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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Faitheists"

I like this word. Congratulations to Jerry Coyne for running his competition over at Why Evolution Is True and choosing such a neat winning entry.

For those who don't recall, or weren't following, Jerry was looking for a snappy word to describe: "those atheists who are nonetheless soft on faith (i.e., atheist accommodationists). ... the kind of people ... who say, 'I am an atheist, but ...'. In other words, the folks who, says Daniel Dennett, have 'belief in belief.' That’s a snappy phrase, but it ain’t one word."

38 comments:

J. J. Ramsey said...

I see one obvious problem. Saying "I am an atheist, but ..." is not necessarily being soft on faith. For example, one can say "I am an atheist, but I don't think sloppy argument is a useful way to promote atheism."

To be blunt, Coyne is framing, Republican-style. Think of how the Republicans in the U.S. have labeled the estate tax as the "death tax." He's coming up with a prejudicial label for his adversaries that can even come to serve as a thought-terminating cliche if it gains currency.

John Pieret said...

I assume that now we will hear no more complaints about "New Atheists." Oh, wait, that would assume consistency, wouldn't it? ...

Mark Jones said...

JJ Ramsey

You demonstrate the need for a better phrase than atheist-butter, since that phrase is open to misinterpretation by dissemblers.

Atheist butters, or faitheists, are *not* those that say "I am an atheist, but I don't think sloppy argument is a useful way to promote atheism" any more than they say "I am an atheist, but I can't believe this is not butter" or "I am an atheist, but I'm not Jerry Coyne". You don't get to choose your atheist-buttery. Jerry Coyne was pretty clear what he was after - "atheists who are nonetheless soft on faith (i.e., atheist accommodationists)".

Given this requirement, faitheist is a good choice, since it links this respect for faith professed by such folk to their atheism.

Brian said...

I preferred my "fidophile". Alas, it didn't take.

John Pieret, how is it inconsistent to point out that there is no "new" atheism and point out that faitheists are full of it? As far as I can see it's factually correct and consistent. Perhaps it would be inconsistent for you to say it if you start from different premises?

Mark Jones said...

Brian

Fidophile might be confused with 'dog lover'?

J. J. Ramsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. J. Ramsey said...

Mark Jones: "Atheist butters, or faitheists, are *not* those that say 'I am an atheist, but I don't think sloppy argument is a useful way to promote atheism'"

Trouble is, a lot of the sloppy stuff from the New Atheists is rude as well, so it isn't that hard to spin a complaint about sloppiness into a complaint about mere rudeness. Take, for example, this comment in response to Baggini's article, "The New Atheist Movement is destructive":

"Doesn't read the books and then proceeds to the usual apologist non-arguments.

"'Wah, they're arrogant and mean.'"

Now Baggini does think Dawkins has said arrogant things, but in the article, he doesn't complain about the New Atheists being mean, but about them being wrong. Yet the commenter falls back on the old script about the critics of the New Atheists complaining merely about rudeness.

John Pieret said...

Brian:

"New Atheist" is is just a phrase (not very insulting at all) for a group that PZ Myers just described as:

... a growing minority in this country, this Unscientific America that Mooney and Kirshenbaum write about, which is fed up with the false privilege granted to religion, that wants science to have a more prominent role, that is willing to be outspoken and critical, and that is more than a little exasperated with the tepid apologists for the status quo who believe that making nice with the Unscientific part of America is the solution. That minority wants a voice ...

I've seen many atheists take it as an insult, however, just as Coyne intends "faitheist" and you confirm. But if "New Atheist" isn't insult enough, then anyone using "faitheist" will no longer complain about their opponents calling them "fundamentalist atheists," right?

phonytician said...

Faitheist is clearly a cute creation. It seems a bit cynical to compare it to the "death tax" because it isn't inherently pejorative. I guess it is up to the faitheists to turn that label into something positive if they wish by defending their stance with wit and intelligence. I also like that it has faith rather than belief as basis, because it is really the believe in faith that is the interesting point, belief in belief is kind of cute because of the repetition but slightly circular. Since believing X just means assuming X, while faith in X is much more interesting because it kind of means relying on X (and doesn't even imply that one necessarily believes in it).

Anyhow, what I really would like to see now is another contest which decides how the "new atheists" should be called. No one seems to like (Dennett seems to prefer to think of himself as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse), but there clearly is something like a group here, so what would you guys like to be called?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Anyhow, what I really would like to see now is another contest which decides how the 'new atheists' should be called."

How about Ingersollians, after Robert G. Ingersoll? The atheists dubbed such can see it as a compliment on the grounds that it links them to a relatively famous outspoken non-theist, while those doing the dubbing can see it as an insult on the grounds that Ingersoll let his rhetoric outpace reason [1]. "Ingersollian" would sum up both the upsides and the downsides of the New Atheists quite well.

[1] This is the guy who said that the commandment against graven images (i.e. idols) was the death of art, even though the book that contains the commandment later goes on to describe describes the Hebrews as creating decorative images of cherubim.

Ophelia Benson said...

Trouble is, a lot of the sloppy stuff from the New Atheists is rude as well, so it isn't that hard to spin a complaint about sloppiness into a complaint about mere rudeness. Take, for example, this comment in response to Baggini's article, "The New Atheist Movement is destructive":

Take, for an example of the putative rudeness of the putative "New Atheists," a comment by some random anonymous person posting a drive-by remark at the Dawkins site on March 19? That's an incredibly bizarre and arbitrary item to take for such an example. If that qualifies as an example you can just make any charge true by defining it so in advance. "New Atheists" are rude because this random anonymous person who is an atheist said something rude on a website five months ago.

Desperate much?

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson: "Take, for an example of the putative rudeness of the putative 'New Atheists,' a comment by some random anonymous person posting a drive-by remark at the Dawkins site on March 19?"

Pay attention. The commenter was not cited as an example of a New Atheist being rude, but as an example of someone who spun the complaint "Baggini says the New Atheists are being sloppy" into the claim "Baggini says the New Atheists are being rude."

Now to be fair I did mention that the New Atheists are rude when they are sloppy, but those examples can be found in Baggini's article itself.

Jerry Coyne said...

The accusations of "rudeness," "stridency" and the like are not only overblown, but are desperation moves by people who don't want to engage in the atheists' substantive arguments. I, for one, deny that I've ever been strident or insulting in attacking religion, and those who claim that, like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, never give any examples. Maybe Dawkins has said one or two things that could be considered "insulting," but weigh that against pages and pages of substantive intellectual arguments.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Jerry Coyne: "I, for one, deny that I've ever been strident or insulting in attacking religion"

Says the guy going out of his way to coin a new insult. Or is this an attempt at dry hypocritical humor?

And again, you yourself are using the old script of translating any arguments against the "New Atheists" [1], whatever the argument actually is, into "New Atheists are being mean." It's not just about meanness. It never has been just about meanness.

"Maybe Dawkins has said one or two things that could be considered 'insulting,' but weigh that against pages and pages of substantive intellectual arguments."

And where are those "pages and pages"? I've read The God Delusion, and "substantive" is not exactly the word that comes to mind. When it comes to logical argument about religion, Dawkins is very good at rhetoric. Sometimes his argument is adequate. Sometimes it looks like Dawkins strung together stuff he found online without thinking too much about whether it made sense. Sometimes it looks like Dawkins was more interested in making a barbed quip than a true statement. By the way, none of those things are complaints about meanness.

[1] Or whatever you want to call them.

John Pieret said...

I, for one, deny that I've ever been strident or insulting in attacking religion ...

Is that because you save it up for "faitheists, as when accusing Scott and Mooney of "dissembling" because they disagree with you? No, that can't be right, since you accuse Collins of "infecting" and "contaminating" science with religion.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Mr. Pieret, that's not hostility or rudeness. It's actually just candour. :P

Russell Blackford said...

John, what's your problem? This all started when Jerry wrote some very civil and thoughtful pieces about accommodationism and related issues, one of them a review of a couple of books by theistic evolutionists - and was attacked quite nastily for his trouble, accused of being uncivil, of alienating allies, etc., and virtually told that in future he should shut up and not criticise theistic evolutionists (this would have to entail refusing to review books by the likes of Miller, etc, or else writing dishonest reviews).

Using an amusing - and, yes, slightly mocking - name for one collection of our opponents is nothing by comparison. You tend to forget that we have been elaborating our actual positions far more carefully, with a lot more nuance, than our opponents, who merely caricature our real positions for rhetorical effect and refuse to engage with the specific arguments.

Your own contributions to this thread have sounded complacent and sarcastic, and have implied bad faith. You could make your criticisms in a much gentler (and more direct) way if you chose to, but you've chosen to adopt a tone that I assume you think is telling because it's potentially hurtful (though, in practice, it's merely tiresome).

It would be nice to live in a world where no one is ever called names, no one is ever sarcastic or nasty, nobody ever gets exasperated, all argument is totally civil and reasoned, all points are engaged rather than evaded, etc. But we don't live in that world, and I'm sick of the idea that it's okay for our opponents, such as these faithiests (not to mention the religious themselves) to be very nasty indeed, while a double standard applies requiring us so-called "New Atheists" to bend over backwards to be nice and not make the slightest fun of anyone else.

There is room in this world for words and arguments that make fun of opponents. There's even room for more blatant mockery and for outright denunciation, though I tend to save mine for the truly horrific views and actions of the most extreme religionists, such as those who run the Vatican.

Owen said...

Coyne: "I, for one, deny that I've ever been strident or insulting in attacking religion"

Ramsey: "Says the guy going out of his way to coin a new insult [against atheist accomodationists]."

Er, you know what you did there, right?

Ophelia Benson said...

And in addition to what Russell said, the people telling Jerry to be more civil have ever since simply ignored repeated questions on the subject, including questions about what Jerry should have done instead of reviewing the Miller and Giberson books the way he did. These questions were entirely reasonable, yet they were ignored along with nearly all other questions.

John Pieret said...

You tend to forget that we have been elaborating our actual positions far more carefully, with a lot more nuance, than our opponents, who merely caricature our real positions for rhetorical effect and refuse to engage with the specific arguments.

Russell, surely you recognize that all self-assessments come to this conclusion.

Your own contributions to this thread have sounded complacent and sarcastic, and have implied bad faith. You could make your criticisms in a much gentler (and more direct) way if you chose to, but you've chosen to adopt a tone that I assume you think is telling because it's potentially hurtful (though, in practice, it's merely tiresome).

And, similarly, that is an all-but-universal assessment of one's opponents.

However, I don't have a dog in this hunt, Russell. From the outset, I was pointing out the consistency or lack thereof involved in the rhetoric. You may think "faitheist" merely amusing but, trust me, quite reasonable people can and do think it's complacent, sarcastic, potentially hurtful and tiresome.

Ophelia Benson said...

"all self-assessments come to this conclusion."

Yes...and some of them are wrong, and others are right (and some are more right than wrong and others are more wrong than right and some are spang in the middle).

J. J. Ramsey said...

Owen: "Er, you know what you did there, right?"

Yes, I took attacking accommodationists as part and parcel of attacking religion.

Russell Blackford said...

Ophelia: "Yes...and some of them are wrong, and others are right (and some are more right than wrong and others are more wrong than right and some are spang in the middle)."

Exactly, and John's cynicism doesn't change this. In this case, the record speaks for itself, but I'm not going to trawl through it all over again.

tom w said...

John Pieret, I think Coyne's competition has to be seen as a reaction to him and others being called "Militant New Atheist". If you can't get rid of an unwanted epithet, the second best thing is to respond with humor. The ball is now in the accomodationists' court, will the rejoinder be humor or outrage?

Brian, I like your suggestion "fidophile" (and the suggestions "accomodatheist" and "placatheist") much better than "faitheist". It's a pity---and a bit ironic---that one of the less clever and self-explanatory words won.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Russell Blackford: "In this case, the record speaks for itself"

So let's look at some of the record, shall we:

John Wilkins, from his post "The Great Accommodationism Debate": "2. This is not just about strategy, but it is in part about strategy. The fact is that most people in society – whose taxes fund science, and whose governments decide on what science to fund – are religious or favourably disposed towards religion. A religious milieu is part of the ecology of science, so to speak. Making science the enemy of religion is going to have a single outcome, one that we can all predict. It won’t be the death of religion."

PZ Myers, in response: "The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around."

Notice that Myers added the part about religion always being around, even though Wilkins' statement only requires that it be around now and in the near future--long enough to screw up science funding, basically. That makes for a convenient strawman to knock down. Myers also ignores the part where Wilkins notes that it "is not just about strategy" when he writes, "Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest."

We have Coyne overstating the extent to which Collins appeals to quantum uncertainty.

There is also the assumption on the part of the incompatibilists that science is a philosophical worldview with premises antithetical to religion, yet a large part of the practice of science is making scientists' biases about the world irrelevant. This is why there is peer review, replication of results, and so on. If this assumption is thrown out, then what is left are claims about particular scientific facts clashing with particular religious beliefs--which no one in this debate disputes.

Russell Blackford: "There is room in this world for words and arguments that make fun of opponents."

And there is a whole heap of mischief that can be done by those arguments. I know that you are Australian, but I'm sure you've noticed how in the U.S., Republicans have used "words and arguments that make fun of opponents." That mode of arguing practically invites fallacies, overstatement, and distortion.

tom w: "John Pieret, I think Coyne's competition has to be seen as a reaction to him and others being called 'Militant New Atheist'."

Two problems with this:

1) The epithet isn't "Militant New Atheist." It's just "New Atheist."

2) The accommodationists didn't invent the epithet. It was coined in an article from Wired Magazine and ended up sticking.

Given this, coming up with a new epithet for accommodationists is hardly tit-for-tat.

John Pieret said...

... and John's cynicism doesn't change this ...

Another interesting use of rhetoric. When you like it, it's "skepticism" and when you don't, it's "cynicism."

I'm not arguing who is right, Russell. In the case of any claim that atheists should shut up and not criticize theistic evolutionists, I agree more with you than not. My "cynicism" is that people who aspire to the intellectual "high ground" (especially if I like and admire them) should have a certain self-awareness and self-skepticism about how they go about it. If nothing else, it makes their intellectual arguments all the stronger.

Russell Blackford said...

"Cynicism", not merely "scepticism", because you were going beyond doubt to a world-weary accusation that no one can make objective assessments of these things or everyone is equally corrupted or whatever. But that's not the case, and the record shows what the record shows.

In any event, *sigh*, at least you're not buying into the "atheists should shut up" line, so thanks for that much.

Peter Beattie said...

» J.J. Ramsey:
Trouble is, a lot of the sloppy stuff from the New Atheists is rude as well, so it isn't that hard to spin a complaint about sloppiness into a complaint about mere rudeness. Take, for example, this comment in response to Baggini's article, "The New Atheist Movement is destructive":

Well, let's see what we've got there. MMAtheist makes three points, a) that Baggini's article is a joke, b) that he offers non-arguments, and c) that he complains about arrogance and meanness.

a) is certainly true, since basing a comment on something you are simultaneously boasting about not even having read must be ranked as world-class idiocy on anyone's scale. b) touches upon the usual 'the Unnervingly Eloquent Atheists are counterproductive' claim, which as always is given without even a hint of a shade of evidence—one has a reputation to lose, after all. And finally c) is actually accurate if you look at what Baggini wrote: "This is arrogant", "dismissive of religion", "demonise all religion", and in summing up, "the public rhetoric of the new atheism".

You ordered some arse on a platter, sir?

Peter Beattie said...

» John Pieret:
"New Atheist" is is just a phrase (not very insulting at all) for a group that PZ Myers just described as:

Of course, PZ was not describing what you among others is calling the New Atheists. He was talking about the people the New Atheists are giving a voice to. If you have to quote something, do yourself the favour and read it first.

Apart from that, the phrase 'New Atheists' is quite empty. It doesn't contain any hint as to what the common characteristic of the putative group might be. It feeds entirely on the connotations the recipient brings to the conversation, and for many commentators that seems to include 'arrogant', 'unsophisticated', and 'strident'. Leaving to one side the inaccuracy of these labels, why can't you even come up with a collective name that is at least descriptive?

'Faitheist' at least speaks to some sort of positive relationship the so labelled atheists have to faith. Personally, I would have favoured 'Homeopatheist', as it depicts very graphically the stance users of the phrase 'New Atheists' are taking: The less vocal you are about your atheism, the more effective it will be. It's very descriptive and appropriately mocking. I like it. ;>

J. J. Ramsey said...

Peter Beattie: "a) is certainly true, since basing a comment on something you are simultaneously boasting about not even having read must be ranked as world-class idiocy on anyone's scale."

As Russell Blackford himself pointed out in one of the comments:

"I must admit I've never read any of the books by, say, Joseph Ratzinger. Have you? Perhaps, for all I know, they are lot better than Ratzinger's version of Catholicism as it comes across through his media comments, how they are reported, etc. If we are going to say that we can never attack anyone's public persona and message without reading the books they've published, it might come back and bite us very often."

Peter Beattie: "b) touches upon the usual 'the Unnervingly Eloquent Atheists are counterproductive' claim"

Given that you haven't even said what this vague bit about the "Unnervingly Eloquent Atheists" means, you are the one offering the non-argument.

Peter Beattie: "And finally c) is actually accurate if you look at what Baggini wrote: 'This is arrogant', 'dismissive of religion', 'demonise all religion'"

Complaining about creationists being arrogant and dismissive isn't complaining about them being mean so much as it is a complaint about them overestimating themselves. The same goes for the New Atheists.

As for demonizing, well, the term "demonize" means to present a caricature of someone that exaggerates how evil they are, which is more than mere meanness.

Peter Beattie said...

@ J.J. Ramsey:

This is why these discussions are so singularly tiresome. Even when presented with evidence for the exact same thing you're denying, you will just twist and turn a little and shift the debate to another, entirely unrelated point. I'll bite one last time, but then it's over to you and John Pieret to have a conversation among yourselves—unless you should have anything substantive to say.

a) Baggini wanted to give his "opinion on the biggest phenomenon in popular atheism since Bertrand Russell", specifically on "the general tone and direction the new atheism [the books] represent has adopted", in order to support his thesis that "the new atheism … is counterproductive".

What he does is to pick a bunch of quotes, strip them of context, and let them stand as representative samples of the 'new atheism'. He invariably doesn't understand them or fails to say what in his opinion is wrong with them. In short, he pretends to engage with arguments, but he says it's okay not to check them against their presumable sources, since they only "tell me what I already believe". Which bit of circular self-congratulation is exactly what people rightly have been objecting to.

In any case, the "phenomenon" largely is the books. The Catholic Church, or even its supreme leader, is very much more than the books of its leaders.

b) The "vague bit" was a descriptive moniker, not an argument nor a claim. For you to jump on that is nothing but a fairly pathetic dodge of my point that Baggini didn't offer evidence for his claim that the 'new atheists' are counterproductive. (How do you measure that? Towards which goal? In relation to what? He doesn't say.) You didn't even bother to contest that, which I will have to take as your acknowledgement of receipt of one piece of arse.

c) So the commenter you slammed for "spinning" the issue was actually right about the "arrogant" part but not about the "mean" part, because what Baggini ascribed to Dawkins et al. was actually "more than mere meanness". I guess you're right. *facepalm*

ben nelson said...

Unlike the new atheists, I am a quietist. Also unlike the new atheists (Hitchens excepted), I'm also a sophist and strident and shrill. Yet I don't get criticized nearly enough to make my life interesting.

I must learn the clever, novel nuances of these rabble-rousers. Surely it must be something other than the fact that they happen to openly disagree and condemn a series of powerful, megalomaniacal political cults.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Peter Beattie: "he says it's okay not to check them against their presumable sources"

Untrue.

Peter Beattie: "since they only 'tell me what I already believe'"

There's a slight misquote. He said that they "largely tell me what I already believe." In other words, he's already sold on atheism, so what's the point of reading something to sell him what he's already bought? It had nothing to do with checking sources.

Peter Beattie: "In any case, the 'phenomenon' largely is the books."

Not really. There have been plenty of books on atheism. It's just that most of them have remained obscure. The phenomenon is that the authors of these particular books have attained publicity, and the stir that they have caused goes far beyond their actual readership. Most of the reactions to Dawkins and company are probably due impressions people have from the media.

Peter Beattie: "The 'vague bit' was a descriptive moniker, not an argument nor a claim."

And you made a claim using that "vague bit."

Peter Beattie: "For you to jump on that is nothing but a fairly pathetic dodge"

No, it is me avoiding the trap of bothering with indistinct claims.

Peter Beattie: "of my point that Baggini didn't offer evidence for his claim that the 'new atheists' are counterproductive."

Now you have cleared up the claim: the "Unnervingly Eloquent" bit didn't have anything to do with anything. As far as the issue of Baggini's claims on counterproductivity are concerned, look at the part where he discusses what good can come from atheists working with moderate religionists, and how lumping the moderates with the extremists would disrupt that. To be fair, he seems to take it as given that rhetoric from atheists lumping all religionists together would discourage moderates from working with atheists, but I can see why he might find that too obvious to elaborate on in a short article.

Peter Beattie: "So the commenter you slammed for 'spinning' the issue was actually right about the 'arrogant' part but not about the 'mean' part, because what Baggini ascribed to Dawkins et al. was actually 'more than mere meanness'."

Baggini never complained about "demonization" being mean. He complained that it was being done, and to the extent that he suggested details about what was wrong with it, he emphasized its absurdity: "I find this as unpersuasive as the argument that talking to democratic socialists only encourages the communists, or that negotiating with Fatah is a sop to jihadists." Distorting the facts can be done in a mean fashion (e.g. by demonizing), but that doesn't mean that complaining about the distortion is the same as complaining about meanness. Baggini's emphasis was pretty consistently on the New Atheists being incorrect, not on them having a nasty tone.

Anonymous said...

This is possibly the stupidest argument I've ever heard. Making up a mocking term like "faitheists" is only done to arouse the anger of those whom it mocks. Then when those people get angry, they're condemned as being too sensitive and/or narrowminded.

In reality, it's a cheap debating tactic designed to circumvent actual intellectual discussion. Jerry may have meant it in a much lighter context, but many of you are using it specifically for the former. Shameful.

Tezcatlipoca said...

"This is possibly the stupidest argument I've ever heard. Making up a mocking term like "faitheists" is only done to arouse the anger of those whom it mocks. Then when those people get angry, they're condemned as being too sensitive and/or narrowminded."

I prefer to condemn them as "strident" or "shrill" ;)

underverse said...

So I guess I'm a faitheist. Whatever. It's just a word. I'm not too worried about being made to sit at the back of the bus because of an ideological stance, even if it isn't accurately being grasped by Coyne and his coterie.

But I have to wonder what Jerry Coyne expected the outcome of this "contest" to be. Was it ever possible (in Coyne's mind) that some nuanced portmonteau might emerge, that allowed for a certain informed complexity of thought? Whatever it means to be an "atheist butter," it is surely a position adhered to, like all stances are, with a range of intellectual subtlety from butt-stupid to thoughtful and probing.

If the neo-atheists are going to claim to be part of a serious, respectful intellectual argument, it seems to me that some of the people that disagree with them are going to be--even if wrong--deserving of something better than reduction to a glib catchphrase about their cravenness. This is not the mark of a person who is truly interested in engaging in ideas.

Russell, do you really, as a philosopher, stand behind this effort to dismiss with a tidy moniker? I understand that there is some (understandable) bitterness over being tagged "shrill" and "militant," but is this really the rational way to proceed with the conversation? I know you are but what am I?

underverse said...

But we don't live in that world, and I'm sick of the idea that it's okay for our opponents, such as these faithiests (not to mention the religious themselves) to be very nasty indeed, while a double standard applies requiring us so-called "New Atheists" to bend over backwards to be nice and not make the slightest fun of anyone else.

All adult, grownup behavior is subject to a double standard. The values of the enlightenment are subject to a double standard. Jurisprudence is subject to a double standard (our enemies may engage in torture, but we may not retalitate in kind, because we believe in something more important than vendetta.)

Fractiousness is not a valid defense here. When one allows one's opponents to dictate the terms of a debate, one has already lost. A serious intellectual argument has to make room for hurt feelings, and move forward.

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