Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements

Grouchoby Massimo Pigliucci

Groucho Marx, one of my favorite comedians of all time, famously wrote a telegram to a Hollywood club he had joined, that said: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” [1]

I have recently considered sending such a letter to the skeptic and atheist movements (henceforth, SAM), but I couldn’t find the address. Besides, I don’t actually want to “resign,” as I consider myself a skeptic (in the sense of David Hume: one who attempts to proportion his beliefs to the available evidence) as well as an atheist. I am also a humanist, and more recently, a Stoic. [2] Unlike my colleague Neil deGrass Tyson [3] I don’t have a problem with labels, especially self-selected ones, since I find them to be useful heuristics to navigate a bewilderingly complex world.

Besides, I’ve been into SAM for a long time now. I still remember, back in 1997 — my second year as an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville — when a guy named Carl Ledendecker approached me after a talk by a creationist and asked me if I wanted to join the “Fellowship of Reason” (now the Rationalists of East Tennessee [4]), a group devoted to fighting the good fight on behalf of science and against irrationalisms of all stripes. I thought this was a weird idea, and besides I had to work on my tenure (and I had already started one of the first Darwin Days anyway [5]). Still, after a while I decided to give it a try. I’m still friends with Carl after all these years, and with a number of others I met first there and then throughout the country while attending local, national and international SAM meetings (including, incidentally, the two co-editors of Scientia Salon).

I can honestly say that being a part of SAM has immensely enriched my life, added meaning to it, and hopefully has allowed me to contribute my expertise and reflections to the general improvement of society, in however small a way.

But of course things in life change, and so did my professional situation and my personal priorities. Six years ago I made the switch to being a full time philosopher, and last year I was hired by City College in a position that allows me to pursue new venues of both scholarship and outreach. This has meant writing more about philosophy and less about atheism and skepticism — particularly considering that SAM has become a somewhat inhospitable environment for philosophical dialogue anyway [6].

As a result, I first ended my long running (14 years!) blog, Rationally Speaking [7]; then my Skeptical Inquirer column, Thinking About Science (12 years!) [8]; and finally, participation in my podcast, also named Rationally Speaking [9] (my former co-host, Julia Galef, is capably continuing that one). During that time I had managed to publish three books clearly aimed at a SAM audience: Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science [10], Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science [11], and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk [12]. That, I submit, is a lot of commitment to a movement.

My disengagement has been gradual and not really planned, but rather the result of an organic change of priorities and interests. It has, however, also been accelerated by a number of observations and individual incidents. The most recent one, which finally prompted me to write these reflections for public consumption, was a private email exchange between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris, which was eventually made public by the latter [13].

I have read quite a bit of Sam Harris (too much, in fact), and I have made it very clear what I think of him [14]. I have also read quite a bit of Chomsky (not enough, unfortunately), and he is one of the few people that I honestly regard as a role model, both as an intellectual and as a human being.

So I began reading the exchange with trepidation, and gradually my stomach got more and more turned by what I was seeing. I invite you to put down your iPad or Kindle, or whatever you are using to read this post, and go read the exchange in full to make up your own mind about it. If your reaction is that Harris was trying to have a genuine intellectual discussion and that Chomsky was unfairly dismissive, then there probably is no point in you wasting time with the rest of this essay.

If however, like me, you come out of the reading with the impression that Harris was looking for easy publicity, that he displays an astounding combination of arrogance, narcissism and rudeness, and that Chomsky simply did what many of us perhaps should do more often, which  is to not suffer fools gladly, then you may enjoy what I’m about to say next.

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.

Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.

I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”  Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris’ point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another “revolutionary” book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].

Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].

And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually  trashed yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing: epigenetics and the study of its inheritance. Luckily, what he referred to as a “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.

One can’t talk about either Dawkins or the Horsemen without at least in passing mentioning Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist, very funny and caustic writer, who however couldn’t make up his mind about his politics, ranging from Trotskyism to neoconservatism, all the while being universally eulogized by SAM as a genius and a saint (both of which he would have laughed at heartily) when he died [19].

(You may have noticed that the only prominent New Atheist I don’t take to task is Dan Dennett. That’s because I honestly think he is a better intellectual than the rest of them combined, and he also happens to be a genuinely pleasant individual. The fact that moreover he is the only philosopher of the group may or may not be coincidental, we don’t have enough data points to make that judgment.)

Last, but certainly not least (dulcis in fundo, as the Romans used to say) one cannot conclude this parade without mentioning P.Z. Myers, who has risen to fame because of a blog where the level of nastiness (both by the host and by his readers) is rarely matched anywhere else on the Internet, and who has lately discovered (together with a number of others that I don’t need to mention here) both social progressivism and feminism (or perhaps he invented them?), and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.

I hope others equally worthy will not feel too bad about being left out of the above list. These are just examples of what I think has been an obvious general trend in SAM over the last decade or more. Besides, I’m no Dante, exhaustively allocating slots in the Circles of Hell (or, occasionally, Purgatory). My goal isn’t to damn Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or whoever for being wrong (or simply in disagreement with me!) about this or that. We can all disagree, and we are all wrong at least some of the time. My dismay is at the celebrity culture and degree of groupthink that now permeates SAM — both of which, you would think, are exactly antithetical to what skepticism and atheism are supposed to be about.

{Incidentally, if you are about to launch a cheap shot at my alleged resentment for not being equally popular and worshipped as the people I’m criticizing, go ahead, we are all humans. You couldn’t do much worse than Dawkins himself did when he wallowed in my irrelevance [20]. But I assure you that my Stoic practice — paraphrasing Epictetus — has led me not to give a fuck about celebrity status, Dawkins’ opinion, or yours.}

So, am I simply nostalgic for the alleged good old days of SAM, before the 21st century onslaught of the New Atheists and the rise of the anti-intellectual physicists? Not really. First off, because I wasn’t a part of that movement, so I did not experience it first hand. Yes, I’ve met Paul Kurtz before he died, and he had his own well known issues. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Carl Sagan, but there are reports about his “Harvard Marxist” days and other incongruences too. I have a high degree of personal esteem and respect for people like Ken Frazier (the long time editor of Skeptical Inquirer), cosmologist Sean Carroll, and plenty of others. But I’m pretty sure I don’t worship them, nor do I treat them as celebrities, nor do I think they would particularly appreciate it if I did.

Rather, what has become clear to me is that one needs to look across fields and through time in order to find role models, and even those need to always be treated with a certain degree of skepticism. I can be inspired by David Hume, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, for instance, despite the well known personal failings of the latter two. And that, of course, means just staying within the narrow confines of science and philosophy. But there is so much more to humanity out there: history, literature, art, and just plain everyday decency.

So in a sense my disengagement from SAM is part of my quest to look more broadly, not to be confined by the strictures of a club to which both Groucho and I would feel odd belonging to. This doesn’t mean I will no longer write for SAM audiences, or give talks to conferences (when they invite me, which may happen less and less the more people I piss off!), or help out in general in the most ecumenical way possible.

But it does mean that I see the future of SAM differently from some others: we have moved from the fringe position of the early days (say, when Skeptical Inquirer was called The Zetetic, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair was busy establishing the very same culture of in-your-faceness that her organization has almost unfailingly maintained since) to the mainstream (from the publication of the early New Atheist books until now, and likely into the proximate future).

Where to next, then? Toward a true integration and a dialogue (as opposed to a shouting match) with the rest of society, when we will not need special organizations and dedicated meetings, because secularism, skepticism, and political progressivism (including feminism) will be part of the normal cultural landscape, embedded by default in ongoing discussions on how to make this a better world. That’s where my target audience is now: I’d rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist, and believe me, there is plenty of both out there.

_____

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] For an interesting analysis of the famous Groucho quote, see: The Original Function of Groucho Marx’s Resignation Joke, 16:9, February 2007.

[2] See my essays: Why I am a humanist, Rationally Speaking, 14 October 2008; On the scope of skeptical inquiry, Rationally Speaking, 21 October 2009; On being a fulfilled atheist, Rationally Speaking, 14 July 2011; Why not Stoicism?, Scientia Salon, 6 October 2014.

[3] Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn’t Call Himself an Atheist, Rationally Speaking podcast, 9 March 2014.

[4] Rationalists of East Tennessee.

[5] Darwin Day at the University of Tennessee.

[6] New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, by Massimo Pigliucci, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37 (1):142-153, 2013.

[7] So long, and thanks for all the fish, Rationally Speaking, 20 March 2014.

[8] Thinking About Science: Essays on the Nature of Science, RationallySpeaking.org.

[9] The Rationally Speaking podcast.

[10] Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science, by Massimo Pigliucci, Freethought Press, 2000.

[11] Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, by Massimo Pigliucci, Sinauer, 2002.

[12] Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, by Massimo Pigliucci, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[13] Noam Chomsky undresses Sam Harris: Stop “pretending to have a rational discussion”, Salon, 5 May 2015, which includes the full transcripts, with no commentary other than the title (which says it all) and a very short intro paragraph.

[14] Science and the Is/Ought Problem, by Massimo Pigliucci, Skeptic magazine, February 2011.

[15] Rationally Speaking: Pigliucci and Schermer on the role of science in morality, NECSS, 2013.

[16] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 12 May 2014.

[17] Neil deGrasse Tyson blows it big time, by Jerry Coyne, 14 March 2013.

[18] See: Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, Rationally Speaking, 25 April 2012; and Krauss does it again, so soon!, Rationally Speaking, 17 September 2012.

[19] Massimo’s Picks, special Hitchens edition, Rationally Speaking, 25 December 2011.

[20] Jerry Coyne loses his cool, Dawkins his style, Rationally Speaking, 27 December 2011.

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202 thoughts on “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements

  1. Massimo, this essay, at further read, strikes me as having a moderate degree of parallel with the racialism essay. In part, yes, your focus has changed, but in part, as you note, it’s a conscious issue of engagement. And, to the degree that not changing some people’s thought through dialogue doesn’t have a great influence on the larger socio-political sphere, because their own influence (outside their own minds) is so small, then why waste the time? Perfectly understandable on those grounds as well as not wanting to be part of the club grounds. (Of course, if you follow my take, one can find good Cynical grounds for not wanting to be a part of most clubs in general.)

    I don’t get the amount of liking of PZ here. Of the people of celebrity culture Massimo mentioned, he’s the one who has far and away jumped in bed with the “social justice warrior” movement. (Hence his own disdain for organized skepticism, because SJWs have none of it.) As Massimo notes, trying to pawn off other problems of his own his disciples? (Sic.) Doesn’t fly in my book. (And, if my Michael Nugent link wasn’t enough, here’s another: http://skeptischism.com/atheismneat/2014/10/06/pz-myers-glass-house/)

    Shermer? I mentioned, on the racialism essay, my distaste for him having known racialists on the masthead of Skeptic. (I hope I’m not dogwhistling anybody to come comment.) He may not seem as cultic as some, but he’s enough that way.

    That said, Massimo, it’s a name from the older generation, along with Paul Kurtz, but you didn’t mention Randi. I think he’s quite overrated; he certainly checks all the celebrity culture boxes. I think his trip, decades ago, to Australia, has been long overblown by him as far as the results it allegedly produced. I think he knew more about the identity theft by Devyi Peña (“Jose Alvarez”) long before it started coming out in public, too. That said, JREF, in the next few years, will face at least as much “founder’s syndrome” issues as Center for Inquiry did at the tail end of Kurtz’s tenure.

    Speaking of CFI, Ron Lindsay has his own (not primarily ethics) bits of baggage at CFI as Kurtz’s replacement. Beyond him, and even more Penn and Teller, modern “scientific” skepticism has plenty of others who want to conflate libertarianism with skepticism. There’s lesser gurus in there, too, like convicted fraudster Brian Dunning.

    ==

    Sidebar:

    Zenner You’re surely right, in part, about the Internet. It does seem to shorten attention, among other things, as well as coarsen dialogue and interchange.

    But, it has its benefits, too. I sit in parochial BFE, Texas (until I escape), able to read Massimo and guest authors, interchange with them and other commenters and more.

    And, if you’re a classical music aficionado, YouTube is a godsend — other than to find out a lot of conductors were no better at Mahler 50-60 years ago than today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Massimo,

    Again, you must be reading a different context.

    Well, the context that I was reading is Jerry Coyne’s post on epigenetics. That post is not “trashing” the field of epigenetics, nor a denial that it is proper and important cutting-edge biology, rather it is an explanation that epigenetics is not an overturning of Darwinism, but rather is how Darwinism plays out. It was a reply to various “journalistic” articles, of the “Darwin was wrong” style, and quoted lines such as “ everything you’ve been told is wrong”.

    Dawkins then commented “Bravo Jerry! Spot on, in every particular.”, followed by his remark about the epigenetics *bandwagon*. In context that remark is *clearly* about the journalistic tendency to hype any development in biology into a Darwin-was-wrong “revolution”.

    Thus, your reply, that epigenetics is a proper field producing good work and properly attracting funding, simply entirely misses the point of what Coyne’s article (and Dawkins’s comment) was actually about.

    Far from SAM being “celebrity obsessed”, at least as big a problem in the “skeptic atheist movement” is the tendency of many to seek any opportunity to criticise anyone they perceive as a “leader”, even to the extent of doing so unfairly.

    The masters at that game are of course PZ and his fellow bloggers and commenters, but I invite anyone to read Coyne’s artlcle and Dawkins’s comment on it, and then ask whether your response is a fair one.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. There is another egregious failing of the skeptic community, we exchanged a couple of emails in Feb last year when I reached out to you about it. You seemed to agree with me but I don’t think you ever write on the subject. Why don’t skeptics apply skepticism to the thoroughly propagandized US culture? It’s Chomsky’s life’s work outside his science profession. Writing to Shermer’s org, The Skeptic Society resulted in an exchange that was no different than arguing with a creationist, so disappointing. Recently Chomsky joined Krauss for “An Origins Project Dialogue”, where he said “[Everyone] should remember that there is a secular religion that is even more devastating [than theistic religions] and that’s things like the concept of american exceptionalism. That’s a secular religion.” This prompted me to try The Skeptic Society again, with the same result, I tried to post in their forum, and they made my already activated account disappear. They appear to have learned well from all the creationists they prefer to contend with. The whole pathetic and sad mess of exchanges can be read here-http://breathtakinginanity.com/infos/combined-skeptic2.pdf.

    The consequences of a citizenry living in a propagandized virtual reality are serious, worse than those religious belief delivers, as Chomsky says above. It’s ludicrous for ‘skeptics’ to call themselves that when they’re so eager to swallow so much bullshit.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D. Ph.D Ph.D. has once again mischaracterised Dawkins’ position in order to criticise it. (I recall years ago attending a talk by MP in which he claimed that Dawkins asserted in his book that God could be definitely disproven, which stands in direct opposition to the actual contents of Dawkins’ book). As to epigenetics, yes, there is real research. This is not what upsets Dawkins. Rather, as already pointed out by several other commenters already, Dawkins is put off by the media hype which blows the research out of all proportion and misstates its interaction with other phenomena which also constitute the findings of legitimate research. Let’s take a look at a coupe of headlines to see what is going on:
    “Lamarck’s revenge: The epigentics revolution may redeem on of Darwin’s oldest rivals” (Graham Templeton, ExtremeTech 2014)
    “Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong” (Oliver Burkeman, The Grauniad, 2010)
    “A Comeback for Lamarckian Evolution?” (Emily Singer, MITY Technology Review, 2009)
    “Lamarck’s Revenge” (Judith Shulevitz, New Republic, undated)

    Does MP,PhD,PhD,PhD consider these headlines a fair and accurate assessment of what epigenetics is and the impact it has on the field of biology? He must, or else Dawkins’ eye-rolling over such hype would strike a chord with him. MP,PhD,PhD,PhD does not like to be accused of envy, but how else does one explain his frequent mischaracterization of the positions of others whose opinion is sought more than his? Laziness? Incompetence?

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  5. I just wanted to briefly thank you for your work as a groupthink watchdog for the New Atheism (a phrase that I note we have all decided to start capitalizing — hmmm). I happen to think that intellectual work will always have an irreducible political component, but something is wrong when “vicious social networking practices” (as you aptly put it) become the norm.

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  6. I’m going to second the comments that have been made about Dawkins. I sometimes have issues with Dawkins when he writes about religion, because he is sometimes cavalier with his facts, but when he writes about genetics it is a different story. He might get something wrong, but if he does, it won’t be out of ignorance. Epigenetics is a bit like neuroplasticity: it is a fascinating and very important topic, but doesn’t support the interpretation it is often given in the popular media. That’s all Dawkins was saying.

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  7. I find it impossible to believe that anyone would feel the need to mischaracterize Dawkins’ position on anything in order to criticise it. It’s so much easier to do if one does not mischaracterize it. 🙂

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  8. It seems inconsistent to criticize the SAM for an “unwillingness to change’s one’s mind”, and then count as negative that Christopher Hitchen’s seems to have been unable to make up his mind about his politics.

    Criticizing the confusion of atheism with social progressivism and feminism suggests (correctly) that there is no necessary conjunction between one’s politics and one’s atheism, skepticism, rationality, or intellectualism. Yet you echo the usual attempt to smear Hitchen’s reputation because of his sympathy with the invasion of Iraq. Yes, he supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but I never noticed any advocacy of neoconservatism as a general approach to foreign policy. Rather than neoconservative politics, I saw Hitch’s support for the Iraq war as part of his consistent and unbending opposition to tyranny and totalitarianism, which was also bolstered by the friendships he formed while in Kurdistan as a journalist.

    I agree that there is much unpleasant rudeness and arrogance that can be found on the Internet, but this is not limited to atheists and skeptics. I have seen plenty of examples suggesting the religious faithful are quite capable of competing on those terms.

    There is a sense of shock when atheists first grasp the full extent of the special privileges and respect accorded religion in our culture, something that is as ubiquitous and taken for granted as the atmosphere we breathe (except of course among that small minority known as “intellectuals”). When one steps outside of the religious mindset of faith in God and belief in an afterlife and an eternal soul, there is a tendency to feel anger that such ideas could have been perpetuated for so long and granted an undeserved immunity from criticism. I suspect this is responsible for some of the sneering rudeness that occurs far too frequently. Perhaps it is an attempt to break through the layers of insulation that have protected the common understanding of religion for so long. This angry approach doesn’t seem very constructive to me, but at least I can fully understand the impulse.

    I don’t think it is fair or correct to criticize what you call the SAM in terms of intellectualism. It is not really and intellectual movement, it is a popular movement aimed at eroding the power that religion holds over the general public. In that sense it is political, though it need not have any particular politics, either left or right.

    Certainly we all can benefit by feeling compassion for others and recalling our own doubt and confusion when first honestly questioning the childhood indoctrination into religion that most of us are subjected to.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Alex,

    “whether only philosophers should be allowed to discuss evidence in favour or against the existence of gods”

    I never said any such thing. I said that anyone wanting to engage philosophical issues should do so seriously. We expect that much from people engaging scientific issues, regardless of whether they are scientists or not, right?

    “If one is an atheist, then it follows that any justification for politics that is based entirely on religious dogma collapses immediately; and if one is a skeptic, then at a bare minimum any privileges based on nothing beyond tradition become immediately suspect.”

    Sure. But that still leaves almost the entire spectrum of political opinions available to the atheist. What I object to is that PZ & Co. are trying to turn a pretty basic statement about metaphysics into a politically socially progressive agenda. I agree with (much of) that agenda, but it simply doesn’t follow.

    penj3,

    “This tweet preceded publishing the emails between him and Chomsky”

    Right. As for those who point out that Chomsky was rude, yes he was. That’s why I wrote in the essay that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Harris, however, very clearly remains the fool in my mind. But of course there is room for disagreement.

    Eric,

    “Sam Harris took the academically insulated route of a straight philosophy degree”

    That’s incorrect. Harris’ degree is in neuroscience.

    kelskye,

    “Pharyngula is the exception to this. My personal problem with it is the delight taken there in being nasty to other people”

    That’s my major issue with PZ. Oh, and the holier-than-thou attitude he has developed since he discovered his social warrior inner self.

    =(, Letian, Coel, Reginald, and others on Dawkins and epigenetics,

    “I followed the epigenetics link of Dawkins, and that is exactly the point he seems to be making (“yes epigenetics is very nice, but let us not pretend it is the best ever and I certainly object to it overthrowing Darwin”). Is the link incorrect, or am I missing something? (I am not a huge Dawkins fan; I honestly just don’t see what you see.)”

    That link is just to a tweet, so it’s actually hard to glean sufficient context. Dawkins also dismissed epigenetics in a footnote to one of his post-God Delusion books, but a quick Google search didn’t turn it up, so I need to look further.

    The issue needs to be seen in the much wider context of long running discussions about selfish genes, the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology, and the so-called Extended Synthesis, of which I am a major proponent and Dawkins is dismissive about.

    For a look at what is at stake in that debate, see for instance this: http://goo.gl/mE5uvp

    For a recent in-depth commentary on the broader issue by yours truly, see: https://goo.gl/JUzamQ

    Robin,

    “There is a perception about the atheist celebrities that they are evangelists of atheism and seem to see themselves in this role too. But I think the evidence more suggests that they are riding the wave, rather than pushing it.”

    That’s a good point, which I tried to make in my technical paper where I analyze the NA movement: http://philpapers.org/rec/PIGNAA

    “Others have said that religious belief should be classified as a mental illness. Peter Boghossian, for example, says that religious belief is a cognitive illness and that it is “crucial” to amend the DSM to reflect this.”

    Like you, I find that disturbing and ominous. Seems like these people have learned nothing from the fact that until recently the DSM classified homosexuality as a mental illness.

    zenner,

    “Because the Internet generates fans, not students.”

    You have a point. But, if you don’t mind me saying so, the vigorous, constructive and civil discourse here at Scientia Salon clearly demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be so. Of course, it takes an inordinate amount of time and energy (thanks, Dan Tippens, for all your help moderating!).

    Neil,

    “I’ve been a skeptic for all of my life, and non-religious for most of it. But I have never been part of SAM (skeptic and atheist movements) — I guess I’m not a movement kind of person”

    With this essay, I’m joining you as a non-club member who nonetheless is a skeptic and atheist.

    ej,

    “I was dismayed to realize, on closer examination, that the New Atheist argument against religion is little more than re-emphasis of classic Enlightenment charges that religion has brought forth terrible evils into the world”

    Right. Now, there is nothing wrong with rehashing arguments (though one might want to at the least update them). But to pretend that one is saying something new and groundbreaking, well…

    “I think it’s a mistake to see SAM as a movement”

    Maybe it is. But a number of the people involved definitely see it that way. Hence frequent talk of “leadership” and so forth. I’m not against movements per se, by the way, and I recognize that perhaps SAM has done some good, possibly even more good than bad. But it isn’t my cup of tea anymore, and I’d rather work for a world where SAM is unnecessary. And I think this can best be done from the outside, talking to other players.

    Modus,

    “Dawkins at least is a credible intellectual in his field. He coined the term “meme” and is one of the world’s greatest living biologists”

    Dawkins certainly has credentials. However, I cringe every time I see him characterized they way you do. To begin with, as far as I know (and I looked into it) he hasn’t published a novel piece of research in evobio in decades, unlike his long running rival, S.J. Gould, who kept publishing technical papers and books right to the end of his life. Also, Dawkins’ opinions on evolutionary theory are by now hopelessly dated, and not just because of what he thinks about epigenetics. So, yes, credentialed intellectual; no, not the world’s greatest living biologist, by a long shot.

    Dan,

    “I blame the atheist end of the spectrum for 90% of what you’re complaining about. There are plenty of people on the more purely skeptical side (for example, your co-author Steven Novella) and even a rare gem among the more religion-focused like Jeremy Beahan who are innocent of your gripes.”

    Fair enough. Though on the skeptical side we have a number of others that I haven’t mentioned, beginning with James Randi and Pen & Teller’s “skepticism” about climate change.

    “Don’t abandon us!”

    I’m not, I’m just going to play more obviously from the outside.

    Socratic,

    “That said, JREF, in the next few years, will face at least as much “founder’s syndrome” issues as Center for Inquiry did at the tail end of Kurtz’s tenure”

    Yes, we’ll see how that goes…

    Jeffrey,

    “It seems inconsistent to criticize the SAM for an “unwillingness to change’s one’s mind”, and then count as negative that Christopher Hitchen’s seems to have been unable to make up his mind about his politics.”

    C’mon, there is a difference between changing one’s mind based on reason and evidence and swinging ideologically between Trotskyism and neoconservatism.

    “Rather than neoconservative politics, I saw Hitch’s support for the Iraq war as part of his consistent and unbending opposition to tyranny and totalitarianism”

    So did G.W. Bush. (Well, he had the Jesus thing also, which Hitch obviously didn’t.)

    “I agree that there is much unpleasant rudeness and arrogance that can be found on the Internet, but this is not limited to atheists and skeptics”

    No, but I hold the community of reason to a higher standard.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I have never read any of Noam Chomsky’s books. If you were a young guy looking to see the world differently, which are the first three of Chomsky’s books that you would read first?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Massimo,

    I’ll start by saying that on the whole I really agreed with your sentiments in this post (especially about the Chomsky/Harris exchange… Holy smokes, Harris is a tool) but was left with a little confusion over the basic premise of it. You tie atheism and skepticism (the communities/movements) together at the outset and do so throughout the whole post, but within the post almost exclusively criticize celebrities known overwhelmingly for their atheism with maybe the exception of Tyson who publicly has more in common with skeptics than atheists, but seems to not really link himself with either camp. Other than that, you include people like Sagan (much more a skeptic than atheist publicly I think) in with a group of admirable people but only really comment that they were/are human and flawed; not to be worshiped.

    So I guess what I’m asking is; do you just treat atheism and skepticism and their related groups as essentially just one group (i.e. S.A.M.), do you feel that those two groups are indeed separate but equally guilty of the cult of personality and groupthink you denounce, or are there just not as many overtly negative examples of those things in the skeptical community as there are in the atheist one?

    Regardless of that one question I have, I just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done in these arenas. While I skipped for joy when P.Z. “divorced” himself from skeptical movement, I’m shedding a little tear for you moving on from it.

    Like

  12. >> “Sam Harris took the academically insulated route of a straight philosophy degree”

    > That’s incorrect. Harris’ degree is in neuroscience.

    B.A. in philosophy, Ph.D. (but only one) in neuroscience.
    Apparently you couldn’t be bothered to spend five seconds checking Wikipedia.

    Like

  13. and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.
    Or perhaps the confusion is yours. the argument being made is ,
    a) if it is a rational, evidence -based , worldview that leads you to your atheism , then a rational , evidence-based worldview will also lead you to have certain views (For e.g. pro – feminism).
    b) if you have certain views due to religion (e.g. the wife must be subordinate to the husband), then abandoning religion should lead you to abandon the views.

    What about the above do you actually disagree with?

    Like

  14. Massimo 1/2,

    It’s been really interesting to watch your slow movement on this issue. I have been dissatisfied with the state of the God debate for years. It has been a kind of echo chamber for self-congratulation, bad manners and philosophical hackery. It’s great to be able to refer people to the (freely available) writings of a serious public intellectual making the same points. I hope it makes a difference. The most depressing thing is that the academic God debate is not in a bad way (with new arguments made by Richard Gale, William Rowe, Michael Tooley, Quentin Smith and others) but no one wants to listen to it. I would expect such thinkers to be less attended to than more popular writers in the Dawkins crowd but it’s remarkable to me how little interest runs off into the more serious discussions. A shame.

    In the spirit of de omnibus dubitandum though….I can’t quite get my head around your admiration for Chomsky (qua political thinker, I don’t think anyone questions the magnitude of his achievement in linguistics). I haven’t read his written work but every discussion I have seen him participate in turns me off. The email exchange you referred us to is no exception. It seemed to me that Harris-Oh God it burns!-had a point. Chomsky denies the charge of equivalence but he applies the same rhetoric, as Harris pointed out, to both the US government and al Queda. Many of his distinctions seemed strained. Chomsky argued that Clinton did not “intend” to kill civilians he just foresaw that he would and did not care. Chomsky seems to use “intend” to mean “would do if circumstances were otherwise” which is not its given meaning in common usage or philosophical debates. He seems to use his words in these strained ways to avoid saying what he really thinks which seems to be there is no important moral difference. While Harris is annoyingly naive his thought experiment did make the point that even if the US and al Queda both kill civilians they do it in service of radically different ends for radically different reasons and that makes a huge moral difference (I stress I am not defending US policy here just making a point). The way Chomsky took up Harris’s thought experiment was pretty shabby.

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  15. 2/2
    Chomsky is also willing to banish Harris to the land of “apologists”. This reminded me of a discussion I saw over at blogging heads in which a young writer related a conversation with Chomsky in which he asked why Chomsky did not make more of an effort to get himself heard on the mainstream media. Chomsky replied that since he held the opinions he did there was no point, the media would never listen to him. There is a kind of Cassandra complex and a willingness to divide the world into good guys and bad guys to the man which strikes me as immature. The worst is his characterization of Bush as acting because “God had instructed him that he must smite the enemy”. That would be naive if it were applied to Richard the Lionhearted let alone a modern US president. Bush had the idea that establishing democracy in the Middle East would stabilize the region in a way that would serve humanitarian and US interests. That vision was clearly bracingly naive, but Bush hardly acted because God told him to one night. (Note also the seeming equivalence Chomsky sets up between Bush and al Queda as, using Harris’s phrase “God intoxicated sociopaths”.) The same goes for his characterization of Clinton as caring about Africans no more than ants. Even you seemed unwilling to accept this, saying: “I don’t think Clinton is a moral monster..they must have had better intelligence (if not, then they are criminal)”. Lastly I really don’t see how you can blame Harris for publishing the emails when he explicitly asked and Chomsky passed up the opportunity to object. I don’t see that it makes a difference that he gave a reason why he thought they shouldn’t be published, he explicitly gave his blessing.

    So if I’m getting this all wrong is there a good place you would recommend to start reading Chomsky? Or even a good video to watch? Let this not distract from the fact that I found the main point of your post to be quite well aimed and refreshing. (Also I won’t blame you if you don’t feel like taking up the gauntlet.)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. There is nothing I admire as much as intellectual honesty. In your essay I see the culmination of a striving for truth and a determination to follow that truth, regardless of cost. That is intellectual honesty.

    But which truth were you following? The first clue came in your review( a few years ago) of different ethical systems, when you espoused virtue ethics. The next clue came when you embraced Stoicism(a variety of virtue ethics). The following clue came in the manner you moderated this forum, with your desire for debate carried out in a decent, thoughtful way.

    Embracing an ethical system brings with it certain ethical commitments and you clearly were determined to live these ethical commitments. In this essay you have taken the final step, and disassociated yourself with conduct that seemed to you to be contrary to your ethical commitments.

    Bravo, you really have shown both intellectual honesty and intellectual courage.

    Where to next, then? Toward a true integration and a dialogue (as opposed to a shouting match) with the rest of society,

    I agree wholeheartedly. But how should it be done? I look forward to an essay where you expand on this theme.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I have profited from at least some writings by most of the individuals mentioned by Massimo, and certainly from Massimo’s work in biology and this forum. Where I break with many of them is I think the is/ought divide is real and some form of free will exists; that we can predict behavior doesn’t mean there are no options. Anyone who has studied evolutionary biology should make that connection – I think.

    Socratic Gadfly has suggested a link to the previous post and I was thinking the same thing; that we can cluster individuals into groups and correlations exist between those groups and something else doesn’t indicate cause and effect. We still need to treat people as individuals without regard to group membership. Nothing befuddles people more than going against type or authority.

    The other thing I will say is that change is a constant and just because something changes doesn’t make it better or worse necessarily. I grew up without computers and I sometimes find it difficult to understand how much it has changed those that have, but I couldn’t say if my youth was better or worse than that of my children today.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Massimo,

    —astro,
    —I’ll skip your astrological analysis, if you don’t mind…

    Not at all. Happy to have been allowed to appear and to have escaped your mockery.

    I propose that the segment of SAM from which you separate yourself is guilty of the sort of scientism you have also criticized. If I might be allowed to place the cherry atop my astrological sundae, it would be to mention that Descartes, author of the attitude that Nature is there to be conquered, himself was an Aries.

    (But the most common form of violence is of course rape, especially if allowing that all intercourse partakes of it. And so ‘mythical’ swordsmanship clusters among Aries natives: Aretino, Rochester, Casanova, Chaplin, Brando, Beatty, Hefner, Wilhelm Reich and Lacan.)

    Like

  19. Hi Aravis. You said:

    “At university, I took degrees in philosophy and ancient near eastern history. I guess that makes me doubly insulated. I must admit to feeling warm a lot.”

    My point for the comment that you’ve referenced merely concerned differences between Sam Harris and myself. Of course this does go back to the whole skepticism which many feel for “The Ivory Tower,” though I am sorry if I’ve raised your defenses. Hell I’d love to somehow make my own living in philosophy, as both you and Sam Harris effectively do. For the record, upper division physics courses did prove beyond my own mental dexterity, so I ended up completing a degree in economics (somewhat given its utilitarianism). I make my living in the construction industry.

    More importantly you’ve asked:

    “And on what basis did you decide that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ should be defined in terms of “positive and negative sensations”?”

    Excellent question! Ultimately on the basis of personal observations of myself, which is something that we all should be able to do. Here you take random lists of things which seem punishing, as well as rewarding, to you. If you can then find one common personal trait that each of these situations seem to share, this would provide you with theory regarding that which is ultimately good/bad for you. If many scientists were to do so and come up with the same essential answer, then they would surely not speculate that this simply concerned themselves, but rather extrapolate their good/bad theory on as a fundamental aspect of what the conscious entity happens to be.

    As for my own answer, I do find it strange that so many philosophers dance around phenomenal experience like it’s some kind of ineffable magic. Here it’s decided that we will need to figure out how to build this stuff if we are ever to validate physicalism. I’d at least think that philosophy’s “ethics” branch could use “phenomenal experience” to solve its ultimate question. Instead we’re told, “No, no, no! That answer would be repugnant!”

    If the philosophy community would like to remain as it always has (looking for what the human wants rather than is), well I would find this a shame. I don’t yet concede however. Regardless there are philosophical dynamics of reality which desperately need to be understood in cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and so on. I am here to sound this alarm, as well as to provide my own theory from which to fill such gaps (and whether through “Philosophy,” or (gasp!) “Scilosophy”).

    Hi Massimo,

    Yes I do now see that it was a Neuroscience Ph.D. that Sam Harris received in 2009, which may trump his 2000 B.A. in Philosophy. I do presume you agree that he isn’t considered a working scientist.

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  20. Steve,

    “If you were a young guy looking to see the world differently, which are the first three of Chomsky’s books that you would read first?”

    Good question. I’ say “Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky” (a 2002 collection of essays), “The Essential Chomsky” (2008), and of course, the classic “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988).

    Eternally,

    “do you just treat atheism and skepticism and their related groups as essentially just one group (i.e. S.A.M.), do you feel that those two groups are indeed separate but equally guilty of the cult of personality and groupthink you denounce”

    Good points, I do have a significantly better view of the skeptic community. And I didn’t mention people I do admire within that community, like Steve Novella. But even the skeptics, while I think on the whole better than the atheists, have their issues: just think of James Randi and Pen & Teller’s “skepticism” of climate change, for instance.

    But on the whole, these are partially distinct and partially overlapping communities, and I treat them under one acronym simply because I have been a member of both, and because I see common problems at play.

    And your appreciation is much appreciated.

    Reginald,

    “B.A. in philosophy, Ph.D. (but only one) in neuroscience. Apparently you couldn’t be bothered to spend five seconds checking Wikipedia.”

    Your lack of charitable reading is obvious, and your snarking says a lot. (Yeah, I know, I can be accused of the same, but believe me, I am honestly trying to do a constructive critical analysis here, not just rant.)

    Anyway, as Eric himself acknowledged, in his follow up comment, it was clear (to both of us, at the least) that he was talking about Harris’ advanced degree, not his undergraduate. I knew of the latter (even without looking it up on Wikipedia), but I thought it couldn’t be what Eric was referring to.

    Deepak,

    “Or perhaps the confusion is yours … What about the above do you actually disagree with?”

    Perhaps I’m confused, but your reasoning is a pretty good example of my point. Notice, first off, that you have shifted the target: you are somehow equating atheism with rationality and empiricism, thereby accomplishing a sleight of hand and accusing me of denying that feminism is a rational view. Of course it is. But is it an atheistic view? Moreover, there are plenty of rational defense of other ways of looking at women issues, and one has to bring in additional values and arguments to defend feminism, values and arguments that have nothing whatsover to do with atheism.

    David,

    “I can’t quite get my head around your admiration for Chomsky”

    I really don’t want to turn this into a discussion of Chomsky, or even, frankly, of Chomsky vs Harris. My reason to bring that episode up was simply to say that it was one more instance of the publicity gathering celebrity culture that seems endemic of SAM (and characteristic of Sam).

    Remember, Chomsky was simply not engaging Harris, largely because Harris was simply behaving like a pest who wants attention and refuses to engage on a serious intellectual level (Harris’ points, in my mind, are simplistic and puerile). Do I think Chomsky got it completely right and that Bill Clinton is a moral monster? No. But I do think he is right that Clinton and his administration are personally responsible for a crime that they committed with full knowledge of what they were doing (unless they were idiots), and likely conceited simply to distract from domestic attention to other happenings that were unfolding much closer to home.

    “The worst is his characterization of Bush as acting because “God had instructed him that he must smite the enemy”. That would be naive if it were applied to Richard the Lionhearted let alone a modern US president.”

    Oh, I don’t know. While that’s not the whole story, I actually think it fits Bush better than Richard…

    “Lastly I really don’t see how you can blame Harris for publishing the emails when he explicitly asked and Chomsky passed up the opportunity to object”

    Chomsky did object, several times. But my guess is that in the end simply didn’t care enough. And Harris promptly took advantage of it. Watch him milking this particular cow for years to come.

    “So if I’m getting this all wrong is there a good place you would recommend to start reading Chomsky?”

    See my recommendations above to Steve.

    Labnut,

    you are too kind, but it’s nice to hear such support (especially compared to a bit of abuse I’m getting, for instance, on PZ’s blog!).

    Michael,

    “I have profited from at least some writings by most of the individuals mentioned by Massimo, and certainly from Massimo’s work in biology and this forum”

    Thank you. Which reminds me: a number of people (especially outside this forum) have somehow jumped to the conclusion that I think all the people mentioned in this article are worthless. I never said any such thing. Even Harris occasionally gets things right, and the rest do so more often. My analysis was simply a bird’s eye view of a whole movement, where I think on the whole things are not good, and certainly not good enough for me to identify with such movement. But Climbing Mount Improbable remains a classic of exposition of evolutionary theory for the broder public; Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things is most definitely worth reading; and Tyson is a good popularizer of cosmology. I could go on, but I think the point has been made.

    Eric,

    “Yes I do now see that it was a Neuroscience Ph.D. that Sam Harris received in 2009, which may trump his 2000 B.A. in Philosophy. I do presume you agree that he isn’t considered a working scientist”

    Correct. Just like Dawkins isn’t considered a working evolutionary biologist.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Deepak Shetty,

    “‘and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.’
    “Or perhaps the confusion is yours. the argument being made is ,
    a) if it is a rational, evidence -based , worldview that leads you to your atheism , then a rational , evidence-based worldview will also lead you to have certain views (For e.g. pro – feminism).
    b) if you have certain views due to religion (e.g. the wife must be subordinate to the husband), then abandoning religion should lead you to abandon the views.

    “What about the above do you actually disagree with?”

    I find this point interesting as well, so pardon if I pipe in, though it’s addressed to Massimo.

    Suppose the epistemic virtues that lead one to atheism also naturally lead one to a belief in the equality of women. And? Given the triviality of this point in itself, I suspect the above is a tacit argument that atheist activists are bound by logic to be women’s equality activists also. If it is, it’s a dubious argument. The relevant epistemic virtues likely align atheist with many good causes. Are atheists bound by logic to be activists on all such causes? Unless you say yes, which would be a silly position, you must admit that linking atheism to women’s equality is arbitrary. One could make the very same argument for the welfare of animals, campaign finance reform, and the safety of coal miners. It’s a shady recruiter’s argument.

    On another level, I suspect this argument is used to try to lure atheists into feminism. Here we have a second case of logically distinct tenets: that women should be equal doesn’t imply that feminism is a worthy cause. One can be an a women’s equality activist while rejecting feminism. So the link from atheism to feminism is twice problematic. In sum, there’s nothing inherent to atheists that eases the burden of feminist recruitment–unless they have a crush on Emma Watson.

    Btw, I’m not an atheist but a Wiccan polytheist–a devotee of the Goddess and the Horned God–on a mission to teach logic to SJWs (mostly kidding ; )

    Like

  22. This article reads like a jilted performer who is a little jealous of the accolades of his peers. This thinly prepped article is rich in vernacular but devoid of substance. This is a trait that is usually seen amongst believers and the faithful. It is a crying shame when a supposed “Rational Thinker” engages in such hyperbole.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Massimo,

    anyone wanting to engage philosophical issues should do so seriously

    But that rather begs the question whether gods are an entirely or even primarily philosophical issue as opposed to a primarily empirical one, doesn’t it? It can surely be argued that questions such as whether this universe was created, whether it contains souls and angels, and whether there is a god interacting with it are of an empirical nature.

    that agenda, but it simply doesn’t follow

    As I wrote, advocatus etc.; same here, I agree with most of it but don’t think it follows either beyond what I listed.

    Aravis,

    Maybe we just have a different view of what defines social conservatism in our current societal context. I was specifically thinking of people who would forbid homosexuals to marry, who would outlaw abortion even in early stages of pregnancy, etc. And yes, I do not perceive any rational basis for those positions, they seem to be based entirely based entirely on tradition and/or religious tenet, because nobody would lose anything by allowing those things. At the same time I am of course aware that conservatism as a political movement more generally is pretty much defined as the desire to defend privileges, wealth and power against the risk of losing those to upstarts, and that is admittedly a rational view to take if one is among the privileged. After a fashion.

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  24. Thank you for replying Massimo, and thanks for clearing that up. To briefly address the two (well, 3 really even if Teller doesn’t talk) skeptics you brought up:

    – I think the level of publicity Penn and Teller get helps the skeptical community more than it hurts (so many people are uninitiated to even the idea of skepticism that I think even a flawed introduction is better than none), but I’m not sure they are really a part of the community as much as their own thing. As far as their climate “skepticism” goes, it is definitely in the ‘hurts’ column and greatly represents how their sloppy process can easily lead down the wrong path.

    – As for Randi, I think his misstep with climate science is actually a wonderful example of what every sketpic, no matter how big or small, should do. No one is perfect, and he made a mistake by not being thorough enough and publicly put his foot in his mouth. Within less than a day he listened to the negative commentary, looked at the facts himself, and publicly changed his mind. He also has not shied away from openly discussing his blunder whenever it has come up in interviews.

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  25. Alex SL wrote:

    Maybe we just have a different view of what defines social conservatism in our current societal context. I was specifically thinking of people who would forbid homosexuals to marry, who would outlaw abortion even in early stages of pregnancy, etc. And yes, I do not perceive any rational basis for those positions, they seem to be based entirely based entirely on tradition and/or religious tenet, because nobody would lose anything by allowing those things.

    —————————————————————————–

    Your dichotomy, here, between opposing something, for religious or pure-tradition reasons or opposing it because “someone would lose” does not exhaust the possible options. Most of the intellectually serious socially conservative philosophers, like Roger Scruton, Robert George, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others, are Aristotelians of one stripe or another and will want to address these questions in eudaimonist, rather than utilitarian terms. And none of them make bald appeals to tradition or religious dogma. Indeed, even the outright Thomists don’t do that.

    I just finished teaching an “ethics and contemporary issues” course, in which one of the subjects was gay sex and marriage. I used Roger Scruton’s piece, “Gay Reservations,” which argues for retaining our moral and social sanctions against homosexual conduct, and while you may not agree with his reasoning, there are no appeals to religious dogma or to naked tradition and the subject is seriously argued. For a more expansive view of Scruton’s account of sexual morality, see his 1986 book “Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation.”

    Liked by 3 people

  26. @massimo
    “What is wrong is to link that criticism with atheism, which is a negative metaphysical statement with no implication whatsoever about social policy, politics, rights (except for separation of Church and State) and so forth.”

    Separation of church and state no more follows from the mere negative metaphysical statement that atheism is than, say, gay marriage rights do.

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  27. ” Within less than a day he listened to the negative commentary, looked at the facts himself, and publicly changed his mind. He also has not shied away from openly discussing his blunder whenever it has come up in interviews.”

    He never seemed to give a real mea culpa that I have heard. Off the top of my head, he didn’t seem to do that at the rationally speaking podcast either.

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  28. I have nothing intellectual or inflammatory to say. But I can say, Massimo, that your writing on pseudoscience has helped me understand the concept more deeply. You may remember we met in 2002 at a CFI event. Even though I’ve been around quite a while but, because I don’t do drama, shun Skepchickness, and don’t have a PhD, I’m nobody special still trying to sway people away from ghosts, psychics and buying into questionable claims. I get little support, but frequent attacks from my “friends”. I also am on civil terms with paranormalists in order to learn how they think. So, I fit in exactly no where and feel it acutely.

    “I’m just going to play more obviously from the outside,” sounds like a plan to me. There’s little sense in trying to contribute to a “community” that has no sense of shared goals or enthusiasm and is dominated by big egos lacking empathy.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Alex SL,

    “‘anyone wanting to engage philosophical issues should do so seriously’

    “But that rather begs the question whether gods are an entirely or even primarily philosophical issue as opposed to a primarily empirical one, doesn’t it? It can surely be argued that questions such as whether this universe was created, whether it contains souls and angels, and whether there is a god interacting with it are of an empirical nature.”

    (Again, pardon for piping in on a question addressed to Massimo.)

    Indeed, the claim, “I don’t see God; therefore God doesn’t exist” is devoid of any substantial philosophical assumptions ; )

    Seriously, arguing that God doesn’t exist because there’s no empirical evidence is as philosophical as any argument regarding God. It requires substantial metaphysical argument. You’d need to argue either about the nature of God (i.e. that He is such that if He existed, there would be empirical evidence of His presence) or about the general nature of reality (e.g., all that exists is empirically detectable, at least in principle).

    Though the claim makes reference to empirical evidence, it’s one that only a devoted metaphysician could defend responsibly.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. When dealing with human affairs, we find they are more complicated than usually presumed. Aravis’ comment to Alex reminded me that Scruton backed off his anti-gay stance (in a 2010 Guardian interview) – because it was much more complicated than he originally thought. This is especially true in the theism/atheism debate and Dawkins, for instance, could have created more good will by listening to his critics and revising another edition of the God Delusion. It wouldn’t weaken his case, but would strengthen it. Anthony Kenny offered in review that the God concept is so varied that it would be hard to not agree with one of them. I am not sure I am completely on board, but it is another way to look at it.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Little unfair towards PZ I think. He is certainly polarizing, and while I do disagree with him on how to handle some topics, he usually turns out to be right. Besides, his writing is about expressing that frustration with the religious aspect of society towards people with a similar viewpoint, and he does it in a thoughtful and eloquent way that pulls no punches. It is certainly not a blog to bridge a gap with the religious world. And never judge a writer by the commenters or youtube should just be burned down.

    But the only real problem I have is that last line, the ol’ ‘rather have a conversation with an intelligent christian that a stupid atheist’. Well, duh. Wouldn’t this go for anything? I think we would all rather converse with someone intelligent else I would go yell at those god hates fags idiots (yes, idiots, there is no nicety towards anyone who would picket funerals with those signs). Just be honest, you don’t want to be associated with atheists for the same reason most people don’t tell others they are atheist. It’s dirty. it’s disrespectful. Arrogant. know it alls. dicks. You wish to remain above all that, and that’s fine,, go foe the high ground and then get back to us about all the fruitful reasoning you are getting from the accommodating religious and pseudoscientists. I look forward to it and wish you luck. But the reason I anyway, as an atheist skeptical podcaster, don’t have a problem mocking is that bad ideas deserve to be mocked when the evidence against it there, and it is solid and concrete. The time for rational discourse with those who believe the irrational (or non rational as we like to say in anthropology) is over, their input needs not be debated but minimized.

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  32. I wanted to make one hopefully useful point about FtB and “echo chambers”.

    I was a regular commenter on Pharyngula for a couple of months, and I ended up cutting out, because it wasn’t a good fit for me. There is a lot of snark over there and a lot of piling on, and a lot of eager enforcement of certain kinds of liberal norms. When I questioned the opinion in the post – even when I wasn’t directly disagreeing – I often got piled on, mostly as “JAQ-ing off” or as a “concern troll”.

    However… after reflection, I feel like the community there is valuable – that “echo chambers” can be valuable – even if it’s not “for me”. And, in fact, it’s literally not “for me”.

    When I think about an issue, I often have the luxury of thinking about it abstractly simply because I’m not directly affected by it. If I were being constantly disenfranchised, in ways large and small, by the society I lived in, I wouldn’t have that luxury. The strong enforcement and piling-on over at FtB is a way of creating a social space where it’s safe to express things – and feel like you’re not nuts for believing things – that our larger society is downright hostile toward. And there are *endless* drive-bys over there by people making the same bad arguments.

    I’m not saying that snark is always good or that echo chambers are optimal. I’m just saying that if you’re routinely diminished by a large part of your society for stuff that doesn’t make any rational sense, it’s really valuable to be in a place where you can hear some echoes that aren’t your own, isolated voice. And in those social contexts, anger is a needful part of the mix.

    Yes – nothing should be immune from criticism. But I’m feeling increasingly that criticism like that just ends up sounding like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure your issues are really important – but what’s important to *me* is how you’re going about it”.

    The fact that atheism doesn’t logically imply particular political views feels like that sort of criticism. It feels like saying, “Yeah, yeah, feminism, blah blah blah. But you’re *logically incorrect*, and that’s what’s important here.”

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  33. Professor Chomsky’s all too often imbalanced, ill-informed, exaggerated and wrong-headed positions help the establishment by discrediting straight and true establishment hyper-criticism of a much deeper and devastating type.

    In other words, Chomsky is a professional red herring, very useful to paint serious critique into something nobody looks at, as everybody gets mesmerized by his hysterics.
    Besides, his linguistics does not resist examination (I think, and so does a young linguistic professor from France/Italy I know; she gathers experimental data).

    This being said, notwithstanding these reservations, I support what he does and MIT keeping him as a misleading establishment pet.

    Now on the issue at hand, targeting deliberately, and bombing a pharmaceutical factory is a war crime, and the Clinton’s administration ought to be put on trial for this crime against humanity (there is no prescription). Even, as seems likely from what Doctors Without Borders allegedly said, there was no significant augmentation of mortality they noticed.

    Another detail: Al Qaeda’s principals did not expect the towers to collapse. Bin Laden, a civil engineer, thought only the floors above the impacts would collapse, others were less… sanguine.
    https://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/chomsky-mit-bimbo/

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  34. Sorry – one other thing:

    The combination of atheism and other political views is a way of striving for power within a subculture. We see this happening in gaming, in the atheist and skeptical movements, in the science fiction writing community. It’s really, really hard to fault people for combining these things when there is so much mistreatment of people *within the existing power structures* of these very communities. The people with power in these communities are hostile at worst and at best just pay lip-service to the problems. Combining these motivations is a way of upsetting power structures that are either actively trying to push people out or passively ignoring the issues.

    If you’re not being told you don’t belong in the atheist movement, or the gaming community, or the science fiction writing community, then you have the luxury of criticizing the approach being taken. You’ve already got a place at the table and can, sitting there, sniff with distaste at the ill-mannered mob. At some point it just feels like you have to pick a side.

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  35. Aravis Tarkheena,

    Right, because nobody ever developed elaborate rationalisations to cover their more irrational underlying motivations.

    Paul Paolini,

    Perhaps it does not make sense to go over the same discussion every time this comes up, but what you wrote goes just as well for unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster and the Smurfs. “I don’t see unicorns, therefore unicorns don’t exist” also requires the exact same substantial argument, but isn’t it odd that nobody would get angry at Dawkins if he had written The Unicorn Delusion? Saying that god is different is nothing but special pleading. Oops, special pleading is also a term from philosophy as opposed to empirical science. Right. But again, isn’t it odd that nobody would get tied up in a knot if I charged somebody who disbelieves in the Yeti but thinks that unicorns are totes different with special pleading? That nobody would require me to “take the philosophical issues behind unicorns seriously”?

    The point is, you can always, on any question, even including whether the keyboard in front of me is an illusion, go back to the question of how we can know anything in the first place. But precisely because you can always do it it quickly becomes a mixture of annoying and unhelpful. We had established at some point that certain empirical issues are best resolved by looking at empirical evidence, I think it was around the 17th century or so. In my eyes the only way to damn Dawkins for his naivete in discussing god while not damning a neuroscientist for naively rejecting telepathy is intellectual inconsistency. It is also infuriatingly solipsistic. Somebody who indeed walks the walk and does not accept lack of evidence where there should be evidence as evidence of non-existence would not be able to get through life for a single day, so why do they have to pretend that gods are arbitrarily different from literally everything else that is supposed to have a noticeable effect on the world?

    Michael Fugate,

    People like Stenger or Dawkins generally take great pains to clearly define the type of god they are arguing against, but they also argue (convincingly in my eyes) that that well-defined concept is the one that most people believe in and the one that it is worth arguing against. I am not worried about the god who is the impersonal ground of all being, I worry about the one who says that you should kill blasphemers or the one who doesn’t want children to be told about the bees and the flowers. So I really have no idea how Dawkins could have written his book any differently except by concluding that some god exists – or by not writing it because supposedly evidence is irrelevant, only philosophy can deal with it, and he isn’t qualified.

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  36. I think that the biggest oddity and contradiction of skeptical/atheist groups (which could depend a lot on what part of the country you are in — I’m in the Dallas area) is the presence of libertarians (of the sort who think that government-based social programs for retirement, health care, education, anti-poverty, and infrastructure can be totally or radically replaced by the “free market”). To me that is at least as unnerving as if there were the presence of young-earth creationists arguing their side.

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  37. Matt – Those of us who study these things seriously, which is few in academia and includes no members of SAM of whom I’m aware, would love it if you guys would engage with the topic and make some decent arguments. It seems, however, that the atheists would rather live in the 19th century and wave their hands around.

    You say “The time for rational discourse with those who believe the irrational (or non rational as we like to say in anthropology) is over, their input needs not be debated but minimized.”

    This attitude is widespread and does not need to be promoted further. Besides, it is a very dangerous strategy to adopt unless you have a rational case to make. We could easily read this statement as applying to most SAM members, and this is exactly how I would read it.

    It is laughable that so many people think they have a right to argue for and against religion and God while having no grasp of metaphysics. The result is all pure conjecture and temperamental opinion. I doubt there are many ardent atheist who have the slightest idea what it is they believe does not exist.

    What is remarkable is that so many people who would admit that they have no idea at all of how the world works are nevertheless prepared to take up dogmatic positions on how it works. So much for Cartesian doubt.

    You say “bad ideas deserve to be mocked when the evidence against it (is) there, and it is solid and concrete.”

    I couldn’t agree more. So why do atheist not produce any evidence? It would save us all a lot of time if they did. For now the mockery battle must remain a draw.

    Does nobody think that metaphysics is the correct starting point for studying the basis of religion? It is weird to me that so many people leap straight to their opinions while leaving out the thinking stage. Do we see one good metaphysician among the most noisy and unruly theists and atheists? Is this a coincidence? The idea appears to be to reject rationality and logical analysis in favour of political propaganda and social engineering. It is an abandonment of scholarship and rigour.

    In my view the entire problem comes down to a failure to engage fully with philosophy. We have never done this in the West and so have no solid ground on which to construct a sensible debate or any basic principles with which to frame it. We might as well arm-wrestle to decide the winner. I guess that most vociferous atheists are materialists and that is about as far as they get with philosophy, the adoption of a view that suits them in complete disregard for logic. This is called ‘rational’ behaviour, as judged on the SAM-scale of idiosyncratic definitions. It’s a risible approach.

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  38. Matt:

    Little unfair towards PZ I think

    Not really. Myers’ crude comments on Robin Williams’ suicide represented a low point in atheist blogging. It was base opportunism, motivated mainly I suspect to advance his Social Justice street cred with the foul-mouthed sycophants that inhabit his comment section.

    …never judge a writer by the commenters…

    PZ actively colludes with and encourages his commenters to misbehave. When a woman made a joke about Myers on an obscure internet chatroom called ‘The Slymepit’, he encouraged The Horde to harass her employer, as well as publishing her personal details.

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  39. “Now, there is nothing wrong with rehashing arguments (though one might want to at the least update them). But to pretend that one is saying something new and groundbreaking, well…”
    My impression was that there wasn’t anything groundbreaking in what the new atheists said (as far as I’m aware, “new atheism” refers to the publishing phenomenon rather than a new class of argument), but that it filled a niche that had been under-represented. Now there’s a glut, and there’s a wide divergence of material filling the void. And, honestly, I think that’s a good thing.

    One thing that’s been disappointing is finding theists who dismiss the “new atheists” on the grounds that they offered ‘nothing new’. That theists get away with this criticism suggests that there really was a deficit in communicating the case against God and the case against theism. Though I don’t think the”new atheist” books have done much to help with that, but provided a target to sneer at.

    “Dawkins, for instance, could have created more good will by listening to his critics and revising another edition of the God Delusion.”
    I’ve often wondered what something like this would look like. Could the same book be written if it were a compilation of learned experts on various fields as opposed to Dawkins trying to cover so much territory himself? What would go? What would stay? What could be better expressed? What criticisms would fall away? Not being a trained expert in anything, I’m not in a good position to answer that. But I do wonder, because it’s hard to parse religious language without thinking there’s something agentive being meant with religious statements, and that religious claims have at least potentially some consequence for how the universe works.

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  40. Alex SL,

    On a general level, I can see how it might be infuriating that people believe in things that you can’s see. But really that’s just due to a dogma on your part. You have to see it, or at least hear it.

    “Perhaps it does not make sense to go over the same discussion every time this comes up, but what you wrote goes just as well for unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster and the Smurfs.”

    Not at all. All the latter would be empirical beings if they existed. Not the case with God. If God existed, there would be, e.g., no lake we should be able to find him in.

    “Saying that god is different is nothing but special pleading.”

    Nope. See above.

    “so why do they have to pretend that gods are arbitrarily different from literally everything else that is supposed to have a noticeable effect on the world?”

    Because God literally is different from everything else by the concept.

    I’m not an atheist, but I think these are truths many philosophical atheists would agree to as well.

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  41. Well, your Stoic sensibilities will likely make you immune to any criticism, but that may not be a good thing. At least as you present it here it seems nothing more than an easy out to let you tell someone who disagrees with you to fuck off without thinking much on the topic. I personally tend to take criticism to heart, without letting it unduly affect me, and without the pretentiousness of noting I am a Stoic (or speaking in latin parentheticals).

    What I find particularly interesting is that everyone you listed in your tirade has his failings (I wonder if you selected only men because the field is stacked with them or for some other reason) and yet your own piece here is rife with failings itself. I see the actual problem with SAM is that it has produced a number of individuals who become so enamored with their own intellectual prowess and so adept at deconstructing the arguments of others they think their own arguments are simply bulletproof. I’ll be the first to chime in and agree with you regarding PZ. I used to read him daily and can honestly say that my own feminism is largely attributable to him. But I feel he has gone off the rails as of late. Dawkins has indeed made a number of gaffs. And I am indeed quite well aware of the power and necessity of philosophy as a very good friend of mine hold advanced degrees in both law and philosophy and he is one of the few people (that I personally know and converse with) who can match and even outwit me in intellectual conversation. In fact I have defended the field of philosophy to my own wife, who is herself an aerospace engineer and huge fan of Tyson.

    I do not see you as being in any way fundamentally different to those whom you have just excoriated. Particularly in this piece, one could take parts of what you have done and lay out some anecdotes and case examples of your anti-intellectualism. All wrapped up in a level of grandiosity and pomposity not shared by those in SAM whom you wish to leave behind.

    In other words, everyone has their failings. And what I feel like I am seeing is nothing more than the fundamental facets of human nature coming to the fore. The very facets that scientific skepticism is (supposedly) actively engaged in circumventing. I see you and this piece as fundamentally no different than any of the others you are lambasting: each of you has brought immense value to the SAM movement, each is blind to the bulk of their own failings, and each has means to continue ignoring them.

    So take that as you wish. I will continue to navigate these waters by finding and keeping good ideas and discarding the bad ones, all whilst recognizing that everyone is still, after all, human and will inevitably fall short and be blind to it.

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  42. If I have counted correctly, this is my last comment, and then I am out. I will waste it on reiterating: “god is different” is the very definition of special pleading, especially if the only reason given for the difference is that one has very conveniently defined god to be different. And it really is extremely convenient: there is this thing, and it exists, and it is part of the definition of that thing that you can’t show that it doesn’t exist. One doesn’t need philosophical expertise to realise that that way insanity lies.

    And yes, I could do make precisely the same claim for a unicorn, which is of course what the church of the invisible pink unicorn is all about. Somehow that is different. Why? Because god is a special case, but that is somehow not special pleading… because somebody says so often enough? This is really a level of discourse that would be an embarrassment to a kindergarten debate club, and if Dawkins and Stenger are/were naive and arrogant for rejecting it then please count me among their number.

    So what atheists really need are serious metaphysics? I am never quite sure what exactly that is, to be honest, so I just looked it up in what is admittedly perhaps not the perfect place, but it is 11:30pm here and I should be in bed so I will make do. Wikipedia tells me that it is dealing with “what is ultimately there” and “what is it like”, which kind of confirms that I shouldn’t have bothered. I will be the first to defend philosophy against some scientismist’s charge of being useless, but seriously, at some point over the last 500 years it should have become clear that we have made much more progress on these two specific questions by relying on physics without any meta and chemistry than by using metaphysics. We actually have learned a lot about what is ultimately there, and it turned out to be particles and forces, while ineffable grounds of being or Plato’s forms have never made an appearance outside of some people’s overly fertile imaginations.

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  43. David Ottlinger Chomsky does (as do a few others, like, say “Counterpunch,” especially Alec Cockburn when still alive) sometimes engage in reflexive anti-Americanism.

    That said, Bush did say, more than once, in relevance to the Middle East, that God has called him, told him, etc. to do this, that, or the other. That part of Chomsky is correct. Bush may have also been acting for secular reasons, but, again, he has also claimed God’s guidance in all of this, and it’s clear it’s not just a pro forma statement.

    That said, actually, with a “pullback” from ideas of massive brain modularity, some of Chomsky’s ideas in linguistics ARE being questioned, including the breadth of and degree of innateness of things like a universal grammar. And rightly, I think.

    Phillip “Nones” aren’t all atheists, first. Second, if you’ll read the details, you’ll see they’re not often skeptics, either. On the first, Pew notes that it’s often simply a matter of “no religious” affiliation. Tis true that atheists and agnostics are growing at a faster rate than the “unaffiliated.” However, given that Americans will use the word “atheist” for nonreligious/unaffiliated (I’ve seen this in person), I’d put a bit of doubt on the exact numbers in the detailed report: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

    That report also notes that “evangelicals” are still at least holding their own.

    On the skepticism side, many “nones” indicate they still have a belief in, if not a personal god, a “higher power” or similar, and whether through prayer or other means, attempt to interact with him/her/it.

    It’s still moves for the better, as I see it; I just think we need to avoid over-reading it.

    And, Dallas, eh? Didn’t realize you lived there. A number of years ago, I went to a couple of meetings of the Socrates Café. Local philosophy professor, professed atheist, talked about how he prayed everyday; that’s part of why I don’t over-read “nones.”

    Agreed, as noted, on the libertarian angle. Sorry, others, this doesn’t benefit skepticism any more than it does claiming atheism is associated with a certain type of progressivism, i.e., “social justice warriors.”

    Asher That’s an interesting spin on echo chambers. To flip that, I can argue that worries over safe spaces are getting ridiculous, when Columbia University wants to put trigger warnings on Ovid! No, really! http://reason.com/blog/2015/05/12/trigger-warning-mythology

    Massimo didn’t get too deep into PZ’s bromance with the SJW movement, but this is why I see his echo chamber far differently than you do. Rather, it’s a cocoon of enforced conformity. Having been attacked by SJWs myself, and even put on a Twitter block bot, I speak from experience.

    Patrice You get a rare response from me, per your link. You accuse Chomsky of over-simplifying, then you grossly oversimplify, and partially get downright wrong, the start of WWI. If you’re going to claim the US told Wilhelm we’d support a German pre-emptive attack, don’t you think you need a link to a professional historical reference?

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  44. I have a feeling Massimo has done a lot more reading ABOUT P.Z. Myers than he has actually done reading OF P.Z. Myers. It’s telling that he gives no specifics and no footnotes in this paragraph.

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  45. Philosopher Eric:

    I am glad you are interested in metaethics and ethics. But you should understand that philosophers have made some progress in at least clarifying what different views are so that their pros and cons can be more easily and accurately discussed. It is important to understand what these terms mean in the community that addresses these issues if you want people to understand your views. No one is going to try to learn Philosopher Eric’s definitions of different terms when they are generally understood differently in the community.

    I think Sam Harris majored in philosophy as I did, so he likely has some familiarity with the different philosophical distinctions. He just chose to ignore the literature dealing critically with his views because he is interested in wooing the masses and not enlightening them.

    I did not formally study metaethics in school. I became very interested in it after wondering how I should live. It was sort of difficult to get up to speed and there are still some theories that I am not familiar with. But let me suggest Russs Shafer-Landau’s book “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil”:
    http://www.amazon.com/Whatever-Happened-Good-Evil-Shafer-Landau/dp/0195168739/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431444287&sr=1-1&keywords=whatever+happened+to+good+and+evil

    It is a defense of moral realism. (Sam Harris is also a realist I would think) But whether you agree with that view or not is not so important. The importance of the book is that it is very easy to read and by the end you should have a clear grasp of what philosophers mean when they talk of moral realism, anti-realism, relativism etc. You will also have some very basic pros and cons of each position.

    Now it’s true that there may be some slightly different versions of definitions presented by other authors. And indeed the classifications can have some fuzzy lines. But I find Shafer-Landau is very closely in line with most people I read. You are going to be much better off if you understand the essence of the different views and then see where they can get fuzzy as opposed to just having the language always be unclear.

    If you want an even shorter outline then I did a blog that tries to outline what I consider the 4 corners of meta-ethics:
    http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/20/what-do-you-mean-im-wrong/

    I believe the views I express there are in line with Shafer-Landau and the community as a whole. Once you understand some of these concepts I think you will find it opens many doors of understanding.

    Here is an excellent blog dealing with Sam Harris’s views. http://thegooddelusion.blogspot.nl/p/full-response_30.html#chapt0

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