8/12/09

Atheist Wars

More on science and religion from Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and more flogging from their critics, here and here. Funny, amid all the insults and accusations, I don't see a response to their main question--who's going to buy Richard Dawkins's soon-to-be-released book explaining the evidence for evolution? A lot of people probably (including me), but won't they be NPR-listener types who already accept evolution, instead of people trying to make up their minds? Has Dawkins driven away the people who most need to read his book, by becoming so involved in the "new atheist" war against religion? You can love The God Delusion (I do), but still think that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are asking a good question.

30 comments:

Faust said...

Well I'm sure you know more about book publishing than I do :)

I imagine that there will be metrics associated with sales of the book no? Or is that kind of market analysis difficult to come by? Just curious, it seems this is a question that could be readily answered with data on the book sales.

Jean Kazez said...

I know...I'd love to have some data. Who used to buy Dawkins's books, before he got to be so famous for TGD? Who now buys his books? How many people will buy The Greatest Show on Earth who don't already accept evolution? Somebody could study this...but who would pay for it?

Tea Logar said...

Why are M&K asking a good question? It's an empirical question, the answer is either yes or no, and M&K don't know what the right answer is. *Anyone* could have asked that question (I bet Dawkins is asking it himself), it doesn't seem like anyone has done any research to get to the right answer, and even if the answer is that thousands of people have been lost to creationism because they read some Dawkins (yeah, right), this hardly makes the case that *Dawkins*, and not *religion*, is to blame.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I don't see a response to their main question--who's going to buy Richard Dawkins's soon-to-be-released book explaining the evidence for evolution?"

It's not really a question (much less, as Tea points out, a good question); it's a rhetorical question. That's probably why you don't see a response to it - because it doesn't strike people as serious. M&K aren't asking for information (or informed opinion) on who is going to buy Dawkins's book, they are using their own question as a jumping-off point for their own "flogging" and "insults and accusations."

You think it's funny that you don't see a response. I think it's funny that you're so quick to rebuke the critics of M&K while giving M&K the benefit of the doubt.

Jean Kazez said...

It's surely a good question how "new atheists" are affecting science literacy. It can be good to ask the question, even if nobody knows the answer.

M&K have a theory about this I find interesting, plausible, and inoffensive, but I'll grant you they don't have proof.

Tea Logar said...

"It's surely a good question how "new atheists" are affecting science literacy. It can be good to ask the question, even if nobody knows the answer."

But they're NOT asking the question, and they're providing the answer DESPITE not knowing what it is.

"M&K have a theory about this I find interesting, plausible, and inoffensive, but I'll grant you they don't have proof."

Their answer may be interesting, but it's just as plausible as a myriad of other made-up answers, and it's also offensive, now that you mention it, although I really wouldn't care about that at all if it were only *true*. Like I said before, one does need EVIDENCE(if not proof) when one makes such contested, easily contradicted, and "counter-exampled" claims. I really, really, REALLY wish you would finally stop being blind to this fact.

Ophelia Benson said...

I've never said they don't have proof, because that would be silly, because proof is much too high a standard. I've said they don't have evidence or argument.

Of course it can be good to ask the question - but that's not what they did - they did yet another vituperative inaccurate piece attacking three people and a group ("the New Atheists)) they dislike by using highly inaccurate rhetorical language. There is nothing "good" about that.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I don't agree with you that they're asking a rhetorical question about Dawkins's book. I think they mean it. In fact, in a previous post I asked the very same question about Dawkins that they ask....despite being a Dawkins-lover. It is a sincere, non-hateful question! So it's not a matter of me giving them the benefit of the doubt.

It's not a rhetorical question, but it's certainly a way of getting at a bigger issue. Their main aim is not to bemoan Dawkins's shifting audience, but to worry about the alliance that's developing between science and religion-bashing. In the context of Dover, etc., there's something real there to worry about. Surely!

I really do think there's resistance in "new atheist" circles to issues of impact. People want to be able to go around being loud and proud, and can't stand the thought that they might be causing any ill effect. Even the raising of that possibility makes people furious.

Doesn't it? Am I wrong?

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean, yes, you're wrong about this particular thing. It's not the question about potential harm - it's the way they go about it. I'm perfectly willing to discuss the possibility with reasonable people who ask it in a non-tendentious way - but Mooney and Kirshenbaum aren't those people.

Jean Kazez said...

A couple of analogies occur to me.

There are big debates among animal rights folk about how to communicate with the public. Lots of organizations agree on beliefs, goals, ideals, etc., but they have different strategies. You can find lots of the moderates (the Humane Society, etc), attacking PETA for the way it communicates. The moderates will accuse PETA of alienating people, etc. etc. etc.

Now, nobody's done any studies of animal rights communication. There's no hard evidence. But the debate is legitimate. It makes everyone think more carefully about what they're doing, their impact, etc.

I think the debate about how atheists should communicate is similar.

Another analogy. On the Republican side in the last election, you had two very different communication styles--Palin's and McCain's. You'd often read editorials challenging the way Palin was such an attack dog. People would argue about how she was alienating people, etc. Again. No hard evidence, just conjecture about likely reactions.

Right now there ought to be a debate about how Obama is communicating his health care message, and whether he could do better, and avoid the outbreak of extreme stupidity that we're seeing across the US.

So I see M&K as trying to have a debate about how atheist science-supporters should communicate with the public. As I see it, those being criticized are too furious about being criticized to just calmly proceed with the debate. The personal attacks on M&K are drowning out everything else.

I will say, though, that a personal attack in the form of a very well done caricature is nothing to sneeze at. If you know what I mean.

Ophelia Benson said...

"So I see M&K as trying to have a debate about how atheist science-supporters should communicate with the public. As I see it, those being criticized are too furious about being criticized to just calmly proceed with the debate."

Well, again, that simply overlooks how much misrepresenting and blackguarding M and K have done, and it also overlooks the fact that they are not "trying to have a debate," they are trying to lay down the law. If they were trying to have a debate they would take on what their critics say and respond to it; instead they just repeat and even intensify the original misrepresenting and blackguarding.

And then there's another aspect. The animal rights movement has particular goals, as of course did the McCain campaign, as does the Obama admin with regard to health care. Atheism isn't a political movement in that sense. Atheism is epistemic more than it is political, although there is considerable overlap, especially when very political people turn up to tell atheists to moderate their discourse. Atheism isn't trying to get X elected or Bill Y passed. That's one reason many atheists don't feel we are obliged to 'shape' what we say in some way to appeal to a 'broader' or 'more mainstream' audience (those are generic quotation marks). M and K single out one item out of many possible items, and then assume that one item is the universal and exclusive goal of all atheists, and then claim they know how to attain that goal. They oversimplify everything in sight, ignore all their critics, and misrepresent everyone they dislike. It's just nonsense to say they are "trying to have a debate." To me it looks much more as if they're trying very hard to whip up hatred against atheism and atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

As to the personal issues--who's doing the misrepresenting and being ad hominem, etc., I don't see it the same way.

You seem to see them as attacking all atheists. I really don't see it that way. I think their argument is aimed at a subclass of atheists--not you (if I may say so), or Christopher Hitchens, or even Sam Harris, etc. etc. It's aimed exclusively at the confrontational atheist science educator. Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, that type of person.

There are some shared goals--getting everyone to accept evolution. All those people are working toward that end. So if one were interfering with progress, it would be fair for the others to be annoyed. That's like the debate among animal rights people.

But it's true--there are some differences where goals are concerned. I think Mooney just cares about getting people to accept scientific theories that are connected to public policy. He couldn't care less if someone believes (contrary to science) that Jesus rose from the dead and such. The others are worried about that, I think.

I don't think that M&K's dislike of a certain type of atheist should make anyone think they don't like atheists. Surely.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I think their argument is aimed at a subclass of atheists--not you (if I may say so), or Christopher Hitchens, or even Sam Harris, etc. etc. It's aimed exclusively at the confrontational atheist science educator. Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, that type of person."

But why do you think that?

Ophelia Benson said...

See, for instance, pp 97-8 of UA for instant evidence that that's a mistake. It's all about "the New Atheists," not just the Evil Three.

Jean Kazez said...

I can't look up pages because I have UA on a Kindle. But I think I'm looking at the right passage. At that point they're gathering evidence that there's this new phenomenon of confrontational atheism. They talk about all the stars of the movement. But then they cut to the chase and explain what their beef is against them, and it's about science.

"If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive." Etc.

"If the goal..." I think that IS M&K's goal. Based on Mooney's previous books and journalism, he's basically on a moral crusade. He thinks we must get people to accept climate change, etc. etc., and fast. We must not talk to people in a way that slows progress toward that goal.

Obviously, the guy's got no general beef against atheism, per se. He's an atheist, his mother's an atheist. There are lots of atheists very much like Mooney...for example, they are well represented in the book Philosophers without Gods, ed. by Louise Anthony. So at most he's got issues with "new atheism" generally as well as new atheist science educators. There's no evidence that he trying to "whip up hatred against atheism and atheists" if by that you mean all atheists.

Ophelia Benson said...

But it's not obvious that he's not complaining about or attacking atheism per se. What's Philosophers without Gods got to do with anything? I've read it, but what makes you think Mooney has? (And at least some of the essays in it are every bit as "confrontational" [loaded language again] and "combative" [ditto] as anything the other "new" atheists say.) There is evidence that he is, and they are, trying to "whip up hatred against atheism and atheists": in the way they insistently repeat the word "atheist" while making their frantic accusations of blasting and assault; the word in their rhetoric takes on all the creepy resonance of "Communist" in McCarthy's or "community organizer" in Sarah Palin's.

You seem to be blind to this. You even do it yourself - look at your own post - "flogging," "all the insults and accusations" while steadily and determinedly ignoring all their "flogging" and "insults and accusations." When they do it it's just innocent moral crusading, when we do it it's flogging.

Jean Kazez said...

My point in bringing up PWG was just the obvious one. When you talk about "atheists" you're talking about a large group with mixed attitudes. The mix is especially visible in PWG.

Then there's a subset--the new atheists. They're more organized, more confrontational, more evangelistic. They think atheism is important and want to change minds.

Then there's a subset of the new atheists--those who are openly confrontational about religion and also science educators.

So...I just see no evidence whatever they have any desire to attack the largest group, of which Mooney is of course a member. Maybe they don't like the second group. Clearly what they really care about is the third group.

I am not blind to anything, thank you very much. If I wanted to, I could spend all day and the rest of the month listing really wild and personal insults against M&K on the internet. "Flogging" is a metaphor. I'm sure you understand that. I believe it is apt.

OB said...

Sigh. Yes of course "flogging" is a metaphor - a tendentious, hostile metaphor. That's the point. All your hostile metaphors are reserved for M&K's critics, and all your charitable reading is reserved for M&K.

"I just see no evidence whatever they have any desire to attack the largest group, of which Mooney is of course a member."

In other words - atheists can be tolerated as long as they are silent about being atheists. If they have the gall to be non-silent - it's open season. The only good atheist is a silent atheist. I would agree that that's what M&K mean, but I nevertheless think that - in a culture where atheists are already widely detested - their repeated vituperative rhetoric about atheists assaulting the NCSE etc etc does work up rage at all atheists, whether they intend that or not.

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, they outright say in their book that they'd like atheists to speak--but plainly, relying on arguments to persuade people. They couldn't be more clear that what they object to is the mocking and insulting of religion, not atheism. There's a huge amount of space between being silent and being confrontational.

As for my hostility. I think not, but I have to say I'm shocked by what I read on the internet. I think I've described things quite accurately. One of your commenters linked to this post a while back--

http://scienceblogs.com/erv/2009/08/erv_on_ig.php

Note how "erv" calls them "Mooneytits and Cockenbaum".

Should I describe this guy as a fair and balanced critic?? Or should I say he's flogging them?

But he name-calling is the least of it. It's all the straw-manning that amazes me. Why bash these guys for saying atheists should be quiet when they very plainly never said it?

Honestly, I'm baffled.

Ophelia Benson said...

Where in their book do they say that they'd like atheists to speak plainly, relying on arguments to persuade people? I don't see anything that even resembles that description. What I see is (on p 97 of the book, the bit you were looking at yesterday, I think) an enumeration of what they call '"New Atheist" voices,' to wit Harris Dawkins Hitchens Dennett, concluding

"the broad tenor of the movement they've impelled is clear: It is confrontational. It believes religious faith should not be benignly tolerated but, rather, should be countered, exposed, and intellectually devastated."

Note the loaded language (confrontational, benignly, devastated). Then in the next paragraph they move into the really loaded language. Do tell me where they "outright say that they'd like atheists to speak--but plainly, relying on arguments to persuade people" because I would be very interested to see it. (You have it on kindle so page numbers are different - but you could give chapter and rough estimate of fraction perhaps - quarter, half, whatever.) I see the precise opposite of that - argument treated as inherently impertinent and objectionable - as non-benign and intolerant. Even if they say something different somewhere else (and I don't think they do) - with pp 97-8 in the book it's absurd to say that "They couldn't be more clear that what they object to is the mocking and insulting of religion, not atheism. There's a huge amount of space between being silent and being confrontational." If that really is what they mean they could be vastly more clear.

And then the articles they've written recently are also part of the picture, and are much of what their critics have been responding to. I don't agree that the burden of what they have been saying and saying and saying is not "atheists should be quiet."

("ERV" by the way is a woman.)

Jean Kazez said...

Where they outright say they'd like atheists to speak, but plainly, relying on arguments--

Footnote 105, on Dawkins:

"Dawkins's wit is devastating, and his arguments powerful as well, but that's precisely the point: Why then does he need to express them with such condescension?
We want to emphasize that New Atheists enjoy freedom of speech. No one is asking them to be quiet. However, we have every right to point out the consequences of the divisiveness they are fueling over religion.
What's more, we have every right to ask this question: Why is it necessary that the intellectual case for atheism be made without moderation, conciliation, or humility? If atheism has compelling arguments behind it (as we believe it does) then atheists ought to be the first to reach out to religious believers on their own terms, seeking to create the types of dialogue that might convince some of them to reconsider what they've long held as true."

Make your case, I think they're saying, but with "moderation, conciliation, and humility." That's very different from saying "be quiet."

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean...come on. An endnote! You said "they outright say in their book that they'd like atheists to speak--but plainly, relying on arguments to persuade people. They couldn't be more clear that what they object to is the mocking and insulting of religion, not atheism" - then you point to an endnote! When all the endnotes are unmarked. Come on. Your idea of "say outright" and "couldn't be more clear" is an unmarked endnote?!

If that view of the matter were really central to their claim - if they couldn't be more clear about it - it would be in the main body of the text, not in an unmarked endnote.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think where it's written matters, because we are asking what these people really think about atheism. The endnote does let you know. You said you think they want atheists to be quiet. Well, now we know they don't.

A great deal of this book is in the endnotes. They explain at their blog that their editor advised them do write that way. I think that's a flaw, but it makes it especially important not to ignore the endnotes.

In any event, they do expand here, and elsewhere--

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/06/28/the-censorship-canard-again/

"The intellectual case for atheism should be made publicly and often."

You just can't seriously think they want atheists to be quiet, if you've read their book and blog.

Anyhow--Michael Ruse. Yeah, he probably does want atheists to shut up. You'll be happy to know I won't be joining his defense team.

windy said...

Note how "erv" calls them "Mooneytits and Cockenbaum".

Should I describe this guy as a fair and balanced critic?? Or should I say he's flogging them?

As Ophelia pointed out, erv is a female student, she writes about everything with the same outrageous style, the "-tits" thing is a running joke on her blog, and she's currently very disappointed in Mooney after trying to engage him in dialogue about science communication for three years. In a previous thread I linked to a post that explains how this situation came about, in case you're interested.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...methinks there's an important distinction between saying they aren't being flogged and saying they deserve to be flogged. The flogging (I would think) is beyond dispute. So I think my choice of words is A-OK. But I'm glad this wasn't out of the clear blue sky...my hope for humanity is now slightly restored.

Jean Kazez said...

"this" meant erv's lovely epithets.

Ophelia Benson said...

"You just can't seriously think they want atheists to be quiet, if you've read their book and blog."

Of course you can - because one of their many flaws is incoherence. Another is a failure to notice incoherence. Another is a constant habit of shifting their ground. (Another is oversimplification, and another is a failure to acknowledge the implications of their own rhetoric [while energetically "flogging" other people for their rhetoric, and another is a repeated failure to engage with critics' objections to all the above.)

And you should cop to the overstatement. Saying they couldn't say it more clearly and then offering an end note is overstatement.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't subscribe to the theory that things said very clearly in notes and blogs are not absolutely clear. Sure, if they'd want to make a big point of supporting vocal atheism, they would have put that in the body of the book. But that's a matter of emphasis, not clarity.

Ophelia Benson said...

Oh that theory - well neither do I. But I don't think I need to. Perhaps I misunderstood you - but if so, frankly, I think it's because you were not clear. I took this

"Actually, they outright say in their book that they'd like atheists to speak--but plainly, relying on arguments to persuade people. They couldn't be more clear that what they object to is the mocking and insulting of religion, not atheism. There's a huge amount of space between being silent and being confrontational."

to mean what (I think) it appears to mean - that that claim is a part of their main argument and is right out there in plain view, such that it is careless and unfair of their critics to overlook it. That's what I took "They couldn't be more clear" to mean - and I think that's a reasonable way to read it. I think you are now moving the goalposts, which is something you do surprisingly often. You apparently don't want to admit that you overstated M&K's clarity - so instead you attribute a silly "theory" to me and then brush it aside. I don't think that's fair arguing.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not sure why you're trying to put a sentence of mine under the microscope. It just doesn't really matter if I may have slightly exaggerated their clarity. I don't really think I did, but...really, who cares?

To my mind the serious issues have been covered thoroughly. It's obviously not going to fly for you to try to end this discussion with some sort of evisceration of my debate skills.