Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A critique of New Atheism

Poster mac_philo at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board weighs in with a critique of the 'New Atheism' of Dawkins et al. I have to concede one point: There isn't anything "new"—at least at the argumentative or philosophical level—in these books; theism as a rational topic was decisively destroyed by Hume, and the Enlightenment philosophers hammered the final nails in the coffin.

The poster makes one excellent point:
If they are anything like the anti-pluralist, anti-tolerance, and absolute certainty evinced by posts all over this forum, then they deserve liberal criticism of this sort, just as much as anti-pluralist religious claims deserve that criticism. ...

But when you get into the territory of finding those you disagree with inferior, worthy of no toleration or civility, and are convinced that your side is inherently smarter and that the world would be better off if everyone agreed with you, then you are as deserving of liberal criticism as any theist who shares that general approach to life.

Except for the "absolute certainty" bit, I have to pretty much plead guilty as charged. At the level of discourse, I'm definitely anti-pluralist and anti-tolerance. I do think that atheism is a more intelligent, more rational position than theism, and theists are typically less intelligent than atheists, at least when they're discussing religion, and often in general. To paraphrase J. S. Mill, not all theists are stupid, but most stupid people are theists. I do think the world would be better off (although of course not perfect) if everyone did in fact agree with me: If you don't think so, why bother believing anything?

(Of course, at the level of law, I'm quite tolerant, pluralistic and civil. I don't support making theism illegal nor do I advocate any sort of violence or economic coercion against theism, unlike some theists regarding atheists.)

The thing is, atheism is true and theism is false. Theism is all lies and bullshit. Why should I tolerate lies and bullshit? Why should I not consider lies and bullshit to be inferior in every way, intellectually and morally, to truth and honesty? Why should I tolerate con-men and parasites dressed in robes and collars selling "God's love" any more than I should tolerate con-men dressed in sharp suits selling the Brooklyn Bridge?

It's very amusing (once you get past the tooth-grinding hypocrisy) to see theists—usually the most judgmental of people—espouse this sort of judgment-free ethical relativism when it is their own ox that is gored. They can't defend their position on its merits, so they have to descend into the worst sort of postmodernism in responding to their critics.

31 comments:

  1. I think the problem is that atheistic/non-religious liberals have settled on 'certainty' or conviction of one's position being the right one, as tantamount to dogma. Dogma is evil, therefore all positive conviction is wrong, therefore everything is equal and equally to be respected and nothing shunned as untruth.

    Altemeyer made the same error in his study of atheists.

    There is something to be said for keeping an open mind. At the same time, these critics forget that the atheist's certainty -- what certainty there is -- is based on something more concrete than ancient desert superstition, that there is some respect for evidence and willingness to change one's mind if presented with facts -- or even argument -- that gives the lie to one's opinions.

    To hold all 'dogma' equal is to hold truth cheap. This sounds superficially like Muslims lauding their Truth over that of the Christians' Truth, but it is a whole different ballgame when the competing truths aren't merely a different set of ancient desert superstitions, but actual evidential facts.

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  2. The thing is, atheism is true and theism is false. Theism is all lies and bullshit. Why should I tolerate lies and bullshit? Why should I not consider lies and bullshit to be inferior in every way, intellectually and morally, to truth and honesty? Why should I tolerate con-men and parasites dressed in robes and collars selling "God's love" any more than I should tolerate con-men dressed in sharp suits selling the Brooklyn Bridge?

    Uh ... because you humbly acknowledge that you don’t know everything, and that the idea of someone owning and offering to sell the Brooklyn Bridge (given Republican penchant for privatization, especially in the face of collapsing bridges) is not beyond the realm of possibility?

    Perhaps some theistic beliefs betray a logical contradiction and can be dismissed on that basis. But mostly I dismiss (many) theistic beliefs on empirical grounds: I find insufficient evidence to support them. But fundamental to empiricism (science) is the idea of holding empirical conclusions tentatively, contingently, and not precluding the revision of a conclusion based on new evidence or new analysis of old evidence.

    Consequently I have difficulty getting from “I have insufficient evidence to support Conclusion X” to “Conclusion X is false.”

    Moreover, I have difficulty understanding what a pronouncement like “X is false” means to a meta-ethical subjective relativist. Statements such as “X betrays a logical contradiction” or “X lacks empirical support” I understand, but “X is false”?

    nobody.really

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  3. apostate: Keep in mind that certainty is different from conviction, and both are different from dogma. They share some common features, but there are differences. Dogma specifically connotes belief by virtue of authority, an epistemic qualifier. Only certainty logically entails conviction; the rest of these qualifiers can be applied independently to a belief.

    The tendency to conflate conviction with dogmatism is a feature of only a minority of the very broad coalition of philosophies that falls under the umbrella of "liberalism". As noted in post, some theists, being intellectually dishonest in general, are often more than happy to judge all proponents by the standards of a minority of those proponents.

    Open-minded is antithetical only to certainty. To keep an open mind, one must only be prepared to evaluate all the evidence, and change one's convictions if and only if new evidence compels such change. Open-mindedness is not even in tension with, much less antithetical to, conviction.

    To be fair to Dr. Altemeyer, he explicitly acknowledges that his conflation between conviction and epistemic basis (or lack thereof) is an artifact of his methodology.

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  4. nobody.really: Just so you know, you can click the "Other" option and enter your handle, with or without an associated link. Doing so would, I think, make it easier for other readers to follow the conversation.

    You are indirectly conflating certainty with conviction. The notion that empirical conclusions are "tentative" entails only that one is cannot in principle be absolutely certain; it does not entail that one cannot be convinced.

    The label "insufficient evidence" is tepid and equivocal. There's insufficient evidence in one sense to rule out microbial life on Mars, and there's "insufficient evidence" in an qualitatively different sense to be absolutely certain there's no elephant in your living room: You might, after all, be deluded and ignoring the facts.

    In real life, the evidence is more than sufficient to rationally warrant the conviction that no god exists—at least in any relevant sense—and by definition nobody really cares about irrelevant senses.

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  5. I think Apostate is on to something. It often seems that the most utilized critique if "New Atheism" (Don't call it a comeback, we been here for years!) is that it amounts to a vociferous and public contradiction of dearly-held beliefs. It's both the "how" and the "what." By a minority essentially taking a definitional belief and saying, "No, you're wrong," it's perceived as a more personal attack than if one criticizes, say, one's status as a voting Democrat or Republican.

    Regardless of the charges against truth -- there is a God, no there isn't, my Yahweh kicks your Allah's ass, etc. -- you very rarely see one of the "New Atheists" taking aim at the sincerity of a theist's belief. Most of us believe you are being honest and sincere in your belief, irrespective of the truth of that belief. This is not so with the positions reversed. You see this in my extended dialog with Rhology in the "My Ethics" thread: I was repeatedly told I was "acting like a Christian" because in my heart of hearts I apparently knew that I was wrong and did, in fact, believe in God. The very sincerity of my non-belief -- and by extension my honesty and integrity -- was called into question.

    And yet somehow I'm supposed to take that lying down?

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  6. nobody.really8/30/07, 2:13 PM

    Barefoot Bum: “The label ‘insufficient evidence’ is tepid and equivocal.”

    Right. To my understanding, that’s precisely the way I want to hold empirical propositions. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

    “In real life, the evidence is more than sufficient to rationally warrant the conviction that no god exists...”

    Could you explain this in terms of meta-ethical subjective relativism? How exactly does the statement “X is false” differ from the statement “I am not persuaded of X” or “I find insufficient support for X” or “X belies a logical contradiction” or whathaveyou?

    In a somewhat related matter, are you acquainted with General Semantics? As Alfred North Whitehead remarked in Process and Reality, “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.”

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  7. Here's an interesting bit by Oliver Kamm, my favorite rhetorical brickbatter, on a related point.

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  8. To my understanding, that’s precisely the way I want to hold empirical propositions. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

    At what point does the sufficiency of evidence allow you to call someone with whom you disagree mistaken, stupid, deluded or fraudulent? If you want to go with the worst sort of postmodernist epistemic nihilism, that's your problem; don't expect sympathy from me.

    Could you explain this in terms of meta-ethical subjective relativism?

    Beg pardon? MESR is a theory about ethics; atheism is a conclusion about objective reality.

    How exactly does the statement “X is false” differ from the statement “I am not persuaded of X” or “I find insufficient support for X” or “X belies a logical contradiction” or whathaveyou?

    That's a good question; I've actually been giving it considerable thought since your last comment. In short, there's no difference; the long answer will require a whole essay.

    In a somewhat related matter, are you acquainted with General Semantics?

    Yes. It's instructive to note that Whitehead required two and a half volumes of intricate, subtle mathematics before he could confidently state that one and one did indeed sum to two. One suspects Whitehead of just a teeny excess of philosophical caution.

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  9. nobody.really8/30/07, 5:30 PM

    Barefoot Bum: “and by definition nobody really cares about irrelevant senses.”

    nobody.really: Curious that you would phrase it that way. In fact nobody.really DOES care about the existence of god in senses that we’ve thus far characterized as irrelevant. Indeed, if you doubt supernatural phenomena, and you combine that doubt with an observation that most people claim to believe in god, then I’d be surprised if you DIDN’T care about what “the existence of god” really means to people.

    1. Rabbi Kushner notes that when he asks Jewish kids whether they believe in god, they generally demur. But kids respond enthusiastically when asked when they felt the presence of god. Clearly these kids regard questions about “the existence of god” differently than they regard questions about feelings.

    2. Similarly, I observe that in the US religiosity seems strongest in areas under the greatest social stress – highest rates of poverty, suicide, murder, violent crime, gun offenses, divorce, drop-outs, chemical dependency, bankruptcy, unemployment, sexually-transmitted disease, obesity, hypertension and heart attack, etc. In this sense, professions of faith and demands for conformity by people in the South are akin to the suits & skirts that black urban parents dress their kids in at urban academies: its an effort to invoke some “traditional” standard of behavior to ward off the social decay that “modernity” assaults them with from every front.

    Is it merely coincidence that atheism and agnosticism are most common in places where relative wealth and stability means we don’t need to demand conformity from our neighbors?

    From a Darwinian perspective, it would be hard to explain such widespread belief in god without identifying something adaptive in it. I suspect that in the absence of some compelling world view promoting social integration and justifying patient sacrifice on behalf of the larger community, people under stress might well act in more antisocial ways. Thus I care about analyses of “god” understood as “compelling narrative promoting social integration.”

    3. Similarly, I care about “god” understood as “that which an individual values and pursues.” I find this an especially useful definition when discussing things with theists.

    Imagine two people, Bob and Joe. Bob pursues his own welfare as he best sees it. Regarding any matter where his own welfare is not affected, he promotes the welfare of his wife. Regarding any matter where neither his wife’s welfare nor his own is affected, he promotes the welfare of his kids. Then his extended family, his friends, his community, his country, his species, etc.

    Joe acts analogously to Bob. But in addition, in any matter in which nothing affects anything Joe cares about even remotely, Joe will follow the dictates of the Bible as he understands them, including professing faith in god.

    Since Bob and Joe will behave identically under damn near any circumstance, what significance would we attach to the fact that Joe believes in god? (Indeed, whether Bob or Joe will choose to even profess a belief in god would almost certainly be driven by some understanding of self-interest rather than a sincere statement of self-revelation.) While the Bible says that no man can serve the demands of two masters, in practice we are all – theists and atheists – pulled by demands on all sides. In this sense, there is vanishingly little difference between the social behavior of theists and atheists under most circumstances, and we really shouldn’t expect otherwise.

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  10. nobody.really8/30/07, 5:36 PM

    JFE: “And yet somehow I'm supposed to take that lying down?”

    Barefoot Bum: “At what point does the sufficiency of evidence allow you to call someone with whom you disagree mistaken, stupid, deluded or fraudulent?”

    Ah. I may be getting the picture here.

    At the risk of going off-topic and offering unsolicited advice, let me go off-topic and offer some unsolicited advice:

    When I hear people saying that they’re “not going to take that lying down,” or that another person is stupid or deluded, I detect a visceral, fight-or-flight response. Someone feels attacked and is attacking in response.

    That’s fine to vent your spleen; we all do it to some extent, I guess. And venting publically can be a great way to rally like-minded people together for mutual support and political purposes.

    It does not strike me as a productive posture for philosophical discourse, however.

    If someone challenges my sincerity – and if I can transcend my defensiveness, which is no small task – it provides me with an opportunity for self-reflection. Who knows? Maybe I have something to gain through a moment of introspection. If I find no insights through examining my motives, that’s fine, too.

    I can then CHOOSE whether to challenge another person’s sincerity in return – either because I think there’s something substantive to gain from it, or tactically to illustrate how annoying or pointless it is to challenge people’s motives. Generally, however, I don’t find other people’s motives relevant to internet discussions. Typically I care about the accuracy and implications of people’s statements, not the sincerity with which they offer them. And even when I doubt someone’s sincerity, unless I can trap someone in a contradiction I typically let the issue drop. After all, if it comes to a swearing match about sincerity, you are going to be a more credible witness to your own mental state than I am. In any event, the choice how to respond is a choice – not a reflect to being attacked first.

    For similar reasons, I try not to accuse people of being stupid or deluded. By what authority do I pronounce judgments on another commentor’s intelligence or sincerity? If I’m drawing my conclusions based on the commentor’s comments, any reader is just as capable to drawing those same conclusions as I am. Rather, I try to present the evidence and analysis that seem compelling to me, and trust the reader to fill in the rest.

    Consider the recent discussions with Rhology (sp?). I thought Barefoot Bum and JFE demonstrated better command of facts and analysis than Rho and handily made their points. Initially it had some flavor of two intellectually superior writers helping a junior writer understand MESR. Sure I harbored questions about Rho’s intellectual honesty. But when BB and JFE started characterizing Rho’s arguments as stupid or disingenuous, the discussion took on the appearance of two intellectually superior writers bullying an inferior. It was beyond unnecessary; it converted the pathetic into the sympathetic.

    What benefit comes from defensiveness? From triumphalism? Even if you believe that Rho was not honestly engaging in the discussion, why not simply treat him as a student in the early, if faltering, stages of understanding MESR? Let him flail away at your arguments, and then magnanimously correct his errors. He was not the slightest threat to you, and you knew it. But by responding to Rho as a threat, you actually elevated his credibility.

    Moreover, it feeds the us-vs.-them mindset that fuels so much of fundamentalist religious dialogue. Why not treat Rho as a misguided commentor requiring instruction rather than as an enemy to be destroyed? Yes, even if he presents himself as an enemy. You’re the adults here. As Teddy Roosevelt reminds us, “Whose evolved? Whose evolved?”

    One guy’s opinion, anyway.

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  11. Ah n.r, you open up a lot of cans of worms. Pardon me if my response is short and disjointed; I'm going to to leave some of your topics unanswered at present.

    It's an open question whether the prevalence of theistic belief demonstrates that theism itself adaptive or is the expression of some other more fundamental adaptive feature. Furthermore it's an open question under what environmental circumstances theism or "ur-theism" is actually adaptive, and whether those circumstances obtain today.

    Furthermore, regardless of the adaptive story, just because some feature is adapted doesn't mean it's good.

    Simply the prevalence of a belief is not by itself a sufficient epistemic justification of the veracity of the content of that belief. (Veracity is, of course, an obvious explanatory hypothesis, but one that must be further tested.)

    It is precisely to admit the sincerity of a proponent that I call religious belief delusional; A delusion is a false belief sincerely held.

    If there is real enmity between the religious and the non-religious, I frankly blame the religious. It is not we rationalists, naturalists and secularists who are attempting by force of law to dictate the theology that is preached in church, it is the religious who are attempting to dictate the science taught in classrooms and the laws which govern our behavior; the latter with no better basis than the arbitrary cultural prejudices of millennia-dead savages.

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  12. By "irrelevant" conceptions of God, I'm referring to concepts such as Deism. Deism is vacuous in that one cannot know more about a deistic entity than one can know about the universe; because it is vacuous it is irrelevant. But scratch a soi-disant Deist, and you find a theist who is just as deluded about his unsubstantiated beliefs about God as any Christian, although he will generally have fewer such beliefs.

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  13. nobody.really:
    Don't know why, but I started out wanting to disagree with you. Didn't end up that way, though. Your nicely argued points are going in my "quotes file", and I'm looking forward to our host having a go at the "topics left unanswered".

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  14. nobody.really8/30/07, 10:33 PM

    Barefoot Bum: “Simply the prevalence of a belief is not by itself a sufficient epistemic justification of the veracity of the content of that belief. (Veracity is, of course, an obvious explanatory hypothesis, but one that must be further tested.)”

    Oh sure. Optical illusions illustrate that natural selection has programmed our brain to perceive things in ways that are accurate under the most common circumstances, but that are inaccurate under uncommon circumstances. In short, our brains are systematically programmed to see certain things “wrong.”

    Similarly, studies of “affective forecasting
    reveal that humans are perversely programmed to over-estimate the subjective consequences of both desired and feared future events. Whether we marry the person of our dreams or end up in a wheelchair, our subjective experience of life changes less than we anticipate. Researchers surmise that our minds are not designed to make us happy but to keep us moving. By exaggerating both the carrot and the stick, our minds keep us more motivated and decisive than if we made more accurate estimates about future outcomes.

    And this poses a curious challenge for atheists and agnostics: What if self-delusion is adaptive? Is it wrong to believe in god if doing so promotes health, life satisfaction, etc.?

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  15. nobody.really: I agree with your thoughts on the benefits (lack of) conferred by abusing the rhologies. Being open and up-front about being atheist, politely challenging the theists, etc etc is all good. But descending to calling the theists idiots, faith-heads etc etc (see the comments of Pharyngula for many excellent examples)? IMHO, the only benefit is the momentary sense of of pleasure (presumably) experienced by the abuser and, in terms of persuading anyone to consider changing their mind, it is positively counterproductive.

    BB points out that the adaptive nature of religion is an open question, something we have discussed in the comments of several other threads of this blog. Rather than go and find the ref's (but you could look for David Sloan Wilson) I will (with apologies to BB for not making any new point) mention that the leading evolutionary view of religion at the moment is that it is not itself an adaptation, but is an epiphemomenon of a number of traits that are/were adaptive. I could elaborate if it's a point in which you are sufficiently interested. A good book on the subject is this one; also see various by Scott Atran.

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  16. Whether James or I have "abused" Rhology really depends on your definition of "abuse". Set the bar low, and we have abused him; set it high and we have not: We've not physically harmed or threatened him, nor have we slandered him (truth is, of course, an affirmative defense against slander). To assert that we're out to "destroy" him, though, is patently ridiculous. I neither have or desire the means to destroy anyone.

    I call people stupid or deluded by the "authority" of reason. I don't think I've called Rho "stupid", though. He's patently deluded and I think he's a liar, or, more precisely, incapable of comprehending the notion of "truth" well enough to misrepresent it or even be indifferent to it. I think that's different from "stupid", but if not, too bad: my judgment stands and I think it's supported by the facts.

    In his latest comment, nobody.really seems to have accepted (at least arguendo) that theism is indeed delusional, and has shifted his argument to an evaluation of whether delusion should or should not be challenged. I'm coming around rather quickly to potentilla's view on the science, but it's worth noting that even if religion itself were directly adaptive in current circumstances, that still would not be any sort of argument for its ethical status.

    I'm not not about dispassionate philosophical dialog with theists. I don't think such dialog ever works, and I've tried it: I know most of the time it doesn't work for me. But hey, if you want take that route, I'd be happy to support you: I'll link to you, I'll post a promo or two, if you have a good topic I'll link to it, heck, I might even participate—under your rules—when the spirit moves me.

    I'm quite happy with my current level of readership, and I don't, frankly, think I'll ever break into the A-list. Even if I were to break into the A-list (or even the C-list) it'll be because people like what I write, not because I write what people like. I don't think I have any sort of obligation to write in the most "effective" way. I write what I please; if it's not optimally effective, so be it.

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  17. The position of my original post is that the bar for what constitutes "abuse" should be set higher rather than lower. I think that neither judging beliefs as delusional nor calling a person who holds such belief him- or herself stupid or delusional constitutes abuse, at least not so long as the judgment is accurate and demonstrable. To set the bar too low erodes our ability to make any sort of judgment, and I'm not anywhere near ready to go down that bullshit postmodernist path.

    One of my chief criticisms of Shermer's latest piece is that the work of none of the four authors he explicitly mentions is particularly abusive, and it is ridiculous to call Dawkins—and verging on the insane to call Dennett—in any way rhetorically objectionable. And even Harris and Hitchens are guilty of nothing more than calling religion factually mistaken and without epistemic basis as well as morally reprehensible.

    If these guys are "abusive" or counterproductive, I think we're frankly all screwed: We'll be respectfully disagreeing—without, of course, presuming to judge—as these bastards are burning us at the stake.

    You simply cannot even disagree with a position or demonstrate it's lack of epistemic basis without implying that the belief is at best delusional and at worst stupid. To discuss the issue without judgment you must declare it a matter of non-ethical opinion, as neither truth-apt nor good-apt, a trivial matter of vanilla vs. chocolate.

    Well, if that's your take of the issue, that's your take; It's not my take though. I think all religions—even non-theistic religions such as Marxism and Libertarianism—are bunk: lies and bullshit.

    And lies and bullshit piss me off.

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  18. And lies and bullshit piss me off.

    You don't say!

    Actually, I wasn't particularly meaning to criticise you specifically in my earlier comment; using Rhology as an example was not well-chosen. It's the Pharyngula echo-chamber that gets me down; too many short comments with nothing but abuse, much more abusive absuse than simply calling people stupid. (And I'm not saying that all the P commenters are like that; P often has a lot of really well-written and thoughful bits, there are just too many free-riders who never make any substantive point at all).

    I agree with you (almost) entirely about Shermer. D&D are definitely NOT abusive; H&H I would have to go back to their respective books to decide, I think I have a provisional feeling that they are more open to criticism simply because their general level of rigour and scholarship is much poorer and I get annoyed reading a book where I keep thinking "yes but" every half-sentence. ("Bordering on the insane" re the possibility of calling Dennett abusive/whatever - absolutely right. IMHO the many internet opinions about so-called New Atheism which lumps all four authors together strongly suggest that the opinionated have not actually read one or more of them. I do hope that's not the case for Shermer.)

    I definitely take your point about it being your blog, and wasn't intending to suggest you should change what you do (I think I've said that before).

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  19. And lies and bullshit piss me off.

    You don't say!


    Quite a shock, innit?

    It's the Pharyngula echo-chamber that gets me down...

    Perhaps you're right; perhaps you're being too hard on P.Z.'s readers. I don't really read the comments of popular blogs. Still P.Z. gets at least a hundred times more readers than I do; it doesn't seem fair to expect everyone to contribute only nuanced philosophical arguments to the discussion. I think it's unfair to conclude without additional evidence that mere agreement constitutes dogmatic devotion.

    I definitely take your point about it being your blog, and wasn't intending to suggest you should change what you do (I think I've said that before).

    You have said it before. I was speaking (at least in that respect) mostly towards n.r, but I was also making a related point: Even if it were completely correct that my approach wasn't optimal, that by itself would not motivate me to change. While there are results I might enjoy seeing, the point of this blog is not directly to achieve certain results, it's primarily to publish my own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and analyses.

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  20. nobody.really8/31/07, 8:48 AM

    Barefoot Bum: “You simply cannot even disagree with a position or demonstrate it's lack of epistemic basis without implying that the belief is at best delusional and at worst stupid.”

    I’m sorry to be confrontational, but I’m really curious: Are you under the impression that I agree with this position? If not, then are you under the impression that I believe that you are delusional or stupid?

    “To discuss the issue without judgment you must declare it a matter of non-ethical opinion....”

    That is certainly one reason that a person might refrain from expressing an opinion. Can we think of no others?

    1. Perhaps a person could conclude that he lacks sufficient basis to reach a judgment?

    2. Perhaps he might recognize that humans are prone to a wide range of cognitive biases wherein we attribute uncharitable interpretations to views we disagree with, and therefore refrains from reaching a judgment until circumstances require one?

    3. Perhaps he could reach a judgment but refrain from expressing it, acknowledging that his readers are in an equally strong position to reach such judgments on their own and that his pronouncements on the issue really contribute nothing?

    4. Perhaps he could reach a judgment and refrain from expressing it out of strategic concerns that such expressions distract from a discussion that is focused on something larger than the foibles of any given commentor?

    Again, just one guy’s opinion. If you think statements about effective writing are either truth-apt or good-apt, feel free to consider these thoughts. If not, hey ... I dibs chocolate!

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  21. Sigh. My brain knows the difference between "it's" and "its"; sometimes my fingers are late to the game.

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  22. Is it merely coincidence that atheism and agnosticism are most common in places where relative wealth and stability means we don’t need to demand conformity from our neighbors?

    Now that is a truly excellent question.

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  23. nobody.really: You are in no way ever expected to apologize for being confrontational here!

    Are you under the impression that I agree with this position?

    Um... I'm not sure which position you're talking about: My atheism, the epistemic basis of my atheism, or my beliefs about what certain types of criticism entail.

    If not, then are you under the impression that I believe that you are delusional or stupid?

    I have no idea. You're welcome to believe, imply or even outright call me mistaken or even deluded; I won't take offense at either label by itself. I show no mercy to bad arguments, though, and I do get bent out of shape when people call me insincere.

    1. Perhaps a person could conclude that he lacks sufficient basis to reach a judgment?

    And we're back to the earlier question: What does constitute sufficient basis to reach a judgment? I assert that if we do not have sufficient basis to come to a judgment about God, we do not have a sufficient basis to come to any conclusion about anything.

    Perhaps he could reach a judgment but refrain from expressing it, acknowledging that his readers are in an equally strong position to reach such judgments on their own and that his pronouncements on the issue really contribute nothing?

    Substitute "rational conclusion" for "judgment" and this statement is nothing more than pure epistemic relativism.

    Perhaps he could reach a judgment and refrain from expressing it out of strategic concerns that such expressions distract from a discussion that is focused on something larger than the foibles of any given commentor?

    See my comments above about the purpose of this blog. I'm not particularly interested in "strategic" concerns, nor do I believe I have any obligation to be so concerned.

    I know you're probably trying to be consistent, but I would very much prefer direct criticism of my work with declarative sentences instead of indirect aspersions couched in complicated subjunctives.

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  24. Is it merely coincidence that atheism and agnosticism are most common in places where relative wealth and stability means we don’t need to demand conformity from our neighbors?

    Now that is a truly excellent question.


    Well, whether atheism and agnosticism are in fact correlated with either relative wealth, "stability" or conformity are excellent questions. I suspect, however, they are not correlated.

    The British, for instance are at least stereotypically more "conformist" than the individualistic Americans, but non-theism seems much more prevalent in the UK. The Chinese, atheist by decree, are, relatively speaking, dirt poor. I'm not even sure that wealth and social conformity are negatively correlated.

    There might be a correlation, though. Seems like a good question to ask a sociologist, not a philosopher.

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  25. nobody.really,

    You write much that is worth thinking about. I don't think I have the time to address what you've written today, but I would like to. The short answer is: when I get frustrated I reveal my inner asshole, and no, it is nothing to be proud of and is something I continue to work long and hard at overcoming. If you'd been around at The Reform Club two years ago, you'd see that I am much improved... which gives a scary picture of how bad I was!

    BB,

    It is not we rationalists, naturalists and secularists who are attempting by force of law to dictate the theology that is preached in church...

    To be fair, I think there are many religious folk who feel, rightly or wrongly, that secular law works to stifle their free expression of faith. Perhaps it is more our duty to show them that they are wrong through calm and measured dialog.

    nobody (again):

    And this poses a curious challenge for atheists and agnostics: What if self-delusion is adaptive? Is it wrong to believe in god if doing so promotes health, life satisfaction, etc.?

    For myself, I do not feel belief in God(s) is wrong... my only wish is for atheism and agonsticism to be regarded as co-equal faiths in regards to treatment of others. I'm not interested in evangelizing beyond the scope of dialog. But I also dialog in order to challenge my reasons for believing and thinking what I do, be it about religion, politics, or what not: if my beliefs cannot withstand sustained questioning, or begin to feel tattered, then I must re-examine them openly and honestly.

    I have a nasty tendency to get pissy when I don't sense the same commitment to integrity in others. It's often counterproductive.

    You make excellent points about the adaptive features of belief, which I touched on in my dialog with Rho when I mentioned that humans are programmed to assume intentional actors behind events.

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  26. For myself, I do not feel belief in God(s) is wrong...

    I should be clearer. I believe that it is wrong in the fact-based sense. I disagree that there is a God or gods.

    However, I took "wrong" in this case to be a judgment of value -- a question of morals. In such a case, belief in God must be separated from the ethics its associated Scriptures teach. Belief in god(s) is, often now, associated with scriptures that teach what I perceive as terrible ethics. But, that does not make belief itself a morally bad thing.

    See, this is why I'm not a philosopher.

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  27. James: To be fair, I think there are many religious folk who feel, rightly or wrongly, that secular law works to stifle their free expression of faith. Perhaps it is more our duty to show them that they are wrong through calm and measured dialog.

    I don't know. Dawkins bends over backwards to be calm and measured, and he gets called a Nazi and a Stalinist.

    It's no skin off my nose if you yourself want to restrict yourself to calm and measured dialog. You're welcome to do so even here, and if you want to post something along those lines, I'll respect your preferences in my commentary.

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  28. Maybe this is a dumb question, but what exactly do you mean when you say you are "anti-pluralist"? If google is an indication, the term isn't widely used, and it seems to have a negative connotation.

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  29. rationalOne: It's not a dumb question. I wouldn't have used the term on my own account; I admit to it only in the weird context that mac-philo establishes.

    I'm "anti-pluralist" in the sense that I'm intolerant and actively opposed to falsity, lies and bullshit. There are some arguments, some ideas, that I not only wish would go away, I'm happy to actively chase away, in the realm, at least, of discourse.

    Some of the controversy about "pluralism" ties into postmodernism. The older "modernist" position is that there is One And Only One Truth, and nothing else should be tolerated. The "good" postmodernist position is that there are many different truths, but there is still falsity. The bullshit postmodernist position is that there is no truth, everything should be tolerated (except intolerance).

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  30. mac_philo here, a year and a half late.

    Let me remark on some tooth-grinding irony:

    "It's very amusing (once you get past the tooth-grinding hypocrisy) to see theists—usually the most judgmental of people—espouse this sort of judgment-free ethical relativism when it is their own ox that is gored. They can't defend their position on its merits, so they have to descend into the worst sort of postmodernism in responding to their critics."

    I am an atheist. Also, I never said or implied anything about truth or postmodernism. As it said in my original message, I was talking about pluralism in political terms, in how citizens in a democracy ought to interact.

    So unless the closing remark of your entry was a non-sequitor, this looks like exactly what I was diagnosing in my post. You are just taking someone who disagrees with you and treating them like a fool outside your flock. But the problem is, I'm a member of your congregation.

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  31. So unless the closing remark of your entry was a non-sequitor...

    More like an aside, but that particular point was definitely not directed at you personally.

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