Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: July, 2009

The Myth of Atheist Bigotry

Gus diZerega, author of Beliefnet’s “A Pagan’s Blog” decides to take a whack at the New Atheist pinata by attacking Sam Harris for his recent New York Times op-ed opposing the appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH (I oppose it too).

DiZegera does the usual anti-Harris quote mining to prove that Harris is a horrible, horrible man, but I want to point out two of diZegera’s salvos that I think deserve particular derision.

Sam Harris has a column in today’ New York Times objecting to Obama’s naming Francis Collins director of NIH. He objects solely because Collins is a Evangelical Christian.

Wrong. (And come on, atheist-hayta’s, do you really think the Times would publish a lengthy op-ed by someone who did oppose him on those grounds?) Here’s what Harris actually wrote:

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. . . . .

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

He is not opposing Collins because of his religion, he is opposing Collins for his very public, totally unabashed rejection of science and rationalism within the very field over which he will wield so much power. You should read the whole thing to get the full story, for surely diZegera did not.

Indeed, diZegera did not even bother to come up with his own post title. He hat-tips a post by Mark Kleiman which sports the same title (“Biogited Atheism”) and makes the same erroneous claim. Again, if you’ve read the actual piece, you can’t possibly come to the conclusion reached by Kleiman. I mean diZegera.

Oh, and the best part of diZegera’s attack piece:

What a total loser.

Classy, right?

Let’s be done with him. Kleiman makes his case at least a little bit better than diZegera, and uses fewer words.

When Sam Harris objects to the nomination of Francis Collins as NIH Director because Collins is an Evangelical Christian who has actual Evangelical Christian beliefs, that’s different … how, exactly?

Harris wants to impose by politics the sort of “religious test” the Framers explicitly forbade imposing by law.

Nice try, I admit, but the test that Harris wants imposed is not religious–it’s scientific. The head of the NIH should not allow his beliefs in the supernatural to inhibit his pursuit of knowledge. By deciding that vast areas of intellectual discovery are off-limits to science and only the purview of spirituality and mysticism, that is a rejection of the very idea of scientific inquiry, the antithesis of what the NIH ought to be engaged in.

This is very important: No one would not want an energy secretary who felt that wind was off-limits as a power source because worshiping the Wind Spirit was part of his or her religion. Collins has been very clear about what parameters he places around science, and we should take him at his word.

Update: Oh no. I am a bigot!

No, no, no, no, no.

An astoundingly puffy review by Alain de Botton of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God begins by tossing out the usual atheism = fundamentalism canard, and then goes one step farther to show how little the reviewer understands about atheism.

Both atheists and fundamentalists take God to be an essentially human sort of figure, a giant Father in the sky who watches over us, punishes the guilty, intervenes directly in our affairs and is entirely comprehensible to our minds.

For the last time*: Not only do we disbelieve in your Father in the sky, we disbelieve in any and all notions of any supernatural, unknowable, omnipotent, omniscient, cosmic intelligence. We reject the idea of a god or deities or universal spirits no matter what form they are purported to take, be they anthropomorphic, glowing ethereal mist, an infinite stack of turtles, or a plate of spaghetti. We disbelieve in all notions of a god be they interventionist or disinterested, moral or vengeful. We do not believe them in a house, we do not believe them with a mouse.

If you want to build a case for God, have at. But to begin the debate by cartoonishly portraying the worldview of atheists in such a blatantly narrow way is not a good place to start. I haven’t read Armstrong’s book, so I would hope that her argument begins on firmer footing than de Botton’s ridiculous caricature–which, by the way, also equates al Qaida with Richard Dawkins in the first paragraph. Classy.

*I know it won’t be the last time. Sigh.

LA Times Supports the Wall, Misses the Point

The Los Angeles Times editorial page comes down, somewhat half-heartedly, on the side of the separation of church and state. Treading warily into the waters surrounding the etching of God invocations at the new Capitol Visitors Center, the paper makes, in the end, the right call:

No matter how large or small the conflict, government should speak softly in matters of religion. In this case, Congress ought to leave well enough alone, because the less said about God on the walls of government buildings, the better.

No argument here. The LA Times showed an appalling lack of judgment in printing Charlotte Allen’s bigoted anti-atheist tirade (and in its dim-witted defense of said choice), but they are at the very least cognizant of the need for less religious encroachment into government. That said, they also engage in some nauseating hedging on separation issues in this piece, and miss the wider point of separation as a whole.

This is another case that calls for reasonableness rather than stridency. Although there is an understandable rationale for keeping phrases like “In God We Trust” in places where they’ve traditionally appeared — on, say, pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters . . . 

Let me stop you right there. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page as far as what we mean by “traditional.” Traditionally, as in the stadard set by the Constitution, throwing God’s name around on official government documents and legal tender is less than traditional, and more a move by Salmon Chase to ingratiate himself (something Chase excelled at) with some fervently religious influentials during the Civil War, and then codified by anti-Soviet hysteria in the 1950s. Just wanted to clear that part up. Here’s the substance of my beef:

. . . it hardly seems necessary to retrofit a government building at substantial cost merely to add words that might offend some people.

And now you’ve really lost me. Once again, we need to stop worrying so much about what is and is not “offensive.” Keeping in mind that there are always degrees of offense (I would be offended, say, if the Senate chamber were to display a giant sign reading “Muslims are traitors” or “Hitler had the right idea” or some such evil nonsense), but that’s not what we’re talking about.

I don’t think religious invocations should be removed from government buildings because they hurt my feelings. Hurt feelings is the rationale used by religionists when they oppose private atheistic displays. I want to keep these things separate because government support or endorsement of any kind of superstition, theology, mythology, supernatural revelation, dogma is a bad thing. It fosters sectarianism, it is exclusionary to all those who don’t subscribe to that belief or that form of theism (certainly our Hindu friends, for example, would probably like to know which god it is we are claiming to trust), it celebrates faith over factual understanding, it dilutes a commitment to science and reality, and casts as unAmerican those who do not trust in their imaginary superbeing. There is no constitutional amendment against being offended, nor should there be.

The LA Times again:

At the same time, it’s worth noting that the defenders of secularism sometimes seem to make an inordinate fuss over minor issues (such as this one) when there are more significant battles to be fought.

That’s fine that they think so. But just because one battle is “more significant” than another in a given moment does not in the least mean that it is not worth fighting.

As is often the case, this is cross-posted at my column.

P.S. – I’m aware that this is the second post in which I’ve said that the LA Times “misses the point” in a blog post title. What can I say? It’s a thing they do.

I Told You Not To Lie About the Numbers

If you troll the usual stomping grounds of atheistic bloggery, you have probably already come across Byron McCane’s op-ed in The State heralding the alleged fall of the New Atheism. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s the usual tut-tutting from a morally superior, uber-tolerant spiritual blowhard deriding the New Atheism as angry, unjustifiably derisive, etc., etc. There have been several highly enjoyable dressings-down of this.

But there’s an aspect of it that is a problem of our own making. Take a look at the statistics McCane cites as evidence of New Atheism’s fall (emphasis mine):

. . . they dramatically overestimated the number of unbelievers. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans are not currently members of any religious organization. This finding led to the claim that one in six Americans is now an unbeliever. But the data actually show that three quarters of the people in that 15 percent are “in between” religious commitments.

. . . At any given moment, 15 percent of us may be unaffiliated, but most of those are believers. In a recent Pew Forum survey, in fact, only 1.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists.

You see what’s going on here?

Months ago, I warned that atheists need to be careful about how we use encouraging-looking statistics from Pew, ARIS, and other sources. Though the “unaffiliated” and “no religion” percentages suggest on the surface some huge uptick in unbelief, the fact is that normally the actual numbers of self-declared atheists and agnostics are mere fractions of the “none” groups. I wrote in February:

We have to be careful when we use these numbers in our rhetoric and when dealing with the press and politicians. As champions of facts over faith, we have to be honest about which numbers correspond to what group, without allowing for venial sins of omission (“Well, if they infer that 16.1 percent of Americans are atheists, so what?”).

I have since seen and read countless incidents in which well-intentioned nonbelievers have touted the more impressive numbers over the harsh realities (as have folks in the media, likely not knowing any better), and I have cringed every time. I’m sorry, everybody, America is not 16% atheist. At best, we may be in the 10-12% range when we are talking about those for whom deities and religion are a non-issue. I’m pretty confident about that range based on responses to the various surveys’ questions, but when even these numbers have to be used delicately, since those who actually outright deny the existence of God never rise above 3% or so in any of the recent major surveys. ARIS has us squashed to a meager 0.7% for those who explicitly call themselves “atheists.”

We have to be honest about these stats. I’m surprised that we aren’t called out on our loose math more often by opponents–though maybe that’s because math and science are not exactly their strong points. Last thing they want to do is start lending legitimacy to data. Regardless, McCane’s piece is, I’m sure, not the first or last time this deeper look at the numbers will be brought to light by unfriendly elements.

As proponents of rationalism, we have to deal with reality on its own terms, not as we would like it to be. Stop telling people that nonbelievers make up 15% of the country, because we don’t–or if we do, not enough of us are telling pollsters when they ask. Our honesty and our adherence to facts are our greatest strengths. To leave gaping holes like this only makes us easy targets for our enemies to nail us where it hurts.

Side note: McCane also posits, “Perhaps non-belief can be re-framed as a productive hiatus during the busy life of a spiritual migrant, or as a thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent.”

In other words, atheism is just a little rest stop on the way to Voodooland. I mean, no one would really want to stay an atheist. So just be a nonbeliever for a little while, get it out of your system, and then come back to the fold.

McCane argues for a “kinder, gentler atheism” to take the place of the New Atheism. I’m sure he would like that much better. His ideal atheist is one who shuts up, never openly questions the ridiculous, and then bows down to the social pressure applied by a credulous religious majority. I opt to resist that cowering posture tooth and nail no matter how uncomfy it makes the superstitious, and cast my lot with those who are so outrageously bold as to make their case, in public and on the merits. That’s my atheism, be it new or old.

Hindus + Heathens = Homies

Via Merinews, filed under Wow-I-Didn’t-See-That-Coming:

Hindus have criticised Pope for rough handling of atheists and humanists in his long awaited encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) issued in Rome.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI wrote in this letter: “…ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism, which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.”

Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada, said that as Catholics and Hindus and others had freedom of their belief systems and were respected for their respective choices, and so should be the atheists. A religious leader of Pope’s stature should have been more inclusive.

Zed, who is president of Universal Society of Hinduism, said that although Pope talked about “right to religious freedom,” “cooperation of the human family,” “truly universal human community,” etc, in this document, he apparently condemned the beliefs of a considerable chunk of world population called atheists, humanists, etc. Who were we as human beings to judge publicly that other humans’ beliefs different than us were “inhuman”?

Mr. Zed, I think that is particularly awesome of you. In my totally unofficial capacity as Representative for All Atheists (TM), I hereby thank you on behalf of all heathens for having our back. We owe you a solid.

Why I’m All Sub-Zero on Mr. Non-Zero

I want to clarify why I’m harping on Robert Wright and his attitude toward the New Atheists. I think I made it pretty clear in my first post on the subject, but let’s make sure all i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

I know that Wright is not a scientist, and in a lot of his work he constructs well-informed, well-sourced theories around solid scholarly work, but not necessarily through the means of strict social science or hard and fast expertise in a particular field. That’s great, as far as I’m concerned. He’s extremely insightful, a creative thinker, and can perceive connections and lines of thought that are refreshing and enlightening. He’s like an eggheadier Bill Bryson. Fantastic.

But then he decides, seemingly out of nowhere, to take on the New Atheists. Surely, he’s not the only nonreligious, doubting public intellectual to find them unappealing, and that’s fine, too. One of my heroes in the world of religious/nonreligious study is Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, and she makes no bones about her distaste for Richard Dawkins, et. al. (In fact, you can see a panel discussion that includes Wright and Hecht together here. Very cool stuff.)

Usually the criticisms leveled at the New Atheists (or any atheists I would label as “instigators“) are based on tone and attitude; they’re too arrogant, they’re too brash, they cavalierly dismiss the positive aspects of religion. I don’t happen to think any of those things are true on the whole–save for Christopher Hitchens who, unlike Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Dawkins, or PZ Myers, is not a scholar or scientist, and whose whole shtick is being a kind of intellectual boor, and bless him for it.Wright’s complaints are similar, but the evidence he has cited in his posts at the Huffington Post and the Daily Dish is, I think, frightfully–and uncharacteristically for him–weak. The sloppy quote-mining of Dawkins, the misinterpretation of Harris (with whom he has said he shares a perspective on notions of transcendence), and now the aspersions cast on the rhetoric of Dawkins and Dennett.

So what’s going on here? As I think I’ve made pretty clear, I don’t begrudge Wright’s discomfort with the New Atheists, but I do wonder at the lengths to which he seems to be going to put mileage between them and him. I am in the middle of reading his The Evolution of God (loving it), and I mean to see his interview with Bill Moyers from this past week, and so perhaps things will become clearer once I’ve taken all of that in. But as for the substance of the aforementioned blog posts in and of themselves, the criticisms seem spurious, and they lead me to wonder what might behind it all.

Wright states from the outset of his book that his thesis is that religion may be evolving to bring us closer to some sort of truth about the transcendent nature of the universe, just as our understanding of science evolves to bring us closer to the truth about the physical nature of the universe. I’m happy to go along for that ride! In interviews and in these posts he has made clear that he sees the New Atheists as painting with too broad a brush in their criticisms of religion and belief. Again, I don’t think so at all, but one at least has to grant that religion in the culture at large gets a huge pass, discussions of religion are overwhelmingly positive and apologetic, and for substantive criticism to even break through all the holiness one may feel obliged to take a harsher rhetorical posture. But regardless, it’s fine to disagree with their approach.

But it’s another thing to make weirdly inaccurate accusations: right-wingery, intolerance, hypocritical irrationality–they’re simply not supported by the facts. So what troubles me is that someone as intellectually formidable, eminently readable, and as public as Wright has chosen to have at the New Atheists in this particular manner. Perhaps he and Daniel Dennett need to have a debate so all this can get flushed out. But whatever the inspiration for these attacks (he himself has called them “attacks”), I hope that at the very least he can back them up a little more solidly. Then we in the community of doubters can have a real debate on the merits of the issue at hand. It’s certainly a debate we’re not afraid to have.

Religion : Virus :: Ed : Jerk

I want to reassert: I am a fan of Robert Wright’s. I really am! Which makes me all the more queasy when I read his latest weird attack on the New Atheists, this time at the Daily Dish:

I agree that the “new atheists” see their mission as advancing reason. But I think this self-conception can abet self-delusion, making it easier for them to be blind to their own lapses of reason.

For example:

I think Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett are confused in describing religion as a “virus” of the mind. After all, viruses are typically parasitic—they spread at the expense of the host. And Dawkins and Dennett would surely concede that, say, the Catholic belief in the wrongness of contraception has helped the belief’s hosts—the Catholics—flourish in Darwinian terms. If Dawkins and Dennett were being truly rational, they’d call religious belief a “symbiont” that can be either parasitic or “mutualistic” (i.e. win-win), depending on the belief in question.

Now, this seems to me to be quite a stretch. Dawkins and Dennett are being irrational because they chose a virus as their metaphor for religion? That’s the kicker? Maybe it’s a tad unflattering, as Wright laboriously explains further into the piece, but is this really a strong example of intellectual hypocrisy?

Seriously: Is it just me or is this a really weak shot at two of the Horsemen?

I grant you, using the image of a virus is not benign, and I am certain it is not intended to be. But it is not irrational, either. To believe so, one has to take as a given that religion is itself a neutral concept–or an inherently good one. Under Wright’s logic, it can’t be negative. But Dawkins and Dennett go to great lengths in their books, speeches, articles, etc. to make the case for why religion is on the whole a bad thing. They’ve proven their thesis over and over again.

Wright may not buy their conclusions, but one can’t take the virus metaphor as a scientific assessment based on a phenomenon on which no opinion has been reached, and for which no evidence has been offered.

Let me put it another way. If I come up to you as a total stranger and say, “That guy Ed is a jerk,” that would seem, indeed, pretty irrational. You don’t know who Ed is or what he’s like, so calling him a jerk is clearly not a scientific assessment.

But if you and I both know Ed, and I have been telling you for months how he beats me up on the way to work, mocks me at the office, and harasses my wife with lewd jokes, not only ought I call the cops, but it would not at all be considered irrational for me to call Ed a jerk. You may actually like Ed, you may find him funny and ultimately well-meaning, and therefore disagree with my conclusion. But you would at least see that I’ve made a rational case for thinking as I do.

Dawkins and Dennett have spared no amount of thought, conversation, debate, ink, or pixels to make the case that religion is harmful. In that light, it is a fully rational decision to compare this harmful phenomenon to a virus. Had they no knowledge of religion, no experience of its effects on society, well, then maybe calling it a virus would seem ill-conceived and prejudicial.

The only thing I’m finding irrational lately is Robert Wright’s odd disdain for the New Atheists. As I’ve said before, you’d think they’d all be on the same side.

Try all you want to upset me, Mr. Wright, but it’s not going to work: I’m still going to enjoy your books. So there.

P.S. – I know a few guys named Ed, and all are stand-up fellows, none of them jerks. Promise.

Wright Calls Me Out, Pinker Calls Out the Boston Globe

Robert Wright called me out by name in a follow-up to his HuffPo piece dissing the New Atheists (my post that responds to Wright is here). I have never been more excited to be quote-mined or taken out of context. I remain a fan (and so far thoroughly enjoying The Evolution of God).

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker throws a bare-knuckled punch at the Boston Globe for publishing a letter to the editor from that thoughtless think tank the Discovery Institute. It happily reminded me of Pinker’s similarly blunt assessment of the choice of Francis Collins to head the NIH, as posted at Jerry Coyne’s blog:

I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation. Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.

You Go Have Your Togetherness Somewhere Else

The Christian Science Monitor posts a positive piece on the rise of local atheist groups and organizations, how they have gone from a smattering of embittered religion haters to a formidable and wide variety of communities going out of their way to do good works and offer each other fellowship. I think all that’s great.

Yet here I remain in my house, at my desk, reading my books or typing away at my computer. I get e-mails and Facebook messages and RSS notices of all sorts of atheist and freethought events, get-togethers, happy hours, tours, book club meetings, etc., etc., and I never go to any of them. Am I a hypocrite?

I don’t think so. But my inclination I think is one that is shared by a lot of egg-heady nonbelievers, and it is likely something that has somewhat stunted atheist organization in the past. In general, I avoid with great fervor social occasions, particularly those with people I don’t know well or have never met. The fact that everyone attending a particular event is an atheist does not make me any more eager.

Given this, and the fact that I feel no sense of loss for the series of rituals or ceremonies that come with religion, makes a lot of the local, community-based atheist organization a little moot for me. I am very happy it’s happening, and I am happy from a distance.

Am I missing something? Have any fellow site-specific introverts found themselves pleasantly surprised by a godless MeetUp or other such gathering? Give me an idea.

The Economist Treats Atheists as Humans, Uses Phrase ‘Unicorn Poop’

The Economist covers Camp Quest, the summer camp for freethinkers, and does a bang-up job. I haven’t written about Camp Quest because of a lack of firsthand experience and a seeming glut of coverage from other blogs, but I thought this piece was particularly glowing. Given the status of the Economist among the cognoscenti on both sides of the pond, I think it’s a great little nugget of atheist public relations.

My favorite part?

Campers are told that invisible unicorns inhabit the forest, and offered a prize if they can prove that the unicorns do not exist. The older kids learn something about the difficulty of proving a negative. The younger ones grow giggly at the prospect of stepping in invisible unicorn poop.

This is what I love about the idea of Camp Quest: an emphasis not on a cultural identity, but of a mindset. It’s about cherishing critical thinking in a world of the credulous, not about some group or other’s advancement.

Also of great importance in this piece, however, is not just the coverage of the camp, but the consideration given to the plight of atheists. Normally, the idea that atheists are ostracized is given a sentence or two, in the midst of a mention of the most recent Pew or ARIS survey. But here, we get real context as to why nonbelieving parents might their kids to have a Camp Quest experience.

Many atheists opt to remain in the closet, except perhaps with their closest friends. It is the path of least resistance. Deny the existence of God and you may be challenging your neighbours’ most deeply held beliefs. That could get you ostracised, so why risk it? Yet living in the closet has costs. Christians have their beliefs constantly reinforced by neighbours who proudly and openly share them. Atheists often wrestle with their consciences alone, even though they are perhaps 8% of the population. . . .

Isolation matters especially when it comes to bringing up children, a tough task at the best of times. Christian parents can call on a vast support network of churches, Sunday schools, Bible camps and incidentally religious organisations such as the Boy Scouts. Atheists have precious little to compare with this. Small wonder the kids at Camp Quest seem so cheerful.

For this piece, atheists are not a quirky novelty. The camp is not a mere curiosity for some human interest oddball story. These atheists are human beings finding their place in the world.