More on to be Nice or Not to be….

Great discussion about Shermer’s article. For more interesting comments, see the discussion on The Friendly Athiest.

I want to continue this conversation. (I’m sorry if I seem to be hogging the blog with religious topics. I know a lot of our readers are more interested in discussions about anti-science, superstition, and various other skeptical topics but the other bloggers seem to be busy right now, and this is the topic that obsesses me.)

Matthew Nisbet has written an interesting post at scienceblogs called, Why the New Atheist Noise Machine Fails.

I disagree, first off, with Nisbet’s title for his article. I think the new atheist noise machine has been incredibly successful in raising awareness, providing solidarity to atheists who are often isolationists, and in supporting and encouraging closet atheists to come out. Those are worthy goals, often disparaged as “preaching to the choir,” as if that were always a waste of breath.

Now, onto the content of the piece.

Nisbet starts with this paragraph:

In provoking the emotions of fear and anger among non-believers, the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign motivates many atheists to be ever more vocal in attacking and complaining about religion. Yet does this PR campaign reach beyond the base, convincing Americans to give up their collective “delusions”? Or does it simply create further polarization in an already deeply divided America?

He closes his article by saying:

The Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign provides emotional sustenance and talking points for many atheists, but when it comes to selling the public on either non-belief or science, the campaign is likely to boomerang in disastrous ways.

It appears that Nisbet thinks that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are writing evangelical books that are meant to de-convert or communicate with the faithful. As I’ve said above (and many times before), I don’t think that’s their goal at all. Nor do I think it should be. I don’t think we should be trying to de-convert people. The part about fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity that I find most distasteful is the evangelical part, the need to try to make everyone think like you do and to follow your beliefs. If I find that trait distasteful in believers, I would find it equally distasteful in unbelievers. (I do, however, think we should try to get people to think.)

I also find it odd that no one complaining about aggressive atheist books ever takes note of the two books I’ve read that are, in large part, addressed to Christian audiences and that are written in entirely different voices and styles: Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli, and I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist’s Eyes by Hemant Mehta. These books are both very well written, friendly approaches to explaining what it’s like to be an atheist in a country (the US) with such a large Christian majority. They are not polemics, and they are not aggressive in any way. Why are they being ignored? Because people like to stir up dirt and controversy. That’s my guess for now, anyway. (Why aren’t these two books on the bestseller lists either? Probably for the same reason.)

So what does all this mean? Should I not speak up when I think irrationality is being used by my friends to make unhealthy or otherwise unwise decisions in their personal lives? Should I not speak up when irrationality is being used in politics to make unhealthy and unwise decisions that have much wider implications? Not at all. If I have a friend who is going to use an alternative medicine approach to an illness she has, if I think she will harm herself, I will certainly speak out and try to provide information for her that will be helpful. I would not say, for example, “Homeopathy is bullshit, go to a real doctor before you die.” Instead, I would try to get some objective information for her to read and I would discuss it with her, if possible. In the end, if she decided to go with the alternative medicine, I would not call her an idiot, but I would say something like “I am not sure that’s the best decision for your wellbeing, but it’s your body. My thoughts will be with you and I hope you recover quickly.”

In the political arena, a stronger voice is necessary, and debate is the common mode of communication, rather than dialog. I hate debates, so will stick to conversations myself. But the point is, when irrationality is used to make decisions in politics, it is not just one person making a decision for themselves. It is a decision that spreads out into the rest of our lives, and perhaps to the entire world.

In the rest of the piece, Nisbet talks about and quotes an interview with Carol Tavris on the Point of Inquiry podcast. I haven’t read the whole transcript or listened to the podcast yet, but I plan to and may continue this topic further after I’ve had time to digest it.

So, how do you talk to your friends and family members about these issues? And what is the appropriate way to act and speak out politically?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Ah, you can tell that Nisbet wasn't serious, because he didn't put the title of his post in all caps.

    As the aforelinked post of Jason Rosenhouse makes clear, that's a reference to the time when Nisbet posted a screed entitled, "ATHEISM IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE." When you think about it, that's a pretty stupid argument, and in fact it goes against his better interest to say so. Neglect, for a moment, all the examples which commenters and other bloggers provided of discrimination against atheists, case studies of people who were hated because they did not believe, or believed too weakly. Neglect the common pattern of xenophobia which runs between these cases and all the other types of discrimination which it is more politic to criticize. Neglect the Constitutional argument that "civil rights" are those things we have Amendments to protect, and other items covered by plausible extensions thereof; the right to free exercise of non-belief is surely more explicit in our Bill of Rights than is, say, the right to privacy, a notion which lurks off in the penumbra. Even letting all that fall by the wayside, we still have a potent and poignant reason to seek inspiration in the civil-rights movements, and present skepticism in their image.

    Consider: one legacy of past liberation movements is that we've now learned you don't have to be gay, black, female or any combination of the above to support equal rights for people who are gay, black, female — and any combination of the above. Isn't this the state we'd like to create by reaching "beyond the base"? Isn't this how we'd like a devout but ecumenical religious person to see the atheists of America and of the world?

    Like many disciples of Lakoff, Nisbet tries to turn the master's theory into effective rhetoric, but the examples produced show a remarkable failure to persuade.

    Your point about homeopathy is bang-on. All the fruits of skepticism will be harsh news to somebody, and you don't get a free pass for wearing a silly hat.

    (You've got a "Nesbit" which should be changed to "Nisbet", in the penultimate paragraph.)

  2. The all important concept here, as Nisbet's blog title suggests, is FRAMING. Given that we know we cannot change anyone's beliefs, and given that we don't want to change anyone's beliefs, what we're left with is getting along. There is almost always a way to frame an argument that will not immediately repulse the other person, and may get him to at least understand where you're coming from, enough to get them into a discussion rather than becoming defensive. This often entails using their own language to frame arguments in such a way as to reveal what you have in common on the issue. You don't want them to feel backed into a corner, in a situation where they feel they are under attack, or even more importantly, feel that they may lose face. And yes, by "using their own language" you might have to say the word "God" a few times.

    But you have to remember that doing so is not in any way giving up your own position. The purpose of such an argument is not, as I already stated, to convince the other person of your beliefs. It is to get them to recognize any points that you might have in common, with the idealized result that for the remaining points you can agree to disagree. This is called diplomacy. This is why it is vitally important that skeptics court the religious mainstream. The things we have in common are greater than either of us have in common with the extremists.

    The difference between this struggle and, say, the civil rights movement of the 60s is subtle but important. Blacks claimed equal rights on an emotional basis, but also on a rational basis. People's biases exposed on such terms begin to crumble, as they can't be supported by religion or rationality. Atheism can only scarcely be supported by religious views. The compassion extended to a minority group on religious grounds isn't extended to atheists, because they are viewed as rejecting the very compassion they wish to receive.

    Truly irrational viewpoints are often based on both simple ignorance and pride of belief. My mother, for instance, is skeptical of religion in general but has a strong belief in psychic phenomena/the supernatural/Velikovsky, etc. She thinks of herself as, not an intellectual, but as wise and knowing in that way that you are no doubt familiar with in the woo community.

    A recent conversation was about Star Trek. Watching a shot of the Enterprise zooming through space, she declared, "That's wrong. You can't see color in space."

    "Why is that?" I asked.

    "Because there's no light."

    "Why do you think there's no light?"

    "Because space is black."

    You can imagine my dilemma. Any one of those points I could argue, but it was clear to me at this point that we had backed up to a very basic misunderstanding about the nature of things. So after talking about light, I decided to start from the beginning.

    "The first thing you have to know about space is that it's the same everywhere. The "space" in this room is exactly the same thing as what we call "outer space." This space happens to be occupied by air, us, and some furniture." This was not a revelation.

    "Nope, nope," she said, shaking her head. "It's different. Not the same thing at all."

    This is, more often that not, what we're up against. A complete, and total misunderstanding of even the most basic concepts. I'm convinced that most people's concept of "the universe" is just the world around them. "Space" is that vaguely abstract, dark stuff out there that has some planets and other round, glowing things in it, and has nothing to do with life on Earth.

    Let me be clear: It is vitally important that books/viewpoints such as Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, be available, more, as you say, for the skeptics themselves than for the others. It sets limits and states categorically where we stand, just as religions do. But it should also be clear that we cannot expect them to understand science at all and you only irritate them by trying to explain it. These are emotionally driven people, who need to understand that atheists go to work, go home, eat ome dinner, chat with their kids, catch a little TV and go to bed like every body else.

  3. I was a Christian for over 16 years, and though few of my family and friends shared my faith, they saw that it gave me great comfort. When I recently announced I'd become an atheist, there was some concern expressed. The most common question (big surprise) has been, "Well, what DO you believe in, then?"

    My reply is that I believe in them; in the people that I love and trust, with all their failures and achievements. They are all fairly practical people, with few irrational beliefs, so any real conflict between their points of view and mine has not yet come about. I anticipate some debate with my sister, who firmly holds to "respecting" almost any belief.

    Atheists actually asserting themselves, especially in cultures where fundamental evangelist types dominate the media, is startling to most people. So we should expect backlash from many fronts, not just the obvious opposition. I agree that the "aggressive/offensive" atheist writers get the most attention because blood and thunder sells easier than the quieter, friendlier approach of Lalli and Mehta.

    I believe that both approaches have their merits. Atheists making themselves visible will draw fire, regardless of how "aggressive" their style is. So I am ready to cheer on just about anyone taking a secular, skeptical stance. I would prefer that they not be the already stereotyped "evangelical atheist" (though I doubt that such actually exist), but we need to make our voices heard. And we are going to offend at least some people in the process.

  4. mighty favog: If framing is such an amazingly powerful tool, why do I think Nisbet is an obnoxious idiot? (And Lakoff, for that matter.) Surely, it can't be that everybody who proposes "FRAMING!!!!!!!!!!!!" as the solution to Movement X's problems is simply terrible at doing what they insist is the One True Way to Win Friends and Persuade People, so the explanation must be something else…

  5. I think framing is an important and powerful tool, even if we haven't been able to figure out how to use it yet.

    That said, it's odd that Lakoff says that we should not adopt the frames of those with whom we disagree, or they win by default because we've bought into their underlying conceptual framework.

    On the other hand Nesbit seems to be saying the opposite, that we should use the language and mindset of religion to frame our discussions. That idea makes me think he's missed Lakoff's point entirely.

    We may not be framing our messages in the most effective way possible, but I find Nesbit's suggestions to be way out in left field. (sorry for the cliche)

  6. I have a coworker who believes that the earth is 6000 years old. Two of them think that engineering, not science, is what got us to the moon. They think of science as something functionally worthless, a scam perpetrated by people who are basically without real skills or value.

    You can't beat that kind of thinking with any toolset. So you might as well laugh at it. Ridicule is the only appropriate response.

  7. >>"I also find it odd that no one complaining about aggressive atheist books ever takes note of the two books I’ve read that are, in large part, addressed to Christian audiences and that are written in entirely different voices and styles….

    …They are not polemics, and they are not aggressive in any way. Why are they being ignored? Because people like to stir up dirt and controversy. That’s my guess for now, anyway"

    Certainly, there's a fair amount of controversy-raising from the media.

    However, I rather got the impression that for some fraction of believers, they need to validate their belief by generating the impression they're being persecuted, in the same way that some people wouldn't feel happy with what they have unless they could convince themselves that someone was trying to take it away from them.

    If the best persecution a believer can claim is that someone writes an undiplomatic book suggesting they aren't being very rational, then they'll take that and run with it, but try and exaggerate it somewhat.

    For them, a more gentle or respectful book isn't of any real interest, since they're not bothered about the intellectual content.

    Possibly paradoxically, if the people who want to feel persecuted can concentrate on someone putting forward an argument in a way that isn't likely to convince them, they can maybe feel some kind of security from that.

    They might in some ways feel more aversion to a cautious approach which might look more likely to subtly undermine their faith (or maybe their children's imposed/inherited faith).

  8. Joshua: If you can tell me exactly why you think Nesbit is an obnoxious idiot, then I could respond accordingly. But honestly, I don't care to fall into the trap of defending his viewpoint; I think he's done a good job of letting us know what he's about.

    PH: If your "cautious approach" causes more aversion due to their suspicion of your motive, then yet again you're just not communicating effectively. They should not get the idea that you are trying to undermine their faith, nor should you be trying to.

    writerdd: I haven't read Lakoff, but from what you say, it seems he's one of those that sees this as a war that can be won, that the goal is to actually convince people to change their minds. You can bat your head against a brick wall all you want but your head won't get any harder.

    But let's use a different word than "framing." Let's talk about "communication." Face it–most people are pretty bad at communicating with others. Just think about how many times poor communication has caused strife where you work. This is so commonplace that I have no doubt that everyone who reads this will be able to think of at least one good example right off the bat.

    Why do people have road rage? Because there's no communication between them and the other driver. How many times have you cursed "that idiot" in the other car? You wouldn't say that to their face. You might express your outrage at their behavior, and then they might either apologize and admit they did something stupid, or give you an explanation as to what caused their behavior. You can either accept that explanation or not, but what you have gained is an understanding of the situation where before you were reacting in a vacuum. You KNOW that YOU have made stupid maneuvers while driving as well, but you, of course, had a good explanation for your own behavior. If only you could tell those other drivers so they wouldn't curse you!

    All of us sitting here making our little comments to each other talking about "those idiots" are doing the same thing. If we actually cared about getting along, maybe we'd be better off spending our energy talking to the idiots. I have no doubt that many will see this as a soft, ineffectual approach. But think: most of the time, when confronted with these issues in real world conversations, what do we do? Some of just smile and nod and avoid controversy. Some of us will speak our minds a bit too precisely and have everyone look at us funny. Neither of these options is effective communication and neither promotes understanding or harmony. I'm not talking about tackling the extremists. What I'm talking about here is how real individuals who know and work with one another communicate with each other, not raging directed at faceless idiots. Yes, it takes effort, and a real desire to get along with people. One at a time, if necessary. Remember the lesson of the Star Thrower?

    First of all, people feel threatened by things they don't understand. I have to stress that "understanding" is not the same thing as "agreeing." And again, I'll state that the goal is not to prove or disprove the claims of either side–the goal is only to make peace. Sometimes this entails showing the other person how your ideas might fit into their own ideology. This is something that most people will not have considered, since their gut reaction is simply to oppose differing viewpoints. Sometimes you can also admit to any areas of uncertainty in your own ideology. Unless you are perfect, this shouldn't be any problem, and makes you appear more humble and approachable. If you can start off with the feeling of somehow being on roughly equal footing you're already ahead of the game. Being of the persuasion that Rebbecca so aptly described as "philosophical agnostic, but practical atheist" might help.

    I had thought to give an example of the type of approach I might take to discussing evolution, but I'm already getting long winded and I'm sure you're all sick of me by now.

  9. writerdd said:

    So, how do you talk to your friends and family members about these issues? And what is the appropriate way to act and speak out politically?

    With my family? I don't, unless I want an argument that has no resolution.

    As an educator, I've seen the problem firsthand with the "mean" approach that some skeptics/atheists take. Many students are pretty smart and willing to listen and engage in ways of thinking that they have not tried before. Many of them have also been raised in religious environments. Students in my critical thinking course have to read "The Demon Haunted World". Without me requiring them to read it, many of these students would never have picked it up, because of attitudes of their parents and the culture they were raised in. I have had students who told me they were specifically told that Carl Sagan equalled atheist proproganda, and so they had an initially negative outlook. We all know that Sagan was never "mean" in the sense that Dawkins and Hitchens are, but some people in the religious movement were very effective in painting Sagan that way.

    At the recent live Skeptic's Guide podcast, I asked about this very topic. The question/discussion was long, and it is not in the released podcast. The panel gave a very nice response, which is basically that we need more nice skeptics, not fewer mean ones. The problem is not that we have these vocal and direct attacks on religion and credulity, but that there aren't enough of the "nice" skeptics writing books/making appearances.

    Michael Shermer to me is a nice skeptic, and his books have done well. We need more like that, as well as having the Dawkins/Hitchens stuff. Neil deGrasse Tyson generally only writes about astronomy, but he is also a nice skeptic, and one of the best general public speakers I have ever met. We need more people who are trained in public speaking and have a breadth of knowledge in science and skepticism to be out there in the trenches.

    Writerdd, you want to know the best way to act politically? Personal conversations and even blogging aren't enough. Get some knowledge of evidence-based science teaching, and then run for your school board (or become a teacher!) and advocate for real science and critical thinking. We might "convert" a few people with books and blogs (mean or nice), but where our movement can really matter is in the classroom. I tell my students that if they take anything away from my class, it should be a positive attitude towards science and the need to teach their own kids about good thinking skills.

  10. goodguyseatpie, I'm working on a "nice" book, which is part of the reason I'm so interested in this topic. I'm hoping that my book will be read by atheists and Christians. Maybe I'm over zealous….

    I'd love to get a copy of the full discussion you mentioned, if you can nab one somehow. Do you think that's possible?

    I think running for school board is a great idea, but since I don't have kids, I have never thought that was an appropriate action for me personally. Is that a valid concern? I am, however, thinking of writing a "nice atheist" column for my local paper, if I can sell them on the idea. I do agree, however, that reaching the kids is of primary concern.

  11. writerdd, it's ok to be on a school board and not have kids!

    I was just an audience member of the podcast, so I certainly don't have a way of getting the discussion. You could always beg Rebecca to beg Steve ;-)

    Here's a clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson telling Richard Dawkins not to be mean:

  12. mighty favog wrote:

    writerdd: I haven’t read Lakoff, but from what you say, it seems he’s one of those that sees this as a war that can be won, that the goal is to actually convince people to change their minds. You can bat your head against a brick wall all you want but your head won’t get any harder.

    Actually, batting your head against the wall repeatedly actually does make it become "harder" …

    But anyway, I want to agree with Lakoff's point that this is a war that can be won. I mean, if you look at the middle ages, we've come a long way. Unfortunately, certain regions in this world that, not coincidentally, are also rather pervaded by (fundamentalist) religion, now seem to be moving backwards. The most obvious conclusion would be that religion is the cause. But religion, and specifically fundamentalist religion, is in my opinion merely a symptom, not the cause. Bad education is the cause, although in turn, that bad education is partly caused by fundamentalist religion putting its ugly nose where it doesn't belong.

    Anyway, my point is that books like Dawkins' probably would convert people from fundies to moderates and perhaps even fence sitters, except the fundamental tool of the books, reason and logic, are too alien to those people to serve any other purpose except angering them. If they had enough proper education, those tools would work on them, and they'd realize their beliefs are built on faulty premises, and are nothing more than beliefs, not truths. But it seems they've been raised from the get go with the idea that science is evil, logic is overrated, etc… Whatever you try to do to convince them, it's going to be pointless because their mind has been shaped specifically to avoid deconversion and reject anything that contradicts what they believe.

    You can't defeat them, you can only breed them into extinction. The way to do that is to educate everyone else.

  13. Are fundies really *angered* by Dawkins, etc using logic?

    If people have been brought up to see science and logic as enemies, is it maybe comforting for them to see science and logic out there being obvious?

    Still, I agree with you about the education thing.

    As far as gentler books are concerned, it may well be that after some time where the more aggressive atheist books have had their dose of publicity, the time for softer books will naturally come, with the market being the less fundamentalist and more thinking believers.

    There can be episodes of momentum and fashion that aren't directly related to the merits of any particular book, and there really are only so many ways an aggressive book can talk about the problems with religion.

  14. PH, I think it's not necessarily the logic and reason that anger the fundies, but more likely the fact that someone has the audacity to claim to prove that their holy book of inerrant truth is actually completely wrong. I suspect that to them the argument put forth isn't really all that important, whether logical or not (like they care), but rather the idea that someone thinks they can make an argument at all. If it contradicts the bible, it has to be wrong, and yet it's getting recognition and support. This can't be, these lies have to be killed and the voices of those speaking them silenced, for the better good of everyone.

    I don't pretend to know what or how fundies think, but I don't think I'm too far off the mark.

  15. exarch, it's called "blasphemy" and pretty much nothing else is more offensive to fundies. Some evangelical Christians and fundamentalists are just saddedned by it (an appropriate reaction, if they really believe what they preach), others are angered (probably out of fear).

    That's my evaluation from my 20 odd years as an insider.

  16. I must butt in, though totally new, to this discussion. I haven't had a chance to read all the posts but was drawn to this thread. As a very religious Jew I would like to state that under NO circumstances should skeptics/atheists/ science-types ever start being nice in these situations! You are the thin whatever-colored line between reality and The Bullsh– Run World that fundies would have.

    I agree with exarch that it's not the logic and the reason so much as the shock that anyone could possibly not believe whichever holy writ. I'm not sure most fundies could recognize logic/reason enough to be upset at it. (Not being sarcastic, either — my mother became a born again xtian and I have a lot of experience with these folks.) One of the things that angers me most about religious people is how upset they are about being challenged — if your system of beliefs can't hold up to being challenged what the hell kind of system is it? If your god is upset about being doubted that's a pretty preschool kind of god.

    I know it may sound strange for a believer to say all this. (Can I get by without being called a True Believer here since it has so many icky aspects?) But come on, I can't prove a danged thing about my beliefs and therefore I have no business trying to make them public policy. Ya'll can prove a lot about stuff like evolution et al and therefore it is appropriate to impart that info. And if the only way to make some people listen is to be rude then go forth and beeth thou rude!

    Sorry, got off on a rant. Being rude myself as a first-time poster. Thanks for your patience. It is such a relief to be around logical people……..

  17. Exarch, would all the extreme believers feel better if there weren't any obvious 'opponents' they could rail about?

    Some people seem attracted to religions which have exclusive claims on heaven, almost as if they wouldn't look forward to it half as much if they thought everyone was going to be there, and no-one was going to be 'left behind' or condemned to hell.

    Despite claims of humility, the seeming subtext of *some* people's claims to be close to [deity] is that that makes them better than other people.

  18. This isn't exactly a recent development, although this wordpress statement is. This is what awaits us all if fundies get their way.

    rednecktech, you have no idea how bang on target that makes your first post.

    I think we're not nearly being vocal enough if a crazy Turkish dude (the same guy I mentioned a couple of weeks ago regarding the creationist book) is able to have over a million blogs censored in Turkey because a handful of blogs were saying things about him he didn't want people to know.

  19. PH wrote:

    Exarch, would all the extreme believers feel better if there weren’t any obvious ‘opponents’ they could rail about?

    Maybe. But I guess back in those days, they actively searched them out 2000 miles away just for the hell of it (in several crusades where they got their butts kicked in the process by the way).

    With very few exceptions, all successful religions are of the "US vs THEM" variety, so those seeking for an evolutionary reason for the success of organised religion should probably look somewhere in that direction.

  20. rednecktech (did I spell that right?), welcome!

    I can’t prove a danged thing about my beliefs and therefore I have no business trying to make them public policy.

    You've just defined my main beef with religious extremists, that they try to force their beliefs on to everyone else. Without this happening via the fundies and the Bush administration in the US (who for some reason can't see that they are a mirror image of the Islamic fundamentalists whom they hate), I would probably be a nice, quiet atheist minding my own business the way I'd been for years after I stopped believing in God. Although I think magical thinking is dangerous because it can lead to making bad decisions, I am much less concerned about that in the private sphere than in the public. If religion were completely a private thing, it probably wouldn't bother me at all.

  21. Indeed, rednecktech, you are most welcome here!

    writerdd already said it: it's when religion starts being rammed down EVERYONE'S throat as public policy (at whatever level) that I take issue with it.

    As a private matter, how it my business what anyone believes of the origins of the universe? And if that person tries to convert me "for the good of my immortal soul", I can tell them to leave me alone.

    But when religion is actively supported and encouraged by the state, at any level, history shows that ugly things start to happen. The foundation of my country's laws (the USA) is explicit in disallowing precisely that, regardless of what fundie xian revisionists say.

  22. Does anyone consider it likely that there are a large number of people who CAN'T be educated? Consider Marcus Ross, the fellow who got his PhD in paleontology although he is a young earth creationist, and announced his intention to use his credentials to further the his cause. It's tempting to just call him names and write him off as another conniving, deluded fundie but consider: he went through the entire course, had to learn everything and know the right answers, and none of it sunk in! He knew enough answers to get a PhD for crying out loud. I haven't gone for a degree but I have studied paleontology both formally and informally and it's as daunting a task as any science degree. It's as rigorous a science as any except there's not so much math.

    Several years ago I made my living tutoring young teens and pre-teens in science and other subjects. As anyone in the education field can tell you, there are some students that just don't get it. The best you can do is to get them to memorize enough facts to pass the test but you can tell when they just aren't understanding what they'r being taught. The group I was associated with specialized in finding alternative methods to reach just such students, and still there were ones you couldn't teach.

    A friend of mine does IT work, can do wonders on computers, as well as other technical tasks, and can argue philosophy with the best of them, yet he can't follow driving direction to save his life, even if they are written down. My mother in law has trouble following product directions if they consist only of pictures, and I have trouble if they DON'T have pictures. I can think of many other real-world examples but you get the idea. Some people are, well, just stupid in certain ways. The more we learn about the brain, that there are physical structures associated with different mental capacities, the more I am convinced that these irrational belief systems arise from trying to make sense of the world with a brain that cannot grasp the basic concepts. The logic circuits are weak. The primitive drives that are the basis for emotions have been around for far longer than the veneer of reasoning that we use to explain our behavior to ourselves, and often reasoning loses out to the fear and distrust that are aspects of our more primitive social psychology.

  23. I came to the psychology of public policy through Altemeyer instead of Lakoff, so my perspective might be a little different (not to say twisted). A salient result of Altemeyer's experiments is that while we all react emotionally — instead of rationally — to things outside our experience, we do so to different extents. Furthermore, while we all have the capability to hold dissonant thoughts simultaneously in mind, some people are better "doublethinkers" than others. These characteristics, among others, can be predicted fairly well from knowing the "RWA score," a measure of one's authoritarianism.

    Taking Altemeyer's results as a starting point, I think it's fairly simple to deduce that "high RWAs" would see Richard Dawkins as a threat whether he adopted the tone of H. L. Mencken or that of Mr. Rogers. Just listen to what goodguyseatpie said earlier in this thread:

    I have had students who told me they were specifically told that Carl Sagan equalled atheist proproganda, and so they had an initially negative outlook. We all know that Sagan was never “mean” in the sense that Dawkins and Hitchens are, but some people in the religious movement were very effective in painting Sagan that way.

    We have often heard the charge that vocal skeptics of religion are "fundamentalist atheists," and many of us have pointed out the poor logic of the accusation. To focus on only one small point, skeptics have no holy text which they regard as inerrant: I personally have my gripes with The God Delusion, with Why People Believe Weird Things and even with The Demon-Haunted World. Not even writing from Sagan's pen is sacred or sanctified! They are simply efforts we respect and enjoy, whose flaws we acknowledge — indeed, studying and debating those flaws is one way we improve our understanding and, thereby, ourselves.

    This is one advantage of admiring humans instead of gods: one can hope to better oneself by learning from a human's mistake.

    Nevertheless, there is one respect in which The God Delusion, for example, is like a holy book: people talk about it without reading it. Look at how creationists treat the works of any other scientist — quote mining is the rule of the day! How often have we observed that creationists imagine Darwin to be our prophet? What, then, could we possibly expect when a new text arrives? They treat the book not as a book, but as an icon; they contest not its arguments, but its image.

    This is an inevitable consequence of the authoritarian personality. Any book popular enough to be noticed will receive the same response, its specific contents notwithstanding.

  24. A brief clarification on "winning the war." When I say "winning" I mean in the classical sense of subjugating or eradicating the enemy, which clearly won't happen is not desirable in this case, although they could conceivably do it to us. We might "win" by protection from force of law, but such protection exists only so long as the law has force. I agree that the best option for the future is education, but alongside critical thinking and the scientific method, we should be teaching the benefits of tolerance and diversity. And by that I mean more than the paragraph or sentence about the strength of diversity in social studies that the kids get now.

    Remember when mediums re-packaged themselves as "channelers" because "medium" had acquired negative connotations? Perhaps we should re-package the scientific method as a system of thought that doesn't have the word "science" right in the title. The word just makes most people click off. I'm completely serious. Following this debate in the media, if nothing else, should tell you that marketing and image is everything. That recent study which showed that children given the exact same food in a plain sack, and then in a McDonald's Happy Meal sack, said that the "McDonald's food" tasted better, should tell you all you need to know.

  25. mighty favog said:

    Perhaps we should re-package the scientific method as a system of thought that doesn’t have the word “science” right in the title.

    Yes, I can see it now!

    New, from the offices of MiniTruth comes HappyFunKnowledge! HappyFunKnowledge is a way of looking at the world that involves thinking and proving things, but which NEVER says "You're wrong" like that other field 'Science!' The HappyFunKnowledgeific method teaches us how to set up experiments and think critically about our results, but without ever actually CHALLENGING your beliefs or thoughts. Are you of two minds about the origins of the universe, the age of the Earth, the truth of evolutionary theory? Well, with HappyFunKnowledge, you can STAY of two minds, and no one will criticize or confront you in any way!

    Unlike those followers of 'scientism' who believe that all people are capable of coming to understand certain truths or falsehoods if they are encouraged to think about them enough, HappyFunKnowledgists KNOW you aren't smart, industrious, or open-minded enough to do all of that! We're more than happy to coddle you and protect you from ANY cognitive dissonance you might feel. With HappyFunKnowledge, it's OK to persist in ignorance! You certainly won't hear any criticism from us!

    For just 10 easy payments of $19.99, even YOU can learn the HappyFunKnowledgic method. Yes, forget confrontation, forget unpleasant truths honestly told…with HappyFunKnowledge, it's not about the facts, but how they make you feel!! Order our course today, and get started on the path to blissful doublethink. It's not MARKETING, it's HappyFunKnowledge!

  26. Here's a good post on this same topic:

    I love this part:

    But the richest irony of the Ultramodern Anti-Atheist Bullshit Machine is that its lever-pullers are correct: Being constantly exposed to hollow and hypocritical forms of resistance, being labelled and told to shut up, will only galvanize the godless. With reason on their side, maybe there's a chance that in time, the Ultramodern Anti-Atheist Bullshit Factory will be the machine that grinds to a halt first, and its proponents — now silent — will have to find something more productive to do than tell everyone else to pipe down.

    (emphasis mine)

  27. At this point I don't think Nisbet cares any more about what atheists are actually writing or saying than creationists do. Regardless of both the lack of evidence that the current "campaign" is failing and the lack of evidence that tolerating bullshit is ever useful, he'l keep repeating himself as long as it gives him a niche. If he's even read Dawkins' writings on atheism, it doesn't show in what he writes.

    Thanks, dd — I updated my coda to that post, BTW.

  28. Expatria:

    Um, I don't think I said anything at all about changing the scientific method or coddling anyone. In Africa, it's commonplace to put a picture of the contents of cans and jars of food on the label so the vast numbers of illiterate people know what they're buying. Which is why Gerber had trouble selling baby food there. It was the same thing in the jar no matter what was on the label. Get the idea? But points on the Happy Fun Ball reference.

  29. BTW, go to YouTube and look up Neil DeGrasse Tyson and watch a few. It sums up what we've been talking about here. He doesn't have to budge on his points or be condescending in order to get across his ideas in an easily digestible–and understandable–manner. Afterwards you don't just know WHAT he believes, you have an idea of WHY. A particularly poignant one is this:

    It's a two-parter so you'll have to locate the other half at the end. This is one that every religious person who thinks atheists are soulless, unfeeling bastards should see. It begins very dry and ends with quite a bit of passion.

    Unless your sole motivation is to "go kick the enemy's ass" then understanding is vital, and is the first step towards dialogue. A stable democracy is more than just a majority overriding and suppressing a minority. We are supposed to all be trying to live together in the same system for the good of all. Again, this is the best reason to court the favor of religious moderates.

  30. My motivation in this regard is to STOP thinking about "enemies" and "winning." It's silly, and it's pointless. As prone as we are to looking at it as an "us vs. them" situation, it really isn't. The goal of my bit of satire was only to point out that I don't think it's particularly wise or necessary to 'dress up' the truth in a McDonald's bag, as it were, to get the truth out there. If Nisbet's work were half as talked about by non-scientists as Dawkins et al, I might be more likely to consider his "framing" a successful method. But it's not, and I wonder if he's simply failed to frame it properly to the majority of us, or if framing in itself lends no guarantee of efficacy.

    I personally LOVE DeGrasse Tyson and thought he was the best speaker at last year's Beyond Belief conference. There's plenty of room for people like him under the skeptic/atheist tents. Just as there's plenty of room for Dennett and Hitchens and all of the people they MIGHT bring in with their higher profiles. But, whether in terms of a war or in terms of marketing, CLEARLY there is something functional and/or desired in the style espoused by the writers that Nisbet seems to think shouldn't be doing a good job.

    Have they 'converted' many people? No, I don't think so, though I do tend to think this trend HAS had an effect in precisely the way that Dawkins wished it would. He suggests that his book is written to the group of people who may not be sure how they feel about god's existence, the people who haven't thought about it all that much. In my personal experience, this HAS worked. But personal experience is meaningless in any realistic sense. I'd love to see some data in that regard, and I strongly suspect that it would back me up.

    Now, you are having a sort of dialogue with the people on this board. I wonder what kind of effect this will have? If my reaction is typical, it's none. I've heard far too much about framing in the blogosphere, seen it dissected from too many angles, and at this point my feeling is that its effectiveness is dubious at best. Certainly, in first principles, it all sounds well and good. We all spin things, we all write 'to' our audiences, and it's true that many scientists are NOT good at writing to audiences composed of non-scientists. But Nisbet is barking up the wrong tree in going after Dawkins there, as Dawkins has had more success with non-scientists than just about any popular science writer this side of Sagan. The man knows what he's doing, and that's that.

    There's plenty of room for lots of approaches. E.O. Wilson's book about rapprochement between atheists and believers comes to mind as a notable book espousing dialogue. And there's a chance that, maybe, those tactics could work in the here and now on a short-term basis. Personally, though, I think that getting the youth involved in skepticism, science, and all the rest is the actual best method alongside education.

    As they say in the tech realm, a lot of people have to die before a new idea takes hold, meaning that as the old amongst us leave, the youth (who have grown up in a different world) and their attitudes will take hold and change the climate. And while, at the moment, it seems that the young are trending towards being more religious, I have little doubt that the ease of availability of good critical thinking on the web and in areas popular to the youth will, ultimately, help bolster the numbers of people on the more atheistic side of the spectrum. Resources such as podcasts, this blog, most of the ScienceBlogs community, etc. will strengthen the case far more than diluting it and pretending it isn't REALLY what it is.

    This has rambled on far more than I intended. All I can do is end with a couple of tautologies: Things that work, work. Things that work better, work better. IF framing is the superior method for spreading the message of science, then it will win out in the end. I won't hold my breath. I'll also continue to talk to people and give them science straight, no need for the McDonald's bag. I wonder if that tactic works when the food in the bags is rotten, in the way that the ideas science presents are rotten to the evangelical crowd? Is it still tastier, or are the children even more annoyed at the deception AND the message?

  31. Expatria:

    You've made some good points and summed up the whole thing pretty well. I think I'm done, but for one small observation. Dawkins' book may be most effective with the fence-sitters, but I somehow feel that there just aren't enough of them to make much difference converted on way or the other.

  32. Expatria (and everyone else), great discussion. Thanks for chiming in.

    One thing I have to address. I don't want to fight religion or religious people. I never have. But they have picked the fight. And sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies. Don't believe me? Check this out:

    CNN's upcoming Christiane Amanpour documentary on religious extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, "God's Warriors," airs starting on Tuesday. Right here in the U.S. we have an example of one of those warriors, Ron Luce, whose call to action to retake America from the "virtue terrorists" (gays, pro-choice supporters, etc.) is "Battle Cry," a youth crusade that Amanpour visits at its stop in San Francisco.

    This preview's about Ron Luce and his militarized Christian group "Battle Cry"—"Armed with faith and prepared for battle" …" against the evils of secular society and pop culture," Battle Cry's members are taught by their leader Ron Luce that they must retake America from those he ironically refers to as the "virtue terrorists that are destroying our kids" … "raping virgin teenage America on the sidewalk."

    Luce screams intolerance cloaked in nifty pyrotechnics, Christian rock music, and big-screen graphics to the teen-packed venue. The evils of secular society and pop culture have forced him to tell his young charges to be ready and "armed with faith, prepared for battle."

    For a bit more about "meek and mile atheists" see this article on Daylight Atheism.

  33. writerdd is right. I have met hundreds of religious people who were true buttheads, rude and nasty and cruel, prone to ad hominem arguments, embodying the exact opposite of the behavior their religions urged. I have never met an atheist/agnostic/skeptic who was not polite, calm, and open-minded. I don't know everyone on either side, but that's the balance I have experienced. True believers picked this fight, not scientists. The TBs resort to the most bizarre emotionally inflammatory arguments, as writerdd illustrates above. If you can stay nice, calm and polite that's terrific and to be attempted, but I echo the idea that sometimes you have to stand up to bullies and usually the only language they understand is the rough stuff.

    As others above have commented, skeptics basically don't care what folks believe. If they (including me) want to engage in magical thinking that's just fine as long as it stays inside their private lives and doesn't ooze all over other people. Some folks on this board might think I'm crazy for being a believer but no one is trying to talk me out of it because it doesn't affect them. Were I to get on a school board or become a textbook editor or be the next president (no more pork in the White House, literally!) then hopefully ya'll would circle the wagons and stop being nice because at that moment my beliefs and I become dangerous.

    I was listening to a back episode of the Sk. Guide to the Uni. where they were talking to a dr. who does a podcast debunking alternative "medicine" (and I use the word loosely) and he pointed out that sometimes the only way to get your point across is some well-directed ridicule. I agree. (Sorry I can't remember the name of the dr. or his webcast, dangit.) Some of the best moments on the SGU cast are when Rebecca makes scathing remarks about G-d and attributing things to him. I love them, they make the very best quick nudges toward logical thinking. I think nice/polite takes more time and sometimes we don't have that.

    BTW: as a redneck I would like to officially disavow any favor toward that newish creationist/i.d. "museum" in Kentucky. Oy. As if the state didn't already have enough of a reputation……..

  34. One of the most frustrating things about religious indoctrination is that it convinces people God is a mind-reader and that there is therefore no such thing as privacy. I can echo the sentiments of everyone here in summing of the entirety of my personal resistance to religion — no matter how goofy — as this:


    You would think this would suffice, right? You'd think you could explain to someone who really believes that people who put penises into consenting male anuses are going to some noplace they call "Hell" would at least acknowledge that not everyone accepts such ideas. But no; because God sees all, sinners must be saved, preferably by dint of law and shaming.

    I'm no more or less polite when dealing with these people than I am otherwise, nor should I be if I truly believe in my conviction that bad religious ideas should be reduced to existing among other bad ideas. If I am in a crowded elevator and someone repeatedly asks me, "Do you think that Thor is responsible for thunder and lightning?" I am going to answer, "No, that's stupid," and not worry that my felow riders might disagree. If I'm in a crowded prharmacy and someone tells me only the Lord can save me from the condoms I'm about to buy, I'm apt to shrug and say, "I'm afraid your Lord is a crock of shit," and turn back to my business. (Actually, in the latter case I'd probably rub it in a little with light profanity, but whatever. I'm profane by God's wi — er, by nature.)

  35. kemibe's comments make me sad. I often find myself wanting to wear a sandwich board saying, "Not everyone who believes in G-d is an asshole or thinks that you should believe in G-d, too! Really!" I tend to over-emphasize my beliefs like some sort of federally-regulated disclaimer because I so want the public to know that I'm not one of "them", the TB's. (I realize this may sound silly to some of you — um, hello, Redneck, didn't you just tell us that YOU are a believer? To me the "True" B's are the ones who try to force their beliefs on others and/or try to convince a scientific world that their beliefs are true when there is no way to test their theories. Well, no sane way. I in no way try to convince anyone of my beliefs which are,after all, scientifically equivalent to the Thor/lightning theory. )

    It sickens me when I hear/see/read about religious nuts doing things like trying to get ID into science textbooks, trying to convince some man he's possessed by a demon because he's gay, you know the drill. I'm sure in part this is due to my being accosted by various sects of Xtians who tell me that, as a Jew, I'm going straight to hell. (I'm always tempted to say, "That's preferable to spending eternity with you in heaven" but I try not to. Usually my husband manages to drag me off the premises in time. No sense raiding the 401k for bail money.)

    Going back to the question of whether skeptics should be nice, we all have a breaking point. The 77th time someone is buying condoms and some fundie goes medieval on them and does something as disgusting as trying to publicly shame him, I wouldn't blame him for getting profane. We all know that most of the time our arguments, nice or not, fail to change the minds of TB's and therefore sometimes it's not worth the effort — but especially when they are spewing their illogic in a public forum they must be countered, if for no other reason than to let other skeptics or fence-sitters know that The Truth is Out There. It's just not the one that TB's want to hear.

    Boards like this relieve my brain because I can stop thinking, "Is it just me or is x,y,z this evangalist is oozing just crazy talk?" Skeptical communities remind me that I do have allies, I'm not a lone voice. Too easy to give up when you feel like a lone voice. That's why I think skeptics should fight back even though we didn't start the fight, and fight un-nicely when necessary.

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