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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"The Emperor's Gnude Clothes"

First, H/T to Ophelia Benson for bringing this up at Butterflies and Wheels - I wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

Jean Kazez has a post from a few weeks ago entitled "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" . This is supposed to be a sequel to the original story in which a brave little girl speaks up and says that the emperor is naked. Kazez continues as follows:
Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.

Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"

This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now, the thread makes it clear that the original brave little girl is, as Kazez thinks of it, someone like Richard Dawkins, standing up and saying unpopular things about the falsehood of religious claims. All the other children are apparently people who have thereafter taken the opportunity to engage in some kind of uncivil name calling, justifying themselves by deriding "the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness". Kazez keeps saying that her story is meant to provide a picture of "how a likeable sort of brave truthfulness can turn into something else." She adds (this is in an exchange with Ophelia), "I don't expect you to agree that this has happened in the new/gnu atheist movement, but that's how it seems to me."

Now, I don't wish to stoop to incivility myself ... so I won't. Well, surely I should put in some snark near the end just so there's something to complain about.

But I mainly want to say how puzzling I find the Kazez account. As far as I can see, the incivility is generally not coming from people who could be considered part of the New Atheist movement - such as Dawkins, or Ophelia, or maybe Jerry Coyne, or perhaps even me if we're going that far down the food chain (though gnus are vegetarian ... so, alas, the food chain metaphor doesn't really work). Most of the mockery, name-calling, gotcha rhetoric, twisting of the truth for effect, adopting outrageous and wildly implausible lies as "Exhibits", and various others forms of downright unfairness actually seem to be coming from such people as Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau, i.e. people who wish that the Gnus would go away.

Unless I am confronted by egregious examples of power and influence being used destructively - as we see every day from the Catholic Church - I am actually very restrained. The same applies to others who could be seen as belonging in the Gnu herd. Even my commenters tend to be a polite, thoughtful bunch.

What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.

The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said. Again, see for yourself.

Mooney cited - in a way that is clearly an endorsement, as clear as these things can ever be - a speech by Barbara Forrest:

Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?
Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need [an] “epistemological and civic humility”–providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.

Now, notice what is going on here. The views attributed to Forrest do not relate to some piece of writing or speechmaking that eschews all politeness and communicative restraint. The views that Mooney is attributing to Forrest, and clearly (see for yourself) endorsing, relate to a book review that follows the usual courtesies.

And note what it is said by Forrest/Mooney that we should not do or say. It's not a matter of exercising politeness. It's a matter of 1. do not question the beliefs of liberal religionists; 2. do not criticize pro-evolution liberal Christians, 3. do not make atheistic claims. Again, I don't see how this can be any clearer. What we have here is not a call for politeness or some degree of communicative restraint in the interest of social harmony. It quite plainly says that we should not "criticize" or even "question" the religious views of (so-called) "liberal" Christians or "moderates", and in particular we should not say  "there is no God". It's there in black and white.

The current debate is not, in essence, about politeness or communicative restraint. If Jerry Coyne talks to a group of Christians he is polite to them, as long as they are themselves courteous, open to discussion, and so on. So am I. What we are proposing is not mocking individuals or generally behaving like arse/assholes. It is, however, doing the things that Mooney (and, apparently, Forrest) said we should not do. That is, we do intend to go on questioning religious beliefs, even so-called liberal ones, criticising religious apologists, even so-called moderates, and putting the case that "there is no God". We will not do this in a way that lacks all "communicative restraint", though the appropriate degree of restraint will depend very much on the context.

Folks, none of this is inconsistent. Anyway, a more applicable story would go something like this:
Some other kids were unimpressed with the brave girl. They started telling her to be quiet. Some even told her, "Yes, the emperor has no clothes, but you must never, ever say such things!"

The girl protested to them, "But it's true, and it's not as if I called the emperor fatty or laughed in his face. Still, he has no clothes, and I think it should be said."

Some of the adults said ... very loudly: "Little girl, you're wrong - clearly he's dressed in beautiful finery. You need to look more carefully."

Others spoke to her in urgent whispers. "You must never say the emperor is naked," one woman said, bending down to the little girl, "not even in the most polite and thoughtful way you can. First, the emperor is not making you go around naked, so why question his clothing choices? Second, the alternative emperor might be a nasty man, so be nice to the one you've got. Third, you can never prove definitively that the emperor has no clothes, so why make trouble? Civic friendship demands that you show epistemological and civic humility about emperors and their various degrees of undress. Now run along and play."

The brave girl was upset by this, but she stood her ground as she thought about it. Some of her friends finally spoke up. "But it's not fair," her friend Cordelia said. "The emperor really is naked."

"But you've both got carried away here," said a nicely-dressed kid with a big white Colgate smile. "Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're speaking to him politely. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Calm yourselves!"

"I'm perfectly calm," the little girl said in a perfectly calm voice (though she actually still felt a bit upset inside).

"So am I," Cordelia said in a no-nonsense way, "though this is getting a bit annoying."

 "Oh noes! No, no, no," said the kid with the Colgate smile. "Now, you're being strident. Think of how you're communicating!"


Glendon Mellow said...

*starts slow clap*


critter said...

That's going to leave a scar. :)

JustAGuy said...

I think that Jerry Coyne often has a mocking tone in his blog posts and can often sound like an asshole on there. Of all the atheist blogs that I have been reading for the past couple of months, I have seen more insulting behavior towards those who disagree with him on his blog more than any other. This, of course, isn't always the case, but it often occurs.

You, on the other hand, don't come across that way at all. You generally state your case without using a mocking tone or insulting behavior. I really enjoy your blog.

So, in conclusion, I don't think that all Gnus are insulting, but I think that an objective reading (and I honestly don't have a horse in this race, whether you believe it or not) of Jerry's blog will reveal a mocking tone and insulting behavior. He seems to be quite different in person for which I am glad.

Mark Jones said...

Very good Russell.

It's amazing how well Jean Kazez's post works to demonstrate how wrong the Mooneys of this world are.

The Lorax said...

Extremely well said! Albeit a bit militant there in the middle.

Ophelia Benson said...

Lots of bratty children in Egypt recently, and look how that turned out!

:- )

Andy said...

What especially gets my goat is that the accommodationist habit of telling other people how to behave is not reciprocated by gnus. In fact, we've only seen prominent gnus saying the opposite--that there are different approaches out there, and the Mooneys of the world are free to do as they please.

I think that may underscore a fundamental difference in mindset.

George Higinbotham said...


This was a very interesting post, thank you. I completely agree that Coyne's book review, and his entire battle to uphold "incompatibility" are the model of good public discourse.

His engagement with Gibberson, Bio Logos, and his dissent from AAAS's actions at pushing the "nothing here threatens you" barrow - are all completely civil, if not models of how to "do it".

If anything, Coyne has a, "I'm running out of patience" or "this is tedious" feeling, which he vents though humorous resort to LOLZ and other "in on the joke" kind of humor.

Where I've begun to part ways with people is in the use of the word "secular" to mean "atheist".

I believe that Forrest's comments are really in defense of a political philosophy that seeks to support human rights and acknowledges that religion attaches to human rights in a way that we can not just blow off and say, "well truth is the only thing that matters".

Coyne posted the other day on how growth in the # of Student Secular Alliances were evidence of the impact of "Gnu Atheism" ... I pointed out that it is ironic that the group does not use the term "Atheist" in either its bylaws or mission, but is in fact exactly what Coyne says it is: A completely Atheist group. In the same post Coyne wrote that his goal was to "eradicate" religion.

Harris's book, which many refer to as the headwaters of "Gnu" atheism, also does not use the term Atheist, but makes the argument for replacing faith itself.

My view is that the "brand" of atheism is a negative one, and since it defines itself by what it is not, and can only be understood in relationship to "god" - it is highly problematic.

For this reason, there has been a shift in the concept of the idea of what "secular" means, from an idea which many religious people could endorse to one which is now just a synonym for "atheism". Coyne's post proves this, as do the actions and content of the agenda of "secular" campus groups - they are usually justified by statements to the effect of "well the christian's have their groups" and there is this feeling of a lack of social cohesion or acceptance among people who are "atheists".

I think the issue is important because, like Forrest, I think that non religious people have a political and civic duty to defend "religious freedom". A "Secular" state should not be thought of as an "atheist state" ... or one that is understood even as godless.

I realize that this battle may be lost and both the Pope and Dawkins have agreed that the Gnu meaning of "secular" is simply "atheist".

The point however is that it seems tricky to distinguish between the spheres of personal opinion and public policy. I think that because religion is named (along with race and sexual orientation) as things that attach to "human rights" ... that this presents a problem for the Gnu Atheism, as it seems to challenge the protection of religion as a human right.

I don't have an answer to this, but I am interested in the question of "secular" vs. "atheist" as "secular" is used in Australia in statute to contrast with "religious" but not to mean what is meant by "atheist". This matters because there human rights laws are changing in Australia and it isn't clear how they mesh with our existing "secular" policies, especially if secular comes to mean "that which is hostile to and intends to eradicate religion".

It is a subtle point and not one that, at least on Jerry's site was viewed as a valid concern.

You've written on this ... what do you think?

Kirth Gersen said...

"After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else."


Oh, wait -- Forrest was being SERIOUS?

Malky said...


Russell Blackford said...

Well, my new book defending the secular state will in no way be a defence of atheism.

I think "we" (i.e., roughly, people with my general values and understanding of the world) should criticise religious ideas. I also think we should defend secularism (roughly, the idea that the state should act only for worldly reasons). I also think there's a synergy between the two. But I don't think they're the same thing.

Marshall said...

I think everybody should stick up for what they think. I think the problem with Mooney would be that he is not sticking up for what he thinks, but for what he thinks I might think. Thanks for the pointer, I looked at the Coyne/Gilberson/Miller article, and it is sharp but by no means gratuitous or offensive. There's plenty there I could respond to if I had somebody's ear *, and I don't really appreciate it if Mooney is trying to say that I'm not competent to run my own side of the debate. True or not, I'd like to get on with it, please.

On the other hand, there is plenty of the old ad hominim below the line, not here but eg at WEIT or Pharyngula. Does the voice have a responsibility for the echoes? Are the commenters not Gnuminous?

* for instance,
"But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.)"

George Higinbotham said...

Dear Russell, Will look forward to reading your thoughts on this with great interest.

In the interest of expanding on this discussion of "accommodation" and the Tom Johnson affair etc ... it seems to me that influential and credible people often seem to take the line that "yes, there are jerks on the internet, but in real life everyone is civil". Tom Johnson was an attempt to manufacture evidence of "real world bad effects of Gnu Atheism" ... and how the general incitement of "out atheism" is having a negative effect on society and hurting strategic goals like "promoting understanding of science".

While I'm suspicious that science has not long ago "won" ... I do think there is more evidence for "bad acts" and that, I'd like to see people who are influential - PZ, Coyne, Benson - to think about how they model their attacks on their ideological enemies.

here is an example of a conversation between an atheist and an Anglican priest in NSW. I've held several chats with this priest as well. If you have time notice the tone and content of the exchanges.

a Gnu Atheist Talks to a Priest

Engaging a Priest from a Secular Perspective

I think what these two conversations show is that there religious people out there who want to address and answer the charges being raised by "Gnu Atheism", and contra Tom Johnson, the religious do come up against more than just rough and tumble comments in blogs.

This does not happen more often in real life for the same reasons that shark attacks don't happen every day. Never the less, like it is in the nature of sharks to be predators, it is in the nature of the Gnu Atheism to support "conflict" not just polite philosophical book reviews.

I feel that the Anglican Church in Australia is "attacking" my family, and I am committed to engaging them, but only to the extent that they seek to create policy on my family.

I leave it to you to judge ... I have learned a lot from your writing and your model of engaging these issues. I'm grateful for that and hope to make a concrete policy difference here. I could however care less what the Anglicans do in their religious community, and I'm eager to find where our interests overlap and I'm eager to have their agreement that a "secular society" is in our mutual self interest.

Regards, George Higinbotham

Pseudonym said...

What I don't understand is why everyone is so prudish about public nudity.

kevin said...

I very much appreciated the Emperors New Clothes" metaphor.Nice work.

tomh said...

George Higinbotham wrote:

I think that non religious people have a political and civic duty to defend "religious freedom".

A duty? That seems kind of arrogant. Is the whole idea of "religious freedom" really necessary? If a society has freedom of speech, freedom of association, of assembly, of conscience, just what does "freedom of religion" add to the mix? Nothing, I would say. The religious could still preach, publish, assemble, and so on, only they would have to do it on equal footing with the nonreligious. "Freedom of religion" is simply a magic phrase that religion has learned to use to ensure privileges for themselves that are not available to anyone else. "Freedom of religion" merely continues the myth that if the religious aren't afforded special privileges, especially exemptions from laws that supposedly apply to everyone, they will be hunted down and persecuted. And so they accumulate more privileges, all in the noble cause of "religious freedom."

Sigmund said...

I noticed something from George Higinbotham's post that I've seen in several accomodationist/anti-accomodationist discussions of late, namely the linkage of the term Gnu-atheist to an example of purely rude behavior. What exactly was it that made the rude person a Gnu atheist in George's link? Was it simply the fact that he seemed to be rude to a priest (well, George says it was a priest)?
Is that all it takes to be a Gnu atheist?
The opposite also seems to be true. Jerry Coyne speaks to a group of methodists without spitting in their faces or calling them names and gets labeled "downright accomodationist"! on Josh Rosenau's blog.

George Higinbotham said...

Is the whole idea of "religious freedom" really necessary? If a society has freedom of speech, freedom of association, of assembly, of conscience, just what does "freedom of religion" add to the mix? Nothing, I would say.

Tomh, I take your point as an illustration of what I'm trying to say.

Perhaps you are right and the freedoms you enumerate are all we need. Religion is just an emergent property of these things.

Perhaps I should look at it that way. What you say makes a lot of sense. The problem, as I see it is that "religion" is named specifically as something that is protected - both in the US Bill of Rights, and in various rights charters and declarations.

It has been seen as something that demands mention and distinction apart from the thing you list: assembly, speech and conscience.

I think if you take the view that the content of religious beliefs are wrong, then it is very hard to view religion itself as being something deserving of having special rights. We will therefore find society outlawing things that the religious believe are "religious freedoms" - for instance we could pass a law that says "circumcision is illegal" ... and we could lock up the mohels - or we could just use our free speech to castigate mohels and hope that their clients just stop hiring them.

I think however if you peel back all the stuff about "tone" ... this is really what the issue is, the new atheism, which is really just the new secularism - no one knows anymore what the difference is - no longer understands why there is a need for religious identity to be protected by law.

My point exactly.

sqlrob said...

Here from Jerry's blog.

So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy

Uh huh. More blindness by Mooney and friends. So, exactly what is the inheritance mechanism of Original Sin? How does a resurrection occur? Virgin Birth?

Kirth Gersen said...

@Tomh -- an otherwise useful idea can be perverted for bad ends by ingorant fools -- we can all name historical examples until we're blue in the face. That doesn't make the all of the basic ideas automatically untenable; only the inappropriate uses to which they're put.

verbosestoic said...


Well, I think I could be called a "liberal religionist" in the sense she meant it, and you've read my blog. Do ya think I'm trying to force anything on anyone? And if they do support church-state separation -- as she stipulated in her definition -- what "forcing" are they doing? Do you have examples of people or groups that fit her definition, force religion on people, and couldn't properly just be called "hypocrites"?


""Freedom of religion" is simply a magic phrase that religion has learned to use to ensure privileges for themselves that are not available to anyone else."

It's actually a protected and fundmamental right in Canada, the United States, and I think in most Western democratic nations. You may think -- as you argue -- that it is a superfluous one, but I fail to see how anyone can call it using "a magic phrase" for people to appeal to their legally guaranteed rights.

I also don't think it superfluous, because freedom of religion means that you can't make my religion illegal either directly -- by saying "Your religion is illegal" -- or by making some of its practices illegal and so doing it indirectly. Freedom of speech doesn't cover that (as actions are not necessarily speech actions, nor ar all religious practices expressions of ideas), association doesn't (because that covers groupings, not what you do there), assembly is just gathering, and I'm not sure that freedom of conscience is, in fact, a legally protected right in most jurisdictions (it doesn't seem to be one in Canada, but it might be in the U.S. and some other areas).

Add to this that only freedom of speech is close to being as fundamental a right as religion is considered to be, and it seems you are suggesting a rather insufficient replacement.

tildeb said...

An excellent critique. Thanks once again, Russell. And I, too, am looking forward to your book.

Myron said...

"It's a matter of 1. do not question the beliefs of liberal religionists; 2. do not criticize pro-evolution liberal Christians, 3. do not make atheistic claims."

When accommodationism becomes quietism…

Ant said...

It seems to me that the difference between atheism and secularism is very clear. One is the lack of belief in any god (or, more strongly, the conviction that there is no god); the other, a conviction that no religion should be privileged in public policy, either in influence or benefit.

Clearly, many atheists — and seemingly all gnu atheists — will be secularists. But surely you can have religious secularists, too: members of a minority religion would surely oppose public policy that privileged a majority religion, especially if that privilege gave rise to persecution of the minority or inequality before the law. Given the way Catholics were treated in British history, the Pope should be grateful for the degree of secularisation in Britain.

tomh said...

verbosestoic wrote:

I fail to see how anyone can call it using "a magic phrase" for people to appeal to their legally guaranteed rights.

In the US, religion's "legally guaranteed rights" have swollen to allow the breaking of hundreds of laws and thousands of regulations that others are subject to. Aside from the tax-exemption issues, religion has exemptions tucked into an uncountable number of laws - land use regulations, pensions, immigration, copyright laws, child abuse statutes, (depending on the state, parents are unaccountable for everything from not vaccinating their children to allowing them to die because they favored prayer over modern medicine). Civil rights law doesn't apply to religion, and not just to protect faith-based hiring. Courts have shielded them from just about every other form of discrimination, whether based on race, nationality, age, gender, medical condition or sexual orientation. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and all done under the banner of freedom of religion, which makes it hard to take seriously someone who argues that religion is just appealing to their "legally guaranteed rights."

The problem, from a secular viewpoint, is that the privileges that religion enjoys are all based on the religious content of their argument. Someone else may have a good reason for needing a variance for land use laws, for instance, but if the reason is not based on religious content it does not receive the privilege of exemption. The same goes for every other privilege that religion enjoys. There is no equal treatment under the law with respect to religion - religion is favored in every case. At one time the US actually had separation of church and state - that is no longer true.

Anonymous said...

I hope it wasn't some sort of political correctness that turned Hans Christian Andersen's outspoken little boy into a little girl. Not that it matters to the points being made. What does matter is the moral that human nature--moreso among religionists, perhaps, but universally--has the capacity for massive self-deceit built firmly into it. Whether it can ever be programmed out is a question of deep importance to the future of humanity.

Best wishes,
FM Christensen
Professor Emeritus
(Philosophy of Science)
University Of Alberta

verbosestoic said...


"In the US, religion's "legally guaranteed rights" have swollen to allow the breaking of hundreds of laws and thousands of regulations that others are subject to."

That's because in the U.S. the concept of "legally guaranteed rights" have swollen to those proportions. Religion is just hopping on the same train as everyone else. Really, think about how often people sue over their supposed rights.

"Civil rights law doesn't apply to religion, and not just to protect faith-based hiring. "

No, the law DOES apply to them, but as freedom of religion is a right itself it has to be balanced, which is the case any time there is a conflict of rights. You personally may disagree with the choice of which right "wins" in those cases -- and there are a lot of reasons to disagree, from all sides of the rights fence -- but that doesn't mean that "the law doesn't apply to them" in any way that's meaningful, or different than it is for any other right.

"Someone else may have a good reason for needing a variance for land use laws, for instance, but if the reason is not based on religious content it does not receive the privilege of exemption."

I don't know about these specific cases, but this is a good litmus test. Unless U.S. law is radically different than Canadian, variances in land use laws are things that people apply for, giving reasons. If they have a good reason -- as deemed by the relevant authority, which is usually municipal/city in Canada -- they get the exemption. Applying on the basis of practicing one's religious practices is just generally considered a good reason (within reason, of course). But that doesn't mean that no one else can get the same sort of exemption if they have a good reason.

But I admit here that I'm thinking of things like zoning laws, and that may not be what you're talking about, so an example would be great.

"There is no equal treatment under the law with respect to religion - religion is favored in every case."

This does not seem to be true, or else the U.S. would deem it legal to, say, teach creationism in science class. You seem to be overstating the case for the U.S., and in Canada it seems more likely to be the reverse and that religion is never favoured in such cases.

Gadfly said...

I disagree on the civility issue. P.Z. Myers' followers, the Pharyngulacs, who treat him like the guru of a cult, can be highly uncivil if one questions the wisdom of the "master," like pointing out how he (and Sam Harris and Vic Stenger, among others) engage in scientism many times instead of knowing, or applying, a bit of philosophy.

Of course, Harris, with an undergrad degree in philosophy that doesn't appear to have taught him a whole lot, is even worse at scientism and at sneering at philosophers to boot. I think each new book of his gets worse.

And, I imagine that, based on the tenor of "The IMMoral Landscape," that, if he's at a convention of philosophers, he's probably uncivil there, too.

Oh, part of Harris' incivility probably comes from his neocon political stances. Yes, he's got them; that's where his Islamophobia comes from, as some sources he cites in IMMoral Landscape make clear.

Russell Blackford said...

You see, Gadfly, this is the sort of double standard that I've been exposing. To cite the Harris book as uncivil is completely OTT.

I agree that it sometimes expresses impatience with people who disagree with him - and Harris has a gift for rhetoric and can be cutting - but no more so than any book written for a wide educated audience about politics, say. In fact, compared to most commentary on FOX news or on talk-back radio it's very mild indeed. In his public appearances, Harris is as civil as anyone else.

And the use of commenters at Pharyngula is another example of the double standard. It's the example given all the time, and I'm sorry but it's a ridiculously unfair one. Pharyngula is quite blatantly a blog where PZ lets off steam and is mainly communicating to his friends and (as time has gone on) his fans. People are entitled to have to have such blogs, and no one has to read them. People who go and troll at Pharygula don't fare well, but that's hardly surprising.

It doesn't follow that PZ would be uncivil if dealing with creationists or whatever in real life - in a situation where he's actually communicating to them. I've seen it happen, and I can assure you that he was quiet and calm.

And of course no one claims that fans of professional water-skiing are uncivil just because we can probably find a forum where anonymous commenters on the subject get gnasty. It happens all the time on the internet on all topics.

Really, people who are determined to prove the "gnu is gnasty" thesis need to make sure they are comparing like with like.

Deepak Shetty said...

or perhaps even me if we're going that far down the food chain
No , you are among the leaders of the gnu movement - per John Pieret atleast. Congratulations.

tomh said...

verbosestoic wrote:
Religion is just hopping on the same train as everyone else....
Unless U.S. law is radically different than Canadian, variances in land use laws are things that people apply for, giving reasons.

It is radically different. You're right that people give reasons to apply for variances. But churches need no reasons. In 2000 the US Congress passed the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act" (RLUIPA). This federal law, by default, gives churches the right to expand, build parking lots, build into neighborhoods, and so on, without regard to local zoning laws. In order to enforce local laws, the local government must sue the church, go to court, and show a "compelling government interest" why the church may not build, expand, whatever. The last ten years see the courts littered with cases that local governments have lost to churches using the RLUIPA defense. No "compelling government interest" is required to apply the law to everyone else. Merely refusing the variance is sufficient. That doesn't really sound like churches are on the same train as everyone else.

Laws like this, and more commonly, exemptions for religion that are inserted into a remarkable amount of legislation, create a two tier system of justice, one for the favored religious class, one for everyone else.

verbosestoic said...


No, it doesn't seem all that different at all. About the only difference is that in Canada there'd be a level to appeal to short of taking it to actual court.

Anyway, all that law essentially does is treat freedom of religion like a right. In order to restrict something guaranteed by a right, you either have to show that it conflicts with another right or show that there is a compelling interest in restricting that in that case (which are usually the same thing). There might be an issue with assuming that any land variance that a religious group would want is directly tied to their religious beliefs -- and required for it -- but that's not an unsafe assumption.

If you went to apply for a land variance and did so on the basis of ANY right, it could only be denied on the bases described above. The law formalizes it for religion, but that's all it does.

Again, in my view you seem to be objecting to religion being treated as the protected right that it is.