It’s American Atheists billboards time, again!

daveby Massimo Pigliucci

Christmas is fast approaching. So, naturally, American Atheists has launched its usual billboard campaign to nudge closeted atheists to come out and embrace the good news. AA President David Silverman is again spearheading what he calls the organizations’ “firebrand” approach to fighting religion. Despite being a lifetime member of American Atheists, I have criticized the group on this issue before [1], and recently, I did so again, on Twitter, which led to a back and forth with David and some of his supporters [2]. At some point, however, Silverman threw the evidence-based bomb: he claims to have data showing that his approach is working, and since quantitative data is science, and science doesn’t lie, the matter is settled.

Well, not so fast, I think. In this essay I will first explain why I object to “firebrand” atheism and on what principled (i.e., before evidence) grounds. I will then look at David’s data and argue that it doesn’t show what he thinks it does, and why even if it did this would still not settle the matter. I will then end with some constructive suggestions for atheist activism more generally.

Why firebrand atheism is a bad idea

American Atheists’ billboards have carried messages the likes of “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice,” “What myths do you see?,” “Christianity? Sadistic God; useless Savior; 30,000+ versions of ‘truth’; promotes hate, calls it ‘love’” (I know, this is a mouthful…); “You know they are all scams”; “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody”; and this year’s entry, featuring a cute kid and the words “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.”

The reason I find this approach objectionable is precisely the reason David pushes it: it is in-your-face, belittling religious believers by telling them in huge font that they built their lives around myths and lies, and that they worship morally reprehensible charismatic figures. The ads paint religion with one broad brush, implying, or outright stating, that it is fundamentally stupid and evil.

The first problem with all this is that the older I get the less I think that being offensive on purpose gets you anywhere. Few will listen to you if you start out the conversation by telling then that they are idiots.

The second, related point, comes from my embracing of virtue ethics, which is based on the idea that one’s character is the defining mark of one’s moral worth [3]. Since I consider it a moral failing when religious fundamentalists behave in a “firebrand” fashion, coherence leads me to make the same judgment call when it is my fellow atheists who do it.

Third, I think in-your-face atheism is pernicious because it projects exactly the wrong image of atheism to the rest of the world, reinforcing the already prevalent stereotype of atheists as callous, self-righteous individuals who are out to destroy civilization as we know it.

But, says David, the target of AA ads are not believers, nor fence sitters. The billboards are instead aimed at closeted atheists, trying to encourage them to come out and be counted. And of course my Twitter feed is testimony to the anecdotal validity of this claim, as a number of Silverman’s supporters reinforced the idea (though I can’t recall a single one who actually said that they personally came out of the closet as a result of seeing an AA ad).

I have no reason to doubt David’s intentions, nor his anecdotal evidence (we’ll come to his quantitative one shortly), but there are a couple of obvious rejoinders. To begin with, it is reasonable to assume that closeted atheists would be encouraged by any publicly displayed atheist message, not just by negative ones. And there have been, indeed, a number of more positive campaigns conducted by other organizations (some of which mix positive and negative messages, others sticking more to the positive side of the spectrum). For instance: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club” (United Coalition of Reason [4]); “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” (UCoR); “This is what an atheist looks like” (with a picture of a friendly, smiling atheist; Freedom from Religion Foundation [5]); “I can be good without God” (FfRF).

Moreover, even though one’s target audience may respond in the desired fashion, surely one should also be concerned with the likely side effects and collateral damage, in the form of other atheists, agnostics and religious people who may be turned off by the aggressiveness of the message. Presumably AA’s overall goal is to promote the cause of atheism broadly speaking, so the pros and cons of their campaigns need to be weighed against each other, on penalty of winning a Pyrrhic victory [6].

So to recap, I have two kinds of objections to firebrand atheism: one of principle (it is not the ethical thing to do); the other pragmatic (it may backfire on the whole movement). Notice that the principled objection needs to be addressed on principled grounds, not with a “but it works” type of response. After all, plenty of other things may (or may not) work, such as the death penalty, or torture, but we nonetheless can legitimately oppose them on a priori ethical grounds. Now to the pragmatic objection, concerning which empirical evidence is indeed germane, and where David thinks he’s got a good set of cards to play.

Evidence based atheism

Which brings me to a talk given by Silverman entitled “Ready, Aim, Firebrand!” [7], where he presented the data that are supposed to speak to the empirical side of the issue (apparently, a book is coming soon, with more details). The pertinent bits are found between 8’02” and 17’02”.

The data comes from an analysis of Google searches for the word “atheist” performed over the past several years. Here is my reconstruction of the graph, after having replicated the analysis:

SciSal-1-atheist

David claims that the “floor of normalcy” (i.e., the baseline after each predictable peak of media-generated attention, in December) has been “permanently” raised since 2006, and he attributes this — with no evidence — to the publication of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which occurred at about the same time. For all I know, Silverman could be right on both counts, but it is actually pretty tricky to do a serious statistical analysis demonstrating long-term trends in highly noisy data sets like the one in question, and of course the date of publication of Dawkins’ book is suggestive but far from conclusive. Still, let me concede both points for the sake of argument.

Next, David noticed that every Christmas there is a spike in G-searches for the word “atheist,” which he christened “the O’Reilly effect” (after the Fox News commentator who seasonally complains about a “war on Christmas”). Again, the floor for Christmas searches seems to have gone “permanently” up beginning with 2008, which Dave attributes (again, with no direct evidence at all) to the Dawkins-sponsored bus campaign in England and to the launch of an FfRF law suit. At the least the first suggestion, the connection with the bus campaign, is questionable, on the grounds that Google also allows one to graph hits by country, and the UK doesn’t even rank among the top seven in this case, which makes it hard to see how a British advertising event causally affected a worldwide trend which is actually centered largely on the United States (the second ranked country for that search is the Philippines, the third Trinidad and Tobago, followed by Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand; seems to me that the Brits simply don’t give a hoot about atheism).

David then pointed out yet another (alleged) permanent rise of the floor of normalcy, which occurred in 2010, when AA began its controversial billboard campaigns under his leadership. There is also a spike that seems to coincide with the Reason Rally, and moreover spikes for “atheist” correlate with spikes for “American Atheists,” which Silverman takes as evidence of the success of the campaigns for his organization in particular (no corresponding spikes appear for “secular humanist,” “agnostic” and “skeptic”).

Except that the number of hits for AA is a minute fraction of those for “atheist” (which David acknowledged), as shown in this graph:

SciSal-2-atheist and AA

This is relevant because any statistician will tell you that to correlate two variables when one has much less variance than the other often leads to spurious and unstable results. But these are technical caveats, which I am mentioning simply to reinforce the broader idea that this sort of analysis ought to be done by professional statisticians and social scientists in order to be convincing.

A more serious issue is that the “floor of normalcy” has apparently not been raised permanently at all: if you look at the first graph above, it is clear that things have begun to slide back down, on average, starting with October ’13. Indeed, the December ’13 peak is only at 82% of the highest peak, which occurred in April (not December!) of ’12.

In fact, it is curious that David didn’t even mention that the pattern of peaks is much more complex than he told his audience: peaks actually alternate at December (Christmas) and April (Easter?), and there is a number of off-season peaks as well, on 6/04, 9/05, 5/07, 10/09, 9/10, 8/12, and 8/14. Moreover, breaking the recurring pattern, there was no peak in April ’13. It appears that David took an inordinate amount of statistical liberties in focusing on aspects of the data that he could explain according to his narrative of AA success, while ignoring a lot of other aspects of the same data for which evidently he had no ready made explanation. And, once again, the floor of normalcy seems to have abated of late…

Back to David’s talk. Near the end of the data-based part of his presentation at SSA, he makes the interesting claim that a colleague of his (Ryan Cragun) found a correlation (which he did not show) quantifying the fact that “the slope of this line [‘atheist’ searches on Google] corresponds directly with the change in the slope of the line of people calling themselves atheists … a correlation of about 0.8,” which he then immediately interprets as evidence that “people are coming out of the closet” as a result of the billboards.

Now this is an interesting claim, but it is impossible to judge its merits on the basis of the brief (and a bit confused) mention it gets in the talk. So I wrote to David, who graciously explained how Cragun arrived at his conclusion. He said that the data on people calling themselves atheists comes from Gallup polls, going on to provide me with a quote from Cragun to the effect that:

“It is clear that there has been a very strong and consistent correlation between interest in atheism, generally, and interest in American Atheists, specifically, over the last three years. Causality can be more clearly determined when it comes to interest in the organization itself; the activities and events of American Atheists regularly result in heightened interest in the organization.”

The quote comes from a blog post by Cragun where he discusses in detail the Google trends data above, and it turns out to be a very selective quote indeed [8]. In reality, I can see little relationship between Cragun’s article and Silverman’s claims.

First off, Cragun does not seem to have used any Gallup data at all, his results are based on a fine-grained analysis of Google trends for the words “atheist” and “American Atheists” from 2007 through mid-2013 (thus missing the recent lowering of the floor mentioned above, which he obviously couldn’t know about).

Cragun’s essay is very carefully written, and it is worth quoting from him extensively. To begin with, after summarizing David’s results (which Cragun characterized as based on “a visual analysis,” i.e., no formal stats employed) and before presenting his own, the author explains what criteria need to be met to arrive at a strong conclusion of causality in this sort of data set:

“First, the cause must precede the effect in time. Second, the cause and effect have to be correlated. And third, you must be able to rule out alternative explanations.”

He then proceeded to report the results of analyses based on weekly (as opposed to monthly, therefore more fine grained that Silverman’s) data combed from Google, arriving at year-by-year correlations between the two search terms. Here is what the data looks like, with the year followed by the estimated correlation:

2007 = +0.16; 2008 = +0.52; 2009 = -0.05; 2010 = +0.48; 2011 = +0.46; 2012 = +0.50; 2013 = +0.81.

Notice the last number: that is the only occurrence of a correlation of about 0.8 in Cragun’s article that I could find, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Dave’s claim about the number of people who call themselves atheists. Perhaps he was referring to something else.

Cragun then comments: “The correlations between ‘atheist’ and ‘American Atheists’ have varied pretty substantially from year-to-year … That searches for the two terms are correlated meets one criteria of causality, but the other two remain to be established. Temporal causality must also be established.”

In order to attempt the latter, he ingeniously looked at temporal lags between searches, essentially correlating the number of hits on “atheist” in one week with the hits on “American Atheists” the week after (repeating this for all weeks for which he had data). He also did the reverse, correlating “American Atheists” in a given week with “atheist” in the following week. The idea was to see whether there are consistent patterns that could be interpreted as at the least indicative of a causal link. The conclusion:

“In no year was one variable’s lagged values a significant predictor of the other variable. In other words, causality cannot be statistically determined between whether searches for ‘American Atheists’ cause searches for ‘atheists’ or vice versa. … it’s impossible from these data to determine causality. … as it stands, causality cannot be determined.”

Oops. Of course, as Cragun immediately points out, this doesn’t mean that there is no causal link, only that the data doesn’t show it, contra what stated by Silverman. Which is pretty much what I told David on Twitter: establishing causality, or even making a reasonable case for it, is a complicated job, best left to professional social scientists. Notice that Cragun didn’t even touch on his third criterion for causality — “you must be able to rule out alternative explanations” — until the very end of his post, where he says: “it is possible that other events influence both search terms … Such spurious events likely account for some of the spikes in both search terms/phrases, but it is also likely the case that American Atheist activism increases searches for the other terms at times, too. And if that is the case, then that is greater evidence for correlation overall, as specific spikes may be causal, but the long term trend appears to be more correlational [i.e., non-causal].”

And now for a final bit of data-driven fun: I ran a number of searches on keywords like “bad atheism,” “hate atheism,” and “evil atheism.” They all returned similar results, but here is the graph for “evil atheism:”

SciSal-3-evil atheism

As you can see, there was nothing before 2009, but since then — and particularly since David took the helm of American Atheists — there has been marked “interest” in that particular word coupling. Just saying…

What to do instead

The bottom line of the above analysis is that the evidence adduced by David to justify his firebrand atheism is shaky and inconclusive to say the least. This is not to say that AA’s campaigns necessarily aren’t having the specific effect he wants (getting people out of the closet), though this may presumably also be accomplished via more positive messages. It also remains to be seen how much the in-your-face approach has, on balance, more negative than positive consequences for the movement. These are all issues to be established empirically, and I would love to see a serious social science study of the dynamics of recent atheism.

Silverman and his supporters, however, seem to subscribe to the Oscar Wilde school of advertising, which is often rendered as “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” but in the original actually read: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

If that’s the standard, we are indeed talking about the AA campaign, and I don’t doubt that the billboards do increase traffic to their web site. Then again, I’m sure that the same is true for those anti-abortion organizations that organize on-campus campaigns featuring highly graphic photos of aborted fetuses, campaigns that are regularly — and correctly — condemned by liberal activists precisely because they are offensive, in bad taste, play on emotions, and so forth. Apparently, the latter are all bad things, unless we do them.

Many have pointed out that the tactics of American Atheists (and of a number of other organizations, though usually less consistently so) are precise mirrors of those adopted by fundamentalist religious groups. Maybe such tactics “work,” maybe they don’t (religious fundamentalism is on the retreat in the US, in part because mainstream Americans seem to find its messages too strident and its attitudes too aggressive [9]), but do we really want to lower our standards to the level of a Jerry Falwell or thereabout? (Though, to be fair, even the most strident AA billboard is nothing like some of the milder things one hears on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club.)

Frankly, I’d rather see the atheist (and skeptic, and secular humanist) movement(s) adopt a positive, constructive image while pushing their messages. This isn’t about abstaining from criticizing religion: everything — including religion and atheism — can and should be criticized, whenever warranted, in public, honestly. But the cartoonish characterization of religion one gets from AA’s billboards is not honest, as it glosses over the intricate complexities of the religious phenomenon, not the least of which is the fact that there really is very little empirical evidence that religion is, on balance, a negative force in human affairs, atheist dogma notwithstanding [10]. Put simply, I object to my philosophical stance coming across  even to some natural allies as being supported by a bunch of angry jerks [11].

How do we avoid that? I have already commented on a number of other billboards presenting atheism as a positive message, as a palatable alternative to religion, and I believe that is both the (ethically) right and (likely) most effective way to achieve our long term goals, particularly to make atheism a socially acceptable, respected viewpoint, with a place at the high table of public policy decisions in any democratic country. And again, I see no reason to believe that fellow atheists will not come out of the closet if they see a positive message, and I suggest that likely more of them will do so under those circumstances.

Ah, say David and his supporters on my Twitter feed, but religious people will find any mention of atheism offensive, regardless. First off, this claim is actually not backed up by any evidence whatsoever. Sure, some religious fundamentalists will be offended no matter what, but does anyone truly believe that there are no reasonable, moderate religious people (and agnostics, and atheists) out there? Second, there seems to me to be a pretty sizable (and, I would have thought, obvious) difference between actually being offensive — knowingly and purposefully so — and reasonably presenting your viewpoint while acknowledging that some people will be offended no matter what. To deny such distinction slides us into a sort of postmodernist theory of offense, where the very concept of offensive speech loses meaning (if everything is, or can be, equally offensive, then what do we mean by that word?). And if there is one thing that reasonable people don’t want to do, surely it’s to go postmodernist on each other, no?

[p.s.: I have, of course, invited David to respond to this essay.]

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Some thoughts about in-your-face atheism, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 11 January 2011. Here is David’s invited response.

[2] This round of conversations with David Silverman was actually triggered by the publication of a short essay by my friend Steve Neumann, critical of the AA campaign.

[3] On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 21 August 2011.

[4] United Coalition of Reason.

[5] Freedom from Religion Foundation.

[6] Pyrrhic victory.

[7] “Ready, Aim, Firebrand!,” talk by D. Silverman at the Secular Students Alliance.

[8] Does Atheist Movement Activism Increase Interest in Atheism?, by R. Cragun, 25 September 2013.

[9] The Decline of Evangelical America, by J.S. Dickerson, The New York Times, 15 December 2012.

[10] Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion? A Skeptic’s Guide to the Debate, by S.O. Lilienfeld and R. Ammirati, Skeptical Inquirer, Jul/Aug 2014.

[11] Culture War Update – The Dividening of America – American Atheists vs. Ground Zero Cross, The Daily Show, 4 August 2011. See also: Cross Controversy at 9/11 Museum, Colbert Report, 10 March 2014.

115 thoughts on “It’s American Atheists billboards time, again!

  1. “So I’d challenge those who do that to write down exact statements by any or all of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and/or Harris which would cause you to make that accusation. ”

    I think that Dawkins calling his book “The God Delusion” is a prime example of this sort of behavior and set the tone for the Gnu atheism routinely belittling believers. The connotations of ‘delusion’ are mentally ill and unable to discern truth from imagination. That’s not an accurate description of the typical believer, not even the fundamentalist ones who insist the bible is to be believed literally.

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  2. Massimo, Well saying ‘jerks’ easily fits what this is really all about which is advertising and catching people’s attention as opposed to your point that AA is trying to engage in serious debate via billboards. May seem offensive but truth is many fundamentalists hold advanced degrees, professional jobs and have great senses of humor and have no problem with this. Perhaps in families where the parents do harass the children with fundamentalism, this sends a message of support to the children who want to question and the parents who believe they are living in a theocratic state. As atheist comedian Bill Maher points out, he draws his most supportive and enthusiastic audiences in the red states because many atheists and liberal Christians feel that their FEELINGS especially are being repressed and feelings are what comedy and clever ads are all about.

    You did mention in the essay “as I get older”………

    Take a young person’s or liberal Christian’s perspective as opposed to thinking like an old fundamentalist minister.

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  3. phoffman56 wrote “Am I alone here in thinking these statements to be indefensible?” No, and unfortunately there are many more, not just in the post, but in comments and rebuttals, equally indefensible. I’ve brooded about trying to explain how being an atheist doesn’t mean you can’t be a reactionary or even a religious bigot (or superstitious, to dot the i and cross the t,) But it is increasingly that this is hopeless: No arguments are proof against malice.

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  4. I am a practicing Jew. My religious affiliation is important to me, because it goes directly to my understanding of myself, my family, and my people and to my emotional connection to all three.

    I belong to a liberal denomination of Judaism, so my natural cultural political allies should be found among other liberal religious denominations and atheists.

    However, I almost never find myself in common cause with organized atheism, for precisely the reasons identified in Massimo’s piece. To characterize my beloved grandparents as “delusional” (Dawkins) because they believed in God, or to my religious tradition as a “celestial North Korea” (Hitchens), is to insult me, my family, and my closest friends and insures that I will have nothing to do with organized atheism.

    Indeed, I have recently been directly at odds with the organized atheist movement on my own campus — the so-called “church” of the Flying Spaghetti monster — in trying to get the university to accept pluralism in its religious displays. We are in the buckle of the Bible Belt and there is simply zero chance that Christmas displays will ever be removed from our public spaces. Members of diverse religious communities, including Jews, Hindus, and Muslims lobbied for expanding our religious displays to include those of faiths other than Christianity, during seasons in which there are multiple holidays. In my case, we were lobbying to get a menorah included, alongside the Christmas tree.

    The organized atheists ruined our negotiations — they first demanded that there be no religious displays at all and then, when they saw that wasn’t going to happen, they demanded that “Pastafarian” displays be shown next to *every* religious display, regardless of season, making a mockery of the idea of religious pluralism and guaranteeing the collapse of the negotiations. The result? Christmas displays only. In short, the organized atheists’ intervention had the effect of hurting religious minorities and bolstering religious fundamentalists.

    My objections to the strident, “firebrand” strand of Atheism peddled by the likes of Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, and Hitchens, then, are twofold:

    A. Their indiscriminate and intemperate attacks on religion and religious people are socially and morally obnoxious and thus, uncivil.

    B. Their behavior destroys the possibility of forming coalitions among atheists and liberal and progressive religious folk, with regard to social and cultural issues that comprise some of our most important political conflicts.

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  5. Not bizarre. To call any use of the term ‘culture’ other than that of a ‘scientist’ ‘snobbish’?!
    Whether he actually goes to concerts and museums is irrelevant. But this anti-intellectualism (also known as boorishness, or being a jerk) has been associated with the crew phoffman mentioned already to such a point as hardly to require rehash (as can be found op cit). You yourself called Dawkins smug, I think. Alas there are smug intellectuals, but the quality always carries a closed-mindedness that is essentially anti, ain’t it? We’re looking at a variety of atheism that is the other side of the coin of scientism, perhaps. Descartes himself was anti-intellectual, disdained books and reading. Sorry but Dawkins as poetaster is unconvincing. He reacted to criticism of The Selfish Gene’s nihilism with an embarrassing foray into rainbows and poetry-appreciation.

    Would more humor be out of place?

    Parody of Richard Dawkins’ tweets
    In Private Eye Aug.2013

    Marvelous piece on me by Polly Toynbee in Guardian three years ago next month. Well worth looking up.

    Highly intelligent response to my latest book in LRB, though sour note struck when my brilliance whilst acknowledged is criticized for being ‘understated’.

    Join me in Cardiff signing my new book about myself on Aug 27th.

    My new book is autobiography. Would not normally have bothered to write one, but no-one else has been brilliant enough to get me right.

    Here me on R4 World at One today raising several very interesting points about myself.

    —-by Craig Brown

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  6. Just as the poor will always be with us, the bullies and the jerks will always be with us. A small irreducible percentage of society will always be resentful haters, for whatever reasons. They are naturally drawn to activities that gives expression to their resentment and hatred. Thus, in different times and different places, they became variously brown shirts, black shirts, SS, KGB, Klu Klux Klan, Inquisition operatives, Abu Ghraib guards, CIA torturers, etc.

    It is a sad fact that opportunities for the resentful haters have greatly decreased in recent times. This is in large part because the rule of law is becoming ubiquitous and the rule of law is a powerful protection against the activities of the resentful haters. Some of them have become corporate bullies(where they are beyond the law) but that takes real ability so it excludes most resentful haters. Some are drill sergeants(also beyond the law)) but the military is in decline. Deprived of more ‘useful’ outlets they increasingly take refuge in the virtual world where the entrance requirements are nothing more onerous than a venomous tongue and controls are none existent.

    Some of these discovered atheism, which seems tailor made for their needs. It provides a soft target(Christianity) that is easily bullied, guide books written by people like Dawkins, and an approving online audience orchestrated by the likes of Coyne, Harris and Dawkins. Thus was atheist fundamentalism born, a natural home for resentful haters that needed a large, approving audience with minimal intellectual involvement.

    Now, as it happens, I approve of this development. First, because it is a relatively benign way for resentful haters to sublimate their urges. Second, it performs the useful function of poisoning the public image of atheism. Third, it is a powerful stimulus to Christians to get their house in order and to sharpen their arguments. The emergence of the Pope Francis phenomenon can be seen as one of the outcomes, as Christianity responds to the challenges and goes back to basics. Fourth, because it provides a stark contrast between the great good done by organisations like the Catholic Church and the mean spirited activities represented by the bill boards and buses.

    So, for all the reasons I have listed above, I urge atheist fundamentalists to continue with their good work. Yes, I know it is not an ethical wish, worthy of a virtue ethicist, and so I am going to have to seek my parish priest’s guidance at confession.

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  7. All Per the one comment by Massimo, I tweeted both him and Silverman, specifically asking Dave if it was fear, or lack of data, keeping him away from here. Hey, if he thinks “shaming” works (and what other psychological mechanism would be behind the billboards if his alleged purpose is their actual purpose), then what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    And, I’ve emailed him the tail end of my second comment, too. We’ll see if he responds.

    ==

    Robin You may be more right than I first said on “in your face” versus more restrained gay rights. That said, thanks for the additional information on Tatchell, versus Coel. Wiki confirms this, in its second paragraph, and further down, in the section about his 1983 candidacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Tatchell

    There’s “data” for you, Coel, or other empirical information.

    ==

    PHoffman56 Among people who refused to be harshly condemnatory of only slaveholders, at least, without larger contest of American history? A gent named Abraham Lincoln. In 1865. (Sorry, not translated into Latin!)

    If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

    Lincoln in many other places speaks of how the North profited from slavery, of course. (That said, had he not been assassinated, I suspect he eventually would have come down harder on the postwar South than Andrew Johnson did.)

    ==

    I also want to riff on David Ottlinger on priestly pedophilia. Not to justify it, but this problem is seemingly no worse among priests than non-Catholic religious leaders. http://www.newsweek.com/priests-commit-no-more-abuse-other-males-70625 (It’s also, at least possibly, no worse than among other males, or at least, among other males with ongoing intimate contact with children.)

    Rome makes an easy target because of Catholicism’s size and Vatican wealth, a celibate clergy, and no female priests. They’re an easy target for liberal interest groups, not just Gnu Atheists. But, Protestant ministers commit abuse, including from liberal denominations.

    (Thjs is setting aside people confusing being gay with sexual abuse of males, which is, per Gilbert Ryle, a category mistake squared.)

    So do school teachers and Boy Scout leaders, in intimate connection with many children.

    So do liberal movie directors like Roman Polanski. So do popular TV hosts like Jimmy Savile.

    ==

    I will partially disagree with one segment of Aravis’ comment. You’re at a public university, therefore, we’ve past conversion, or shaming the “closeteds” to First Amendment issues. There, I still prefer the soft approach first, but accept “bad cops” if the state won’t constitutionally respond. Even then, there’s levels of taste within “bad cops.” Personally, if it’s versus the state, I prefer Satanists doing the heavy lifting.

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  8. Part 1 of 2:

    I confess I feel conflicted here.

    First, I cannot remark on the statistical issues here, except to say that, as far as I can tell, they really are neither decisive nor even very suggestive. Increase in ‘googling’ is pretty uninformative as to why anybody might be googling, which would seem to be the real issue.

    The ethical issue, which has a necessary rhetorical/ political side, is much more difficult to untangle.

    I’m sympathetic to the New Atheists; it was listening to their debates and reading their books that lifted me out of a five year period of reading nothing but mystery stories and popular history. I haven’t read so much science and philosophy as I have this year, for quite some time. I wouldn’t have sought out this webzine without that influence

    I also think that the New Atheism has given voice to a growing frustration many non-theists feel in a culture where they are often under verbal criticism and condemnation (even from their own government representatives), and in a world where some Islamic nations have made them criminals, even subject to a death penalty. (Some former British colonies still have a variant of Britain’s old anti-blasphemy law on the books; similar laws can be found in largely Catholic South America.) In such a context, surely one can understand the desire for greater stridency of public presentation.

    However, I recognize that rhetoric involves a tactical control over the response from an audience, in order to accomplish the strategic goal of changing their behavior. We begin a cover letter for our resumes, ‘Dear Mr/Ms X: I would be pleased if you would review the enclosed (…),’ because we wish to assure the reader we respect their dignity, and put them in the right frame of mind to consider hiring us. Opening with ‘Hey, Bub, gimme a job!’ is a non-starter.

    Whenever I comment on blogs that are openly committed to clarifying and propagating atheistic thought, I’ve no trouble either reading or writing snark, satire, and abrasive belittling of theistic thought. Sometimes a theistic meme or soundbyte is really such that one has to remark the absurdity of it in no uncertain terms, to someone of like mind. But of course the context of such a blog assures me that I’m among like minds in the audience.

    When discussing the issue with theists, or where I know theists are in my audience, I tend to write in more of a reasoned argumentative style. That is because any secularist, non-theistic, atheistic position not only stands on its rationality, but must insist on it. (I’m aware that there are some who are non-theistic because of some gut feeling, or lack of same; but they generally don’t participate in political or cultural debates where the matter is important.) Any supernaturalism is irrational because its first premises cannot be demonstrated in a manner coherent with claims supposedly adduced from them, concerning the natural order of the world.

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  9. Part 2 of 2:

    Now, I realize that this will seem duplicitous on my part; I seem not only to distinguish ‘insider talk’ from public talk, but also suggesting that they both have their place, and that one can move between them – and perhaps ought to. And there is a bias against that sort of distinction in this country (although we do it all the time); and where this practice involves touchy issues, old biases, or potental flash-point topics (like ethnicity, sexuality, class), this can lead to hypocrisy, exclusion, systematic abuse, confrontation.

    But surely that has to do with particular issues and institutional privilege. If a group of ‘good ol’ boys’ want to disparage ethnicities at their local bar, they cannot be denied the right to do so; if however they are also policemen and bring this attitude to their jobs, then we have a problem.

    Obviously a thorny issue. But the fact remains that in any given context, we must ask what the context allows – and what it demands. We insist that theist teachers do not preach their religion in a science course; by the same token, atheists ought to consider their audience – in classrooms, in town counsels, in courts of law, and on billboards.

    So, when we look at the billboards being debated here, we do have to ask, to which audience are they addressed.

    Silverman claims they are addressed to young people thinking of ‘coming out’ atheist. Here, statistics would be important, as to determining their effectiveness, and the statistics right now are inconclusive. But I’m not even sure this is necessarily a good strategy, effectiveness aside. When I was a Christian, I was taught that the greatest persuasion was to live as example – if others wanted what I had, they would search it out. Of course, I didn’t have much as a Christian, never achieving a true belief in it; but I kept the idea in my head when I later adopted Buddhism; and as it happens, Buddhist traditions are rich in narratives of conversion-by-example. A good practice will appeal to those who feel the need for it.

    I confess that, after watching Silverman’s address, ‘Ready, Aim, Firebrand,’ I do share the concern that Silverman’s strategy is simply and only to get attention to the cause, regardless of possible negative audience response. I’m not sure if this in and of itself can persuade the closeted to come out, or the fence-sitter to jump onto the atheist side.

    The ‘santa/fairy tales’ billboard is amusing, but its really ‘insider’ humor made public. And dismissing religions as ‘scams’ is not only unnecessarily abrasive, it’s simply untrue.

    Coel is right to point out that negative campaigning works; and he’s not wrong to argue that a pluralistic atheism may need include the more strident.

    But there’s no denying that rhetoric involves context-sensitivity, which necessarily triggers ethical considerations. The old saw, ‘honey attracts more flies than vinegar,’ is not only sound, but perhaps more ethically responsible.

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  10. It is a strange notion (at least to me) to think that if somehow religion disappeared tomorrow all would be right with the world or to a lesser extent that the world would even be better than it is now. How could anyone be so sure? Just as strange or perhaps stranger to me are those who think it would be better if everyone were a Christian. What we should be seeking is a secular society with religious and other freedoms – not religious privilege or religious exclusion. I rarely join groups and I dislike ritual. If the choice were between going to services of any kind (religious or secular) or working in the garden or going on a walk – I would always choose the latter. Religion has no appeal even though much of my family is religious.

    What’s my solution – try to be offended much less and try to laugh much more – which I am sure will offend someone.

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  11. What is the problem?
    (1) statistics is used as a method of presenting evidence
    (2) such evidence lacks credibility, but achieves value
    (3) such value is distracting from things of greater value

    How is the problem approached?
    (1′) predispositions preceding the problem are responsible for the problem (i.e., the condition of atheism in the world, largely if not exclusively among humans who also exhibit a diversity of theism as well)
    (2′) a criteria of evidence has been developed that qualifies things of value about which things should receive more attention (as well as money)
    (3′) Ayn Rand approached this problem, resulting in a very confusing, albeit highly inspiring, nonsensical delusion of compatible objectivism and egoism (i.e., the ego approached the problem of evidence as one that prior analysis insufficiently achieved as skepticism, and skepticism failed to be convincing). In short, dualism is false, but there is no “:healthy” skepticism.

    Does the problem admit of any answer or solution?
    (1″) statistics is non recursive; it cannot produce evidence of anything except statistics, and the inductive circularity by appeal to statistics is received either as sarcasm poking fun at cartoons or realism embarrassing itself for no good.
    (2″) the results are that comedians get paid and realists provide further subject matter for comedians, e.g., the solution is always going to be trivialized as presenting a problem (e.g., problem #3) and the approach is going to be just like Ayn Rand’s example.
    (3″) To me, I think the answer is that atheism defeats post-modernism, but that postmodernism is too confusing to be given adequate treatment as a bona fide worldview in rejecting both objectivity and realism (and Ayn Rand cannot exemplify all that is wrong in philosophy).

    What next?
    (1″‘) sloppy rhetoric is always sloppy, and if anyone is getting paid for it, well, please, try to resist including the word “American,” in it, please? I am just a poor veteran soldier with no confidence in the unruling Republicans.
    (2″‘) well, I always drink coffee. So, drinking more just makes me sick.
    (3″‘) The positive aspects of this issue of appropriately identifying evidence (as baring statistics) and identifying atheism (as barring any sign of violence, while strangely co-opting legal language used only for aspects of warfare, sch as “collateral damage” and “militant atheism”) makes me a stalker of this website. I don’t know if I can handle it, but I promise that I will try. Capitalism persists, along with taxes, lawyers, and billboard advertising.

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  12. Till now I’ve not responded to the examples given of celebrity new atheists’ supposedly anti-intellectual or jerk-indicative statements. Maybe by now they’re all here (except perhaps in responses to this!)

    I’m happy that no one, not even the author, is ready to defend the statement about not demonizing slave owners.

    The rest are supposed examples from prominent new atheists as above. Those possible examples are mostly pretty weak, and little in need of reply, but anyway…:

    David O.

    Firstly, you have given the much repeated lengthy quote from Dawkins, of the form ‘The god of the old testament is x’, where x has many ‘values’ such as “homophobic”, “racist”, etc.… I surmise that you would agree with the accuracy of those statements, but you think that actually saying them makes Dawkins into a jerk. I don’t and have only a little to add. That the ancestors of many of us here, from 200 to 2500 years ago, mostly Jewish or Christian, pretty much admired that godlike object, does not necessarily imply that they were stupid. Given what has been learned in the meantime, especially after the certainty of natural selection became clear, one would surely say the opposite about many much more recent persons. I think both of those are just about what Dawkins has so much as said. But that quote itself making him into some kind of jerk seems to be an example of the super-sensitivity that Massimo insists that he is not talking about.

    Secondly, the Harris quote about “religious tribalism” causing the Muslim world to be “utterly deranged”: I’ll assume that this is to be found, in some context, within the 90 minute video which you provided. I hope to have the time some day soon to actually listen to the whole thing, or at least to that statement and its context. It would be nice for me to have had an indication of which minute to look for! Here I assume you disagree with what Harris says, as well as regarding him as being a jerk to say it. A recent Pew survey would indicate rather clearly that more than half a billion gives a lower bound for the number of Muslims who believe that correct morality would expect them to murder any adult former Muslim who no longer believes. That, as much as anything, would lead me to agree with Harris’ statement. As to me being a jerk for saying this, I hope I’m not completely disagreed with here when insisting I’m not a jerk. I have essentially said that to a good and respected friend who is a cultural Ismaili. He basically agrees, and is still a good friend who seems to respect me. I would agree with him if he were to say that many thoughtless atheists do act like jerks quite often. And I suspect they would likely act that way (the USians especially, fed on ‘news’-channel fodder) whether or not they are ‘fans’ of those celebrities above.

    If he did say it, that Hitchens would make that joke in public (about Catholic priests’ ongoing-for-many-years pedophilia) is being a jerk, so I would agree there. But no reference was given by you. Possibly it was reported by a sole drunken companion, but maybe you have a more damning exact reference to that joke utterance.

    Finally, in view of Dennett’s writings, the argument by d’Souza seems weak, that Dennett does not take religion or religious persons seriously, apparently because an audience regarded as amusing his surmises about what might become of certain ‘holy’ places at some time in the future. Would he be a jerk for joking that Buckingham Palace might become an amusement park in a few centuries? He then would be insulting present day royalists just as much as he is thought by some to be insulting present day religious believers. Just about zero I’d say, were it not for being supposedly insulted this way being used as a common ploy to get people up in front of a Pakistani judge to prescribe execution as the penalty .

    It is good to ‘get down to brass tacks’ about what has been actually said by them, rather than flinging around vague charges, and recording subjective feelings which occurred while reading books by these guys!

    (continued below)

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  13. (con’t)

    astrodreamer:

    “…‘culture’. I use the word not in its snobbish sense, but as a scientist uses it.”

    You assume, and it is not obviously false (but is false, given many examples) that this statement implies that Dawkins divides ‘culture’ into only two disjoint meanings, the snobbish and the scientific. Coel has already given a perfectly good example showing your guess about Dawkins not wanting to be “…caught …. in a museum or concert hall” is nonsense. And there are lots of other examples falsifying that over and over, which I’ll leave for you to discover, perhaps closing the barn door a bit late.

    “…I believe that Harris’s strong stand against any sort of lying forces him to reject all literary fiction..”

    I had asked for a specific statement by the man, not this kind of, again wildly conjectural, assertion about his opinions, which again supposedly implies an anti-intellectual attitude.

    Were I to give a lecture with my supposed proof of some theorem of mathematics, and someone stands up and claims some part of the proof is in error and even asserts a counterexample, I would hope that he or she is wrong, and undoubtedly would try to see where (unless I immediately see that I was in fact wrong). I would certainly not begin by accusing that audience member of being anti-intellectual, because they had the temerity to dispute an intellectual claim by me. Somewhat in the above, and even more the below, one gets the feeling that this is pretty close to what is being claimed by defensive philosophy fans here, though not in such an obvious way as I just fictionalized it (How could I possibly ever be wrong!! It’s me, the mistake-free god of overspecialized trivialities!)

    I am quite ready to give out my opinion, not completely lacking in evidence, that academic research in philosophy, as carried out since 1945 at least in North American and French universities, contains a huge amount of pure junk. I did not say it was nothing but that. A couple of pieces of evidence are the influence of the likes of Derrida, and (as I went into detail about some months ago) the little sideshow of paraconsistent logic. My evidence is far from perfect, my knowledge of philosophy is relatively weak (except, I claim, in logic), and it may be that such a statement by me is largely false (and I may even reverse myself on this in future). But whatever else it may be, that opinion of mine is not anti-intellectual.

    (to be continued)

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  14. (continued)

    penj3:

    You have added Krause to the list, fair enough. I’ve said here before that some of his blanket statements are false, simply by being far too general, about the supposed uselessness of philosophical thinking. I’d prefer to think that his opinion is in reality more like my opinion in the last paragraph of the post just above. But exaggeration is more dramatic and sells more books. However, that is purely a conjecture on my part, with no evidence, about the mind of a different person, rather like the examples by astrodreamer at the very top of that post. In any case, I can see where philosophers might react with considerable emotion to Krause. At least none of them calls for his execution, such as alluded to in my post to begin this. Others might—is his book available in Pakistan?

    The examples I asked you to provide are possibly contained in the approx. 6h 20min of videos you did provide. A more sciency person might have tried to at least give a few suggestions as to which video minutes would be best to look at, to find such examples of supposedly anti-intellectual statements.

    But I would be quite interested to hear what you mean in stating

    “…logical arguments for the existence of God have a long tradition, so a cheap argument is to dismiss the entire field of philosophy to win an argument…”

    Presumably you are not using “logical” in the rough colloquial sense, since an argument which is illogical in that sense is hardly worth discussing.

    So I’d conjecture you meant logical in the modern sense of formalizable, versus non-logical such as are almost all attempted ‘proofs’ of the almighty’s existence.

    A few years ago I took some trouble to learn more about the Anselm argument, glibly paraphrased as

    ‘An object with no imperfections must exist, since non-existence is an imperfection.’

    With the exception of a series of three joint papers by the chief founder and activator of the Stanford Encyclopedia and a co-author, I know of no different logical argument than the modal versions of Anselm’s. It was unpublished, but formally formulated, in 3rd order modal logic, one of that logic’s well over 20 distinct formal versions, by Godel in his latter years. I assume that argument, and various subsequent minor excursions into it, are what you are referring to. Any interpretation of this as a proof of Allah/triple-guy/Yahweh’s existence is not now taken seriously by anyone outside theology. (Now there you’ll find examples of the anti-intellectual, in one precise sense of the word!) If any of the celebrities of new atheism dismissed this argument out-of-hand, good for them. You can accuse them of not delving in scholarly manner into it, but I doubt you really know that, and, in any case, taking that argument seriously by an academic philosopher in 2014 would be a 3rd, and quite perfect, example of the relative poverty of academic philosophy, in recent decades and in nearby countries, which I opined about earlier.

    As to the joint papers of 50 or 60 pages referred to above, it was subsequently noticed more than once by mathematicians, that that argument took the form, in a language of good old 1st order logic:

    Assume: L —> G ; derive: G ; but where, unfortunately, that L turned out to be logically valid.

    So the formal argument is worthless.

    Here G would be informally interpreted as ‘god exists’. I should remark that logically valid would simply be called tautological in some philosophers’ jargon. Most of us use jargon that restrict the latter to mean ‘coming from a tautology in propositional logic’. In any case, logically valid means a formula which is derivable in the relevant language of 1st order logic with no assumptions at all; or equivalently, by the completeness theorem of Godel’s thesis, a formula that is true in every interpretation of the language.

    I’m afraid that purely logical formal arguments which are supposed to informally establish ‘god exists’ are so far of little value whatsoever, except in promoting the academic careers in some quarters. And possible later ones have little likelihood of ever having any value in future. Anselm was a clever fellow, but 800 years ago is not now. Serious philosophers such as Descartes and Kant who wrote about this don’t go quite so far back, but are long prior to Frege and modern developments, and their comments are only of historic interest. My understanding is that Kant believed that nothing new would subsequently happen in logic, beyond the syllogisms of Aristotle and elaborations after that, mainly by the medieval scholastics. Maybe somebody here can correct me by pointing to something which makes Kant look less hopeless on that particular attempt at futurism. Syllogism logic is of course a tiny corner of 1st order, just in case your phil prof didn’t point that out.

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  15. phoffman56,
    I’m gambling that Massimo will let me cheat a little tiny bit with the 5 comment rule to clarify citations. (I’ll have to leave your material points for another occasion.)
    I tried to link the video to start at the right moment (44:26), and indeed if you hit the watch on youtube button (the little logo at the bottom of the video) it will take you directly there. It’s taken from his blog post entitled “The Reality of Islam”. Because it differs from what is read (from the page) in the video I suspect it might be doctored.
    The Hitchens quote is from the preface to God is not Great, you can read it there on the amazon preview.
    No editorializing. Just the facts, ma’am.

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  16. phoffman wrote:

    You have given the much repeated lengthy quote from Dawkins, of the form ‘The god of the old testament is x’, where x has many ‘values’ such as “homophobic”, “racist”, etc.… I surmise that you would agree with the accuracy of those statements…

    —————————————-

    I would not agree with the accuracy of these statements. Indeed, one would only accept such statements if one adopted a literalist or fundamentalist approach to reading the TANAKH, which most serious religions do not do.

    —————————————–

    phoffman wrote:

    That the ancestors of many of us here, from 200 to 2500 years ago, mostly Jewish or Christian, pretty much admired that godlike object, does not necessarily imply that they were stupid. Given what has been learned in the meantime, especially after the certainty of natural selection became clear, one would surely say the opposite about many much more recent persons.

    ————————————————-

    Ah, so it’s only 20th and 21st century God-believing people whom are stupid. Good to know! So, let’s see….

    Abraham Joshua Heschel was not a great Jewish thinker, but rather, was stupid.
    Reinhold Niebuhr was not a great Protestant thinker, but rather, was stupid.
    Hans Kung was not a great Catholic thinker, but rather, was stupid.
    G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis were not brilliant Christian apologists and writers, but rather, were stupid.
    Richard Swinburne and John Haldane are not great contemporary philosophers, but rather, are stupid.

    Oh, and of course, my brilliant, wise, and lovely Orthodox Jewish grandparents were not brilliant, wise, and lovely, but rather, stupid.

    Good to have someone as smart as you here! Otherwise, I might have had exactly the wrong impression about all these people.

    And you’re right. Definitely no jerks around!

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  17. People, the last couple of comments have been borderline acceptable. (Actually, slightly over the boarderline…) Please refrain from further discourse on this level. Thanks.

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  18. PHoffman and David Ottlinger Tis indeed true on Hitchens. Of course, it’s arguable his belligerence was an equal-opportunity offender, including his vast political swinging door from Trotskyite to neocon, with the warmongering moving from rhetorical to actual.

    Of course, in Hitchens’ case, much of his was likely due to sustained alcoholic-level drinking. As his Wiki page notes, his esophageal cancer death is almost certainly due to a mix of that and cigarettes.

    I will give Hitch one bit of credit in that book. He’s the only one of the Gnus to tackle Eastern nonmonotheistic religions with the same vigor the Horsemen and lesser lights turn to Christianity and Islam. (Going beyond Hitch, as recent events in Burma/Myanmar attest, even Buddhists will kill other religionists, in this case Muslims, in the name of religion.)

    (PHoffman you didn’t respond to my Lincoln rejoiner on “moderation.”)

    All Going back to Massimo’s recent essay varieties of denialism, I said I wouldrename the worst Jesus mythicists as Jesus denialists. I did so, at this blog post, focusing on academic shortcomings of their leading lights: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-academic-shortcomings-of-jesus.html

    I think we face a similar issue with the Gnus and lack of nuance about religion. Not one of them is a philosopher of religion or a comparative religions scholar. None of them has taken an “evolutionary anthropology” approach to study of religion, a la Atran or Boyer, etc. (Not that they seem to want to.)

    MichaelFugate I Tweeted your Guardian link to Silverman, telling him he’s putting up billboards in the wrong country. AA’s PR assistant responded (this is after my first Tweet to Silverman). I guess he didn’t tell her it was snark on my part, because she took time to explain how their mission is U.S.-focused. I enlightened her, and again repeated, my invitation for him to “man up.”

    That said? I don’t think these folks are the “laughing type,” at least not when asked to accept humor at their own expense. Again, in common with religious fundamentalists. Or, another set of people who parallel Gnus in this way.

    Massimo, should I track down Rebecca Watson or another “social justice warrior” among Atheism Pluser minor-leaguers?

    EJ Winner Negative campaigning can work. That said, when it does, it often works better in the short term, less well in the long term. Negative conditioning, and related negative inducements, usually operate that way.

    For the Gnu Atheists, what happens after a candidate for the Village Idiot Atheist cadre (thanks, P.Z. Myers for using that word, a gift that keeps on giving like Mao’s Great Leap Backward) gets bored of poking fundamentalists in the eye with a sharp stick? They move on. Or, if they become a committed cadre, then, per my second post, we soon get to Tar Baby stage. And then, fundraising stage.

    That’s part of how polarized fundraising works. You not only rally your troops, you poke the other side in the eye with a sharp stick, so they rally THEIR troops and do the same back.

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  19. Hi Massimo,

    thank you for your response.

    No. It is a very common misconception that virtue ethics (or even deontology) doesn’t care about consequences. That is not the difference between it and consequentialism. The difference is that for a consequentialist the consequences are all that matters, for the virtue ethicist one’s character is paramount, but the goodness of that character is judged, at the least in part, by what one does and by one’s intentions. And intentions surely take into account (possible) consequences.

    I freely admit that I might miss the subtleties of virtue ethics, but when you say that to a “consequentialist consequences are all that matters” it seems to me that consequences to ones character can be comfortably subsumed under this umbrella, too.

    Be that as it may, the point I was trying to make is that in the moment you allow that external/societal consequences of an action might sometimes be sufficiently important to justify an otherwise immoral act then your argument becomes immediately and necessarily subject to “but it works” or at least “but it does so much good” counters. This seems to hold even if the virtue ethicist manages to internalize the external good viz “it is sometimes virtuous to promote the good even if one employs means that constitute moral failings in other contexts”.

    So I think Coel is at least right to challenge the “principled” part of your argument. Whether any sufficient moral good is promoted here is a separate question of course.

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  20. Two points: 1) AA’s ‘firebrandism’ is a reversion to the style of its founder (and for over 30 years director) Madalyn Murray O’Hair, by almost universal testimony a thoroughly evil woman whom the organization foolishly refuses to repudiate. Having embezzled her followers, and stoking her administration with the unregenerated criminals whom she enjoyed dominating, she not only brought about her own unspeakably horrible murder, but those of her innocent son and daughter as well. Hence there is a fundamental absurdity to the organization as a whole, an institutional vileness which has apparently not been expunged; I don’t see how a virtue-ethical atheist (as opposed to a consequentialist) can justify being a member. (In passing, it’s worth noting that removing ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance, her chief achievement, does not seem to have brought about any improvement to our educational system.)
    2) Note that the organization, in their logo, lays claim to Science as the guiding spirit. Thus their casual misuse of statistics is not only another example of the culturally widespread pretense at being scientific by throwing numbers around (a behavior that I like to think of as ‘pseudoscientific’), but also represents their disdain for an avowed first principle.

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  21. Coel,

    “I guess the difference in opinion is then over what is reasonable in public discourse and what is jerk-ish”

    That’s part of it. The other part is whether we agree or not that acting in a jerky way is a moral failure. I think it is.

    “much “new atheist” behaviour is not over that line, but rather, to quote David Ottlinger: … that is not being strident, it’s just being mislabeled so by the public.”

    I disagree, for reasons that I’ve explained a number of times. And please keep in mind that I’m an atheist. Funny, though, how this somehow metamorphosed into a discussion on New Atheism. Why? The essay is about American Atheists, an organization whose “firebrandism” (of the jerky type) goes back to Madelyn Murray O’Hare, way before NA.

    “My counter-suggestion is that treating religion with open disrespect is an effective counter to the usual unwarranted deference and respect it is usually granted.”

    I don’t think it’s effective, and I think it’s “jerky.”

    “I think a spectrum of voices works well”

    Yes, you said it before. You also admitted that you have no evidence at all to back up that position. I have indirect evidence from human psychology studies, as well as my ethical card to play.

    “There’s a difference between a *strident* argument and a *bad* argument.”

    True. Of course Dawkins, to mention one of the NA, also presents pretty bad arguments.

    victor,

    “advertising and catching people’s attention as opposed to your point that AA is trying to engage in serious debate via billboards”

    I don’t think at all that AA is trying to engage in a serious debate. That simply can’t be done via billboards (or Twitter).

    “many fundamentalists hold advanced degrees, professional jobs and have great senses of humor and have no problem with this.”

    *I* have a problem with this, and I’m not a fundamentalist, though I do hold several advanced degrees. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, eminently reasonable and progressive commentators have a problem with that. Most people I know in my circle of friends — usually secular people — have a problem with this. And the list goes on.

    “atheist comedian Bill Maher points out, he draws his most supportive and enthusiastic audiences in the red states because many atheists and liberal Christians feel that their FEELINGS especially are being repressed and feelings are what comedy and clever ads are all about”

    I used to like Maher, no more. Not only he is the quintessential example of jerkitude (as opposed, again, to Jon Stewart, a much better model, one that shows that humor is possible without sliding into sarcasm), he also holds to number of pseudoscientific beliefs (e.g., about vaccines) while loudly proclaiming that he is smarter than the religious people because he looks at the evidence and accepts science.

    “You did mention in the essay “as I get older”……… Take a young person’s or liberal Christian’s perspective as opposed to thinking like an old fundamentalist minister”

    I am trying to do what little I can to teach the next generation about virtue and rationality, perhaps shortening their predictable anger phase. What you suggest would be to indulge them into that phase.

    ej,

    “the New Atheists; it was listening to their debates and reading their books that lifted me out of a five year period of reading nothing but mystery stories and popular history. I haven’t read so much science and philosophy as I have this year, for quite some time. I wouldn’t have sought out this webzine without that influence”

    Glad to hear it. But of course your case only represents anecdotal evidence, to which I can counter with plenty of individual stories of people who have been turned off atheism by the same exposure. Also, can you really say that if the NA had taken their model from Jon Stewart rather than Bill Maher (to use the same contrast as above) you would not have been interested? When I was a teenager it was the refreshing but subdued British humor of a Bertrand Russell that did it for me. And I was 15…

    “In such a context, surely one can understand the desire for greater stridency of public presentation.”

    Sure, it’s understandable, but that does mean we should indulge in it?

    “Sometimes a theistic meme or soundbyte is really such that one has to remark the absurdity of it in no uncertain terms”

    Let me clarify an important point here: I never said, nor do I think, that humor — and yes, occasionally even sarcasm — is not required. But the proper target of it is, as you yourself suggest, specific remarks made by specific people. Not “religion” in general. I try to cultivate respect for different political ideas, for instance, and to understand them. But that doesn’t stop me from being sarcastic about specific things said by individual Fox commentators, to take the obvious example. This isn’t about being nice at all costs, it is about being more discerning about the targets of one’s humor and ridicule.

    “When discussing the issue with theists, or where I know theists are in my audience, I tend to write in more of a reasoned argumentative style”

    I think that’s too bad, because it fosters the kind of intellectual and discourse climate that has led, for instance, to the currently completely poisoned political atmosphere in Washington.

    “If a group of ‘good ol’ boys’ want to disparage ethnicities at their local bar, they cannot be denied the right to do so”

    I find it interesting that the issue of “rights” keep coming up. Yes, the good ol’ boys do have that right? Does it mean I think they are behaving ethically? No. Would I join their club? Nah.

    “the fact remains that in any given context, we must ask what the context allows – and what it demands”

    True enough, but remember that the context here is a very public billboard, put out in the middle of the Bible Belt. In your analogy with the good ol’ boys club, this is the equivalent of the boys going door to door in their diverse ethnic neighborhood, openly insulting non-members of their club, hoping that some of them will join the group.

    “as it happens, Buddhist traditions are rich in narratives of conversion-by-example. A good practice will appeal to those who feel the need for it.”

    Exactly.

    “The ‘santa/fairy tales’ billboard is amusing, but its really ‘insider’ humor made public”

    Precisely. It belongs to a comedy club, just like ethnic and gender jokes do.

    Socratic,

    “should I track down Rebecca Watson or another “social justice warrior” among Atheism Pluser minor-leaguers?”

    I don’t know. I’m afraid at the moment I don’t think too much of that sub-movement, but that’s another story.

    miramaxime,

    “I freely admit that I might miss the subtleties of virtue ethics, but when you say that to a “consequentialist consequences are all that matters” it seems to me that consequences to ones character can be comfortably subsumed under this umbrella, too.”

    That, seems to me, is a misuse of the word “consequences” in this context. If you want to simple introduction to virtue ethics see the Rationally Speaking article I cited in the endnotes, or: http://www.amazon.com/Virtue-Ethics-Prometheus-Lecture-Richard-ebook/dp/B003JKKOMM/

    “the moment you allow that external/societal consequences of an action might sometimes be sufficiently important to justify an otherwise immoral act then your argument becomes immediately and necessarily subject to “but it works””

    A virtue ethicist would never make that argument. She would say that there are instances where it is the ethical / courageous / wise / just thing to do to X, and others where one exercises one’s virtue by *not* doing X.

    astrodreamer,

    “AA’s ‘firebrandism’ is a reversion to the style of its founder (and for over 30 years director) Madalyn Murray O’Hair, by almost universal testimony a thoroughly evil woman whom the organization foolishly refuses to repudiate”

    That’s putting it mildly. Not only they refuse to repudiate her, they essentially made her into a secular saint.

    “I don’t see how a virtue-ethical atheist (as opposed to a consequentialist) can justify being a member.”

    Good point, I am indeed seriously considering to publicly renounce my membership (which was offered to me by former President Ellen Johnson, ironically after I gave a talk at an AA convention entitled “Is Dawkins deluded?,” which made the cover of AA magazine).

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  22. phoffman56,

    That the ancestors of many of us here, from 200 to 2500 years ago, mostly Jewish or Christian, pretty much admired that godlike object, does not necessarily imply that they were stupid. Given what has been learned in the meantime, especially after the certainty of natural selection became clear, one would surely say the opposite about many much more recent persons.

    One might say such a thing, but the intuition is easily defeated by evidence.

    A few years ago I took some trouble to learn more about the Anselm argument

    I am sure it was interesting but I am not sure why you consider it relevant here. A vanishingly small proportion of the philosophers of religion consider any version of the ontological argument as sound and this has been the case for a couple of centuries at least. (Although Bertrand Russell reports that he was briefly convinced by it). It is not even clear that Gödel regarded his ontological argument as sound.

    So when you hear of logical arguments for the existence of God then the argument being referred to is unlikely to be any version of the ontological argument. The only active one I know if is Robert Maydole’s Modal Perfection argument. It is couched in a rather eccentric flavour of S5, but it is quite interesting as a logical curiousity. But it is the nature of formal logic that it can’t be defeated by the sort of general remarks you make.

    And, as I said before, the ontological argument is generally not what people are referring to when they talk about logical arguments for the existence of God. Not that I consider them convincing either.

    Syllogism logic is of course a tiny corner of 1st order, just in case your phil prof didn’t point that out.

    The classic syllogism, of course, does not form any part of first order logic, that logic having been devised to fix the problem with it.

    My understanding is that Kant believed that nothing new would subsequently happen in logic, beyond the syllogisms of Aristotle and elaborations after that, mainly by the medieval scholastics.

    I have not read everything that Kant wrote, but I cannot think of anything that would lead to that conclusion about Kant.

    In fact Kant is generally credited with the insight which led to the revision of Aristotlean logic – an insight which is also generally regarded as the one which finally killed off Anselm’s argument.

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  23. Just read a LA Times article reporting on a paper in Science this week which claims that “[a] single conversation with a gay of lesbian door-to-door canvasser had the ability to change attitudes on same-sex marriage in neighborhoods that overwhelmingly opposed such unions…..”

    Might be worth looking at to see what was done.

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  24. Hi Aravis,

    Members of diverse religious communities, including Jews, Hindus, and Muslims lobbied for expanding our religious displays … organized atheists ruined our negotiations … The result? Christmas displays only.

    Why would you expect atheists to see an outcome where every religion gets a privilege that the non-religious don’t as an improvement over only the Christians getting it? If anything it’s worse: the more inclusive it is, the more egregious the exclusion of the non-religious.

    I recall a discussion I had with an American Jewish gentleman who regarded himself as liberal, progressive and much in favour of inclusiveness. He couldn’t see anything wrong with “one nation, under God, indivisible” but objected strenuously to the suggestion of “one nation, under Jesus, indivisible”. His (rather bizarre) point seemed to be that since the former is more inclusive than the latter, the atheists shouldn’t object that it still excludes them.

    We have exactly the same problem in the UK. As just one example, one of more important national ceremonies is the Remembrance Day commemoration each year (on WWI Armistice Day). Every religion, even the minor ones, gets to send a representative to lay a wreath. Repeatedly, the British Humanist Association have asked to lay a wreath commemorating non-religious soldiers. They’re always turned down.

    There are lots more such examples. Excuse me for not being impressed by cosy deals among the religions in which they grant each other privileges but don’t care about the non-religious.

    Can I suggest that your fellow Jews consider your golden rule, and think “we wouldn’t like “one nation, under Jesus”, therefore we should speak out against “one nation, under God””? Or, “we wouldn’t like laws (even unenforceable ones) disqualifiying Jews from public office, therefore we should speak out against laws disqualifying the non-religious”. Then the atheists might begin to see the attraction in the alliances you seek!

    As it is, if the religious majority see nothing wrong with “one nation under God” thus telling non-religious school kids every day that they are second-class non-citizens, then they are — and here I use phrases introduced up-thread — being “morally obnoxious” jerks. It is, to me, understandable if American Atheists respond by being “jerks” and making a fuss about everything, or, putting it another way, standing up for themselves.

    Anyhow, the problem of which displays to include shows that the only good policy is the state staying out of such things entirely. The fact that one religious group has got to violate government neutrality is not a reason for negotiating for others to do so. The atheists may well have deliberately torpedoed the discussions because they believe in the principle of church/state separation.

    Massimo,

    I don’t think it’s effective, and I think it’s “jerky.”

    Leaving aside the judgement call of jerkiness, the political parties routinely spend colossal sums on attack ads that are considerably more “jerky”, and have presumably spent lots on finding out what is effective.

    astrodreamer,

    removing ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance, her chief achievement, …

    That statement is as inaccurate as the rest of your statements about O’Hair.

    Like

  25. Robin,

    You can find that “futurism” by Kant expressed clearly in his book on logic. In English, see

    http://archive.org/stream/kantsintroductio00kantuoft/kantsintroductio00kantuoft_djvu.txt

    Pages 10 and 11, beginning “Logic, as we have it, is derived from Aristotle…”

    continuing “…Since Aristotle’s time Logic has not gained much in extent, as indeed its nature forbids that it should……few sciences that can come into a permanent state, which admits of no further alteration. To these belong Logic and Metaphysics….”

    and ending “….In our own times there has been no famous logician, and indeed we do not require any new discoveries in Logic, since it contains merely the form of thought…”,

    which should suffice to convince you of what I had said.

    Syllogism logic expressed very simply as a small part 1st order is done, bottom of page 336

    https://math.uwaterloo.ca/pure
    mathematics/sites/ca.puremathematics/files/uploads/files/LOG.web_.2006.pdf

    and surely elsewhere, even if it is pretty obvious to mathematical logicians without spelling it out. Tarski’s book explained “Secondly, apart from two other rather short passages, the book gives no information about traditional Aristotelian logic, and contains no material drawn from it. But I believe that the space here devoted to traditional logic corresponds well enough to the small role to which this logic has been reduced in modern science; and I also believe that this opinion will be shared by most contemporary logicians.”

    Like

  26. @phoffman56

    “A more sciency person …”
    “Syllogism logic is of course a tiny corner of 1st order, just in case your phil prof didn’t point that out.”
    I am a scientist not a philosopher; i.e armchair physicist.

    “… might have tried to at least give a few suggestions as to which video minutes would be best to look at, to find such examples of supposedly anti-intellectual statements.”

    The videos weren’t to show anti-intellectual statements, but to show the difference of a person who argues based on awareness of philosophy and the science and one who relies only on the science while giving the philosophy a go. Unfortunately I didn’t expect WordPress to expand my video, and it seemed to have removed the time stamp embedded in the URL.

    Here’s an example of dismissing philosophy:
    ” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.” – Krauss in an interview with The Atlantic
    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/philosophy-catfight-pigliucci-vs-krauss/

    “Of course philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years where as science has” – Krauss in a speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Fi-BqS_Fw#t=159 Time: 2:30

    This dismissal of philosophy, and specifically philosophy of science is ironic because Krauss has been clearly influenced by Karl Popper, and has stated as such https://www.yo utube.com/watch?v=sqFP68Rl23k#t=2199 (I’ve added a space to the url so it hopefully doesn’t expand, minute 36:39); he got his ideas about what science is from philosophy of science, whether directly or indirectly. Is he contending Popper was around 2k years ago?

    In an earlier article Massimo included a transcript of NdG Tyson dismissing philosophy: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/

    I’d count dismissing an entire field of knowledge, that one doesn’t really know anything, about as anti-intellectual.

    Re:Logical arguments
    Sorry, I should have been clearer here. What I was referring to here is that debates about the existence of God generally do not depend solely on specific scientific facts, but are arguments which require some philosophical reasoning beyond the physical facts themselves; I didn’t mean logical in the formal sense, beyond that some of the arguments in these debates do not depend on scientific facts.

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  27. To Everyone the concept of atheists waging a fight for civil rights similar to those waged in the past by racial and sexual minorities has been asserted several times.

    For sake of argument I will set aside my repeated point that this analogy is highly flawed (though am still curious/waiting for evidence that it is the same).

    Let’s assume this parallel is true.

    When working for civil rights, racial and sexual minorities fought against bad policies and attitudes which were oppressing them. They did not argue people should somehow become one of them, or that they were fundamentally better than the other groups. Civil rights movements are focused solely on tolerance and legal rights for the oppressed group.

    Is this what atheist organizations are engaged in? It seems to me that some have moved beyond advocating for less negative attitudes towards atheists, or that they should enjoy equal rights, and are arguing theists should stop being theists because theism is fundamentally worse than atheism. Am I wrong in this impression?

    In short, for atheists (unlike civil rights campaigns in the past) two very different projects have been merged/confused.

    I think it is a mistake for “civil rights” organizations fighting to obtain social equality for atheists (or promote their image to the public) to also work on the goal of converting theists. Likewise, I think it is errant to defend aggressive campaigns designed to convert theists, by suggesting they have anything to do with a fight for civil rights.

    As an atheist I happen to believe theism is mistaken. But I am very clear to separate arguments regarding the merits of evidence versus faith based thinking, and those regarding how my rights should be protected. This is before we even get to the question of whether negative campaigning is more or less useful than positive campaigning.

    It seems clear that the billboards being discussed have nothing to do with fighting for civil rights, and everything to do with fighting religious thinking. I repeat, I believe this merging of projects is less than useful or desirable.

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  28. brandholm, you are exactly right. I have pointed out the same distinction a number of times to my fellow atheists, but some of them just don’t seem to see it. At any rate, yes, AA’s billboards have nothing whatsoever to do with civil rights for unbelievers, so bringing that point up is a red herring.

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  29. Coel,

    “the political parties routinely spend colossal sums on attack ads that are considerably more “jerky”, and have presumably spent lots on finding out what is effective.”

    Yes, we all know that negative campaigning is “effective,” mostly at turning off voters and move to action your radical constituency. We also know it is despicable, and that it does great damage to the democratic process. Not a good model to imitate, I would think.

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  30. I know I won’t make any friends with this post, but, respectfully, I think the whole atheism project–whether gentle or firebrand is a mistake. Discussions like this is evidence of that.

    The meaning of words are in how they are used. The word ‘god’ has been used in many different ways by different people in history or in the contemporary world. Nevertheless, the one thing its usage does have in common is something transcendent (at least in the sense of incomparable or unequaled) and, as such, similar to Tillich’s (object of) “ultimate concern”. I think most atheists also believe in something of ultimate concern that is incomparable to other concerns–such as, perhaps, love as practiced in the alleviation of suffering, love as practiced in care for others, love as practiced in the liberation of humanity in order to increase the breadth, depth, and diversity of human expression, or as practiced in the increase in human knowledge and science which furthers all of the preceding, etc.

    Atheists could just as easily do theology as reject it. They could call their religion ‘humanism’, and their ‘god’ the Principle/Logos/Word/Law/Spirit/Love which furthers humanist values. These theological terms (Logos/Love/Spirit, etc) have, more often than not, been used in reference to the practice of love in society as often as in referring to mythological concepts. Maybe this is why atheism is regarded more suspiciously then other religions are; because people really do use the word ‘god’ as integrally linked to humanist practice. Why not simply form an alternative religion in which the practice of ‘god’ is separated from the mythology of ‘god’? One in which a central tenant is the rejection of, as ‘idolatry’, any mythology antithetical to humanism, and neutrality toward any mythology that isn’t? Those atheists who are humanists first have as much right to the social capital accrued in the word ‘god’ as anyone else does–why not use it to help make the world a better place?

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  31. During the Dark Age, 99% of population in Europe were Christians, but it is not a proof that Christian theology is correct. Furthermore, there are at least three types of people who will google ‘atheism’.
    One, the already atheists (checking out what is new).
    Two, the diehard anti-atheists.
    Three, the bystanders (respond to ads or news).

    Without knowing the dynamics of the three factors above, those lump sum data are totally meaningless.

    Pigliucci: “The ads paint religion with one broad brush, implying, or outright stating, that it is fundamentally stupid and evil.”

    Amen!
    All religions consist of at least three parts.
    Part one (RP1), accepting the obvious empirical facts (intelligence, consciousness, morality and spirituality) and asking the question about the ‘source(s) or pop(s)’ of them.

    Part two (RP2), making up an answer for that source (pop): God for Christianity; ‘Great Emptiness’ for Buddhism; etc.

    Part three (RP3), making up the precepts and rituals as the guideline and regiment for the ways of living out one’s life.

    The RP1 is totally correct, and RP3 is the human dignity which must be respected. Of course, the RP2 thus far is totally wrong for Christian; totally cop-out for Buddhism (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/do-atheists-reject-the-wrong-kind-of-god-not-likely/comment-page-2/#comment-10074 ) , …

    Aravis: “My religious affiliation … goes directly to my understanding of myself, my family, and my people and …”

    Amen!

    Aravis: “My objections to … Atheism peddled by the likes of Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, and Hitchens, …”

    Totally agree. But what is the ‘beef’ of Atheism?

    If Atheism is about the anti-Christian-God and anti-Buddha’s cop-out, I will give it a thumb up. But, there are issues of ‘pop(s)’ which are understood by every street walking person (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/do-atheists-reject-the-wrong-kind-of-god-not-likely/comment-page-2/#comment-10065 ). Without dealing with these pop(s), Atheism is totally meaningless.

    I have showed many pop(s); Coel has adamantly refused to face this challenge. Harris and Dawkins are not physicists, and we should forgive their inability to judge this ‘pop’ issue. If Krauss, being a prominent physicist [note: many authors of this Webzine are also great physicists], also avoids this issue, then the Atheism supported by him [them] has no beef.

    Ignorant: someone who is lacking the knowledge of a fact.
    Stupid: someone who is taught (or told) of a ‘fact’ but is unable to comprehend it.

    As PR2 are totally wrong for all religions, all religions are totally ignorant. In fact, religions are the games of ignorant, and ‘reason’ is not part of the religion-game and has no role to play. Thus, the attacking the 7-day cosmology and the Jesus resurrection [very important parts of the ‘ignorant-game’] is totally wasting of the time.

    On the other hand, the wise man’s game it to get the correct PR2. By totally ignoring the ‘pop-issue’ and by dishonesty [see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/cold-objective-science-think-twice/comment-page-1/#comment-10186 ] on the solution of the “Pop”, Atheism will go way beyond being wrong, nonsense, ignorant but all the way to stu…

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  32. Coel:

    Responding to your most recent post is testing every ounce of patience and civility that I have.

    Your description of religious minorities finding common cause, in an effort to expand and broaden tolerance as some sort of shady, “cosy” deal, as you put it, is disgusting. Your dismissal of the value of religious pluralism and acceptance in the public square is illiberal and contemptible. And with regard to your last point that the only thing to do is for the “state to get out of such things entirely,” if you have any political intelligence at all, you will know that it isn’t going to happen, and thus, all you’ve done is make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    In areas like where I live, where evangelical Christianity is omnipresent and completely dominant, it is not only very difficult to raise one’s children in one’s own tradition, one may even have to fear violence and vandalism for being Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh. When my daughter was very young, we would go through a living hell every December, when she would be so subjected to Christmas messaging and proselytizing that she would come home from school and cry to us that she wished she wasn’t Jewish and begging us to become Christian. If you can’t understand why it is important for children of religious minorities to see their own traditions represented and respected alongside the dominant ones, then I don’t know how to explain it to you.

    As for the atheists, they can’t be left out of religious holiday displays, because they don’t have religious holidays. ( Hence the “atheist” part.)

    As for your suggestions for my “fellow Jews,” no thanks. You and those like Mr. Silverman have made it very clear that you and your ilk have no interest in reaching out to liberal and progressive religionists, in the hope of making common cause on issues of common concern. You’ve made it very clear that you have no respect for our sensibilities, our beliefs, or our traditions. And you’ve made it very clear that you could care less whether we are able to raise our children, in such a way that they are able to feel good about their identities.

    When our Jewish cemetery was vandalized with crosses and swastikas, it was the liberal/progressive churches who came and helped us to clean it up, not the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the local GNU Atheist gang.

    So don’t do us any favors. And don’t expect any help from us, when *you* need it.

    We’ll see you at the ballot box…where you will lose and lose and lose again.

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  33. Given the back and forth I’ve seen on the thread, I must say that I am even more in agreement with Massimo than when I first read his piece. Aravis and Wm. Burgess also have it right, it seems to me. Discussions with the Vociferous Atheist Brigade™ don’t seem to do any good, for a number of reasons outlined especially by Aravis and Massimo. The New Atheist understanding of religion looks to me to be dull, literalist, and aloof. Never mind the larger sociological, historical, cultural, and developmental role of religion in every human society- no, gotta battle it all and treat all religious manifestations whatsoever as the enemy, no matter how progressive or healthy they may be or how worthy of solidarity (see the child-rearing issue above by Aravis).

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  34. Isn’t an issue what counts as a religion? Some would I am sure exclude many minority religions – like indigenous ones – or restrict freedoms if they include controlled substance use or animal sacrifice. How do we deal with an entity like Scientology? or Satanism? or Wicca? Who gets a seat at the table?

    The idea of excluding all religious expression is silly and makes for a watered down historical narrative and hints of political correctness, but then there is always the problem of proselytizing and whitewashing inconvenient truths by those in power – which atheists like AA are also engaging in. How can anyone be so sure about something no one can adequately define?

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  35. Massimo,
    Thank you for the response.

    Well, I admitted I was conflicted; while I’m secure in my understanding of rhetoric, its practical deployment in daily life, especially in any public arena, is always a tricky issue. It should be always open to revision and further consideration. So, I will continue thinking through the thornier issues here.

    I will say that some of what I wrote came from experiences I have at work. Of my colleagues on the job, only one is an atheist and as liberal as myself. Most of the others are on the right, religiously and politically, and several are closet racists – and attempted to include me in that closet, by comments that they hoped I would approve of, having the same color skin. I refused, made my own views known; but as their attitudes were clearly not effecting their job performance, I made no further issue of the matter, since this could only lead to problems at work for myself as well as them. Consequently, there does seem to be a need at my job to distinguish private thoughts, small group chatter, and public speech. And this is clearly understood by all involved. The racists don’t make ethnic jokes around me (and of course cannot remark them to the varied clients we serve). I only discuss my religious views with the fellow atheist, and politics is hardly mentioned at all. The “poisoned political atmosphere in Washington” unfortunately has a grass-roots component; the diversity of our culture has yet to simmer down into a blended soup; it’s more like a bowl of mixed nuts that have to be picked out one at a time.

    In my defense, I will say that I try not to be two different people when addressing two different audiences (for reasons I won’t get into, that’s more difficult for me than it sounds). I think that helps avoid lapses into hypocrisy – or I hope so.

    Also, I should note that rhetoric was my primary study in graduate school – and beyond. The study of rhetoric – which is a skill, not a mode of being – requires setting aside of ethical issues until the practice, just as it is, can be adequately described (because, as we all know, great practitioners of rhetoric can be truly nasty people).

    So, your response reminded me that there may be a necessary ethic to the practice of the skill (which, if I read rightly, is the deeper point of both your article and supporting comments). I will be giving this greater thought.

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  36. phoffman 56,
    Kant’s Introduction to Logic was written as a textbook for the 18th century equivalent of our college freshmen. (I’ve taught it to freshmen, and it’s still good for that purpose.) But it’s not intended for professionals. You’re using that as definitive, rather than any of his main texts? Really?

    Newtonian mechanics now fits a small corner of physics; but it’s useful for plotting the course of a rocket to the moon. Syllogistic may no longer quite fit in with modern logic; but if one can’t master it, one can’t convince anyone of anything in normative common discourse. If you want to say that knowledge should be separated from the common herd, and if you want to suggest (as some scientismists do, unfortunately) that the ‘little people’ (as I see the majority of humans sometimes referred to in scientismist articles) are simply unimportant and must be led by an intellectual elite of scientists, please say so, so we know your political project here. Or argue that I simply misunderstand your position, and how.

    Coel,
    as I’ve said, I’m sympathetic with your position; but just as sometimes your arguments have logical problems, your rhetoric sometimes fails to account for what I called in a previous comment ‘context sensitivity.’ This means, in large part, sensitivity to others’ possible emotional responses to the terms you use and to generalizations you deploy. Since that is part of the problem Massimo attempted to surface in his article, you end up demonstrating the problem, rather than providing a solution.

    penj3,
    “I’d count dismissing an entire field of knowledge, that one doesn’t really know anything, about as anti-intellectual.”

    Exactly right; one suspects that scientismists who reject philosophy, probably suffered through a couple courses in college that they found boring.

    Then they wonder why some of their students reject science on the same premise, that they find it boring.

    The question becomes one concerning education, how to present knowledge in an interesting way. But that’s obviously a much larger issue than we can discuss here.

    brandholm,
    ” It seems to me that some have moved beyond advocating for less negative attitudes towards atheists, or that they should enjoy equal rights, and are arguing theists should stop being theists because theism is fundamentally worse than atheism.”

    That’s right; the issue has two components, and they get confused by theists as well as atheists, it should be noted). Atheists do have a right to argue that theists should adopt an atheist position; but that is very different from arguing that those who are already atheists should enjoy equal rights and respect. And certainly much atheist discourse today confuses these issues. (But, again, much theist discourse does as well.)

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  37. Wm. Burgess,
    There are, and have been for a long while, secular humanists who agree with you. I am not one of those. Although I do identify myself as a secular Buddhist, I reserve the right to identify with no religion whatsoever. And I think this is a right I deserve in any secular state.

    Massimo,
    That reminds me to comment on your remark, that the thread has become a consideration of New Atheism, rather than the particular issue considering American Atheists and their billboards. The New Atheists began the recent movement of confrontational public presentation of atheism, that the AA is clearly identifying with (and challenged me last year, as previously noted.) However, it must be noted that the New Atheists are not simply atheists or even anti-theists, they are anti-religionists. That may put them in the same camp as the Jacobins of the French Revolution (if I understand that historic moment correctly).
    Do we need the “new enlightenment” that Hitchens called for at the end of “god is not great”? Probably, given recent regresses. Do we need a new Jacobinism? Possibly not.

    The ’60s had a profoundly debilitating effect on public discourse, from which we have not recovered. E.g., at the time, painting police as ‘pigs’ seemed both clever and a voicing of deep suspicion and separatism from the status quo; but it really didn’t help identify police officers with the progressing values of their communities, which was what was really needed. How we will roll that back and move on is difficult to see. But that is a discussion for another day.

    Aravis,
    “Responding to your most recent post is testing every ounce of patience and civility that I have.”

    But this is when you’re at your best! And I agree with David Ottlinger, this is a great post, that reminds us that we are not simply discussing abstract issues.

    (And here I do have some experience loosely similar to yours, on a separate issue. All my nieces and nephews married people of color; it pained me to hear their children sometimes complain that they wish they had been born white, and I always insisted on the importance and value of their heritage.

    However they are born, in whatever tradition they are raised, children should not undergo that.

    So perhaps the raising of children in their family’s traditions is *not* a form of child abuse as some New Atheists have claimed; so how do we raise children so they can learn respect for themselves and their traditions, and still leave open the possibility that they learn or decide otherwise? But, again, that’s a discussion for another day.)

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  38. My last post for this thread:

    ejwinner, you are right that some theists also merge/confuse these two projects (fighting for civil rights versus fighting against others). My general point is that such confusions are a mistake and that longterm successful civil rights organizations have concentrated solely on the fight for civil rights.

    My specific point is that organizations claiming to represent my beliefs and interests are currently making this mistake, and I would like them to stop. I hope that my opinion would hold some interest for atheist organizations, particularly those claiming to fight for my civil rights or promoting my image within the community. In having such billboard campaigns, organizations like AA are doing it wrong, and their defenders are missing this essential point.

    Aravis and Coel, it’s a shame that the manner of communication between you two has obscured valid points and reduced discussion on both sides. While Coel’s remarks were clearly insensitive with, I wonder how Aravis’s concluding statement was somehow sensitive to atheists.

    Indeed, “We’ll see you at the ballot box…where you will lose and lose and lose again.” only reinforces the very stereotyped cabal-like theistic persecution (complex) that aggressive atheism feeds from.

    Must we talk to each other that way?

    Aravis you have a real point about public spaces being open to all religious minorities. I am never bothered by communities having religious themed holiday displays, and if it is open to one it should be open to others. That is celebrating local culture. It is a positive thing and the more the merrier.

    The actions of atheists to undercut such displays by demanding the removal of all or injection of satire of all is repulsive. It is as you rightly pointed out making the perfect the enemy of the good.

    But as correct and passionately compelling as your position is, there were some solid points which you seem to have glossed over.

    There is a valid concern that public displays can turn from celebration to endorsement. Your daughter’s story demonstrates this perfectly. If an atheist told how their daughter came home crying because she wished their family were religious due to similar pressures, wouldn’t that be equally disturbing?

    The only solid way to exclude the undercutting of any (ir)religious minority is to include all displays (no matter how upsetting to the rest) or none. Coel is not being outrageous to suggest that none is a real option, and may be the best way to cut the gordian knot of what displays should be in public facilities.

    Claims that atheists don’t have religious holiday displays because they don’t have religious holidays, ignores the fact that atheists still celebrate holidays. Atheist holidays are cultural rather than religious. Does that make them less important? Clearly Pastafarians aren’t real and it is satire not celebration so I am not talking about including them. But atheists could be allowed (and for the “good” should accept as compromise) space to deliver fully secular, and nontheistically positive holiday messages.

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  39. ejwinner,

    Request for clarification on a factual matter where I’ve again been ‘questioned’—a request at least cannot be countered by accusations of anti-intellectualism or its opposite of sneering at “little people”, accusations hard to escape if mutual negatives, nor countered by the accusation of having a “political project”—:

    I’d truly be grateful to have a reference within Kant’s “main texts” where he changes his mind about logic consisting of nothing essentially beyond syllogisms, surely changing it (if that indeed is in those “texts”) since Kant was too intellectually honest to treat his “college freshmen” as little people, who needed to be told the opposite to what he really expected to occur in future logic.

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  40. EJwinner:

    My point re: “the ballot box” is one made in despair. As should be clear from my comments, I would much prefer to be a part of a political coalition that includes atheists, as it seems that we share many if not most of the same concerns. Indeed, it seems to me that the real problem is fundamentalist, intolerant, homogeneous religiosity, not religiosity per se.

    But Coel and the rest of the GNU Atheist crowd have made it quite clear that they view religion itself as the problem. Indeed, several of the GNU Atheists, Harris included, have argued that progressive/liberal religion is even worse than the fundamentalist variety, because it gives religion an air of respectability. Their attitude, then– their stance — precludes cooperation between us, and because this issue is of such importance to those of us who belong to religious minorities, it is something, unfortunately, which we are going to have to fight politically, both against the fundamentalists and against their GNU Atheist bedfellows. It certainly is not something I am happy about.

    No, of course I am not happy at the thought that atheist children may suffer similarly to my daughter, when confronted with the religious holiday season. If atheists want to develop an atheist holiday calendar, with their own rituals and symbols, I would argue for accommodating them. But it really isn’t my faith — or that of other religious minorities that are the problem here. Atheist children are being hit over the head with Christmas, not Hanukkah.

    And I am sorry, but I disagree about the reasonableness of the “none” option. It is not even remotely politically feasible in the US. It’s either pluralism or mono-Christianism, and anyone with even a cursory understanding of the American political scene should know that.

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  41. brandholm: “Aravis and Coel, it’s a shame that the manner of communication between you two has obscured valid points …”

    Intellectual debate could be fierce. Some emotional wordings are sometime needed to express the depth of the issue. Coel has been very vocal on some soft issues while hides his head in sand for the rock-hard issue (when push comes to shove), (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/the-multiverse-as-a-scientific-concept-part-ii/comment-page-1/#comment-3158 ). Yet, Coel is innocent on this as he is not alone; the entire mainstream physics community is doing even worse than him.

    ejwinner: “Newtonian mechanics now fits a small corner of physics; …”

    Of course, this is the mainstream view, but it is wrong. The Newtonian gravity and the General Relativity have two different ‘bases’ which give rise to two different ‘expressions’.

    General Relativity (GR) views the gravity as expressed as ‘geometric structure’ of spacetime.
    Newtonian gravity (NG) views the gravity as the ‘relative motions’ between two massive objects (which sweep out the ‘equal areas’ from their center-of-mass).

    Both descriptions are ‘geometric’ in essence (that is, timelessness). Of course, both of them are wrong, as gravity is the ‘emergent’ of ‘timelessness’, not in the timelessness.

    The gravity is about the ‘motion-in-time’ (not in space, nor spacetime). When my coffer cup sits on my desk without moving (in space), it still moved (in time). The force which moves the ‘entire universe’ from this moment to the ‘next’ is gravity. The gravity is in fact the dark energy which is now clearly defined by the Planck data (dark energy = 69.2; dark matter = 25.8; and visible matter = 4.82).
    Let,
    Space = X
    Time = Y
    Total mass (universe) = Z
    And X = Y = Z
    In an iceberg model (ice, ocean, sky), Z is ice while the (X + Y) is the ocean and sky, the energy ocean (or the dark energy). Yet, the ice (Z) will melt into the ocean (X + Y) with a ratio W.

    By choosing W = 9% and with the known data of visible mass = 4.82%, then

    [(Z – 4.82) x (100 – W)%] = {(33.33 – 4.82) x .91] = 25.94 (while the Planck data is 25.8), then, the dark mass/visible mass ratio was calculated as 5.38 (while the Planck data shows the ratio = 25.8/4.82 = 5.3526).

    The dark energy = (X + Y) + [(Z – 4.82) x W%)] = 66.66 + (28.48 x 0.09) = 69.22 (while the Planck data is 69.2)
    Note: the visible mass = 4.82% can also be derived (but not now).

    Ignorant: someone who is lacking the knowledge of a fact.
    Stupid: someone who is taught (or told) of a ‘fact’ but is unable to comprehend it.
    Dishonesty: to deny the irrefutable ‘fact’ is dishonest.

    The current problem for sciences is about the dishonesty. If the sciences are the base for Atheism, it must deal with this dishonesty first before attacking other religions.

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  42. We have exactly the same problem in the UK. As just one example, one of more important national ceremonies is the Remembrance Day commemoration each year (on WWI Armistice Day). Every religion, even the minor ones, gets to send a representative to lay a wreath. Repeatedly, the British Humanist Association have asked to lay a wreath commemorating non-religious soldiers. They’re always turned down.

    As I understand it not every religion is represented, only a certain number.

    The issue of representation of the non-religious in remembrance ceremonies is an important one, but I wonder if this is not hamstrung by similar issues as dealt with in the article.

    For example have a look at the pugnacious form letter that the British Humanist Association wanted people to send to support their bid for representation: http://forallwhoserve.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Letter2014.pdf

    People respond well to being called hypocrites? I don’t think so.

    And how many people sympathetic to this bid would have been put off signing their name to such a letter.

    If I could get their ear I would recommend the British Humanists secure the services of someone who is skilled in advocacy.

    Have they approached religious groups for support in this? Or would that be accommodationism?

    Also I have noted that the Humanists are represented in similar ceremonies across the UK, notably in Scotland. I can’t help feeling that if there was a little less vinegar and a little more sugar applied then the rest would follow.

    But even then the British Humanists/Defense Humanists are only seeking representation for the 400 or so of their own members in the military. On their own figures that would still leave 98% of the non-religious members of the services unrepresented. From a previous Scientia Salon article we know that the British Humanists only wish to represent a subsection of the non-religious and from the Minister’s response to previous applications this seems to be part of the issue. Indeed it might be considered a little disingenuous of them to be continually claiming to represent a group, most of whom they do not wish to represent.

    Coel’s talk of “cosy deals” seems a little paranoid to say the least. In Australia we have an issue that the inscription to the unknown serviceman at the Australian War Memorial is “Known Unto God”. There were moves to replace this with a secular inscription. There were many theists among those who supported this move and started to put it in place. And there were many prominent atheists among those who strongly resisted the move and ultimately stopped it. Cosy? No.

    It all makes me wonder if the British Humanists/Defense Humanists are more interested in the fuss they can make about being excluded from this ceremony rather than taking effective action to remedy the situation.

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  43. the political parties routinely spend colossal sums on attack ads that are considerably more “jerky”, and have presumably spent lots on finding out what is effective.

    It’s interesting that you prefer presumption to about five minutes worth of web searching on this central point.

    Research is not conclusive on whether negative ads are effective. There is some decent evidence that negative ads are more “memorable”, but it’s questionable for how long. And the reasons for going after a short-term “splash” raise the very pertinent questions @brandholm was mentioning above.

    What we do know with relative certainty is that political parties do *not* spend their money on what research has shown to be more effective than any kind of advertisement: namely, canvassing. Perhaps what AA needs is some clean-cut acolytes on bicycles!

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