EST

performance during the Iraq war, a link to Straussian neoconservatism should be seriously investigated.  You realized this bunch supported Osama's fundamentalist movement during the cold war to fight communism in Afghanistan, and they supported Hamas to undermine the PLO.  They have always seemed to most hostile to non-extremists.  Hitchens actually endorsed Bush during the last election, and he supported the war against Saddam as part of the fight against islamofascism, despite the fact that Saddam was not an Islamist, and despite the fact that every knowledgable middle east expert knew the alternative to Saddam was Shia fundamentalism.

I think this maybe deliberate.  They promote extemists on both sides which ratchets up the conflict then they take side with the most powerful asshole, which you know will be religious right friendly leaders like Bush.

Now the Palestinians have wised up to the plan, and have quit the PLO and joined Hamas, and now Hamas is being taken over by the old moderate leadership of the PLO, maybe liberal atheist should coopt this athiest chauvinism clique Hitchens and Harris have going.  I am sure there is an official organization associated with them.

by strayroots on Sun May 13, 2007 at 10:08:54 AM EST

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