About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Shook Distraction (2)

Let's take a look at John Shook's HuffPo piece plugging his book The God Debates (aren't I nice? I'll even help him sell copies). Why has this article caused so much upset? Forget for the moment that it is published with a bio stating Shook's positions with the Center for Inquiry - I'll return to that - what about the wording of the article itself?

There is much in it that seems reasonable enough, and it could doubtless have been topped and tailed and edited somewhat differently without causing much upset. Take this para, for example:

If you are religious, don't be wary of the God debates. Respectful debating yields deeper knowledge about one's religious beliefs. After all, religions are hardly strangers to debate. Many religious texts contain examples of debating. For example, accounts of debates between Jesus and Jewish teachers can be instructive for Christians; while Krishna's arguments to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita teach Hindus. Questioning and debating has helped shape many religions. Confucianism grew from philosophical meditations and debating with rival schools. Much of Hinduism and Buddhism developed through intellectual argumentation as rigorous as any in the Western philosophical tradition. Both Judaism and Islam have produced some of the world's finest religious literature and heights of philosophical thought. The Catholic Church's long reliance on councils of debating bishops directed its development. The fragmentation of Protestantism into thousands of denominations and churches is a long tale of disputation in the pews over ever-finer points of scripture interpretation, theological doctrine, and church practice.

Now, this may be a bit disingenuous, given that Shook is actually an atheist and believes that religion is pretty much intellectually bankrupt. Still, what he says in this paragraph is basically true: religion does, indeed, have a rich tradition (or multiple such traditions) of debate. What's more, you can't blame him for suggesting that his book has something to offer the religious as well as atheists and religious sceptics. Perhaps it has - and besides, he has a book to sell! Of course he's enthusiastic and of course he'd like to point out its attractions to as many demographics as possible. Besides, if the book is actually any good it will, indeed, have something to teach almost anyone. In isolation, a paragraph like the above would not bother me in the least, even if it's thought to have an "accommodationist" sort of ring, and there are plenty of other sentences in the article that are fair enough in a piece that has been, d'oh, put together to promote a book. What's more, I congratulate Shook - or whoever was responsible - for getting such a piece in the Huffington Post at all. I can attest, alas, that that kind of exposure is not always easy to come by.

The trouble is, first, that the article contains so many truly wild accusations. Though Shook never names names, his main thesis is that all those other noisy, "know-nothing" atheists are lowering the tone and the intellectual standards of debate. Who does he mean? Does he, perhaps, have in mind the core "New Atheist" authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens? Surely they will come to the minds of readers.

Does he mean such other candid atheists as the fifty-odd contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists? Is he thinking of such philosophical atheists as A.C. Grayling (one of our contributors) and Michele Onfray? Does he mean his colleagues at the Center for Inquiry? Or perhaps he means people who contribute to the blogosphere either by posting at their own blogs or by commenting on others' posts. Whoever he has in mind, these "know-nothings" have evidently not only lowered the standard of argument from secular thinkers - they have somehow also lowered the standard from the religious themselves, who respond, apparently, with similar crude argument:

But don't worry, defenders of religion say, there's no need to learn deep theology or debate God, thanks to dogmatic atheism's bad example. Just stick with faith; after all, who can argue with faith? Believers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of their religion's theological legacy.

This is an extremely unfair representation of the situation. Before the "New Atheists" came along, there were plenty of crude populist religious works being published, as Shook well knows. There was also plenty of more sophisticated theology, though it did not attract a popular audience. Likewise, there were critiques of religion - some very sophisticated intellectually, some less so. What did not exist, at least in any numbers, were well-written critiques of religion from large trade publishers and aimed at a general audience, works such as Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Hitchens' God is Not Great. While these are popular works, they are written, edited, and produced to a very high standard. Sure, they are open to debate and criticism like all books, and they do not have the kind of dry academic detail and rigour as might be found, for example, in the work of Michael Martin (which is excellent of its kind). But it is unfair to refer to their authors as "know-nothings" (a dreadful label that suggests not only ignorance but also bigotry, given its historical meaning) or to claim that the books are dragging down the standard of debate. Not at all: these books introduced one side of the debate to a popular audience, and introduced it at an appropriately high intellectual level. It is not the very highest level of philosophy of religion, if we are talking about academic rigour, but it is surprisingly high when you consider the huge print runs of these books and their appeal to non-specialists.

Rather than berating Dawkins and company for their ignorance and for dumbing down a popular debate that was (supposedly) previously at a higher level, Shook ought to be thanking them for creating the popular debate and for doing so at a level that is already surprisingly high. Of course, there are always opportunities to add value by opening up new areas of the debate or taking existing areas to a higher level. Perhaps that's what Shook's new book does, but even if it does that does not excuse slamming the supposed ignorance of colleagues, denigrating their work, and assisting in the efforts of many others to undermine their credibility.

Shook is adopting a tactic that is always problematic - promoting his product not by extolling its own merits but by dissing the opposition. There's nothing wrong with promoting your own book, but there's plenty wrong with adopting a campaign of negative advertising: essentially treating your allies and colleagues as no more than rivals in the marketplace and disparaging their product. This is not a good look, and a moment's reflection should have told Shook that it would be a foolish use of his precious space in the Huffington Post. Even if the controversy helps sales in the short term - something that may be a good thing if the book itself is any good - the deeper effect is to harm Shook's own reputation and "brand", and to do damage to his cause. He comes across as negative, selfish, and driven by ego rather than collegiality. In the process, some mud inevitably sticks, so the effect is also to assist the current efforts by many others to demonise or dismiss the "New Atheist" authors.

And make no mistake, while Shook does attack popular religious apologetics as well as the unidentified "know-nothing" or "strident" atheists, he is totally scathing in his language: How did know-nothing atheism and lazy theology grab the spotlight? This dead-end trap of mutually assured ignorance was not inevitable. For someone who has supposedly written a higher-level, more measured and scholarly book, which he is trying to promote to us, Shook goes out of his way to disparage, push buttons, and use inflammatory rhetoric. He shouldn't be surprised that many people who would normally be on his side have responded with anger. There was no need at all for him to employ this sort of language to get across the merits of his own book - presumably that he has managed to package some of the more rarefied and interesting scholarly debates for a cross-over audience of scholars and the educated public. Put like that, it sounds a bit dry, but I'm sure there are ways of making this sound exciting without denigrating allies and colleagues.

Shook is both a Senior Fellow with the Center for Inquiry and its Director of Education. These positions are mentioned in his brief bio at HuffPo. That brings me to the difficulty that an organisation such as the CFI has in acting as both an advocacy organisation and a think tank. As an advocacy organisation it communicates a particular "line" to the public, but as a think tank it provides a space where its Fellows may pursue their own agendas, taking different lines on various issues, and sometimes disagreeing with each other. It's difficult for any organisation to do both of these things, though it's not impossible. It basically requires a degree of good sense, diplomacy, and clear thinking from all concerned. That is even more important if an organisation gives the same person both the position of a Fellow - pursuing his own agenda in a way that the organisation thinks is socially beneficial - and the position of a public policy manager, who is thus responsible for advocating those aspects of the organisation's line that fall within his or her portfolio. If someone signs off articles with their policy management position mentioned, that creates the impression to ordinary educated people that what they say reflects the policy view of the organisation.

Since Shook is in the situation of being both a Fellow and a policy manager, you'd think he would be extremely careful what he says in anything that he signs off with a reference to his position as a policy manager (especially a position such as Director of Education, which implies a responsibility to communicate CFI views to the public via education campaigns and the like - it's no use saying that that is not what the position does, because HuffPo readers don't know that). But instead of showing extreme care, Shook seems to have gone out of his way to use scathing, inflammatory language in attacking many people who would be his organisation's natural allies. I don't blame the CFI for this, as it's not something you'd expect a person in a position of executive responsibility to do. But I do think that this episode has shown a structural problem in the way that the CFI operates.

If the CFI is going to continue to be both an advocacy organisation and a think tank, it needs to think hard about how the two roles relate to each other. In particular, it might wish to consider whether it's really appropriate to hand someone a role as both a policy manager and a Fellow. It might also need to ensure that policy managers do not sign off using their titles unless they are very confident that what they are saying reflects CFI policy or they insist on publication of a disclaimer to the effect that the views expressed are personal and not those of the CFI. All this might not be needed if the views of CFI managers and Fellows were more cohesive and people in management roles were aware of what that normally entails in, say, a trade union or an employer body such as a chamber of commerce. Basically, you are not employed in such roles to be a loose cannon, saying things that cut across the goals and strategies of the organisation (which, in this case, surely involve forming strategic alliances with the "New Atheist" authors and with such people as the editors of/contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief).

Finally, for now, let me add that diversity is not a bad thing. I'm not against academics or the Fellows of think tanks having and expressing diverse views. Indeed, the views that Udo Schuklenk and I collected for our book are highly diverse. However, things are somewhat more complicated when the organisation concerned is not an academic institution or a pure think tank but also an advocacy organisation. In this case, CFI advocates secularism and a science-based non-religious worldview. In doing so, it needs to develop policies, strategies, and alliances, and it should expect staff in executive positions to be sensitive to this. Its in-house communications strategy should address the points I'm making, and all staff should be made well aware of it and expected to follow it. It can provide Fellows with academic freedom, but it should address the situation of anyone who is both a Fellow and a policy manager, if such a combination continues to be used. Even Fellows should be expected to show a certain level of good sense when writing in their capacity with the organisation.

Does any of this mean we should write off the CFI as a worthwhile organisation to support? Not at all. I'll address that in more detail in Part 3. However, it is currently going through a period of transition and has inherited some difficult problems. These need to be addressed if it is to be as effective as we'd really hope it can be.


Friend of Icelos said...

Although it doesn't change the tone of Shook's latest article, you may be interested in this quote from a previous article written in June:

"These arguments get complicated but they can be refuted, so learn some theology, and some corresponding atheology, for effective rational argument why one should be skeptical about God. Books by Dawkins and Dennett, for example, offer some atheology — reasons why arguments for God are failures."

This suggests his recent article isn't directed at the major New Atheist authors. Of course, it still doesn't clarify who he is actually criticizing.

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe he'll turn up and tell us who he had in mind, but I bet most people would take him as referring to some or all of the "New Atheists", especially when he uses such expressions as "strident atheism".

Still, that's very interesting information.

Eamon Knight said...

Certain recent criticisms of the Gnu Atheists from fellow rationalists seem to be notably short on specifics on who is allegedly being stupid or over-the-top or whatever, and in what way -- which makes such criticisms inflammatory but useless. I speak as one who prefers nuanced argument, and an environment a little calmer than say, what sometimes happens at Pharyngula. So I would likely be on-side with something that makes a case for "That was wrong, here is why, here's a better way to say that" -- but I can't do that if it's always couched in terms of some generic Naughty Children who remain unidentified.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

This is an excellent, well-reasoned, balanced post that presents some good points. (In other words, a typical Blackford post.) There is a tension between being a think tank and being an advocacy organization. We at CFI recognize this. But recognizing this tension is easier than resolving it a manner that will preclude all potential complications. If we place too many restrictions on the scholars/writers who work for us, we will not have any, or at least not any with the skills we require. Re use of identifying titles in a blog such as Huffpo, no policy has been developed to date, perhaps because it’s rare to obtain such prominent placement for an article by one of our staff. But we will be reviewing this matter.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"This suggests his recent article isn't directed at the major New Atheist authors."

On the other hand, Dawkins has been criticized for his "stock reply" comparing theology and fairyology, which came off as a glib excuse for not boning up on the very subject matter that he's discussing. In the blog post to which I linked, one commenter, Christopher Heard, had pointed out that Dawkins had derided Trinitarian debates about "substance" and "essence" without learning "what theologians think they're saying when they talk about the 'substance' or 'essence' of the Trinity." As he put it,

"In the abstract, there's no reason why Dawkins should be required or expected to be well-read in specific dogmas--and few specific dogmas are inherent in the generic God Hypothesis. If he's going to attack specific dogmas, though, he should show that he actually understands what the proponents of those dogmas mean when they affirm and attempt to explain those dogmas."

Dawkins in some places comes off as if he isn't trying very hard to know what he's talking about. That's a problem that's even extended beyond theology, as for example, when he repeated a quote mine of John Adams.

Moving a bit away from Dawkins ...

When I was looking at PZ Myers' latest cutesy desecration, I found this bit from an anonymous commenter: "Religion is absurd on its face and needs no further discussion, beyond perhaps insisting that its practitioners first prove the existence of a supernatural realm." Yeah, I can just see Pascal Boyer or Scott Atran agreeing to that. One might make the case (and perhaps Shook does elsewhere) that such a "know-nothing" attitude was abetted by the problems I mentioned above.

Also, Myers himself comes off as a bit of a know-nothing. In his bit about why he was giving a Bible and a Qu'ran a burial, he kept writing as if those books were one-dimensionally negative, even comparing them to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, if he had, say, been burying certain specific books of the Bible, especially the Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes, his comments about "replacing the follies of dead men with the wisdom of worms" would look more obviously ignorant and arrogant.

Alex SL said...


Actually, I have a hard time understanding where you are going with that. Until there is some reason to assume that some kind of god exists, trinitarian discussions are a complete waste of time, and they are precisely as silly and unbecoming of grown-ups not under the influence of mind-altering drugs as would be a discussion on the dietary requirements of fairies.

We don't need to care whether someone can arrive at a complicated argument why fairies are at the same time carnivorous and vegan (as good a model for the trinity as any) if it is abundantly clear that they were only motivated to formulate that justification through their a priori commitment to an obviously entirely invented, well, fairytale.

And yes, the trinity is a ridiculous idea for somebody who claims to be a monotheist. It is not only atheists who have drawn that conclusion, but all other monotheists are just as unimpressed by the doctrine. But perhaps it is less fashionable to tell Muslims that they should brush up on Catholic theology than to say the same to atheists.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Alex SL: "Actually, I have a hard time understanding where you are going with that."

Simple. Once you mock something, you have an obligation to understand what you are mocking.

tomh said...

How is one to reconcile the HuffPo rant deriding "the “know-nothing” wing of the so-called New Atheism", who are "reveling in their ignorance", with his piece, six days later on the CFI blog, where he bluntly states,

"Only common sense sanity, of the sort we normally expect from adults and even teenagers, is sufficient to show why God-belief is irrational."

On HuffPo, one must be fluent and up-to-date on current, sophisticated theology in order to criticize God-belief, yet six days later on CFI the common sense of a teenager is all that's needed. No matter how you slice it these views directly contradict each other. Perhaps anything goes when you're trying to sell a book, but to a casual observer it seems that he is merely pandering to his perceived audience on whatever forum he's writing for. It makes it hard to take anything he says very seriously.

Alex SL said...


you actually think I cannot, without studying tomes and tomes published on physiology and culture of the elven races and their relatives, mock fairyologists' discussion about fairy dietary preferences as a complete waste of time? Based on the all too often overlooked but indisputable fact that fairies do not, in all actuality, in the here and now, seem to exist? Is that seriously what you are saying?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I could spend hours working out the apparent ages of characters within the Marvel Comics diegesis. Only this morning I decided that Spider-Man is currently being presented (in his own comics, as opposed to the movies or any other version) as 27 rather than 26. However, although this is amusing it's not something I'd live my life by. It's something I'd want to have clear in my mind if I were writing those characters, and it's kind of interesting for readers to see how consistently they are handled, but there's obviously a rather low limit to the importance of such questions.

Seriously, there's something to be gained from studying myth as myth (or fairy stories as fairy stories), and from studying it in its historical, soiological, and cultural context, but there's not so much to be gained from studying it as actual history. As long as theologians are doing the former, good luck to them.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Alex SL: "you actually think I cannot, without studying tomes and tomes published on physiology and culture of the elven races and their relatives, mock fairyologists' discussion about fairy dietary preferences as a complete waste of time?"

Of course you can mock it as a waste of time. What you cannot do (or at least shouldn't do) is make an argument such as "It's stupid of you to think that fairies would prefer pizza over bread and milk because their digestive systems couldn't handle it" without knowing what the fairyologists believe about what fairies can eat and why. If you make arguments that sidestep the need for detailed knowledge, that's fine. You still haven't violated the rule about not mocking what you don't understand, since you're avoiding the parts that you don't understand. Once you mock the details, though, you have to understand those details.

By the way, all that had been said before in an earlier post above, in the part where I quoted Heard saying, "If he's going to attack specific dogmas, though, he should show that he actually understands what the proponents of those dogmas mean when they affirm and attempt to explain those dogmas."

Alex SL said...

Ah well, but there is a certain difference between jumping into that discussion with something like the pizza argument, or pointing out that no matter how abstruse you make your theology, your fairies can still not be vegan and carnivorous at the same time, and you are only committed to showing that they can manage that feat because of some even more abstruse interpretation in an old book that has no credibility to start with. I may be mistaken, but the latter seems to be what you originally seemed to criticize. If Dawkins derides these discussions, I would not understand him to take one side, but to consider them all as a complete waste of time, words and paper.

And yes, RB, if all theology were history of religion, or a part of sociology, I would certainly consider it a worthwhile undertaking, though somewhat less fascinating than the botany I choose to spend my time with. Unfortunately, as we all know, these days it is still sold as theology, and their Spiderman is presupposed to actually jump around somewhere and thwart crimes.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Ah well, but there is a certain difference between jumping into that discussion with something like the pizza argument, or pointing out that no matter how abstruse you make your theology, your fairies can still not be vegan and carnivorous at the same time, and you are only committed to showing that they can manage that feat because of some even more abstruse interpretation in an old book that has no credibility to start with. I may be mistaken, but the latter seems to be what you originally seemed to criticize."

Considering that the questions of what "substance" and "essence" are supposed to be are not directly related to whether the Trinity is illogical, I would think that it was obvious that the former was at issue.