8/25/09

Tis the Season?


There was this column about the ontological argument at the NYT yesterday (with the above illustration), and a mammoth column about religion and science on Sunday. Robert Wright says (A) religious folk should accept that there's no need whatever for God-talk within science. But (B) atheists should recognize that it's perfectly coherent to supplement a scientific view of the cosmos with religious ideas. He doesn't say we must, scientifically or logically, but just that believers may. It's not antithetical to science and reason. Basically, Wright is taking a lot of land away from religion, while asking atheists for a cease fire, in return. Next job for him: middle east negotiator.

78 comments:

Alex Chernavsky said...

Biologist H. Allen Orr has a really interesting article about science and religion:

http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/orr.html

It's ostensibly a book review, but the article can stand on its own.

Long, but worth reading, I think.

amos said...

Tis the season or is the NYT pushing a certain point of view about religion, following a trend or trying to set one?

Faust said...

That's a pretty interesting take on NOMA, thanks for the link.

I'm doing 100 things at once these days so no extended commenting for me. I will say in passing that "taking territory away from religion" is not really a concern(assuming one is at all concerned with shifting theologies which one might not be) in my view as long as it's done with historical grounding of some kind--a nod to the tradition. Isn't that what MJ does with his "idolatry critique?" Except he grounds it in a kind of theology. Of COURSE there will be lots of religious people who don't like MJs approach (outrageous I tell you!). But that's a foregone conclusion anyway. I've met "christians" who don't think that "catholics" are "christians."

Jean Kazez said...

Does the NYT like Wright's "reconciliation" approach? Is that why he got so many acres of the opinion page? Don't know...maybe.

Will look at link--thanks for it.

I'm getting busy too--kids now in school, semester beginning, work to do. I'll have to go a bit "lite" on the blogging front.

amos said...

Thanks for the link. Intelligent article.

ben nelson said...

Sure, but coherence isn't the same as plausibility, connected as it is with regulative virtues in scientific thinking like an austere attitude toward theory (as in Occam's Razor). And while there is no deep empirical justification for endorsing austerity, it turns out that it works. So, for instance, Ptolemaic astronomy was far more complex, and empirically responsible, than the mere austere Copernican astronomy -- but the Copernican picture was, as it turns out, correct.

But suppose that we accept the above conclusions. What do you do, socially -- what is your approach to the public relations problem? Post-Duhem, we find that there are two broad approaches to PR. There are the Galileans, who outright say that we know that there is a heliocentric universe, and there are the Scholastics, who preferred to say that the above is merely a probabilistic statement, or it is a model that is admittedly more austere and even to some degree recommended by the evolving scientific story, but nevertheless we can anticipate revisions because the evidence is limited. Coyne can be viewed as a Galilean in this sense, and Wright a Scholastic.

...Just sayin'.

Jean Kazez said...

Wright's mediation of this dispute is rather subtle. I don't read him as siding with theists, in the sense of saying God is necessary in order to explain something.

Rather, he's saying the believer has the option of retaining belief. That's not excluded by science. I suppose, given all he says, God winds up being one more entity than needed to explain the phenomena, but there are worse sins than violating Occam's razor. In fact, the truth sometimes does violate Occam's razor.

Bottom line--on his story atheists are seen as reasonable for going on being atheists. Theists (of a certain modest stripe) are seen as reasonable for going on being theists. At the very least, this is an attractive vision.

ben nelson said...

Right, but the analogy isn't about whose side you're on as much as it's about the rhetorical impact of your epistemic outlook.

When you look at the people I dubbed 'the scholastics' above, with their probabilisms and fictionalisms, you'll find that they're rather subtle themselves. And they give you the option for saying, "Yes, but the process of science being what it is, I nevertheless have faith in a geocentric universe" -- it is still consistent with those epistemologies. Moreover, one can be quite serious in arguing that they were right to insist upon those epistemologies. At the very least, such epistemologies are technically as consistent with the evidence as their Galilean competitor.

But unlike the Galileans, they disown drawing any practical inferences from the evidence. The Scholastics only let you draw out suggestive or probabilistic implications, and these of course wear their defeasibility on their sleeve. So while they provided a consistent explanation, they were "right" only in the same sense that it's currently "right" to call conflict in the middle east urban renewal.

Would the world have come to accept heliocentrism if the sophist Galileans had abandoned their rhetoric and popular treatises for the private appreciation of the subtle Scholastics? I don't know, but I'd be lying if I didn't say 'not likely'.

Jean Kazez said...

Hanging onto geocentrism got in the way of scientific progress, while I don't think the religious element Wright is talking about does that. It is a religious story that complements science, but does not guide it or interfere with it. Also, he is not saying the religious story must be accepted by anyone, but merely that it's not antithetical to science. So the sort of respect he's paying to theism is very, very weak, and not much like the respect that was once paid to geocentrism.

Tom said...

I confess to being late to the party and even so to not always paying as much attention as I should. But can someone remind me why it is important to pay at most "very, very weak" respect to theism, even when such theism does nothing to obstruct science? I'd have thought that the fact that so many important philosophers have been theists might get us at least something of a bone thrown our way. And even if you write off the important philosophers of the past, the fact that contemporary theists include such luminaries as Putnam, Van Fraassen, Plantinga, Alston, Adams (both Robert and Marilyn), Wolterstorff, van Inwagen, and Audi might seem to suggest that theists deserve at least a modicum of intellectual respect. (I have little doubt that Jean will grant that--um, right Jean?-- but many others seem considerably more hostile than she.) So just what is our sin that makes us very hard to respect?

Faust said...

Putnam? Hilary Putnam is a theist? Or is this another Putnam?

Matti K. said...

"But (B) atheists should recognize that it's perfectly coherent to supplement a scientific view of the cosmos with religious ideas.

If an rational atheist truly thinks that there is no coherence between science and certain aspects of religious faith, how could such a recognition be honest?

Of course, in some never-never-land atheists and theists can make an agreement that the (sensitive? offensive?) question of incompatibility of religion and science is not openly discussed, but that is quite another matter, isn't it?

Tom said...

Faust,

Yes, Hilary Putnam. You can hear him discuss religion and its relationship with philosophy and science in a radio interview (Plantinga is also interviewed) here (apparently it was recorded in 2000):

http://radioapologia.com/archives/The_God_Problem_Hilary_Putnam_and_Alvin_Plantiaga_discuss_Gods_existence.mp3

The radio show has an agenda to be sure, but the discussion is very interesting (or so it seems to me).

Tom

Jean Kazez said...

Tom,

I really didn't say it was important to pay "very, very weak" respect to theism, as if any more would be a bad idea. I just said that Wright does pay only very, very weak respect to theism, and so another commenter's complaints about Wright's excessive respect made no sense to me.

Actually, "respect" was just a metaphor. Wright's column is obviously not really about respect. I take it he's trying to pull off a "truce". He's giving something to religion, but also taking away something.

But I do see what you're saying--many "new atheists" think that any respect for theism and theists is too much respect. Or at least they write about theism with enormous contempt.

I think that's not just misguided (because of all the good, smart theists), but self-defeating. Atheists aren't going to get the increased respect they desire (and they do!) while treating believers like they were idiots.

Faust said...

Tom: Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

Jean: I read it again. It actually reads pretty standard: he's saying a deist God is perfectly compatible with science. That's a pretty uncontested claim. I'm pretty sure I've seen Coyne cop to that one, and Myers too.

Still that's quite a bit of territory to take away from a full theist perspective. He talks about a "more evolved religion." But even a Ken Miller is talking about a more evolved theology in my view. Older theologies didn't have to contend with evolution..now they do: if they want entry into respected intellectual discourse.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, but there's some interesting extra stuff in there--

(1) Ideas about how morality is explainable without religion

(2) Ideas about how "purpose" talk is not alien to science, so theists aren't "anti-scientific" when they engage in it

(3) Notion of a reconciliation as being achievable if everyone agrees that God is a coherent option (pleasing to theists), but not necessary to explain natural events (pleasing to atheists).

But yes--the basic deist line, with God using evolution as a way to get to foreseen conclusions, isn't wildly new. In fact, my own students would suggest that, back when I used to teach "intro."

Fuast said...

Yeah I think that's a good sum up. I'm particuarly interested in the funny stuff around 2) though I'm not sure it does quite the work the theist needs it to do. I guess that's my point. If Wright is really saying "Diesm is a-OK!" then theism isn't really what he's defending.

Tom said...

Hi Jean,

Yeah, you're right; I read you uncharitably (although you were to charitable to put it that way). Sorry about that.

But I do get the sense that the New Atheism movement is growing and that it is part of the creed that religious belief (and believers) are not worthy of intellectual respect. Do you think I'm wrong about that?

If I am right, then I don't really get why that's the case. I mean, there are whole bunch of philosophical views that I find pretty bizarre and that I see no good reason to believe but that are nonetheless held by philosophers I recognize are very able (and in some cases absolutely brilliant). But it wouldn't occur to me to think that these views (much less the people who hold them) do not deserve my intellectual respect just because they seem bizarre to me. And I don't think I'm unusually saintly in this regard. Yet if the view is theism, lots of folks who otherwise respect a wide range of philosophical theses suddenly draw the line. Why is that?

For the record, I'm not accusing anyone here of this, and I'm not claiming to be an oppressed minority. I'm just trying to figure out why some people hate on folks like me. ;)

Jean Kazez said...

Tom, I've been pondering "the new atheism" for several years. At first I would have said that these folks are asking to be respected and heard, but not deliberately being disrespectful. Over the years, and especially based on reading atheist blogs, I've changed my mind. Perhaps they would say that it's just religious ideas they disrespect, but then, they also insult people who have those ideas, and call them names. It doesn't matter if they have very liberal religious ideas. In fact, I think there's a special place in new atheist hell for people like that. (What I say is just factual, so I hope nobody's going to come along and pretend things are otherwise.) I find this whole phenomenon quite fascinating. Honestly, that's one of the reasons I pay attention to this stuff. There is a level of nastiness and aggression to "the new atheism" (especially on the internet) that I'm working on understanding...and so far just don't.

Matti K. said...

Clearly, no one respects all kinds of irrational belief.

Now, facing many irrational beliefs, how do you decide which of them, if any, should be respected?

Has it something to do with the number of people who have the same irrational belief? Or the rank of these people? Or how long these beliefs have been around?

Faust said...

Does ANYONE "respect a belief?" Doesn't some of this boil down to mere figures of speech?

Don't we REALLY mean "respect someones right to hold" or "respect someone's right to talk about" this or that belief? If I want to start up a march promoting the abortion of fetuses (or the reverse) there will be a large group of people who don't respect my view. But they will respect my right to SPEAK it if they believe in the first amendment.

Are we just running these things together? The "respecting right to hold a belief" and the "respecting a belief?"

I don't find it plausible that people respect beliefs. I think that people find some beliefs more or less justified relative to some set of criteria of justification. But I don't think that people actually respect the beliefs themselves. Beliefs always are tied to people, and networks of justification, and traditions, and cultural forms. Beliefs don't just sit around like furniture.

People who have "irrational," "poorly justified," and otherwise "illegitimate" beliefs will be viewed as "crazy," "stupid," "ignorant," or "misguided" because they have failed to follow "proper (rational)thinking practices" in the development of their views. They thereby become the bad guys. And then they (the people that failed to perform the correct moves) get disrespected directly for their bad practices. It's not the "beliefs" being respected or disrespected. Nobody cares about beliefs. It's how they fit into the social game. Who they move to act and in what ways, not to mention how they were arrived at.

Faust said...

By the way Ben, I think I like your essay, but so far I've only had a chance to skim it! I'll take a closer look later.

Jean Kazez said...

Right, respect in this context is primarily toward persons, not the beliefs themselves. But maybe it's not nonsense to talk about treating a belief respectfully.

That would mean: being careful to identify its content accurately, being careful to understand what supports it, getting clear about how central it is for the people who hold it, understanding what role it plays, etc.

If you do all of that, you may still disagree, but may not have to "disconnect" from the believer and see him/her as an alien or a dolt. Which is (surely) good.

Tom said...

(This is long and dashed off, but I have to get back to work so I don't have time to fix it properly. Sorry for whatever typos/grammatical glitches occur below.)

Regarding "respecting belief" v."respecting persons": What I said was probably clumsy, but there is a point in there somewhere that I'd want to stand by. Let me try to explain.

It seems to me that there is a relevant, three-fold distinction here. I'll give examples to show what I mean.

Group I: I think that simple act utilitarianism is a terrible moral theory. Counterexamples abound and I can't really figure out why anyone would accept it. Nevertheless, it has a rich philosophical tradition and is held by a number of very smart people. So not only do I continue to have general intellectual respect for many who hold it, but I wouldn't even want to say that it is irrationally held by those smart utilitarians I know (well, the one I know). So in my earlier lingo, I have respect both for (many of) the people who hold it and for the belief itself--that is, I don't think utilitarians are necessarily being locally irrational in believing as they do.

Group II: Compare that case to another. I think that, generally speaking, it is irrational to believe that the universe was created in six twenty-four hour days roughly six thousand years ago and that apparently-old fossils are planted by God to make the universe appear older than it is. But I know people who believe these things and some of them I know to be bright and generally well educated. Talk to them about almost anything else and they make sense. But they have some kind of blind spot on this whole creation issue. So some of these people I have a fair amount of intellectual respect for generally, but I think their particular beliefs about creation aren't rational. So, I have intellectual respect for the person, but I don't for the belief.

Group III: Finally, there are people who, regardless of the subject, hold very strong opinions for very bad reasons. They don't look for evidence, when they stumble upon some they don't calmly reflect on it, and they don't consider contrary views worth their time. (Recently, these folks have been congregating at microphones at town hall meetings.) I lack intellectual respect for both the person and in beliefs in these cases.

Now it seems to me that many New Atheists think of theism/theists as a class in the way I think of the claim that Obama isn't a US citizen/birthers. And not only do I find this personally offensive, but I think it is also pretty indefensible. What separates people in the third group from those in the second is that those in the latter category, in most or maybe even all other areas, think rationally. Now it seems to me that there are lots and lots of theists who clearly think rationally at least in most other areas, and that even a New Atheist would have to grant that.

I bet there are even some atheists who would put some theists in category one, but maybe that's just wishful thinking.

Jean Kazez said...

I think this is all very interesting--the general question is "when can people respectfully disagree"? There was even a conference about such things recently--

http://ethics-etc.com/2009/08/05/workshop-on-disagreement-at-copenhagen/

The interesting thing is your category #1. In those cases, I think the feeling is--this person is so smart that I could just be missing something or too weak-kneed about counterintuitive implications, or some such.

In category #2 you don't feel so humble--instead, you think the other person is blind to something, but otherwise smart and admirable.

In category #3, you think they're blind plus blameworthy for it plus otherwise nuts. As in the birthers.

OK--I think I got it. Now I'll have to have a moment of honest reflection about where I put various religious outlooks. Of course, you're also going to have to say where you put atheists!

amos said...

Tom: I don't want to generalize about all the new atheists, because surely, they have all kinds of motives, but some people need to feel superior to others, to mock others, and religion is an easy target to mock, especially in its stereotyped fundamentalist version. What's more, since the new atheists claim to be oppressed by theists, those new atheists who enjoy mocking atheists can rationalize their mockery with the pretext that they are oppressed people struggling against a vile oppressor. As you surely know, moral righteousness, a just cause justifies (for some people) worse atrocities than mocking theists.

amos said...

That should read "those new atheists who enjoy mocking theists", not "atheists". Sorry.

Tom said...

Jean--Let's see. I can think of atheists for each of my categories. I do understand why some smart, reasonable people rationally come to the conclusion that God doesn't exist. I also know atheists who I generally think are smart and knowledgeable but who have such an obvious chip on their shoulders where God is concerned, that I find myself concluding that their atheism is not grounded in a rational reflection on the evidence. Finally, just like there are stupid theists, there are stupid atheists, so category three isn't empty where atheists are concerned.

And, yes, Jean, I put you in category one. :)

Tom said...

Amos--Yes, this is not a one-category-fits all deal. And I also agree that there are much worse effects of self-righteous than Bill-Maher-style mockery and incivility. But still isn't that to be avoided?

Ophelia Benson said...

I don't want to generalize about all the new atheists, because surely, they have all kinds of motives, but some people need to dominate and exploit and torture others, and religion is an easy target, especially in its stereotyped fundamentalist version. What's more, since the new atheists claim to be oppressed by theists, those new atheists who enjoy dominating and exploiting and torturing theists can rationalize their domination and exploitation and torture with the pretext that they are oppressed people struggling against a vile oppressor. There are some people like that, so (wink wink nudge nudge) let's just assume that's what the new atheists are like, shall we?

By the way, I wouldn't want to generalize about all the new atheists, but I saw a new atheist kill and eat a baby the other day. What is it with the new atheists? Does anyone know?

amos said...

Tom: I don't know who Bill Maher is, but I agree with you that one should not mock others, that even when the views of others are distasteful, it would be better to try to understand why others have such views than to mock them. However, as every child learns in kindergarten, man is a mocking animal: he or she mocks the weak, the heretic, whoever is different or has a perceived defect. When the mocker feels morally justfied in his or her mocking, given that he or she feels that he or she is acting in a good cause, gimme shelter, as the song says.

OB said...

"He or she mocks the weak, the heretic, whoever is different or has a perceived defect."

Uh oh! Bit of a slip there - it's not "the new atheists" who mock heretics. Quick, better fix it! Somebody might think you're pointing the finger at someone other than (hissing) the new atheists.

amos said...

Not only do they eat babies, Ophelia, but my website shows that the new atheists killed Michael Jackson, because he was onto them and I have a list of 157 card carrying new atheists in the liberal media. Who was Bernard Madoff? A card carrying new atheist and an agent of Mossad.

amos said...

Gee, didn't Jean title a post
"Mooney's Apostasy"? I imagine that one can be a heretic or an apostate in atheist circles as well as theist circles.

amos said...

the etymology of the word
"heresy"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heresy

OB said...

Yes, amos, of course Jean titled a post 'Mooney's Apostasy,' precisely in order to make the claim that atheists were irritated by Mooney because he was an apostate and a heretic, but in my view that claim is incorrect, as I think I mentioned at the time.

There's a lot of "new atheist" smearing going on here with a remarkable absence of actual examples of all this putative "new atheist" wickedness. I'm sure I'm at the top of your list of evil atheist mockers of believers but at least when I mock people or their claims I'm mocking something specific, with quotations. Here it's all just wild accusation with no specificity - which is a good way to demonize a whole group of people without the trouble of finding real reasons.

amos said...

Ophelia: Sorry, but you're not on the top of my list of evil atheist mockers. In the mocking Olympics, you don't even win a bronze medal: you're too self-aware to mock with true schoolyard vigor, too self-correcting to totally immerse yourself in the joys of mocking. However, if you read my original post carefully, you'll see that far from "demonizing a whole group of people", as you affirm, I state that one should not generalize about the motives of the new atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

From a discussion of Karen Armstrong at B&W in the last couple of days. This is Russell Blackford--

"Actually, Jake, she does deserve our mockery for her pathetic attempts to salvage something valuable from the unhappy wreck of religion. She'd be better off abandoning the whole thing."

A commenter at Russell Blackford's blog--

"Christianity is an invention of sick brains."

Jerry Coyne, recently, making Robert Wright out to be somehow a flawed person, because he disagrees with his op ed--

"Wright is a cagey man. He ends his op-ed piece with some furious pirouetting"

PZ Myer's dismissal of Wright--

"Jerry Coyne has addressed the same silly op-ed at much greater length. It really is wrong all the way through, but as Coyne suggests, maybe Wright is just taking a practical approach to winning that lucrative Templeton prize."

A word for creationists that at least commenters use at Pharyngula:

"Creotards"

PZ Myers addressing Catholics:

"Don't confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god."

etc. Isn't all that insulting, mocking...and clearly not respectful?

OB said...

I know you said that, amos, and I included that in my sarcastic adaptation. But it looks to me like the kind of disclaimer one does before getting down to the backbiting.

The whole thread is generalization - and given that it is utterly conventional wisdom, repeated daily, nay hourly, in opinion pieces and on blogs, that thenewatheistsaremean, I think all this generalization functions to join in the smearing of thenewatheists without even taking the trouble to offer any particulars.

There is a very determined campaign to get thenewatheists to stop talking in public, and it's carried on precisely by blanket accusations of mockery etc etc etc. Of course that does not necessarily mean that thenewatheists don't engage in mockery - but I think reasonable people should be somewhat suspicious of the kind of mobbing that is going on.

Then again - the more mobbing there is, the more bloody-minded thenewatheists get about refusing to self-censor, so I should probably just shrug and welcome all the mobbing. But the relentless drone gets on my nerves.

amos said...

Ophelia: I'm not part of any campaign to stop the new atheists from talking in public.
I read your posts in B & W with great pleasure, and my day would be poorer without your online presence, which does not signify that I agree with your posts. As to mobbing, I'm not a member of Jean's mob nor is she a member of mine. In rough terms, I divide the world into grade school, high school and the university. I don't know many people in grade school, although probably the majority of adults never mature beyond the age of grade school. High school is the age of mobbing: people form cliques and clubs, gangs, mobs. Most of the people whom I know never mature beyond the age of high school. A few people are eternal university students, myself included: they are on their own, take their cue not from the clique or club, but from so-called higher ideas or from a criticism of higher ideas or from a criticism of a criticism of higher ideas. There even may be a few post-graduate folk wandering around.

Jean Kazez said...

If we may have a "recap" here--

I'm not starting a campaign. I was just answering a question from Tom, a friend of mine from graduate school. The answer is--I didn't see "the new atheists" as disrespectful at first, but they've come to seem more so lately, especially on the internet. I've spent more time at "new atheist" blogs recently than ever before, and I've been frankly surprised at what I've seen. It's a jungle out there, not at all a philosophy seminar room. Maybe it's partly just the internet which tends to be jungly everywhere.

Jean Kazez said...

Getting back to Tom's 3 groups (4:26)...(briefly)

I have respect "in practice" for believers in so far as I am a member of a religious congregation. If you sit together with folks and do the same things as they do, that's respectful on a basic level.

But you're really talking about intellectual respect--what you feel when a speaker comes and you feel impressed, even if you might totally disagree.

Definitely, some believers make it into groups 1 and 2 for me. I'm fuzzy on the difference, so reluctant to commit...but I've certainly felt the highest regard for believers while at the same time thinking "how can you believe that?"

To wit--that talk you gave at SMU about bodily resurrection way back when. It was awfully interesting and subtle, but I confess I did think "how can you believe that?" But philosophy is full of that kind of thing--in fact, philosophers have a love of paradox. What's more fun than a seemingly great argument for something you can't make yourself believe?

Time for work....

amos said...

For example, I respect Father Copleston, the Jesuit philosopher, who debated Bertrand Russell for the subtlety of his arguments and his intelligence. I don't respect the most brillant of the neo-cons, who were undoubtedly very intelligent and good at debating too.
The reason is that I don't see religion, at least in the form presented by Copleston, as being nefarious while I do see the neo-cons as being nefarious. Or rather while I see the negative side (opposition to birth control, abortion, etc.) of Copleston's Catholicism, there are also positive aspects in my opinion. Now, the new atheists in general see religion as being as nefarious or more nefarious than the neo-cons.

amos said...

That is, for me all religions, including liberal religions and Buddhism, are false or mistaken, but not necessarily ethically wrong. For some new atheists, all religions are not only false, but also ethically wrong. For the record, there are religions which I consider to be ethically wrong.

Faust said...

I like Tom's 3 categories. They seem helpful. But I think they merely emphasize the points I wanted to make about respecting/disrespecting beliefs in themselves.

Lets look at #1, where we have people holding "odd" but "still respectable" beliefs. Why are those beliefs respectable?

Reason #1 and #2:

"It [the oodd belief of act utilitarianism] has a rich philosophical tradition and is held by a number of very smart people."

The reasons listed here are "tradition" and "community of smart people."

Tom continues:

"So not only do I continue to have general intellectual respect for many who hold it, but I wouldn't even want to say that it is irrationally held by those smart utilitarians I know (well, the one I know)."

In other words, because act utilitarianism has a tradition behind it and because that tradition has many smart members, there is a disisentive to think of it as "irrational."

Continuing:

"So in my earlier lingo, I have respect both for (many of) the people who hold it and for the belief itself--that is, I don't think utilitarians are necessarily being logically irrational in believing as they do."

Here comes the move to "respecting the belief itself." Based on the argument so far belief is respectable because: 1. The belief comes from an established ("rich philosophical") tradition and 2. non-trivial numbers of "intelligent people" subscribe to it.

So far I don't think any of this moves beyond my assertion above, namely, that beliefs are always tied to people, and networks of justification, and traditions, and cultural forms. It's how those beliefs fit into a social game and as it happens, act utilitarianism has won a place at the table because it has developed a sufficient number of adherents capable of making the correct moves for a long enough period of time that it has (for now!) become a "respectable set of views."

As we move down the list things get interesting. In number 2 we have someone who believes "something irrational" but "talk to them about almost anything else and they make sense." So while this individual makes MOST of the right moves MOST of the time, in this one area they have a "blind spot" and they hold a view that presumably does not have a "rich philosophical tradition" or more generally "no tradition that has a critical mass of smart people."

Finally in #3 we have people who have bad practices across the board: they

"hold very strong opinions for very bad reasons. They don't look for evidence, when they stumble upon some they don't calmly reflect on it, and they don't consider contrary views worth their time...I lack intellectual respect for both the person and in beliefs in these cases."

In other words: they don't make the right moves, and bad moves produce bad unrespectable beliefs.

I want to emphsize that none of the above gets beyond the things I mentioned:

Tradition, cultural forms, practices (making the right moves), particularly practices involving justification to a community. A belief gets "respect" when it gets arrived at "in the right way." Behind "respect for a belief" is a respect for a way of behaving, or thinking. I want to suggest that this is mostly, if not entirely, about having particular kinds of values.

amos said...

For me, there's an ethical dimension to respecting a belief.
The belief that healthcare is a good or service that should be traded on the market according to individual purchasing power has a long tradition and is held by a lot of smart people, but I don't respect the belief nor those who hold it.

Tom said...

Faust: Right. My take on the dialectic is this: I vaguely alluded to a distinction between respecting a person and respecting a belief in an earlier post. You responded by saying that you didn't think there was such a thing as respecting a belief, as though it were disconnected from the person who had it. I responded, essentially, by agreeing that respecting beliefs might not be the right way to put what I had had in mind, and then explaining more the thought behind my clumsy choice of words.

So my view is that there isn't a disagreement here; I didn't intend to defend the idea that there are disembodied beliefs worthy of respect.

Tom said...

OB,

Looking over this now rather long thread, I don't see much in the way of New Atheist bashing--or "mobbing"--here. How many of the 40+ comments do you read that in? Much less have I heard anyone suggest they stop talking.

As far as examples go, Jean has provided some. But I thought that the relationship between "hostility" and "New Atheist" was along the lines of that between "male" and "bachelor." I'm not trying to be either insulting or a smart ass. I literally thought the phrase meant something like "outspoken atheist who is openly hostile to religion." Given that definition do really need to trot out examples from the writings of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et. al. before we can claim they are hostile to religion? Doesn't everybody already know this?

Matti K. said...

So: "new atheist" = "outspoken atheist who is openly hostile to religion."

Could this kind of "hostility" be compared with the "hostility" mainstream doctors feel towards homeopathy and other woo? The doctors recognize that at best, woo has a sligth positive placebo effect, at worst they cause needless suffering and premature deaths. Speaking out this way certainly irritates those believing in woo, but should doctors therefore keep their tone down? I don't think so.

Moreover, I don't think woo should be discussed only in the "philosophy seminar room".

Jean Kazez said...

Hopefully we'll hear from Ophelia, but in the meantime....

I think what "the new atheists" have in common is the view that it's important to challenge religion. So the irrationality and dangerousness of religion is a major theme with them. Also, they tend to see themselves as an interest group, where atheists of yore did not.

I don't think all of that must add up to "hostility"--not even the view that religion is irrational. You can challenge without disparaging, belittling, etc. There's a big difference between responding to Karen Armstrong's new book by calling her "pathetic" (one of my quotes above) and just challenging what she has to say.

Obviously, there's room in this world for mockery and outright bashing. I want Jon Stewart to keep on bashing and making fun of all the people he bashes and makes fun of. Bill O'Reilly is an idiot, and we just have to be allowed to say so. But Karen Armstrong is not Bill O'Reilly.

A bice example of respectfully stating disagreement is here--a review of her new book by old atheist Simon Blackburn.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/04/case-for-god-karen-armstrong

Matti K. said...

"Bill O'Reilly is an idiot, and we just have to be allowed to say so. But Karen Armstrong is not Bill O'Reilly."

Do see any possibility of personal bias here?

Jean Kazez said...

A bias is where you just non-rationally prefer something. For example, I am biased about my kids. They are smarter and better looking than all other kids. See? That's bias. My assessment of Bill O'Reilly is a "view". I can back it up. I can also back up my assessment that Karen Armstrong is not an idiot. Just because people disagree about something, it doesn't follow they're all simply biased.

Matti K. said...

Jean:

Do you mean that mockery and bashing is all right, as long as it is directed towards people who deserve it?

Is there anybody who disagrees with you?

amos said...

Matti: I don't think that mockery is ever good. It's always better to try to understand others, even if the others are one's enemies.
Mockery leads people to underestimate and stereotype their enemies, which is a sure route to defeat.

Tom said...

I'd make a distinction between hostile mocking and the sort of mocking that Jon Stewart does (although I'm not exactly sure I'd how to describe it). And I'm with Amos regarding the first type.

Matti: Naturally, I reject the doctors-are-to-quacks as new-atheists-are-to-religious-believers analogy.

Ophelia Benson said...

Tom,

"Looking over this now rather long thread, I don't see much in the way of New Atheist bashing--or "mobbing"--here. How many of the 40+ comments do you read that in? Much less have I heard anyone suggest they stop talking."

My point wasn't specifically that there was much in the way of 'New Atheist' bashing here, my point was that there is a campaign of 'New' atheist bashing which is intended to silence overt atheists, and that this thread and a slew of others that Jean has done recently fit the pattern. The suggestion that overt atheists should stop talking is not spelled out in those words, but it is implicit in the moral pressure that is applied by means of vituperative rhetoric. (As I said in the comment you're responding to - "There is a very determined campaign to get thenewatheists to stop talking in public, and it's carried on precisely by blanket accusations of mockery etc etc etc.")

"I thought that the relationship between "hostility" and "New Atheist" was along the lines of that between "male" and "bachelor." I'm not trying to be either insulting or a smart ass. I literally thought the phrase meant something like "outspoken atheist who is openly hostile to religion." Given that definition do really need to trot out examples from the writings of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et. al. before we can claim they are hostile to religion? Doesn't everybody already know this?"

Quite so - "everybody already knows this" - because it has been relentlessly drummed into them since almost the moment Dawkins's book hit the best-seller list. "Everybody already knows" that all "New" atheists are hostile to religion and furthermore that the category includes all atheists who aren't explicitly exempted - notice how useful that 'et al.' of yours is - who are the "al.", exactly?

In other words the campaign is conducted precisely this way - start with a lot of assumptions that are the product of the campaign itself, take them all for granted, and help to recycle them by simply defining everything in the way that is most convenient. There is such a thing as "New" atheism, it does mean "outspoken atheist who is openly hostile to religion," and it includes Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and all the rest.

Jean Kazez said...

Just to clear this up--no, I'm not trying to silence "overt" atheists. I think I'd have to count as one, since I have a book plus some published articles that openly express unbelief. What I don't like is personal nastiness. I don't see why new atheists can't just discuss the issues, and skip calling Karen Armstrong "pathetic"....etc.etc. (see Aug 26, 8:14 pm). I think that's an issue they ought to be willing to discuss, rather than deflecting it every time it's raised.

amos said...

Ophelia: I'm going to frame the last post of yours. You reproach us for a campaign against the new atheists without giving any specific evidence. Now, if I had complained that I felt attacked in Butterflies and Wheels, you would ask me for evidence, for chapter and verse. Now you feel attacked, without citing chapter and verse. However, I accept your feelings of being attacked as
valid: if you say that you feel the object of a campaign against you, I recognize that although I've not intentionally tried to attack you, you feel attacked.
Different people are sensitive about different things: others, including theists and sell-out atheists like myself, are as sensitive as you are. Being concerned that you feel that I'm hostile towards you (although I am not conscious of being hostile), I'll refrain from commenting about the new atheists in the future, here and in Butterflies and Wheels, although lately, I've not dared to venture much into B&W. I'm not asking for anything from you in return: it's a unilateral gesture. Peace. Shalom. Shanti.

Ophelia Benson said...

amos, true, I didn't give any evidence in that particular comment, but I think I've offered a fair bit of evidence in other comments, as well as in posts at my place etc.

Don't stop commening on the "New" atheists on my account! Really. It's not that I feel attacked (though I suspected that some of the commentary above was, er, pointed, but you convinced me it wasn't) - it's the overall phenomenon that I think is...interesting but also unfortunate.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean

Well this "new" atheist doesn't agree with you about the personal nastiness - that is, I don't always agree that a particular comment is personal nastiness, and I also don't agree that all putative personal nastiness should be avoided. You value Jon Stewart's mockery - so there you go.

I didn't see your 8/26 comment at the time. Now that I have -

Note that Russell didn't call Karen Armstrong "pathetic" - he referred to her pathetic attempts to salvage something valuable from the unhappy wreck of religion. I don't consider that an illegitimate thing to say.

Commenters on blogs - I really don't care. I don't think the "new" atheists can be expected to stand by all of what commenters on blogs say. I don't stand by what Greg Tingey says at my place, for example! If the claim that "new" atheists are mean rude nasty etc etc depends on comments on blogs - then it's just a silly claim.

I don't agree with your view of Jerry Coyne's comment on Wright - at all - I think he's expressing an opinion about what Wright is doing. What PZ says is a little ruder, but by no means off the chart. What PZ said to [some] Catholics was of course in the wake of all the threats (by Catholics).

And I disagree that what "new" atheists are doing is deflecting it - I think what we're generally doing is pointing out that it is a bullying tactic meant to 1) shut us up and 2) get others to think we are monsters. This is old, old, old stuff - it's what people do - that's why there's even a word for it: othering.
I'm sorry but I just think all the hand-wringing about putative nastiness is at best hugely overblown and at worst just a kind of ganging up. I don't think the putative nastiness is all that nasty, I don't think it matters very much, and I do think it's a highly popular bullying tactic. (It's like people who drone about Feminazis or feminism as man-hating or bra-burners.) You don't see why "new" atheists can't just discuss the issues, and skip the putative nastiness - well for the same reason Stewart can't or rather doesn't want to! Why should we? Why can't we sometimes resort to satire and invective too? Why can't we discuss the issues in a variety of ways? I agree that real viciousness is bad - but I flatly deny that that's what's going on.

Jean Kazez said...

I will take the point about piling on under advisement. I do think a lot of the attacking of NAs in the last 5 years has been groundless. There are people who don't like them entirely because they are atheists or because they are vocal. That ain't good.

"Why can't we resort to satire and invective too?"

It seems like we get into satire (rightly) when we have good reason to think someone is morally flawed. Where there's truly no flaw, and just a mistake, I don't know about satire and mockery. In short, we can mock Bill O'Reilly, but not Karen Armstrong. (I'm very partial to her based on reading her memoir--which is wonderful.)

But I'm not sure about that. Can't we make fun of Raelians and Scientologists? .... Hmm. I will confess to not being quite clear about who I think should and shouldn't be mocked.

But here's another issue. I think there's a tension between atheists wanting to be accepted and taken seriously, and insisting on the right to speak scathingly about religion. It seems to me this sort of thing would have prevented other minority groups from gaining acceptance. Gays have had a lot of success in becoming mainstream because there's nothing about gayness that's actually against anything else. Jews are accepted partly because they're not mocking Christians or trying to convert them. So...a bit of a problem there.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yeah, that's a fair point. Interesting, too.

Feminism is a little different, wouldn't you say? A little closer to atheism in that way? Certainly mockery of men has often been part of the picture.

And actually that's true of gay rights too - campy jokes, dykey jokes, jokes about breeders.

But still - the issue with atheism and theism is cognitive, so it's a different kind of thing. So I'll agree that there probably is a bit of a problem there - but I suppose I think it's sort of an inevitable problem.

I read something recently that struck me and (dammit) I can't remember where - but it was that there is no issue with Santa Claus, because it's all very simple, we don't like to be laughed at, so we just don't go on believing in Santa past a certain age. Well...

More seriously - I think atheism should be available - and part of being available is that realization...'Oh - you can laugh at it? Really?' I think over the long haul it's healthy - and I think a hell of a lot of the reaction is just the reaction of privilege. Religion has been shielded from ordinary teasing and disagreement for years and years, so when it comes it's seen as abnormal and Unacceptable. I think a little habituation will be a good thing.

OB said...

P.S. And Heaven's Gate. Along with Raelians - Heaven's Gate. We can hardly not laugh at that!

amos wallerstein said...

Someone made the comment about Santa Claus in another thread in Jean's blog a few weeks ago. I'm too lazy to look for it. However, people stop believing in Santa Claus because they are mocked by their peer group, by significant others, not because they are mocked in abstraction.
If theists begin to mock other theists for believing in theism, which is highly unlikely, those theists who are mocked will undoubtedly stop believing in theism. However, when people outside a peer group mock someone, that person tends to seek refuge in the beliefs of the peer group, just as when the new atheists are attacked by their critics, that tends to affirm the sense of identity of new atheists.

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on. Tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel's tent do shine so bright.

Bad science, but great poetry from William Blake.

Jean Kazez said...

The handy search thingy over there found it quickly. Whaddya know--amos said it!

"Correct, Jean, mockery serves a different role within the peer group than with non-peers. That is why if other kids mock a child's belief in Santa Claus, he'll drop it or if my friends mock my taste for Mexican soap operas, I'll stop watching them. However, when mockery comes from non-peers, from non-significant others, it produces hostility and is perceived, as you said, as an attack on the core identity, that is, on the self."

Jean Kazez said...

Wow--that's quite a poem! How a propos can you get?

Matti K. said...

My impression is that the theists and accommodationists criticising "new atheists" have the conviction that mainstream religions (their own, anyway) have by large a benevolent effect on the society. When someone disagrees, he/she is easily branded as a "fundamental atheist". Some people prefer an euphemism, "new atheist".

But isn't it quite understandable to speak strongly out against religons, if one finds them to be harmful for the common good?

It seems that deep down, many critics of "new atheism" are really disturbed by this outspoken anti-theism. After all, in the good old days atheists were just non-theists.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K--I think the issue is what "speak out strongly" means. I do think atheists should speak out strongly...I just think there are some who go too far--exaggerating harms, ignoring benefits, and being more personally nasty than is either fair or strategically wise.

Faust said...

Opehlia wrote:

"Here it's all just wild accusation with no specificity - which is a good way to demonize a whole group of people without the trouble of finding real reasons."

Now I know Ophelia has since softend the "Here" in that sentence, but the rest of it I think she elaborates as she continues. The idea here might be formulated like this:

You can find "real" reasons to demonize a whole group of people.

I think "real" can be translated to "well justified." We can find echoes of this in Jeans comment:

"My assessment of Bill O'Reilly is a "view". I can back it up. I can also back up my assessment that Karen Armstrong is not an idiot. Just because people disagree about something, it doesn't follow they're all simply biased."

In other words: Jean can back it up with “real” reasons, robust justifications for her view. By enlisting these reasons Jean translates her "bias" into a “view.” Her characterization of Bill O’Riley as an “idiot” is a well justified view, and not a product of her liberal bias. (As an aside I think this is a very bad way to view O’Riley. The man is NOT an idiot. He is an exceedingly clever, deft and dangerous sociopath. But that’s just MY “view.” I think people who think he’s an “idiot” are succumbing to a careless liberal bias.)

I think all of the above connects to Tom’s 3 categories. The dispute becomes about who belongs in category 3. The dispute is about the

“people who, regardless of the subject, hold very strong opinions for very bad reasons. They don't look for evidence, when they stumble upon some they don't calmly reflect on it, and they don't consider contrary views worth their time. (Recently, these folks have been congregating at microphones at town hall meetings.) I lack intellectual respect for both the person and in beliefs in these cases.”

People like THAT might be worthy of being “demonized” for “real” reasons. Namely: that they don’t have any good reasons for any of their views. They don’t HAVE “views.” They just have strong biases for which they can provide no justification. (It’s about the cognitivity stupid!)

That’s the structure of the debate. Who belongs in category 3? And what do we get to say about people in that category? Why are Santa Claus believers clearly in category 3 but not people who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and bodily resurrected three days after his death? Why is Tom Cruise considered a bit of a loon for his love affair with scientology but not Francis Collins for his love affair with Christianity?

When do we get to mock people in category 3? How hard and in what way? Once I know someone is in a Very Bad Category, for Well Justified Reasons, are there any limits in my behavior towards them? When, if ever, do I get to move from demolishing their poorly constructed “views” to calling them names (like e.g. thenewatheists)? When can the “othering” justifiably commence?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think those are all great questions. Let me add one more--are their looser rules for private mockery than for public mockery? May I mock certain things just in conversation with my husband, though they are not to be mocked in public?

About Bill O'Reilly--I think the word "idiot" comes from the vocabulary of mockery. It is like saying he has his head up his ass. It just can't be...not really! "Idiot" is fun-speak. The truth is something more along the lines of your "He is an exceedingly clever, deft and dangerous sociopath". But even that is a bit from the land of mockery. He's probably not a sociopath.

Faust said...

I think your question is good. I would answer that it is analagous to the question: Is it OK if I think adulterous thoughts without ever commiting actual adultery?

The answer is: it's probably not as bad to transgress privately, but one has to wonder about long term effects if one does it on a regular basis. One's private dispositions are likely to affect one's public actions.

Yes maybe not a sociopath. But certianly a man who has no problem with making stuff up as he goes along. With treating people like dirt. Wiht being radically inconsistent. Who demonstrates no coherent moral structure. Or empathy. Oh wait.

Ophelia Benson said...

amos's Santa Claus comment isn't the remark I had in mind, which did specifically say "we don't like being laughed at." I read it offline - I remember that much, I just don't remember where I read it. Possibly in one of the essays in Philosophers Without Gods.

Ophelia Benson said...

"You can find "real" reasons to demonize a whole group of people...That’s the structure of the debate. Who belongs in category 3?"

Just in case there's any room for doubt...I'd like to make clear that I don't think people should be demonized merely for having "strong biases for which they can provide no justification." I think the KKK (for instance) should be demonized - and that that's the kind of threshold there should be for demonization.

Tom said...

I want to draw a distinction between intellectual respect and overall/personal/moral/something-like-that respect. While I have no intellectual respect for people in my Group III, I may still have overall respect for them. I've known conservative Christians that fall into that classification who nevertheless would (in one case quite literally) give the coat off their backs to someone in need.

In the end, I respect the overly-dogmatic person who loves her neighbor as herself over the epistemically conscientious person who is mostly self involved. (Of course, I'm in no way claiming that one can't be both epistemically conscientious and worthy of personal/moral respect.)

Matti K. said...

"I do think atheists should speak out strongly...I just think there are some who go too far--exaggerating harms, ignoring benefits, and being more personally nasty than is either fair or strategically wise."

I think for a fruitful discussion about the harms and benefits of theism (and atheism), atheists should just let the theists defend themselves. The latter certainly have the manpower and means to do so and really do not need the help of accommodationists. It is very difficult for an atheist to defend religion coherently, as one can see from the actions of Mr. Mooney.

It is all right to remind about etiquette, but then some actions of mainstream religion are such that the strong emotions creating "nasty" language are understandable, at least. For example:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/03/a_follow-up_to_the_brazilian_c.php

So why not try to understand that "nasty" people may often have a ground for their "nastiness" and remind these people only when they (in one's opinion) go really over the top. Writing out people with good rational arguments as "nasty" and therefore counterproductive is not strategically wise, IMHO.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K,

Just let the theists defend themselves? I don't think so. I think it's just normal to be concerned about the behavior of your own group. As a Jew, I actually have a special concern with the behavior of Israel. Tom probably worries about fundamentalist Christians. In fact, one of the complaints that atheists have about Islam is that the moderates are too silent about the extremists. I'd even say that people have a special responsibiity to speak out about the mistakes of their own group.

Tom--That's helpful. In the philosophy business we are preoccupied with intellectual respect a lot. But in real life, what seems more important is whether someone is good.

Matti K. said...

"I'd even say that people have a special responsibiity to speak out about the mistakes of their own group."

Well, you promote elsewhere "strategic thinking", that is, not speaking out loudly on certain matters. Maybe not speaking out on the excesses of your "own" can also be thought as "strategic thinking"?

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to say what is one's "own group". Of course there are many people who are willing to group people outside their "own" group with certain labels, but I don't think one should always take these labels seriously.

BTW, is this again a mistake of the "new atheists"?

http://www.atheistmedia.com/2009/08/penn-and-teller-bullshit-vatican.html

Jean Kazez said...

OK, there are times like that--it can be strategically better to remain silent. I wouldn't say so in this case, but to explain, I'd have to be clearer about my goals. They might not be quite the same as yours or those of many people in the "NA" movement. But I have piles of work...will come back to this one day, I'm sure.