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

Friday, April 15, 2011

How I see the "New Atheism" - Part 2 of 2

I was saying yesterday that something has changed. There's a sense of many people being fed up with religion, and large publishers are interested in books that relate to the public mood. But why the widespread hostility to religion at this particular point of history?

Part of it, of course, is a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, and it's notable that The End of Faith, the first of the very popular New Atheist books was largely focused on Islam. But surely that's not the whole story. Every day there are terrible actions carried out in the name of one religion or another, and many people now see religion as having a dark side.

Unfortunately, there's plenty of evidence that even traditional forms of Christianity, which pride themselves on their love and compassion, have this kind of dark side. Much of the behaviour of religious leaders and organisations in Western countries fuels the perception that they'd rather use force than try to persuade people. In many cases, we see Christians, doubtless well-intentioned, wanting to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians. You may say that it's your democratic right to do this, and I'd agree with you up to a point. Only "up to a point", because I think that might show a simplistic view of how democracy is supposed to work. In my forthcoming book on freedom of religion I'll have a lot to say about this.

Meanwhile, even if it's somebody's democratic right to ask governments to endorse, promote, or impose, Christian viewpoints, there will inevitably, and quite rightly, be a response from people like me who strongly disagree with those viewpoints. We're going to ask whether those viewpoints are soundly based, whether they really have the divine authority that is claimed for them, and so on.

If any of us involved in public debates claim to have some kind of special moral authority that comes from God or a holy text or a body of theological teaching ... then there will, quite rightly, be others asking whether we really possess that sort of authority, whether God really says what we claim (or even exists), whether our holy texts are really divinely inspired, whether our theological doctrines are credible, and so on.

On the face of it, after all, the sorts of claims that are made by Christian and other religious leaders sound extraordinary and even arrogant. No one should assume, anymore, that people will simply accept that these religious leaders have a special insight into reality or that they hold the high moral ground in public debate. Many of us disagree, and of course we also have rights, notably the right to express our disagreement strongly and publicly.

That is what the New Atheists are doing, and even if you disagree with their views (in part or in total), what they are doing is legitimate.

We've seen many attempts to demonise forthright atheists as unreasonable or extreme or dogmatic, or as "fundamentalist" in their own way. If you look at it like that, you're engaging in wishful thinking. The reality is that many people who are thoughtful, moderate, rather tolerant, not at all extreme in their thinking, are now suspicious of religion - not only of its claims to offer transcendent truths, but also about whether it's even socially beneficial. That's the message we should all take from the New Atheist phenomenon. The New Atheist books are successful for the simple reason that people want to buy them. And that's because there's a perfectly reasonable suspicion of religion's dark side out there in the community.

I made some of these points when I spoke  last September at the Crossway Conference - a conference of evangelical Baptists here in Australia - and they seemed to gain a lot of acceptance. The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.

There's been a great deal of discussion of this phenomenon on other blogs just lately. In a sense, my thunder has been stolen. But I do find it extraordinary that we have so many atheist thinkers expressing what seems to go beyond disagreement with certain New Atheists on certain points (the kind of disagreement that you get from me all the time if I disagree with some specific thing that Sam Harris said or that Richard Dawkins said), and conduct themselves in a way that seems resentful and spiteful.

Surely those of us who wish to engage critically with religion are all better off as a result of the New Atheist publishing phenomenon. It has opened up opportunities for us, and all of the publishers that we might approach are now working in an environment where criticism of religion sells. That benefits academic presses and smaller trade presses that are publishing critiques of religion. The rising tide really is floating a lot of boats here.

I’d don't know, but I suspect that Prometheus Books now sells more copies of its publications than ever as a result of the synergies that Dawkins and company have created. If they don't, they must be doing something wrong, because this is now a very favourable market for them. And Christopher Hitchens even helped out with an intro to one of Victor Stenger's books published by Prometheus. This is not a zero-sum game (and I certainly don't see Stenger complaining).

Again, I can understand people wanting to disagree with specific New Atheist thinkers about specific points - such as my disagreement with Sam Harris about certain issues in moral theory. What I don't understand is all the resentment. Apart from the unattractive emotions of envy, jealousy, and spite, the only explanation is that some of these folk who had established philosophical and historical theories are disappointed that what they see as incorrect theories are gaining greater popularity with the public.

Well, fine. But there is now a greater opportunity than ever to disseminate the "correct" historical and philosophical analyses, whatever they are. That can be done in a positive way - through actual books and articles - rather than through the unedifying spectacle of a long-running campaign of sledging on the Internet.

I haven't descended to naming names here - the specific names are pretty obvious, but not all that relevant to the point I want to make. He (and it usually is a "he") that hath an ear, let him hear.

40 comments:

Steve Zara said...

not only of its claims to offer transcendent truths, but also about whether it's even socially beneficial.

Yes, that particular aspect is something that currently interests me - that the social and moral worth of religious faith should be questioned. I see benefits in there being a clear and visible position in discussions that religious faith is a failing, not a virtue, if only because it would shift the centre of gravity of debates.

David M said...

"But there is now a greater opportunity than ever to disseminate the "correct" historical and philosophical analyses, whatever they are. That can be done in a positive way - through actual books and articles - rather than through the unedifying spectacle of a long-running campaign of sledging on the Internet."

Exactly right Russell. I wrote the below over at B&W:


"Meanwhile, I took the time to go back and reread the Hoffman piece. And it’s actually really quite frustrating. It’s frustrating because if you look at the entire article, it basically starts with a poor argument, as noted by others, but still manages in the middle to give a perfectly serviceable and interesting potted history for what turns out to be the majority of the piece, before returning to the end with the crazy talk about how gnus want martyrs. I actually really enjoyed the middle of the article, the discussion of the finer points and who believed what and the incremental steps they took was all plain old interesting."

If the Hoff had framed the discussion a bit more temperately, I'd happily read heaps more of his blog and would think about looking into some of his books. Instead he's just acting in bad faith and ignoring very reasonable discussion. It's silly and counterproductive.

critter said...

I am very grateful for the 'New Atheists' bringing to the fore what some of us have been thinking for a long time but have been afraid to articulate.

I was born in 1950 & have been atheist since before I knew the word.

Thanny said...

You seem to be either missing or side-stepping an important point about democracy, namely that it, at base, merely replaces the tyranny of an individual with the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy, then, is no more conducive to freedom than a dictatorship, and possibly much less so.

An establishment of inalienable rights is required to make democracy worth desiring, something discovered a couple centuries ago in the United States. It's rather shocking how many modern democratic nations do not have legal guarantees of the rights their citizens fully expect to enjoy (such as free speech and freedom of, and from, religion, to name a prominent pair).

Russell Blackford said...

I'm hardly sidestepping it or missing it, Thanny. I've written a whole book that is very much about the issues you raise. It will be published around the end of the year - late 2011 or early 2012.

As Ophelia has also had to mention from time to time, explicitly bracketing off an issue is not the same as sidestepping it. You can't deal with every issue properly in the space of a blog post.

Darrick Lim said...

Well put Russell.

The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.

Two observations about this inter-atheist mudslinging:

1) The Gnu-bashers have a tendency to focus on the Gnus' attitude and tone while sidelining their actual arguments. I suppose since much of these arguments are valid and coherent, the Gnu-bashers would just look silly criticising them, so they go after a more nebulous target instead. Like supposed Gnu 'stridency'.

2) Segueing from the above, because much of the fundamental Gnu arguments against religion are sound, even self-evident, Gnu-bashers tend to resort to hairsplitting, nitpicking, pedantic criticism that rarely detracts from the solid core arguments of Dawkins and co. From what I've read of their criticisms, they seem mainly an exercise in flaunting their erudition in their field of expertise. Nothing wrong with that of course, except I struggle to see how not knowing, say, the genealogy of atheism precludes someone like Dawkins or Harris from condemning religion in a forthright manner.

Would I need to obtain a degree in theology or be well-versed in scholasticism before I can comment on their assumed and unproven premises, or their often contradictory, convoluted, abstruse rhetoric? Would it be anti-intellectual of me to reject such vacuous sophistry? Some Gnu-bashers would say 'yes'.

Brian said...

Hi Russell,
You say that 9/11 was a one influence on the rise of gnu atheism. The other is “the behaviour of religious leaders … [which] fuels the perception that they'd rather use force than try to persuade people”. I presume you think this behaviour is a particularly 21 century phenomena. Are you thinking of the increased influence of the religious right in the US (and Australia) during the early 2000s, or did you have something else in mind?
Cheers
Brian

James Sweet said...

He (and it usually is a "he") that hath an ear, let him hear.

This is an interesting observation. Now that you mention it, I am having trouble thinking of a single anti-gnu screed written by a female atheist. Plenty by women theists, of course, but I'm not coming up with any so-called "fatheists"....

There is probably nothing significant to it, really -- the "old guard" of atheists who seem so angry at the gnus appears to be even more demographically skewed towards oldwhiteguy than our community, and that probably explains it all right there. Still an interesting thought...

Russell Blackford said...

I was thinking of the religious right over a period of time, but perhaps especially under President Shrub in the US.

Anonymous said...

Q: So what exactly does the precepts of any religion or the behavior of any believers have to do with the question of whether of not God exists?

A: Nothing.

Sajanas said...

It certainly didn't help that after 9/11, the US happened to be lead by a president that viewed himself as elected by God (rather than a narrow majority) than the people of the US, and seemed to trust his own gut feelings and friends far more than facts and figures. Bush used his religion to shield him from criticism of both his cocaine riddled past and wartime cowardace (he was *born again*, he's a new man!), and to excuse his brutal ignorance (some people would rather have a good Christian than a good reader as president). And most damningly, no matter how hard he prayed and how much he believed, God didn't stop him from being an incompetent idiot that launched two failed wars that cost more than WWII, God didn't stop him from allowing New Orleans to drown, and God certainly didn't stop him from trying to infringe on our liberties. He crammed his God down our throats for 8 years, and America is still choking on it.

Marshall said...

From my perspective what I identify as the Gnus emerged with the concept of "anti-accomodationism". When I first heard about it (in one of Massimo's columns in PsychToday, about some squabble that was already in progress), a-a seemed completely absurd as a strategy for secular humanists; I thought it was being presented as a joke. The central strategy of a pluralist secular society must be that, while arguing against their prejudices in favor of your own, you make allowances for their somewhat annoying but really not totally disturbing deviant personal behavior. While maintaining good order, and with the goal of eventually coming to agreement on what Rights we want to regard as Universal and what we just have to put up with.

Anyway, with a deliberate policy of withholding accomodation in play, there's no surprise when it bites who is holding the tail. No lack of justice, either.

"Hath God Said?" was the Serpent's question. In context, you guys say: "Is that how it really is??"

G Felis said...

Marshall, from what you've written here, you seem to have had your opinion in this debate be informed completely by the gnu-basher contingent (among whom, sadly, Massimo Pigliucci often numbers himself for reasons that prove remarkably hair-splitting and tendentious on closer examination). I feel compelled to correct your rather bizarre account of this debate.

Accommodationists insist that there is no essential conflict between science and religion: This is at the heart of the conflict, and anyone who says otherwise is being deliberately misleading. But since faith is at the heart of religion, and since belief in the absence of evidence (and sometimes in the presence of massive counterevidence), i.e. faith, is precisely the opposite of science in structure, intent, and content, many reasonable people -- I would say ALL *genuinely reasonable* people -- disagree with the core accommodationist claim. By framing the conflict entirely in terms of strategy and using the word "accommodation" only in the sense of "being willing to reach an accommodation" with political rivals, you are entirely missing the substance of the disagreement. Ultimately, it isn't about strategy, it's about epistemology.

Yes, the actual conflict does have implications for strategy at some level. But as far as I can tell, EVERYONE who has ever been referred to by or willingly embraced the "New Atheist" label (or, for our amusement, "gnu atheist") takes roughly the following position on strategy: While there are times and circumstances for being forthright and even harsh in our criticisms of religious claims and institutions, there are also times for a more diplomatic or even conciliatory approach. New Atheists may be portrayed as rigid died-in-the-wool militant fundamentalist atheists, but that's just petulant slander -- a remarkably easy slander to get away with in a culture where even the mildest criticism of religion is often considered to be off-limits, beyond-the-pale behavior.

In contrast to the broad anti-accommodationist/New Atheist recognition that multiple strategies are warranted and useful, the accommodationists (especially those who engage in the most fervid invective against new/gnu atheists) tend to rigidly insist that any communication/political strategy which in any way admits or acknowledges that faith conflicts with science at a fundamental level is morally impermissible and doomed to failure. As far as I can tell, no plausible argument or even slightly convincing evidence has been produced for this conclusion.

Brian said...

I wonder if a necessary precondition for the rise of the gnus was a change in the demographics of belief. A spurt in growth of non-belief seems to have preceded the gnus in most western countries. Perhaps once non-believers reached a certain proportion of the population, they developed sufficient confidence and market share to support a more outspoken atheism in the media.

David M said...

Absolutely spot on, G Felis.

There's just a lack of recognition of a number of things. Where the heart of the argument is, for one; the fact that most people who would accurately fall under the NA banner being a bit smarter and sophisticated than just abusing any and every one of faith at all times for another. (And of course, when Jerry C sits down with some christians to talk about evolution and the like, he gets accused of hypocrisy: heads you win, tails I lose.)

Funnily enough, when it comes to Massimo, the accomodationist argument I remember him having was between him, Michael De Dora and PZ Myers. It was over a text book in Texas and a parent arking up about Adam and Eve being called a myth. There was much interweb ink spilled, but, and I think I may have mentioned this here before, the accomodationist stance was over for me when De dora commented that it was ok to tell a child that the earth was 4.5 billion years old, but not ok to tell them it wasn't 6000 years old. Ridiculous. Massimo and De Dora seemed so obsessed with tone that they couldn't see the farcical hole it dug for them.

J. J. Ramsey said...

David M.: "the accomodationist stance was over for me when De dora commented that it was ok to tell a child that the earth was 4.5 billion years old, but not ok to tell them it wasn't 6000 years old."

That's not "accommodationism"; that's a consequence of a straightforward interpretation of U.S. case law. Neutrally teaching science without regard for its impact on religious beliefs is perfectly constitutional. Singling out particular religious beliefs for either favor or disparagement is not.

Marshall said...

I would have thought it were clear, I'm not an Atheist. I'm an ex-hippie retired programmer raised Unitarian, turned Evangelical because the New World Order is sick, sick, sick. Living in the woods until the smoke clears, looking for local community.

I'm not into bashing Gnus, I just disagree. Basicly I follow Spinoza, and neither he nor I see any reason why a proper view of God should conflict with a proper view of Causality. The tactical problem is the curious tendency of Atheists to tell believers what they must believe, which somehow leads them (some Gnus) to assert a proposition like:
"The Universe is a created thing."
implies
"Some people are deliberately sent to eternal conscious torment."
"It's OK for fathers to stone their daughters if they've been raped."


"If someone believes A, they must accept B. In fact, they are required to advocate B, also Z, Ж, and ゑ for all hands."

The core problem is indeed a matter of epistemology. We (humans) form concepts as they are useful to us, and not otherwise. How do you answer Rorty's critique in The Mirror of Nature?

If you are asking me what strategy I would recommend, I say critique people's ideas all you want, but stop looking at it as a fight. Jason's recent post to the contrary, stop thinking of it as immoral to talk to people in language they will understand. Use your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor, also time off from work, to promote better General Ed classes at the high school level. Youth wants to know.

(... In the old days, Massimo was willing to respond below the line. We bogged down on whether John Rawls smuggles in fixed "objective" values, which I say he does. MMO also seems to favor the "if you don't believe in the Law of Gravity, go jump out a window" argument. I believe it was the DeDora flap, and as I am saying I think the whole controversy as and is misconceived. )

MosesZD said...

It's because it's a fight at the country club. And the nouveau riche have upset the old money with all their flash and vulgar ways.

Why Dawkins isn't a religious scholar or philosopher, he's just a biologist. What could he, and his mindless zombies, know about 16th Eastern European Atheism... And, what's worse, the ill-mannered gauche little bastard writes best sellers that are lapped up eagerly by his rude, ill-mannered, ignorant followers.

Tulse said...

Russell, your discussion of the major books of gnu-ism is spot on, but I think that these days the real action is online, in blogs. The work done by you, Coyne, Myers, Benson, Christina, Rosenhouse, etc. etc. etc. is where the real action seems to be these days -- it is where topical issues and events get immediately addressed, and where the religious and accommodationists are grappled with directly, often in dialogue. While the gnu "movement" may have originated on dead trees, its passion and immediacy are largely a product of the online world.

Marshall writes:
Basicly I follow Spinoza, and neither he nor I see any reason why a proper view of God should conflict with a proper view of Causality.

And just how many of the world's religions believe in Spinoza's god? If one gets a "proper view of Causality", does that then mean that we should stone gay people and make women wear bags over their bodies and force them to remain pregnant against their will? I'm honestly tired of the anti-gnus arguing for the philosophical consistency of positions that no religious person actually holds. If religion were just about Spinoza's god, there wouldn't be a gnu atheist movement, because there wouldn't be all the ills associated with religion.

Brian63 said...

I have only skimmed the comments and did not see this point raised, but sorry if it was and I missed it.

Part of the explanation for the rise in the new atheists could be attributed as well to the expanding influence on the internet. Previously, we had few ways to connect with each other, to know of each others' presence, and places where we felt (relatively) free to make our voices heard. Now we have websites where we can gather and also learn from each other (infidels.org being a prominent one). Atheists are more outspoken on popular websites such as youtube, blogs, message boards, news articles, etc. These were not around just 10 years ago, or were just starting up.

Brian

David M said...

JJ Ramsey: That's not "accommodationism"; that's a consequence of a straightforward interpretation of U.S. case law. Neutrally teaching science without regard for its impact on religious beliefs is perfectly constitutional. Singling out particular religious beliefs for either favor or disparagement is not.

For the sake of completeness, again:

PZ on the beginnings

Massimo defends De Dora, comments section is interesting.

Jerry Coyne on the problems with de dora's argument (that it's not ok to say that the world isn't 6000 years old.)

JJ, I think that's frustrating hairsplitting of the highest order. I agree that there shouldn't be a need for a science teacher to walk into a classroom and open up with "The earth isn't 6000 years old," but surely you can concieve of a situation where a child in a classroom may mention it. What is a teacher supposed to do if he or she is asked directly?
The two statements in question are mutually exclusive, they can't both be true, it may not need to be explicitly pointed out in a class room, but if the cat gets let out of the bag, how should a teacher react? As Coyne points out, it's (the earth is 6000 years old) still an empirical claim.

To tie this back to accomadationism, and the NA stance, how can it be said that these ideas are in any way compatible, getting along, or otherwise allowed within 20 metres of each other when they are clearly contradictory, and further that it (apparently) can be argued that it violates church and state seperation to point out that they're not compatible.

And how is it a good idea to effectively teach a child that there are one set of truths you will learn in a classroom that aren't related at all to these other truth claims you're learning at home?

David M said...

Ghah! None of my links worked.

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/04/witless_wanker_peddles_pablum.php

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/can-we-refute-creationism-in-evolution-class/

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/04/pz-myers-is-witless-wanker-who-peddles.html

Links that didn't work in my above post. Apologies.

verbosestoic said...

David M.,

"JJ, I think that's frustrating hairsplitting of the highest order. I agree that there shouldn't be a need for a science teacher to walk into a classroom and open up with "The earth isn't 6000 years old," but surely you can concieve of a situation where a child in a classroom may mention it. What is a teacher supposed to do if he or she is asked directly? "

Reply: The scientific view is that it is 4.5 million years old. As for how that relates to any religious or theological claims, I can only refer to the appropriate or religious or theological authorities.

"And how is it a good idea to effectively teach a child that there are one set of truths you will learn in a classroom that aren't related at all to these other truth claims you're learning at home?"

I think it, though, a very good idea to leave theology to theologicans, and science to scientists. Problems start when the two mix and don't realize it or acknowledge their encroachment into the others' fields.

verbosestoic said...

David M.,

I also just remembered what I wanted to end with:

It isn't the case that you're teaching them different truths, because whether the science fits the theology is something that the religions address. Some religions will teach different truths, and some won't. It's not science's job to decide what reactions religions have to science are valid or reasonable, but just to say "This is what science says."

James Croft said...

First, I love your blog.

Second, I was intrigued by this: "I do find it extraordinary that we have so many atheist thinkers expressing what seems to go beyond disagreement with certain New Atheists on certain points (the kind of disagreement that you get from me all the time if I disagree with some specific thing that Sam Harris said or that Richard Dawkins said), and conduct themselves in a way that seems resentful and spiteful."

I agree that this is a surprising phenomenon, but I must say I have witnessed it from both ends, as it were. The New Atheists are sometimes just as spiteful when it comes to small disagreements between ourselves. Look at the absurd spat between "firebrands" and "accommodationists", for example, or the vitriol heaped on the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (alongside which I have the pleasure of working) when we dare to disagree with some of the strategies of the New Atheists.

The shoe, I think, is decidedly on both feet, and it does the movement a disservice.

Marshall said...

@Tulse ...
And just how many of the world's religions believe in Spinoza's god? ... I'm honestly tired of the anti-gnus arguing for the philosophical consistency of positions that no religious person actually holds.

What a ridiculous thing to say; for one thing I am asserting myself as a religious person who holds just the position I am asserting.

I think all the world's religions are about the God Spinoza described in Ethics dressed up in more or less gaudy tinsel, some of it with very sharp edges; the world would be better off if we put away the tinsel and spent more time with the God.

If religion were just about Spinoza's god, there wouldn't be a gnu atheist movement, because there wouldn't be all the ills associated with religion.

I'm glad you agree so readily to my main point, that there are good (healthy) ways to think about this stuff. Very neatly said.

If you want to talk more about Spinoza, come on over to Blue Ridge and we can go into it at length. Others are also welcome.

@verbosestoic: Nice. Good practical guidance for an open secular society.

David M said...

Reply: The scientific view is that it is 4.5 million years old. As for how that relates to any religious or theological claims, I can only refer to the appropriate or religious or theological authorities.

I'm still failing to see how this is helping anyone. But regardless, let me just start by saying that I'm not advocating that specific religious claims need to be actively refuted or mentioned in a science classroom, but it's surely unrealistic to argue that a science teacher should just go mute at the mention of a claim like the earth is 6000 years old. I think that teaching that the earth is 4.5 years old, and here's the evidence and how we got there is fine and dandy, and I don't think it's an overstretch to think that putting the evidence and the method for getting it forward is a solid way of having people move away from religious belief. It's not the purpose of the education, but there seems no doubt it's a regular and possible byproduct. The correlation between education and lack of belief, as mentioned by de dora at B&W, and the stats on religious scientists in comparison to the general pop seem to bare this out.

Just saying see your local theologian seems to just be NOMA in practice. And I fail to see how it doesn't leave us with the same tension and incompatibility.

I think it, though, a very good idea to leave theology to theologicans, and science to scientists. Problems start when the two mix and don't realize it or acknowledge their encroachment into the others' fields.

Well, quite, but isn't this the point. To harp on the specific example,we've been discussing, as Coyne says: The earth is 6000 years old is an empirical claim before it's a religious one. So surely it's the theology stepping into the science classroom that's the problem. And your answer seems to involve an unreasonable onus on the science teacher to watch his words and not say a number of things. On one level, fair enough, if we're referring to children, then the teacher is in a position of power/responsibility, but since this discussion goes all the way up to working scientists and college students, at which point do we get to be honest about what the evidence suggests?

Marshall: Basically I follow Spinoza, and neither he nor I see any reason why a proper view of God should conflict with a proper view of Causality.

I always find that use of the word "proper" to be fraught with danger. How do you distinguish between a proper and improper view of God? (That's largely a rhetorical question btw. I don't expect you to go into detail about the where's and whys of God in this comments section.)

David M said...

I should have written: I think that teaching that the earth is 4.5 years old, and showing the evidence and how we got said evidence is fine and dandy, and I don't think it's an overstretch to think that putting the evidence - and the method for getting it - forward is a solid way of having people move away from religious belief.

Wow. My first go at that sentence was awful. This at least should read a little better!

Russell Blackford said...

Billion years.

But I'm sure we all got that.

David M said...

I blame the essay I have to hand in on friday.

Jebus.

Or maybe I'm a baby earth creationist, or something.

Marshall said...

And your answer seems to involve an unreasonable onus on the science teacher to watch his words and not say a number of things.

There's lots of stuff a primary teacher needs to be careful talking about in the classroom, such as partisan politics and gossip. The point of a secular society is that, while your own blog is your own business, agents of the state (as such) do not have all the freedoms of an individual citizen.

Here in the postenlightenment world, the point of basic education isn't to give the kiddies the Big Book of All The Answers, but to develop habits of critical inquiry. So expose tension without always needing to resolve it. As we practice in a physical way in Aikido: use the tension of contradiction to create the desired outcome. Don't hit, much less hit back. VbS's paradigm doesn't admit theology into the classroom, it just leaves the tension out where the kids can see it and work out a good and useful life for themselves. I don't want to see them marching like Heroes of Soviet Labor in the Mayday parade any more than flagellating themselves in the Procession of St. Martyr the Bloody. The way to raise trustworthy kids is to trust them.

I always find that use of the word "proper" to be fraught with danger. How do you distinguish between a proper and improper view of God? (That's largely a rhetorical question btw. I don't expect you to go into detail about the where's and whys of God in this comments section.)

" 'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer."

If you don't mind getting your hands dirty with a little theology, come on over to Blue Ridge as I said before. "But I don't expect you to."

Thanny said...

I'm hardly sidestepping it or missing it, Thanny. I've written a whole book that is very much about the issues you raise. It will be published around the end of the year - late 2011 or early 2012.

It seemed to me as if you were using the term "democracy" as shorthand for "constitutional democracy with an established set of civil rights which cannot be overruled by majority vote", something I disagree with. Re-reading, I would say such an implication isn't strong enough to warrant my response. Sorry for jumping the gun.

I await with interest your volume on the topic, and hope you get some interviews on news programs to explicitly highlight the disconnect between mere democracy and a free society.

Pseudonym said...

Russell:

Unfortunately, there's plenty of evidence that even traditional forms of Christianity, which pride themselves on their love and compassion, have this kind of dark side. Much of the behaviour of religious leaders and organisations in Western countries fuels the perception that they'd rather use force than try to persuade people. In many cases, we see Christians, doubtless well-intentioned, wanting to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians.

Once again, though, you seem to be talking about a proper subset of "Christianity". I don't see much of this at all from Quakers, or the Uniting Church. And beyond that, I don't see Buddhists trying to influence politics in any meaningful way.

Russell Blackford said...

Since I said "much of" and "many" how is it contradicting me to say "not all"? If everyone acted like the Quakers, I doubt we'd ever had had the New Atheism ... as I believe Hitchens has also pointed out.

Marshall said...

If the Gnus can agree that the Quakers or Spinoza's coreligionists are at least harmless, then how do you justify bracketing off the entire category of "religion" as contemptible? Aside from the danger of throwing some baby out with this leftover bathwater, aren't you playing the same political game as the Holy Rollers? A pluralist society must not discriminate among other sorts of political groups (...special interest, ethnic, racial, recreational...) (which generally have their own sorts of dark sides), why should we equate "Pluralist" with "Secular"?

Russell, you qualify your comments to a much greater extent than I generally see in the Usual Places. It seems there is the possibility of discussion.

Russell Blackford said...

Marshall, that's a very confused comment. You seem to be making a whole lot of assumptions about what I might or might not think.

Marshall said...

I apologize for my confusion, which I fear is a more or less normal condition for humans. I believe my proper response is to encounter and struggle rather than huddle and deny; if I have offended I am sorry for it.

In this case I meant to be speaking about non-accomodationism rather than RB the individual. Just my opinion, as always.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay. It still seems to me that you're making some false assumptions, though. For example, I'm not sure who is equating a pluralist society with a secular society - I do actually think the ideas are closely related, but the relationship needs explanation. They are not simply the same thing. More importantly, you seem, as far as I can work out, to be equating a secular society with a society that discriminates against religious people. But I don't know anyone who wants a society that does that. Maybe the French concept of laicite does that to a certain extent, but that's not the concept that I or others in this debate are working with.

Most of us want a society in which the government makes decisions on grounds relating to the citizens' interests in the things of this world, and is not motivated to impose a religion or to decide that certain religions are "wrong" and so persecute them. We want to keep religion and government separate.

We complain when religious leaders ask governments to impose religious canons of conduct on nonbelievers, but we don't ask that religious people be persecuted or discriminated against or censored.

So your comment seems to be making a whole lot of false assumptions not only about me but about others.

And accommodationism is a separate issue. It's not about whether our society has a place for people with various beliefs. I don't know anyone who is a non-accommodationist in that sense. The accommodationism argument is all about the relationship between religion and science. But even here, all the non-accomodationists want from science organisations and the like is a neutral stance on how far various religions are compatible with the scientific picture of the world. I.e., just teach/promulgate the science and let the chips fall where they may in philosophical and theological discussion.

Given all that, your questions seemed a bit like, "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

Pseudonym said...

Russell, sorry, I wasn't clear and should have elaborated.

Your claim wasn't wrong, but I fail to see how it justifies a "widespread hostility to religion". "Religion" isn't a monolithic entity. Even if you limit yourself to one religion, such as Islam or Christianity, some is benign and some is not.

Christopher Hitchens, of course, sent his daughter to a Quaker school. So even he can't honestly believe that religion poisons everything.

Marshall said...

Unfair questions. All right, I will withdraw "contemptible" and hmmm yes that last sentence is confused. I was trying to ask, why treat religion differently than other political associations? Perhaps you don't think you wish to, but it seems to me that a "secular society" implies bracketing off religion ... racists or royalists could just as well be secular. I don't think "without religion" captures what progressive people are after. For your personal opinions, probably I should read your book when it comes out.

We complain when religious leaders ask governments to impose religious canons of conduct on nonbelievers, but we don't ask that religious people be persecuted or discriminated against or censored...

The argument of the first clause is sometimes taken as implying that legislators and voters should resolve policy issues "rationally", solely on the basis of fact-based arguments. But there are no moral facts and surely we don't want to forbid moral arguments. It isn't reasonable to ask religious voters to lay aside their religiously inspired morality any more than economists or ethicists should or could lay aside their carefully formed opinions.

You said "accommodationism is a separate issue", but from my Evangelical point of view the issue is about the place of religious thought in the public marketplace. I suppose I personally am just the sort of person who is to be humored or not, and I think I and the Quakers and the Spinozists are worth engaging. "Accommodate" should mean something warmer than "not persecuted". (...and Russell, I do appreciate your willingness to engage here.)

If we are just talking about the philo-theological question of the compatibility of science and religion, I think the problem is that scientific thought has advanced much faster than religious thought over the past few centuries, the latter needs to be brought up to speed. Whereas the Gnus typically scoff at innovative non-fundamentalist thinking because "people don't do that." Which (a) is factually mistaken and (b) overlooks that "people" at large do poor science also.

It need not be fatal to let religion to be constrained by science; Spinoza gives the outline of a method well grounded in his contemporary thought. The politics of religion need to be put in their place on line with other categories of associations. Accommodated or challenged in the same sort of way, based on their programs and not their vocabulary. Religious organizations have something to contribute to an improved social climate, and they should be cultivated towards that end.