An Atheist Rift?

Jim West points to an NPR article discussing an inside critique of the New Atheist movement. The article mostly features an interview with Stuart Jordan, a volunteer advisor with the Center for Inquiry. Their mission is “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Jordan is speaking out about what he sees as a misguided facet of the New Atheism, catalyzed by an atheist art exhibit he feels is unnecessarily belittling towards religion. The accompanying photo shows one of the pieces. Jordan says, “I wouldn’t want this on my wall” (as an artist I’m offended by how much the painting just plain old sucks).

The article goes on to discuss this New Atheist movement, and what the journalist sees as some of the challenges that may be facing it, including a potential schism, represented by Mr. Jordan. According to the head of the Center, which ran the exhibit, “What we wanted were thoughtful, incisive and concise critiques of religion. We were not trying to insult believers.” Jordan sees it differently. The painting on the left is only one of the three things the Center’s head mentioned, and that’s concise. Beyond that it’s just taking something people find spiritually important and mocking it. If the head of the Center had anything to do with which art was accepted to this exhibit, he failed in his expressed goals.

The article then discusses prominent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book God Is Not Great, told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.” His words were greeted with hoots of approval.

Religion is “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous,” Hitchens tells NPR.

Hitchens doesn’t appear to know much about war, geopolitics, or history. His opinion is a rather naive and reductive one that is common among college freshmen and those who fail to transcend that mentality. The maintenance of power and the ideologies that prop that power up are responsible for the danger so often attributed to religion. Blaming “religion” in and of itself is simply juvenile.

The founder of the Center for Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, agrees with Jordan. He was evidently ousted last year from his position, and the article has this to say:

[Kurtz] worries the new atheists will set the movement back.

“I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

He hopes this new approach will fizzle.

“Merely to critically attack religious beliefs is not sufficient. It leaves a vacuum. What are you for? We know what you’re against, but what do you want to defend?”

The new head of the Center, Ronald Lindsay (quoted above) also had the following to say about being belittling:

“We take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.”

Perhaps he was not being totally sincere in the other quote. Either way, it’s an interesting dynamic, and what I find interesting is that the New Atheists who are trying to shock and awe more than connect on a respectful level certainly are reaching more people, but are polarizing people more than they’re changing minds. I have to side with Jordan and Kurtz that this New Atheism is going to do more damage than good to their long term goals. I’m als oglad to see someone else using a term I adopted a long time ago (atheist fundamentalists).

What are your thoughts?

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26 responses to “An Atheist Rift?

  • Naumadd

    I have to agree with those who feel it unnecessary to behave childishly in one’s opposition to theism or supernaturalism and their associated religions. Such beliefs and practices are nothing less than widespread genuinely serious failures of individual human cognitive function and a matter for empathy, compassion and, if one is able, assistance to overcome the dysfunction by those not similarly afflicted. Yes, theistic and supernatural beliefs are a cognitive disability. The genuinely healthy human intellect does not cling to such false conclusions on the nature of what is real. There is nothing of mature reasoning in responses or reactions of ridicule, hatred and contempt toward the persons afflicted with such irrational beliefs. Atheists who feel it necessary to do so, indeed, are exhibiting some of the same dysfunction as those they intend to disrespect. They certainly aren’t prime specimens of healthy reasoning abilities. There is more than enough immature opposition toward atheists to illustrate wrong thinking, wrong behavior. Immaturity from some “atheists” is no argument in favor of good reason and behavior derived from it.

    Scorn specific beliefs for their errors of observation and logic, however, have some very deserving respect for those who are willingly or unwillingly hindered by them. Immature behavior is cognitive failure. You either value fact and logic, or you do not. The “good” atheist never straddles that particular fence.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your candor, but I don’t think you can call theism a cognitive disability without far exceeding the scope of scientific and medical inquiry. The existence of the supernatural is a question with which, by definition, the natural sciences do not concern themselves.

    If you want to treat it from a logical or philosophical standpoint then feel free to make whatever value judgments you want, but don’t treat them like they’re clinical diagnoses when they can not be.

    • Naumadd

      But science does and must address these claims to the existence of a “supernatural”. These claims deal directly with what is and what is not true of the very fabric of nature itself. Science has a great deal to say about that fabric and a great deal to say about claims regarding a “supernatural” for which there is, thus far, no reliable proof. Suffice to say, if it CAN be claimed by a human being, it is matter for human scientific inquiry and, through adequate testing, either substantiation or refutation. It’s common for the religious to say that science cannot answer questions of faith. I strongly disagree. The sciences are greatly concerned with human psychology. The human mental behavior labeled “faith” is observable, measurable, testable and supportable conclusions have been and can be made regarding its nature.

      Theism absolutely depends on its supernatural claims. Without them, the claimed characteristics of this alleged “god” are greatly reduced such that it becomes quite un-godlike and more simply another phenomenon of the natural world – observable, testable, provable and subject to natural limitations.

      As for pathology, delusion is indeed an individual cognitive dysfunction and regularly a matter for the medical sciences. Those holding to supernatural beliefs are deluded in that, in degrees varying individual to individual, they adamantly cling to a belief in something despite a clear lack of good observation and logically-consistent reasoning to support that belief and, frequently, a clear abundance of good observation and logically-consistent reasoning to refute it.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        Naumadd-

        Science can only approach the supernatural insofar as it affects the natural world in an observable way, although the only conclusion it could possibly draw is that something unknown is occurring. Science does not concern itself with it. This isn’t really a matter of interpretation, this is a matter of definition.

        You use the word “proof” in quite an unscientific manner. There is “proof” of very little in the way of defining the events and history of this universe. There is evidence, and there are theories that are supported by unquestionably strong quantities of evidence, but they are still theories, and most of them will forever remain unproven.

        Regarding your attempt at supporting theism as a pathology, many people think they have seen plenty of evidence to support God (which you will utterly a priori assert is invalid), and many of those people, and others, would reject the notion that they are surrounded by evidence to the contrary. In that regard, you can hardly assert that they are at all deluded. You can only assert that they disagree with you and you don’t think very highly of them.

  • Jim F

    “I don’t think you can call theism a cognitive disability without far exceeding the scope of scientific and medical inquiry”

    Believing in invisible friends, hearing voices, being guided by invisible forces – all are definitely something that the natural sciences address. They are called delusions (“a false belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that persists despite the facts and occurs in some psychotic states” – Webster’s Medical Dictionary).

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      You have to know it’s false first to tie it to a “delusion,” and you manifestly don’t. Since, as I said, the supernatural, by definition, does not fall within the realm of the natural sciences, it’s not a question with which the sciences concern themselves. Continued objection to this fact only shows your superficial grasp of the scope and goals of the sciences.

      • Jim F

        You miss the point – there is no such thing as supernatural, its all a figment of the mind. The natural sciences do concern themselves with it, and treat people with therapy and drugs accordingly. However, when the invisible friend’s name happens to be God instead of Thor, Poseidon, Joe, or The Little Mermaid, somehow we think that’s ok…?

        Do you know its false if I tell you I saw a pink unicorn and he talked to me?

      • Naumadd

        What science CAN do is study the validity of the claims of human beings that a “supernatural” has or does not have identity, i.e., is real or is not real. After all, it is human beings who make the claims and human beings ARE a matter for science. I’ve said before in other forums, it is true one cannot study directly what does not have identity, i.e., isn’t real or does not exist, however, one CAN examine what does have identity, is real, does exist to see if a “supernatural” can be inferred from it. This is, after all, what many who claim the existence of a “supernatural” are doing – inferring its existence. Such inference is testable, i.e., from what does one infer the existence of a “supernatural”? Also, many more claimants go so far as to declare more than simple inference from nature by claiming actual physical proof. That is also imminently testable. Please present such proof for repeatable observation and testing to verify your conclusions. Thus far, both physical-proof claimants and inference claimants fail to make a conclusive case for those claims. Without evidence or reason for inference, the claims of a “supernatural” are nothing more than imagination that some insist on giving equality with that which has clear identity, clear presence, clear reality, clear existence.

        That is either willing or unwilling subversion of reason and, in my opinion, clear indication of mental dysfunction and a matter for the medical sciences.

  • Jim F

    As for the “New Atheist” tactics. Here’s what sitting back and not making any waves got us in this country:
    – 7 states have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office
    – religion continuing to creep into government and schools. In New Mexico your child can not opt out of saying the pledge, which since 1957 includes the god part. Everywhere else the child is by nature alienated by having to do something different than the majority.
    – a President (Bush 1) who says atheists are neither citizens nor patriots
    – aggressive and deceitful tactics by such people as Ray Comfort, spawned by nothing other than hatred
    – a majority of atheists who are afraid to tell anyone they are atheist. Why would that be, here among the neighbor-loving christians…? hmm
    – etc. etc. etc. etc.

    The “New Atheists” are just tired of bending over frontwards and placating the religious right. Thankfully we have some people who are out there saying enough is enough. Yes, they are a bit over the top sometimes, and most atheists agree with that, but look at any fight for justice and you will see that’s what it takes.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Several states still have laws against wearing socks to bed and saying hi to horses. Doesn’t mean they’re enforced. Can you cite those laws within those seven state constitutions and the most recent example of the law being appealed to to deny access to public office?

      I’m afraid I’m not buying the whole “atheists are the most persecuted demographic in the US” bit. Atheism controls much of pop culture these days and I don’t think you can point to anyone in the past 10 years who has been killed for being an atheist in America. I can point to Jews, gays, blacks, and even Mormons who have been killed because of prejudice, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an atheist hate crime.

      • Naumadd

        Killed for being an atheist:

        “The Murder of Larry Hooper” (2004)

        http://www.parallelpac.org/murder.htm

        Yes, it’s just one case, but I think it satisfies your challenge. As for atheist persecution, there’s plenty of that searchable on the internet, of course, but I can attest personally to the persistent persecution I face everyday for being a so-called “atheist”. Mind you, “atheist” isn’t my chosen term for my beliefs – there may or may not be one adequate term – but “atheist” is the term theists understand for where I stand regarding their own beliefs. Ironically, I face ridicule and scorn even from the religious but decidedly non-christian/muslim/jew. Today’s pagans are one example. Seems the delusional need to have their delusions and anyone who rejects those delusions is, well, “crazy”.

  • Jim F

    Having the POTUS say you aren’t a citizen or a patriot isn’t a hate crime? What if he said that about Jews, gays, blacks, or even Mormons?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Mormon have had much worse said about them (and done to them) by several state and federal officials, including the president. Comparing atheist prejudice to that of the Jews, blacks, and gays is even more asinine.

  • Jim F

    Yes, you are correct in that those are leftover laws. They were invalidated by a federal ruling. That does not take away from the fact that someone put them there in the first place! You are cherry picking parts of my posts to answer and avoiding the main points.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      No, I was just in a hurry to get to an appointment. Regarding your other points, religion has always been in government and education to some degree or another. Rather than it being increased, it simply isn’t decreasing enough. I think that would be a better way for you to have put that.

      Regarding alienated children, do you really think that an atheist majority wouldn’t enjoy every opportunity to make the religious feel alienated? Already the atheists are claiming a belief in God is a cognitive disorder, and you defend this belligerent campaigning. Why on earth would you suddenly have a change of heart if you became the majority?

      Regarding Bush, it was something he said on the campaign trail, and worse things have been said about a number of demographics by people campaigning for the presidency.

      Bringing up Ray Comfort is silly. Everyone has zealots saying mean and aggressive things about them. People angrily and aggressively protest Mormon weddings, meetings, and building dedications all the time (and these are ostensible Christians, not Prop. 8 opponents).

      Your last comment is just an a priori guess accompanying an insult and merits no real response.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Jim, regarding this statement:

    “You miss the point – there is no such thing as supernatural, its all a figment of the mind. The natural sciences do concern themselves with it, and treat people with therapy and drugs accordingly.”

    This is about the silliest thing anyone has ever said on this blog. People aren’t treated with therapy and drugs just for believing in God. Saying it’s not true over and over again doesn’t make it any more demonstrable. I’m getting the impression you don’t know much (if anything) more than a high school senior about the natural sciences.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Naumadd-

    RE: “What science CAN do is study the validity of the claims of human beings that a “supernatural” has or does not have identity, i.e., is real or is not real.”

    This is an absolutely ridiculous claim. Can you describe an experiment a scientist might run to test the validity of “claims of human beings that a “supernatural” has or does not have identity”?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Naumadd-

    It seems mental illness is far more responsible for that than atheism. While it’s a sad story, it hardly compares.

  • Naumadd

    Scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer are but one example where claims of the power of prayer were tested for validity and repeatedly shown to be false. The claim that this appeal to a “higher power” called “prayer” can manifest what one prays for is a supernatural-related claim, i.e., just wishing real hard for a thing is verifiably not what makes it appear. Another very natural agent is at work. If the claims to the efficacy of prayer are found to be false, prayer claims cannot rightly be used as alleged “proof of the supernatural” or “proof of god”.

    As I said, one cannot test what does not have identity, but one CAN test what DOES have identity and those who adamantly claim such because they have to have observed or inferred from observation what it is they claim. If your “belief in god” is an inference from nature, what nature specifically? Your own feelings? Those are testable. If you personally conclude “there is a supernatural” or “there is a god”, you necessarily have both personal observation (even if only observations of other recorded observations) and reasoning – whether logical or illogical – for that conclusion. YOU are testable. Are your perceptions accurate? Have you clearly observed what you think you’ve observed? Is your reasoning logical? Do your conclusions logically follow your premises from accurate observations? If no to either of them, your personal conclusion is false.

    Science, after all, is a human endeavor. Human hypotheses, human theories, human conclusions. Claims to a “supernatural” or “god” are no different than claims to the existence of planets outside our solar system or claims of other galaxies. Just as one can put the claims of a specific scientist to the test, so too can you put the claims of the religious to the test – both are human beings. It is humans making the claims – scientist or otherwise. The intellectual responsibility for one’s claims are the same.

    If you believe “god exists”, if you really believe others must agree with you, you have the responsibility to satisfactorily answer why you believe “god exists”. Otherwise, you’re walking around declaring an unsubstantiated belief with little chance anyone will agree with you. Certainly, you may not personally care whether others agree with you, however, there are plenty who DO care and INSIST on agreement while also insisting they have no responsibility to prove their beliefs or declaring anyone who questions their beliefs “crazy” or “subversive” or “evil”. They wish to negate the tools we humans have to acquire knowledge – our perceptions and reason – in favor of “a feeling” or in favor of declaring one’s imaginings equal to what is demonstrably real.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      And of course those experiments presuppose a mechanical and binary deity and in no way investigate any “identity,” which is what you said could be tested. Its not like planets, because planets are observable and exist in the natural world. The supernatural by definition (for the third time) exists outside the natural world and is not necessarily observable. You’re appealing to tests of specific and reductive model’s of God’s behavior, and those texts only work if God’s behavior has no agency behind it.

      You’re not listening here, and you don’t seem able to grasp what I’m saying. You’re just adding additional claims onto your responses and not engaging the points I’m making. Your reference above is a perfect example. Tests of prayer have nothing to do with claims or evidence of an “identity.” It just tests assumptions about God.

      • Naumadd

        “The supernatural by definition (for the third time) exists outside the natural world and is not necessarily observable.”

        So, here’s the question: if as you say the “supernatural” exists outside the natural world and is not necessarily observable, on what basis do you – strictly a natural entity depending on observation and reason to acquire knowledge, make such a claim? What evidence can you provide that you can in fact have the experience and knowledge needed to make this claim regarding a “supernatural” which you say is beyond the nature in which you exist and cannot observe? You persist in saying that the “supernatural” is beyond the scope of science, but neglect to explain the basis for that declaration. Anything YOU as a natural human being can experience and know, those conducting human science too can observe, test and know. On what basis do you claim some perceptive ability of “outside of nature” while also declaring that human science cannot possibly perceive the same? If, as you seem to suggest, “theists” have some perceptive ability that no one in science can or will possess, what is the basis for such suggestion? Where is your evidence for such extraordinary perceptive ability of that which cannot exist within nature and cannot be observed by anything else within nature … such as yourself?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    On what basis do I make such a claim? I’ve had spiritual experiences that I don’t believe have a natural explanation. One of the fundamental presuppositions of the scientific method is that all experience and events have natural explanations, which cannot necessarily be proven true or false, but also strictly precludes finding evidence for the supernatural. This is one reason I can’t provide evidence. The other reason is that I really don’t care to. I’m not trying to prove to you that God exists. I’m just explaining why your assertions are fallacious.

    You’ll also notice if you read over my previous comments that I said it is “not necessarily observable,” not that it is strictly unobservable. If there is a being with its own agency existing in some manner outside the natural world and superior to the natural world, it is observable when it chooses so to be. This being has putatively stated that faith is the primary attribute it wants humanity to develop, and requests that are in line with its will will be granted. Do you think experiments to coax some kind of observable phenomenon from such a sentient being and thus undermine the role of faith (contrary to its will) are going to succeed?

    • Naumadd

      But, we have to assume your belief that those experiences “don’t have a natural explanation” has, in your mind, some argument to support that conclusion. How have you arrived at the conclusion “there is no natural explanation”? What makes you believe this to be true? Have you entirely dismissed the possibility you are wrong? As a reasonable person, I initially assume you have a rational explanation for why you believe there to be “no natural explanation”, however, I realize too it is also possible you do NOT have a rational explanation for your conclusion. Yes, I get you’re not interested in obtaining anyone else’s agreement with your belief and I applaud you for at least implying you will not foist what you believe and how you practice those beliefs onto the lives of others, but that would make you a person quite distinct from those who insist their beliefs are true, insist they have no burden of proof for those beliefs and, most important of all, insist others must believe and practice the same as they do. I’ll grant you, privately, you can and ought to be at liberty to believe whatever you wish and believe it without a shred of factual and logical support, however, when you intend to impose those beliefs on one or more others and “punish” or restrict their liberties for not believing and practicing as you do, you have a burden of proof for those beliefs and explanation for their related practices, otherwise, no one need pay any attention at all to your demands upon their lives.

      As I’ve said, I think those who have adopted theistic beliefs suffer with a cognitive dysfunction due to the overwhelming unlikelihood what they claim is true either factually or logically and because they willingly or unwillingly cling to those claims despite their evident irrationality. As an empathic and compassionate human being, I have genuine concern for their well being. Still, they are free to be as deluded as they want to be PROVIDED, in my own private life and in public forums where I have a right to equal respect, they do not demand my agreement with their beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, many of those who are afflicted with what I believe to be delusions DO put demands on my private life and DO NOT accord me equal respect in public places where it is my right to receive such respect. More often than not, I forgive them their childish beliefs and ways because of the disabilities I believe they suffer, however, there is a degree of tolerance for their disrespect of my own sovereignty and the personal sovereignty of those I care for that I’m unwilling to pass and I would have them constrained from doing so if it’s in my power to see it imposed upon them.

      Burden of proof for what any individual claims arises when they extend their beliefs and practices from themselves and their private lives out and into the private lives of others. You must explain why others must comply with your views and practices. You must explain why you deny or intend to deny them the free exercise of their birthright of self-determination. Why must they believe as you do? Why must they practice as you do? Why must they go beyond simple respectful tolerance of your beliefs and practices in public places to replacing their own beliefs and practices in public AND in private?

      If you do NOT insist I change my beliefs and practices to those of your own and can respect my individual sovereignty in private and public places, I don’t really care why you believe and practice as you do. You have guaranteed my individual sanctity and I afford you the same. However, if you DO insist, you owe me a factually and logically supported explanation for your demands, otherwise, you may not have my compliance. Mere insistence isn’t good enough either now or into the future. This is the message of the “new atheist”.

      • John

        Naumadd, this is the most complete, succinct, and cogent explanation of “New Athiesm” I have seen. Well done!

        As an agnostic (specifically, temporal agnosticism), my ability to infer the existence or non-existence of one or more deities is limited by observation and testing in the natural world — a world in which all human beings must live. While I only have one piece of evidence for any intelligence beyond our own (the fact that we exist in a finite, definable universe, with some basic repeatable, non-random structures such as physics), I’m certainly not willing to call that “God” since it is my only piece of evidence, with nothing to correlate against. Perhaps that evidence will be discovered someday, but until it is discovered through the scientific method — the benchmark of the natural world – I cannot bring myself to believe.

        I am completely comfortable in my belief, as are my friends and family who choose faith and (optionally) religion with their beliefs, as are my friends and family who choose explicit atheism with theirs. While I may not agree with their beliefs, we still remain close, adding value to each others’ lives, because none of us are determined to convince the other of our righteousness — regardless of any beliefs in the supernatural, we each define ourselves by our own actions, not by how many people we can convince to believe the same as we do. We can discuss, disagree, and perhaps even enlighten each other; but ultimately, none of us defines our relationships with one another through our individual systems of belief in a deity.

  • BHodges

    I wish the atheist participants in the discussion would have actually tried interacting with the original premise of the post rather than preaching their own gospel.

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