Your Friendly Village Atheist

Are the new atheists militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad? All those accusations have become a way for many people to close the book on a view they find unsettling. How convenient to have a way to dismiss the challenge to religion. See–they’re evangelical! They’re just like the people they criticize! So we can ignore them.

I think this is all pretty dubious. I rather like the new atheists. To be quite honest, I hugely enjoyed the four authors who get lumped together under this epithet–especially Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But I’m going to praise a different sort of atheist–a friendly atheist. And don’t get too concerned that I’m using a nice word for the type of atheist I have in mind. There are millions of nice words in the English language. If I praise a violin for the way it sings mellifluously, does that mean I’m criticizing drums for being percussive? No, not at all.

I’m going to call you (me, anyone) a friendly atheist if you meet these conditions (I’m in the mood for a little precision):

(1) You’re firm in your belief that the world is deity-free, and possibly you enjoy debate, but you doesn’t particularly want to convert anyone.

(2) Atheism is not a basis for your identity. When you think “I am an X,” perhaps you think “I am a liberal democrat” or “I am an American” or …. whatever. But you don’t think “I am an atheist.” Why not? Because the beliefs and values you consider important are ones that cut across boundaries defined by religious belief.

(3) Outside of a forum for no-holds-barred intellectual debate, like a philosophy class, you want your discussions about religion to have a tone of mutual respect.

Alright, so here’s my thesis (can this possibly be daring?)–it’s good for there to be friendly atheists. What’s good about them is that they “play well with others.” That was one of the abilities we used to get graded on in elementary school, back where I come from, and I think it’s important.

Why play well with others? One reason is self-interest. Atheists are not fully included in public life, in the US. Over 50% would not vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. There are various reasons for the distrust of atheists. Some have nothing to do with whether atheists come across like violins or drums. Nevertheless, I do think the friendly atheist is much more likely to be welcomed as “one of us” and trusted to represent the interests and aspirations of various voting blocs.

It’s also important to be able to interact respectfully with non-believers because it’s so important to make common cause with people who share your desire to…fill in the blank. An interesting feature of Peter Singer’s new book on extreme poverty is that he doesn’t hesitate to appeal to the reader’s religious motivations to give, even though he doesn’t share them. It’s also intriguing that, though he has a column in Free Inquiry, he never seems to use it to clobber religion.

If you’ve read Julian’s articles on the new atheists here and here, and the responses to them at various blogs, you can see I’m casting my vote mostly with Julian. I’m just putting the point a little differently. I’m not attacking the drums (let there be drums!), but praising the violins.  There’s also an issue of proportions.  Drums are loud. They tend to drown out violins. That’s why you have a couple of drums in a symphony, and a lot of violins.  I’m really not sure how the symphony of atheists comes across to the public (an empirical issue–and I have very little evidence) but it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be good if it sounded like all drums.

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140 Comments.

  1. Alright, so here’s my thesis (can this possibly be daring?)–it’s good for there to be friendly atheists…I’m casting my vote mostly with Julian. I’m just putting the point a little differently. I’m not attacking the drums (let there be drums!), but praising the violins. There’s also an issue of propotions. Drums are loud. They tend to drown out violins. That’s why you have a couple of drums in a symphony, and a lot of violins.

    So you’re saying it’s good for there to be friendly atheists, which of course I agree with (cf. ‘can this possibly be daring?’!), and you’re also saying there should be fewer militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad atheists? Is that the thesis? 1) there should be friendly atheists and 2) there should be some militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical atheists, but not many?

  2. you’re also saying there should be fewer militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad atheists

    But I didn’t use any of those adjectives. I said “drumish.” I like drums. Can’t I like drums and violins? Can’t I think there need to be more violins without casting aspersions on the drums?

  3. No I didn’t mean you meant that that’s what they are, I was quoting your attributive quoting (if you see what I mean) – in the first para. Sorry! I see now that that’s not clear.

    Yeah, sure you can. I just wanted to be sure that was what you were saying (lest I reply to something you weren’t saying) – that you think there should be more of the one kind than of the other.

  4. So here are a couple of thoughts.

    Does (2) work? Does one actually think ‘I am an X’ – as it were ex nihilo? We don’t usually think ‘I am an’ anything out of nowhere, do we? Don’t we pretty much always think that in some context or other? I’m pretty sure I never just randomly suddenly think ‘I am an X’ – something always suggests the question. So doesn’t the context determine whether or not you think and say ‘I am an atheist’? And if so…isn’t it actually not true that you (you, Jean) ‘don’t think “I am an atheist.” ‘? I’m pretty sure you have said you’re an atheist here, for instance, and that seems to entail also thinking that you’re an atheist.

    I get what you mean, of course: that ‘I am an atheist’ doesn’t loom as large for you and the friendly atheist as it does for some other atheists. But I think that makes the distinction a little less stark…more of a continuum.

    A lot also depends on how ‘a tone of mutual respect’ is defined. That can often be very hard to figure out. Julian gave almost no examples of non-respect in those two articles, which is one of the reasons I had for disagreeing with them. (I figure mine is one of the ‘various blogs’ you mention!) Mark Vernon called the ‘new’ atheists all sorts of names in a recent blog post without giving so much as one example. Some of the putative ‘friendly’ atheists are actually, in my view, quite remarkably rude, and entirely happy to fling handful upon handful of insults at the new dogmatic wicked bad atheists without ever offering a shred of evidence that they are any such thing. I could quote Chris Hedges and Madeleine Bunting doing this at great length, and will upon request. So…I’m not sure the ‘new’ atheists really lack a tone of mutual respect, and I’m not entirely sure I know what constitutes such a tone.

  5. The more provocative, confrontational, mocking sort of atheist definitely has a role to play in waking people up, getting their attention, making them think, asking uncomfortable questions. But if part of the goal of Dawkins & Co. is to get atheists out into public life, playing a role in politics, etc., then the more conciliatory sort of atheist is pretty important. I’m not going to suggest any ratios.

    The other benefit–making common cause–is on my mind this morning because I went to wonderfur Darfur advocacy event last night (which I’d been planning for a year). It was about rape in refugee camps and ways to stop it. This was at a synagogue and the speaker was from a Jewish organization, so the whole thing put me more than usual in my “can’t we all just get along?” sort of mood.

  6. I wonder if the tone Jean is speaking of comes more naturally in verbal discourse, particularly during times of casual conversation. Many people show up on news shows, debates and whatnot because of their beliefs, and are expected to take some sort of stance, to claim not only that their views are the right ones, but to do it in such a way that the other side feels belittled for believing the way they do.

    But during the course of casual conversation, among people like myself who are not in the public eye or sought out for our particular views, there can be a tone of mutual respect and a willingness to listen and discuss without being arrogant.

    Tone is directly linked to context, in other words . . .

  7. Ah, we cross posted.

    It is a fact that I am an atheist, like it’s a fact that I have hazel eyes, but some things are “defining” and others not. I don’t think of myself as part of the hazel-eyed group, and don’t really think of myself as part of the atheist group. It’s not “who I am.” to use that expression. Probably because I have a strong sense of Jewishness (though I am the world’s most secular Jew), but also because moral and political things are much more “of the essence” in my mind. I strongly identify with “progressives” of whatever religious persuasion.

    I think the critics (like Mark Vernon and Madeline Bunting) use tone-issues as a reason to dismiss the substance of atheism. It’s really an excuse. Critics of the new atheists have been very successful with this maneuver, unfortunately. They have sort of a “gotcha” feeling, as if they’d proven something. I don’t get that.

    But Julian’s reason for worrying about tone has to be different. He’s not trying to dismiss atheism, obviously. He’s worried about its public image. I live too sheltered an existence to really know how people feel about atheism. Yes, it would have been good for him to substantiate the claim that it’s getting a bad image, as a result of Dawkins and the like.

  8. Well I have a lot to say on this particular issue. But I’ll just lay out some brief points here.

    The problem with the term “atheist” is that it requires a specific content to be opposed to. For example I could be an “atheist” with regards to Zeus, but not with regard to Allah. Generally speaking it would be much more accurate to refer to A-supernaturalists, in the tradition of Hume’s arguments around miracles. This would be a much more accurate way to characterize most atheists, “millitant” or “friendly.” This of course still opens the door to “Spinozaistic” theism, though of course there are many who would argue Spinoza is a defacto atheist preciesly because of his naturalism.

    This confusion that rises up around the term atheism contributes to an enormous waste of time when discussing these kinds of issues. Going to straight for peoples opinions about naturalism vs supernaturalism is going to get you on fertile ground for discussion much quicker. Or at least it enters you into a conversation that doesn’t get stuck on minor details but goes to the heart of the issues. Three of the new atheists address this point in their books (not sure about Hitchens) but most people, including the New Atheists tend not to discuss this in public as people obsessively talk about God Himself.

    But if you establish in conversation that someone is a naturalist then you have thereby done quite a bit of clearing away of cobwebs. Conversely if people tell you they believe that there are “supernatural forces at work” of ANY kind then you know something significant about how they view the world.

    There are some other dualities that invariably come to the fore when thinking about these issues: fact/value. Is/Ought, discovery/creativity, matter/mind. One need look no further than the issues in the neighborhood of these dualities to discover the reason that naturalists find themselves running up against some stiff opposition from non-theists who still subscribe to some kind of “impure” naturalism.

    As to the main question I think Baggini is dead on in his analyis. As an aside quite frankly so is Denett and the fact that he gets lumped with Dawkins and Harris irritates me qutie a bit. All three of them are quite different from each other and I don’t think that Breaking the Spell can legitimately be called millitant in ANY way. Nevertheless Dennett seems content to be lumped with Dawkins and Dennet, and even those two have differences betwen them in focus and tone (though they are pretty close in a lot of ways).

    In any case as someone who has a lot of contacts in the moderate religious community, I can defintiely attest that while the Dawkins/Harris approach (I refuse to lump Dennett in here), may be very good for consolidating an atheist cultural movement, it does no good whatsoever in convincing fence sitters. Typically if I merely mention Dawkins in a coversation with religious moderates the discussion has a high chance of simply shutting down immediately unless I perform 10 caveats and a hail mary so that the dialogue can proceed.

    This is all at least a question of pragmatism, one wants to find the MOST PERSUASIVE ARGUMENTS without in any way giving up the core of those arguments. I think someone like Bagini does this much better than any of the new atheists. Part of the reason is that Bagini, while being an outspoken atheist and vigorous naturalist, is NOT anti-religion per se. He allows the possibility that religion generally speaking has something to offer. Even Dennett allows for this which is one of the things the distinguishes him from the other 3. I think the “millitant” atheists are much better described as anti-religionists rather than atheists, in any case it is specifically their attack on religion as utterly unsalvagable that is responsible for most of the kickback in my view.

  9. As Ophelia says, one generally only has an identity in context. I spent the whole day without a thought of who or what I am, and only when I read the above paragraph, did I say to myself that “I’m an atheist” and was I tricked into thinking about whether I prefer atheists with drums or atheists with harps. Generally, I see myself as “me”: anti-semitism makes me see myself as Jewish; right-wing radio news programs make me see myself as a leftist; I generally don’t even see myself as masculine. First of all, two issues are confused in this thread. The question of identity and the question of how to integrate atheists in public life. It well may be that Richard Dawkins doesn’t walk around all day saying to himself: I am an atheist. As to atheists with drums and atheists with harps, I don’t see them as being in conflict. It’s an old game, masterfully used by movement leaders such as Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was the good guy; Malcolm X was the bad guy. Martin Luther King said to President Johnson: if you don’t deal with me, you’re going to have to deal with that crazy guy with a gun. In my opinion, you don’t win your rights in this world being polite. So atheists or naturalists or secularists, call them what you will, need both barrels of the shotgun, so to speak: one barrel is Baggini, the polite, respectful barrel; the other barrel is Hitchins, the ex-Trotskyist hell-raiser, who will steal your wife if you don’t sit down and dialogue with Mr. Baggini, who probably will seduce your wife anyway.

  10. Faust, I’m not so sure it’s so useful to bring up the broader issue of naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Yes, it could be that out of a general commitment to naturalism, many atheists are dubious of gods, souls, reincarnation, miracles, etc., but (surely) someone’s an atheist just for believing there’s no deity (of any sort). They might still believe in a soul, for example, for reasons purely having to do with problems in the philosophy of mind.

    But anyway, as to tone. I don’t get much of chance to see how religious folk respond to Dawkins. The one chance I got recently did rather surprise me. A friend from graduate school said, at my blog, he thought Dawkins was an embarrassment to atheism, and completely lacking in philosophical sophistication. All I can say is: hmm. I wonder if there are any surveys out there about how “the new atheists” have changed perception of atheists.

    Amos–Er, it’s violins. You accuse me of inventing a conflict. What conflict? I expressly said “let there be drums.” I also said we need violins. How much less of a conflict could there be? But we do need violins–I gave two reasons, and I think they’re good ones.

    I think it’s just a matter of fact that there are atheists who see that very much as a part of their identity, and those that don’t. Some atheists (at atheist blogs) talk a lot about “we.” Some atheists would find that sort of odd, like being part of a “we” just because your hair is brown. I am part of the “we” that is all women, not so much part of the “we” that is all mothers. I don’t find that really a defining characteristic. Sure, aspects of your identity become more and less salient as the context changes, but there are ways I define myself (sometimes) and ways I don’t.

    So–it’s just a fact that for some atheists this is a more defining characteristic than for others. My hypothesis is that those for whom it is less defining will find it easier to leave atheism behind and make common cause with religious people, present themselves as desirable candidates, etc. I don’t think there’s anything “confused” (as you put it) about this hypothesis, though you’re welcome to disagree with it.

  11. Faust:
    I would agree with you about J.Baggini. He has hit the non-confrontational balance, firm in his rationalism and yet prepared to admit that people with religious faith can be active in the pursuit of ends that he himself would support. His segment in a discussion on BBC 4 (check his web site) which ironically if I heard aright took place in the Mission Hall in Edinburgh was a model. Perhaps it is an English thing that distrust of ‘enthusiasm’ as having the whiff of the tent about it. The drum and fife of the First Church of the Bright speaks to atheists with pecs. Julian will do a few push-ups but he’s not really muscular. More of a Hush Puppy than a boot-boy.

  12. Jean: There are many good causes, one of which is the right of atheists to participate in public life, an issue which you mention. As I outlined above, atheists need both violins (or harps) and drums to achieve that goal. Other good causes, such as human rights, require atheists who don’t make an issue of their atheism, willing to work politely with religious believers, who in turn don’t make an issue of their religiosity.

    As to identities, probably different people use identities in different ways. There are bumpersticker type people and non-bumpersticker type people (me for example). I don’t tend to see myself in terms of identity groups; I don’t identify myself as any X, except when challenged or attacked: in my case, the antisemite creates the Jew, as Sartre claims. By the way, I might venture that identity politics is more common in the United States than in many other societies. I would not say “we” atheists, but I generally would not say “we” about any group. Some people do derive a sense of identity, as you say, from being atheists. I doubt that Julian is one of them.

  13. I would not say “we” atheists

    No, neither would I, until people start calling ‘new’ atheists names in the manner of Mark Vernon, and then I find, with surprise, a lot of ‘we’ in my conversation.

  14. Ophelia: As Sartre says, the antisemite creates the Jew. Maybe Mark Vernon creates the new atheist.

  15. I just had a visit back to B&W to read that quote from Mark Vernon. OK, a bit of “we” in response to that might be entirely natural. “This movement” is “evangelical in nature – which is to say loud in nature, and crude and ultimately dehumanising.” I don’t care much for the “in nature.” Or the “this movement.” If you are an atheist, does that make you part of any movement? I’d think not. I think he is painting with a very broad brush.

    I worry sometimes that Mark thinks that people choose all their philosophical positions, based on preferences they have about the way the world should be So if you’re a materialist, or an atheist, or a this or a that, it must show something about your character. You must have some sort of narrow, “dehumanizing” way of looking at human existence. But people who “do” philosophy for a living don’t really do it that way. You look at lots and lots and lots of arguments, and you get pulled this way or that, and wind up with the positions you do. You might not even like the position you feel compelled to take–for example, I’m not especially happy about not being able to believe in free will. But there you are, that’s where reflection takes you.

  16. I should have said–the point about going wherever reflection takes you is not just about professional philosophers.

  17. Faust, I’m not so sure it’s so useful to bring up the broader issue of naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Yes, it could be that out of a general commitment to naturalism, many atheists are dubious of gods, souls, reincarnation, miracles, etc., but (surely) someone’s an atheist just for believing there’s no deity (of any sort). They might still believe in a soul, for example, for reasons purely having to do with problems in the philosophy of mind

    How about a world soul? What if they are animists and believe the world is “full of spirits?” My point about supernaturalism was directed more towards breaking the back of the typical discourse around these things where we get bogged down in God/NoGod and instead focus on the underlying metaphysics that really drive people’s intuitions about this subject. Sure people might be property dualists because of some arguments from philosophy of mind, but if you are Dan Dennett then you think these people are pointed in entirely in the wrong direction and haven’t taken the consequences of naturalism seriously. Dawkins opens up the God Delusion with a quote from Baggini himself:

    What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values -in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.

    Physicals, naturalism, they may not be necessary conditions for someone being an atheist but they tend to be sufficient. And really when people fight about this stuff it as often as not has to do with their attachments to the underlying metaphysics and not with the actual answer to the question: does God exist or not? Take for example when Beale was on here. He offered two (rough) possibilities:

    God –> matter (and mind)

    Matter —> Mind —>(invention of God)

    These really are the two very general worldviews in play though one may certainly substitute a panpsychism or animism or polytheism for God in some way.

    I think directly addressing the metaphysics is a good way to go as, if you can get to physical monism God is definitively no longer required, and if you can’t then you’ve got….well. That depends on who you are talking to: David Chalmers or the Pope?

    A BIG part of the New Atheist movement has to do with concern for proper epistemology. The specific factual truth claims are paramount in this analysis. New Atheist critics will frequently resist attempts to make religion metaphorical. Heck even Baggini gets his hackles up (and emphasizes his atheist cred) when he writes:

    The idea that it is a modern distortion to think of religious beliefs as being factually true is manifest nonsense. If people thought their tenets of faith were metaphors, why did they torture or kill people who disagreed with them? Did doctrinal differences about Christ’s divinity have no role in Rome’s split from the Orthodox church? If literal truth is not what matters, why is it so hard to find a practicing Muslim who’s prepared to say that the Angel Gabriel didn’t really dictate the Qur’an to the prophet?

    This line of thinking is strongly connected with the naturalistic view of the world, which is driven by making sure that we don’t make theories about things that we can’t see, smell, taste, touch, or otherwise measure in some way. And it is of course difficult indeed to imagine how one could do any of those things to something that by definition lay outside of the physical realm.

    Conversely the religiously moderate will tend to cast religion as systems of metaphors and symbols and not as specific truth claims about the world. On this view religious claims are fairly non-cognitive, they are more emotive, experiential, and poetic. According Sam Harris though, this move is not available. See The Myth of “moderation” in Religion chapt. 1 The End of Faith. It is precisely this move by Harris (and others) that religious moderates resist:

    Bunting:

    Intriguingly, where Gray, Armstrong and Vernon all end up is with the apophatic tradition of theology. Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it’s a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: “In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice.” It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

    Of course as PZ Myers “skeptically” notes (Ophelia calls him skeptical anyway, I might chose other words) Bunting is “Clucking” (and so is Baggini!) “Shrill” “Deranged” and like an “old prune” (and so is Baggini!). Sheesh! No ad hominem there! I think I’ll go with Baggini and just call her “fluffy.”

    Underneath the Atheist/Theist divide there is quite a bit going on that doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with belief in the big sky god.

  18. Faust, your Baggini quote:
    Is this the skull beneath the skin or a momentary lapse? Were the activities of the Shankill Butchers (Belfast) the last flare up of a theological tussle that began with the 39 Articles? I honestly don’t think so. It’s more of a manifestation of “cuius regio, eius religio”, that heady brew of nationalism, land-grabbing and repression; in short generic yellow pack evil.

    J.B.has looked into the non-rational aspect of religion in the writing of Kierkegaard. I presume that as a rationalist he would have been puzzled by it. The apophatic tradition is at the core of the major religions. That’s a force field that the infidel tends to bounce off. Nicholas Beale on the other hand represents the Counter Rationalist tendency which claims to offer good reasons for faith or at least as good as those deemed to to be sufficient for the practice of science.

    This is getting away from the main point of the O.P.which would be the relative merits of the mild or the muscular forms of atheism. America must be thought of as the mission fields in this contest for hearts and minds. Here the atheist would have to respect the natives, culturate a little and show the friendly face of atheism. Superiority and a roll-call of Nobel atheists won’t do, leave out the big bass drum. Your atheist is a regular guy/gal that you probably have drunk a beer with and didn’t even know it. Be a little shy, shucks I don’t know agnosticism might work. General uplift without soaring too much, that sort of thing. Think of yourself as the Episcopalian’s opposite number.

    In Europe it’s a different story. Here there is no particular pressure to be seen as a good Christian or anything else, in the majority population. The 10% that consider religion to be important in everyday life as in Sweden is probably the same proportion as thought that with inward conviction when the churches were thronged. Pro or anti doesn’t impinge. Those who put ‘Jedi Knight’ against Religion in the census were reclassified as atheists. That a high calling should be so impugned!

  19. Faust, I am an atheist in that naturalistic mold, but there are people who really think the whole obstacle to theism is the problem of evil. There’s just too much awful stuff to believe there’s a perfect being running the show. There’s nothing to stop those people believing in reincarnation, or souls, or what not. So when JB says atheism is a positive outlook–essentially naturalism–this is only roughly true. That’s an accurate diagnosis of what’s driving many, but not all atheists.

    Michael, Your make it seem as if I’m recommending that atheists deliberately adopt a conciliatory manner, so as better to convert the natives. But no, the first part of the definition of the friendly atheist is that he/she doesn’t want to convert anyone.

  20. I’ll endorse what Jean says about “problem of evil” atheists. I’m more of a naturalistic atheist myself, but my father once remarked that he stopped believing in God after the Holocaust.

  21. One more point: it’s not necessarily true that the militant atheist wants to convert anyone either. He or she may simply be beating the drum for the right to participate in public life qua atheist without being discriminated. Trying to convert people to atheism seems pointless, since atheism is generally the result of a process of reflection that each person has to go through on his or her own. The exception would be those atheists who are atheists because Marx was one or because Russell was one or because Jean is one.

  22. I’m trying to think what would be a better word than “militant.” I’m honestly attempting to praise the friendly atheist without insulting anyone who doesn’t meet that definition. How about–the polemical atheist? “Militant” is pejorative, but I think “polemical” is not.

  23. My Websters dictionary defines “militant” as “aggressively active (as in a cause)”. Is that pejorative? Maybe the completely non pejorative use of the word in Spanish distorts my perception of the word in English. In Spanish the word lacks the connotations of aggressiveness and simply means “active in a cause”. When you use the word “friendly” to describe a certain type of atheist, you appear to insinuate that other types of atheists are not friendly. Can you be militant or polemical and friendly at the same time? I’m not sure. You can be militant or polemical and try to be friendly, although those whom you criticize in a friendly manner may take your criticism as not being friendly, simply because they don’t accept criticism. Some people don’t mind being criticized and don’t feel threatened by criticism; others do. For example, Eric and Beale, in spite of the intensity of their exchange, had a friendly dialogue.

  24. Jean,

    You may not know this, but “friendly atheist” is already an accepted term within philosophy of religion, though it means something quite different to your term.

    See William Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 335–4.

  25. Jean,

    …the first part of the definition of the friendly atheist is that he/she doesn’t want to convert anyone.

    I guess I might have fit your definition some time ago, but I saw too many theologically motivated people, on too many school boards, trying to get their latest repackaging of a creation myth taught in science classes.

    As someone who is willing to engage these people and attempt to stop them, can I still be ‘friendly’? I try, with notable failures, to be polite, but I really do want to convert these people to a less authoritarian, more evidence based worldview.

  26. Grandels Dad: Are you trying to convert or to convince the people on the school boards? Atheism isn’t a dogma that one can convert to; yes, I can see cases in which atheism becomes a dogma, but at least in theory atheism is the result of rational reflection. One could be convinced to become an atheist. A religion, on the other hand, is essencially a dogma to which one can convert, although there are forms of theism, for example, deism or pantheism, which could also be the result of rational reflection and/or the result of being convinced by an argument. However, in order to believe in the Virgin Mary, one needs to have a conversion experience. There is no rational argument in support of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

  27. How interesting that William Rowe is an atheist. I wouldn’t have thought so, considering the extremely painstaking explanations of arguments for the existence of God in the one book of his I’ve read. Wikipedia explains what he means by a “friendly atheist”–something different, but it’s funny that he uses the same term.

    Grendels Dad, I’m by no means “friendly” about all religious issues. Teaching creationism in schools is intolerable and I’d fight it tooth and nail. People’s beliefs about that have a direct impact on me and my children, so I haven’t the slightest reluctance to try to change them. Their ultimate religious beliefs are another matter. I suppose some ultimate religious beliefs are inseparable from ways of behaving, so I would want to change them–like the beliefs about the role of women, etc. But simply believing in a deity, all by itself, seems pretty much like a private matter.

  28. Polemical has the connotation of the combative as its Greek root ‘polemos’ shows. It also for me has the sense of not wishing to concede anything to the enemy lest all be lost and this is seen in the counter Church Militant. To Christian charity being the stalking horse for conversion there is opposed the Enlightenment as propaeduetic of Marxism, Hitler and ill-fitting shoes. The other crowd can do no right and our errors must never be admitted.

    It so happens that Terry Eagleton has a piece in the Guardian today in which Dawkins et al are put in the sin bin for cultural imperialism. It’s interesting how the tide is turning against the confrontational style that they espouse. Why is that? A recent documentary on the Ruside affair was quite cool about him with the general tone being ‘what was he thinking of’ and noting his cultural dissociation from his own background not to have been aware that naming the prostitues after the wives of Mohammed would be bound to be inflammatory. I can twist Julian’s tail a little and there’s a cultural concensus about how far I can go before I become offensive but across cultures the ice gets thin in surprising places. Europeans at least are beginning to accept that bringing the Democratic way to other lands is a version of the ‘white man’s burden’.

  29. Amos,

    It can be a bit tough to separate the two. I guess it depends how we view conversion. If conversion is seen as ‘coming to’ a position, then yes, I’m only trying to convince people to stop imposing their views. I am not trying to impose my particular jumbled, rickety moral / intellectual framework on others. At least not in its entirety.

    But in one specific area, I guess I am. In a science classroom I privilege empiricism over revealed truth. To the extent that I am asking people to accept an epistemology contrary to the one of their faith, I guess you could say I am trying to get them to undergo a conversion of some sort.

    Jean,

    OK, I’m getting a better sense of what you mean. I am not anti-religious so much as anti-theocratic. I have no problem with people that keep their faith to themselves. I don’t even mind the ones who want to share their ideas with the rest of us if they can do so coherently. It’s the ones who want to impose their views that have moved me off the sidelines.

    My problem with the articles from Julian that you link to is the lack of specifics. I’m afraid that the legitimate anger at the folks trying to destroy science education is being treated as if it were directed at some sweet little old lady at the church bake sale.

    At this point I’m still not entirely convinced that all this talk about ‘new atheists’ and drums vs. violins and friendly vs. militant / polemical atheists isn’t a bit misguided. Everyone admits that a variety of approaches are necessary. Why limit people by pigeonholing them into one ‘camp’ or another? Have a cookie with the sweet lady at the bake sale. Have a spirited discussion with the door to door proselytizers when they drop by. And tell the folks trying to teach your kids that women come from a man’s rib, not a monkey, to put on their helmet and stop running with the scissors.

  30. It so happens that Terry Eagleton has a piece in the Guardian today in which Dawkins et al are put in the sin bin for cultural imperialism. It’s interesting how the tide is turning against the confrontational style that they espouse. Why is that? A recent documentary on the Ruside affair was quite cool about him with the general tone being ‘what was he thinking of’ and noting his cultural dissociation from his own background not to have been aware that naming the prostitues after the wives of Mohammed would be bound to be inflammatory. I can twist Julian’s tail a little and there’s a cultural concensus about how far I can go before I become offensive but across cultures the ice gets thin in surprising places. Europeans at least are beginning to accept that bringing the Democratic way to other lands is a version of the ‘white man’s burden’.

    What tide is that, exactly? Which tide? There are a lot of bedwetters who whine about ‘the confrontational style that they espouse,’ which on any other subject would be seen as perfectly ordinary and humdrum – but that’s been going on since about ten minutes after The God Delusion hit the bookshops, it’s not some new turn of the tide.

    And of course some people are ‘quite cool’ about Rushdie; again, that has been the case all along; a lot of idiots in 1989 said he should have known better and blasphemy must not be allowed blah blah blah. Apparently you agree? So you think (with Bunglawala) that death is too good for him then? You approve of the fatwa? You think Rushdie does not have a right to write about Islam as he sees it? You think he has only himself to blame? You think blasphemers deserve whatever they get, is that it?

    As for the white man’s burden – religious conservatives who wrap themselves in bogus anti-imperialism are one of the more irritating sights in the current landscape. Bleah.

  31. It is quite obvious that anyone who calls Prof. R. Dawkins a “miltant” or “aggressive” atheist has NEVER read any of his books, or listened to him speak.
    OTOH, you only have to encounter the street-preachers and doorsteppers, never mind the bomb-throwers, of various religions, to encounter real militancy.
    It’s a lie, deliberate, pure and simple, put around by frightened people, trying to distract attention away from their own philosophical emptiness.

  32. Grendel’s Dad, I would very much like to read something by Julian about how folks respond to “the new atheists.” He has much more opportunity to gather data than I do, and doesn’t present a lot of specifics in those two articles. In Dawkins’ book and TV presentations, there is certainly a confrontational, mocking style. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of religious people found him insulting, though I don’t have much evidence that they do. We need some facts here.

    Yes, it makes good sense to say people shouldn’t pigeon-hole themselves, but I think many people have a natural bent in one direction or another–to be conciliatory or confrontational, friendly or polemical, drum-like of violin-like. I’ve been noticing this difference for a while–I wrote about it a year ago here.

  33. Re: the Eagleton essay. The man writes in a convoluted way…but apart from that, I have the feeling I’ve read that before. Some writer or other seems to recycle that set of ideas roughly every 6 months in the Guardian.

  34. I suspect that Eagleton has read Dawkins. Here’s his review of Dawkins from the London Review of Books. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

    Now Dawkins and Hitchins wrote their books to stir up controversy and polemics, which is exactly the effect that their works are producing. Eagleton also loves controversy and polemics. Controversy sells books for Dawkins, Hitchins and Eagleton: they all must be happy. I myself love watching a good polemic, and Eagleton, coming from the left, adds a bit more spice to the soup, since in general up to now Dawkins has been criticized from the right. Sit back, watch the show and enjoy your soup.

  35. Jean,

    The question I struggle with is whether the non-religious should be more ‘compassionate’ in their challenges to advocates of religion.

    Some reasons for being more compassionate:

    There’s a great deal of similarity between the experiences and beliefs of those who are classified as religious and those who are classified as psychotic. Both generally have had unusual experiences they seek to explain using complex belief systems that are generally not supported by careful examination of the evidence and underlying logic.

    Both can experience profound distress (and joy) in relation to their experiences and beliefs and both are at high risk of making consequential decisions which affect them and others based on their belief systems. Both belief systems are also generally held with high levels of conviction and both seem to involve considerable emotional investment. Early conditioning, persuasion by powerful others, conformity, suggestibility and a host of other in-built aspects of human nature also play a role in their formation and maintenance.

    To challenge such a person’s beliefs without at the same time offering a compassionate understanding as to why they might believe such things *could* be viewed as irresponsible and counterproductive. To get angry at them for believing what they believe seems to forget that they, like all of us, are subject to a great deal of luck (being indoctrinated as a young child etc).

    Some reasons against being more compassionate:

    Even posing the question “should we be compassionate to religious beliefs?” feels patronising, if not downright insulting, to the religious (so apols if so…). Honest, open, critical debate seems to treat the religious person with the respect they deserve. It avoids treating them like children, and expresses the underlying assumption that both partners in the conversation at least aspire to be responsive to reason and evidence.

    The negative consequences of many mainstream religous belief systems seem to justify disregarding the psychological harm that could be caused to a person if they then lose their faith and have to admit they have been wrong.

    Anyway, as a psychologist I would never dream of taking a Hitchens* approach to a person who was classified as delusional (both ethically and pragmatically – it wouldn’t help reduce their distress or restore their autonomy). As I think the difference between a person classified as delusional and a person classified as religious really comes down to issues of cultural (un)acceptability, levels of distress and luck (whether you meet a priest or a psychiatrist perhaps), I’m not sure I could really justify taking a Hitchen’s approach to the religious either (no matter how much I agree with the points he makes).

    Still not sure though & happy to be corrected. I guess one obvious point is that debate is not clinical intervention and vice versa. But I like to think the principles that govern one’s contact with people who believe things that are almost certainly not true are justifiable across different settings.

    *I may be wrong, but Hitchens strikes me as the least compassionate of the popular atheists, when it comes to religion that is. Also, this is not a description I expect he would be too concerned about!

  36. Amos, That Eagleton review of Dawkins almost made me lose my breakfast…but I read the AC Grayling’s letter in reply just on time.

    Paul, Do you really think religious belief is literally delusional? Maybe Abraham, Moses, etc (or whoever) were delusional 3000 years ago, but what’s delusional about coming to be religious today? A kid is taught all these things, sees they are commonly accepted, builds his (her) life on that basis, etc. The resulting mental state isn’t anything like the state of a person who thinks the TV is broadcasting messages from aliens…or something. Is it? I figure there was poetic license used in the naming of “The God Delusion,” and nobody really takes it seriously.

    As to compassion for theists…don’t you think they’re under the same (patronizing, condescending) obligation to show compassion for atheists? After all, if I suddenly got religion, I’d have a lot of problems. It would be a problem between me and my husband. I’d have to face up to the fact that the book I wrote is full of crap. I’d feel terrible, because I haven’t inculcated belief in my kids, and it might be too late to change that. The theists surely ought to think about all that. Of course, they might think my losses will be more than outweighed by rewards in the after life…but still. It’s an awesome responsibility to take away someone’s this-worldly-happiness, for later gains that are unprovable!

  37. Well, first of all I don’t think delusion is a useful term. Partly because it’s generally accepted that no satisfactory definition exists, but mostly because I think the term doesn’t have much utility in terms of helping us know why and how to help people. Questions like “is this belief a delusion?” distract from more important ones like “should we intervene?” or “is this person able to make informed decisions?”.

    I’m definitely not saying beliefs classified as religious should be reclassified as delusional (that would be quite insulting, given the stigma attached to the term). I would probably just get rid of the term ‘delusion’ and instead talk about whether people had a need for care. I guess I’m defending people classified as delusional, rather than trying to insult the religious.

    Of course there are some differences between beliefs classified as religious or delusional. But a lot of the differences are caused by the classification process (the change in the way people speak to you, becoming a patient, taking meds, being removed from society etc), rather than being inherent in the nature or content of the belief systems themselves. Aside from that I would agree with others that the cultural acceptability or otherwise of the belief system is the primary distinction (i.e., the number of people who agree with you). Importantly this distinction only describes rather than justifies why we do in fact use different terminology.

    There are many similarities; level of preoccupation (perhaps higher in the religious; think rituals and praying), disruption to life (think monks, priests etc), distress (think guilt), lack of resistance to belief, level of conviction. But what about bizarreness and falseness? And what about resistance to reason? Most religious beliefs are generally quite bizarre and have a reliable history of being false. Unlike beliefs classified as delusional, many religious belief systems have resistance to evidence and reason built into them as a matter of principle! I would say it is harder to give up a religious belief than a belief that the television is talking about you.

    The resulting mental state isn’t anything like the state of a person who thinks the TV is broadcasting messages from aliens…or something.

    Context is all important here. Try this: Take any belief commonly classified as religious and imagine it being chanted somewhat incoherently by someone who is wide-eyed, visibly terrified and rocking gently back and forth. It becomes much harder to tell the difference.

    You also have to note that one reason religious beliefs avoid being classified as delusional is because the psychiatric classification system states that religious beliefs should not be classified as delusional…. that’s one (circular) reason why Dawkins was criticised by doctors for calling his book ‘The God Delusion’. Personally I think he was wrong simply because delusion is a term everyone should stop using. ‘The God False Belief System’ would be better, but less catchy…

    There is the term ‘religious delusion’. How doctors and psychologists go about deciding when to apply this term would probably be the basis of quite a good Monty Python sketch (if the consequences weren’t so dire for the patient). I haven’t read this paper but looks interesting…

    http://tiny.cc/QvSEO

    I agree with you regarding compassion by theists. I also think some do see it as an obligation to show compassion for atheists. I’m always quite shocked when I come across Christians being nasty or unkind towards atheists. I thought compassion was fundamental to Christian belief.

  38. Jean: I read up on Eagleton in Wikipedia (as always) and he’s made a career out of gunning for Dawkins and Hitchins. Hitchins is a friend or ex friend of his.
    Eagleton is going to deliver this year’s Gifford Lecture on the new atheists, so it’s been a lucrative polemic, probably for all three of them. Eagleton is of the TV wrestling school of debating: if you can, throw the dinner table and all the dishes at them.

    Paul: I checked out your interesting web-site. Not being a U.K. resident, I can’t sign the petition, but I urge all U.K. people and others to click on Paul’s name and to sign, if you are from the U.K., a petition to abolish the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Paul provides the arguments in his blog.

  39. Paul Hutton:

    It really is difficult when you move away from pigeons and rats and deal with the complexity of human beings. Human beings it seems have this capacity to rationalise and compartmentalise in order to manage contradictions. They can do this without being in the least bit mad and in fact it might be said that being able to do it is what keeps us sane. As well as side by side pigeon-holes as it were there are various levels at which humans operate. A by no means exhaustive list would include the religious, the practical, the poetic, the projective, the logical and of course the ratomorphic with Skinner as avatar. Whatthya gonna do? A philosopher may speak of possible worlds without being a candidate for the tinfoil topee. Poor old Socrates talked of his daimon, he even listened to it. A suitable case for treatment.

    Jean Kazez:
    Good on you Terry. Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Eagleton for more fun and games with the Amis family.

  40. Paul, I find it hard to believe that psychiatric delusions have anything in common with ordinary religious beliefs. They come about in completely different ways. In fact, religious beliefs for most people come about in a way similar to the way we get scientific beliefs. For example, I grew up being taught about how space is curved, because my father is a physicist. I believed it, though I didn’t understand it. The idea was later confirmed as part of respectable science and associated with the names of famous, highly-respected people. In other families, ideas about God are transmitted in similar ways, and backed up by similarly respected sources. Doesn’t this sort of generation of beliefs by transmission differ completely from the way classic psychiatric delusions come about? Aren’t there important distinctions to be made here?

    Michael, I read that wikipedia entry, and learned the word “Hitchkins” Very amusing. I’m not too fond of the philosophical fulminations of literary critics. These people don’t seem to have a robust sense of reality. They never confront the most obvious questions–like what is true and what is right. Instead, there’s a fabulously elaborate dance they do about culture and subtleties of attitude and language. It’s all very dazzling, but not actually interesting.

  41. Jeremy Stangroom

    but I urge all U.K. people and others to click on Paul’s name and to sign, if you are from the U.K., a petition to abolish the diagnosis of schizophrenia.

    And I urge that people should not. Not necessarily because I think that schizophrenia is a single, recognisable disoder (though it might be), but because this issue is not something you can have an informed opinion about just by reading a couple of web sites. (And yes I say this having read a large amount of the psychiatric literature on schizophrenia.)

  42. Michael, I agree with you (I think). I certainly agree human psychology (well, the stuff that’s interesting anyway) is a difficult issue. I don’t advocate behaviourism or the study of animal cognition as a particularly helpful starting point either.

    Re compartmentalisation keeping us sane: I’m not sure what you mean by sanity? If you mean calm or happy I’d agree. If you mean retaining our autonomy I’d say it depends.

    Re your point about philosophers: Again and again I meet people classified as psychotic who express beliefs which are familiar only because I’ve tried to read some philosophy or religion or visit websites like this.

    Tinfoil topee? You have an admirable way with words.

  43. Paul, I find it hard to believe that psychiatric delusions have anything in common with ordinary religious beliefs. They come about in completely different ways. In fact, religious beliefs for most people come about in a way similar to the way we get scientific beliefs. For example, I grew up being taught about how space is curved, because my father is a physicist. I believed it, though I didn’t understand it. The idea was later confirmed as part of respectable science and associated with the names of famous, highly-respected people. In other families, ideas about God are transmitted in similar ways, and backed up by similarly respected sources. Doesn’t this sort of generation of beliefs by transmission differ completely from the way classic psychiatric delusions come about? Aren’t there important distinctions to be made here?

    I guess I agree with the view that many beliefs classified as delusional often involve reasonable attempts by rational people to make sense of hard to explain experiences such as hearing voices / seeing things that aren’t there. Same with many, but not all, beliefs classified as religious.

    Belief in telepathy, thought-broadcast, ghosts, time travel, thought insertion, aliens, persecution by the government and so on certainly can form in the same way you suggest religous beliefs can be formed. When a person turns up at a clinic incredibly distressed because he or she believes firmly in the literal truth of the above (and the consequences), they are highly likely to be classified as delusional or psychotic – rightly or wrongly.

  44. this issue is not something you can have an informed opinion about just by reading a couple of web sites.

    Sorry Jeremy but the Institute of Psychiatry debate podcast I link to was a public event where the issue was debated at length by expert advocates of both perspectives. The British Psychological Society paper is a lengthy treatise on the subject and covers the relevant issues in great detail. These are reputable sources and people are generally given much less information when asked to vote on much more important issues.

  45. I’m not an expert on psychiatry, but having been a patient of various psychiatrists and having seen others, with deeper psychic distress than mine, in the role of patients, I’ve learned to distrust psychiatric labeling. People and their troubles always seem to transcend any label. No label can fully describe the complexity of what is going on with any distressed person or for that matter, with any happy person. However, for some reason or reasons, fewer labels are attached to happy or well-adjusted persons. I feel that being labeled generally aggravates the distress of troubled people, by suggesting that they see themselves as a series of symptoms, as if something as complex as the human personality could be described as the common cold is. So, without any psychiatric expertise, I urge people to sign the petition found in Paul’s blog.

  46. Regarding Jean’s comment that one can be an atheist without being a naturalist: Again, this is obvious. However, you show me someone, anyone, who is an atheist but ALSO a supernaturalist, i.e. someone who does not believe in God but also believes in souls and their reincarnation then I will show you someone that any of the New Atheists will gleefully accuse of believing in the equivalent of “fairies at the bottom of the garden” or leprechauns. The New Atheists are NOT merely about being atheists. They are about pushing a particular set of valuations about epistemology in the naturalist mold.

    Let us put this in metaphors of the original post for further emphasis: what is it that the “drums” are beating? What kind of time are they keeping for the violins? Specifically I think it a kind of meliorism, and the claim that religious thinking is inherently regressive, or at least invariably non-progressive. An endless looking backward based on inherently flawed epistemology, or rather, no epistemology at all.
    Instead of flapping around with generalities lets look at some quotes from Sam Harris on the issue of “moderate” religion (his scare quotes):

    The first thing to observe about the moderate’s retreat from scriptural literalism is that it draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God’s utterances difficult to accept as written.

    The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside.

    Most of what remains [of religious texts] the “good” parts”—has been spared the same winnowing because we do not yet have a truly modern understanding of our ethical intuitions and our capacity for spiritual experience.

    These are ultimately questions for a mature science of the mind. If we ever develop such a science, most of our religious texts will be no more useful to mystics than they now are to astronomers.

    The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism

    Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

    If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less…by this measure the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us—culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

    There is a lot of material here, but I will attempt a quick sum up: Moderate religion derives ALL of its positive aspects from outside the religious sphere in the sphere of science, while it derives ALL of its negative aspects from fundamentalist literalism. It CANNOT criticize fundamentalism because it has no tools in and of itself to do so because it has no firm ground from which to launch criticisms. It WILL NOT progress or evolve in any meaningful sense because it lacks any good epistemology with which to do so. It is a FUNDAMENALLY BANKRUPT form of culture which offers no value and is ultimately harmful to the positive advance of society. Sam Harris is not a man to pull punches. Indeed, vintage Harris: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

    Couple this to assertions that belief in God is essentially a psychotic delusion and it’s pretty clear that people who trend toward moderate positions are going to find individuals who come from this particular group of “We Atheists” to be making rather… BOLD assertions to say the least.
    Consider Dawkins directly:

    I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution…God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.

    In sum: Supernaturalism vs Naturalism. Supernaturalism is a delusion.

    To miss the supernatural vs natural dimension of the arguments of the Harris and Dawkins (and Dennett and others). Is to fail to understand the movement (to the degree that it is a movement) in my opinion.
    The problem with having both your drums and violins Jean, is that the drum section is fairly convinced the audience the violins are playing to are stark raving mad, OR stupid, OR evil, OR misguided, OR deranged, OR deeply confused, OR broken, OR willfully irrational OR some combination of the above. There is no way for them to “play well with the others” because they are convinced the others are full of it even when they are “moderate.” Of course that is an exaggeration too, as I have certainly seen Dawkins be very civil, very circumspect, very kind in various interviews. So who knows what is going on other than that unnecessarily inflated rhetoric is being employed to do something other than simply make some good arguments. Not to mention some (many?) religious people ARE misguided Or stupid Or deeply confused, or deranged, etc etc. So obviously there are some deep irreconcilable differences in some (many) cases.

    Dennett is a bit more of a violin and at least generates a critique that doesn’t automatically consign metaphorical religion (as opposed to literal religion) to the dustbin. I suspect this is probably why people rarely ever use or refer to Dennett’s work in this area (compared to the other 3 major “horsemen”) He generally gets lumped with the “four horsemen” but he put far to much effort into adopting a civil tone to get picked up by the frenzied red meat fans on both sides.
    Which brings us to our other side, the violins. What is our friendly Atheist Baggini arguing? His articles are brief but some of his salient concerns:

    1. As Hume noted, Reason is a Slave of the Passions:

    You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

    I’m going to enthusiastically go with the latter. My own position which I have made elsewhere on these boards, is that rationality is not really what human beings are made of. It’s something you have to constantly fight for, and it all too humanly gets deployed in the service of arbitrary valuations and unexamined prior commitments.

    2. Religion is a complex cultural form.

    I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.
    However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

    I would be very curious to hear what Baggini thinks the transcendent consists of, but in any case the acknowledgement that religion is more than merely a set of propositions about the world, that it contains PRACTICES, and the cultivation of “forms of life” is at least a nod to reality as opposed to the caricature of religion that Harris favors. Again Dennett is not like the others “horsemen” on this point.

    3. There are pragmatic coalitions that can be formed to good effect.

    For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief.

    As Michael put it, Baggini is trying to hit the non-confrontational balance, firm in his rationalism and yet prepared to admit that people with religious faith can be active in the pursuit of ends that he himself would support. Or in Jean’s formulation he is trying to play well with others. He comes back in his second article a little more forcefully, I suspect he got some harsh email in his inbox for his previous commentary, but in the end Baggini is trying to be a pragmatist about the culture war. The question is: are the drums interested in being pragmatic where possible? Or is religion, as Harris puts it “nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time?” Regardless what anyone does, with commenters like Vernon and PZ Meyers weighing in we can rest assured that there will be plenty of name calling to go around.

  47. Sam Harris. He’s very ‘tent’ isn’t he. Like the hurricanes by the time they get across the Atlantic their force is dissipated generally. Dawkins is a sport, a one off and his particular animus against religion may be due to his main avocation which is beset by ID folk and the like. Baggini is different in that he has studied the subject a little and has remained observant. He may even know personally some people of faith. Kierkegaard was a subject of his. Surely if there was ever someone who might hear the fateful words ‘Paul Hutton will see you now’ , it was he.

    As I proposed, it seems the tide has gone out and we have trundled home with our little bucket and spade. Liberal sentiment has matured and has come to see that poking fun at the mad Musselman is another version of imperial Johhny Turk and John Chinaman. Rising a Royal Literary Family like the Amis’s is one thing, causing bloodshed in Islamabad is another. Besides Rushide is a terrible writer. But Famille Amis are good so I am inclined to forgive them. Now that is irrational.

  48. Michael, if you’re faintly mocking the idea that profound thinkers such as Kierkegaard would benefit from clinical intervention, then you’ll find no objection from me.

    That doesn’t mean he would escape being classified as psychotic or delusional though, should he encounter a modern day mental health professional. The ridiculousness of this is, I think, another argument against the validity of the term psychosis and an argument for active involvement by philosophers in mental health. You’ll also note I try to use the phrase ‘classified as psychotic’ rather than say people are psychotic. While I agree it’s a fact that people have been classified as such, I don’t agree it’s a fact that they are psychotic or that they should be called psychotic.

    (And I don’t think Kierkegaard is representative of the vast numbers of fundamentally religious people, who certainly do seem to share a great deal in common with people classified as psychotic)

  49. Miceai Reidy
    Sorry, but wrong.
    Dawkins’ and many others animus against religion (including mine) is that not just in the scientific field(s) of biology, but everywhere else, the superstitious and the supernaturalists are pushing their agendas.
    And they won’t leave people in peace and quiet.
    Look at the behaviour of Ratzinger, as an example, or the vile O’Connor.

    As for “poking fun at the mad Musselman” it is emphatically NOT a form of cultural imperialism or racism, no matter what the loons at (say) “Comment is Free” might like to imagine.
    Not when the mad musslemen are proposing a Caliphate and Sharia law over as large an area of lebensraum as they can arrange.
    Their absolute ends might be different from that of the equivalent (usually American) christian nutters, but their ideals and objectives co-incide exactly from the point of view of anyone at all with a liberal or scientifically-informed world-view.

    And both these groups must be resisted, to avoid what Prof. David Colquhoun calls “the endarkment”.

    And, for this entirely reasonable (pun!) resistance some people get labelled “miltant”, as if they were going around bombing abortion clinics or girls schools.

  50. Faust: A very complete presentation. There seem to be some points in which the violins may be closer to the moderate believers than they are to the drums.

  51. Faust, I think all that stuff about how religion is necessarily regressive is…er…nonsense. Being a member of a liberal religious community (but a non-believer nevertheless) makes me pretty adamant about this. Reform Judaism is actually way ahead of mainstream America on many social and political issues. Of course, you can be a completely non-religious progressive, but religious progressives get some of their inspiration from within the religious setting. Not everybody gets fired up by the plain talk of science and political philosophy. Some people like to get together and sing…and then read science and political philosophy. The whole package is more inspiring to them, and so be it.

    Sounds to me like Mr Harris too likes a little spiritual uplift with his rationalism. He just likes his spiritual uplift in the form of meditation and altered consciousness (or whatever the hell he was talking about in his last chapter). I prefer melodies in a minor key that bring me back to what my ancestors were experiencing back in Spain 500 years ago, back before they were thrown out by the inquisition. To each his own.

    **

    “Endarkment.” that word worries me. It’s actually grist for the mill of Eagleton types. I think they worry that “the new atheists” look at the Muslim hordes as a bunch of “darkies.” There is an arrogance and condescension involved in their condemnation of religion. It takes great care (violins, not drums) to say what is wrong with conservative Islamic socieites without coming across like a white missionary.

  52. I agree that it’s nonsense. The notion that “the problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.” is simply laughable. Nevertheless that is the beat that Harris drums. He specifically says in the his dialog with Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens, the “four horsemen” video, that what is “new” about the “new atheists” is the “critique” they provide of religious moderates.

    As such do YOU want this particular drum beat to be playing along with violins? Be careful what you answer or you’ll get a good drumming on the blogs of “we” atheists. Just ask Julian.

  53. Jeremy Stangroom

    These are reputable sources and people are generally given much less information when asked to vote on much more important issues.

    Paul

    You seriously telling me that you think that whether or not schizophrenia is a recognisable illness, and should be recognised as such, is something to be decided by a public vote? (Or that a public vote should be part of the decision calculus?)

    And that people can reach a sensible, worthwhile, view on the matter on the basis of a podcast debate and a few links? (The Intervoice stuff is really bad, by the way – incredibly misleading about what psychiatry really says about schizophrenia.)

    If so, why don’t we do the same for cancer, because, you know, a lot of the same arguments against schizophrenia as a diagnosis can be levelled against cancer as a diagnosis.

    Anyway, we shouldn’t have this argument here. But I’ll probably do a post in the near future arguing in favour of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Then we can duke it out! :-)

  54. It takes great care (violins, not drums) to say what is wrong with conservative Islamic socieites without coming across like a white missionary.

    Does it? Does it really? Does it take great care (understood to mean extra helpings of tact, caution, politeness, ‘sensitivity,’ sympathy, understanding) to say what is wrong with whipping a teenage girl for being in the presence of an unrelated man, with shooting a couple to death for alleged ‘adultery,’ with unequal rules and laws for women and men, with the death penalty for ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ and homosexuality, with anti-Semitic drivel in state textbooks, with 80 lashes for a woman who shows a little hair, with throwing acid in the faces of girls on their way to school, with murdering teachers who teach girls? I don’t think it does, I think it takes firm unbashful condemnation.

    Also, there’s a peculiar unmarked shift, here, in fact there are two of them.

    It’s actually grist for the mill of Eagleton types. I think they worry that “the new atheists” look at the Muslim hordes as a bunch of “darkies.” There is an arrogance and condescension involved in their condemnation of religion.

    If the Eagleton types worry that, they are making a crude and stupid mistake, which is not a reason to heed their worry. Furthermore, there is reason to suspect that much of this ‘worry’ is feigned – is lightly-disguised political bullshitting. The Eagleton types like to say that kind of thing, but that’s their problem. It’s certainly not a reason to move directly from that to the assertion that ‘there is an arrogance and condescension involved in [the ‘new’ atheists’] condemnation of religion’ – that simply accepts the Eagleton types’ putative worry as established fact. The Eagleton types don’t deserve to be believed quite that quickly or easily.

  55. whether or not schizophrenia is a recognisable illness, and should be recognised as such, is something to be decided by a public vote?

    (Not to pile on but) yeah I had the same thought. However reliable the linked material may be, it’s really not a good idea to decide medical issues by internet petition.

  56. I don’t see what the big deal is here. An internet poll is going to have virtually no impact on decision-making about schizophrenia, and how it’s understood or labeled. Where impact is negligible, expertise may as well be negligible too. The point of signing such things is just to express yourself, or at most to demonstrate that there’s public concern about the issue.

    Two further points–it was Amos, not Paul, who suggested we go over there and sign a petition. Secondly, Jeremy, if credentials and expertise really matter so much, Paul’s the one we’re going to have to listen to. He’s a practicing clinical psychologist.

    ****

    Faust, That’s a great question. I’m going to rent that four horsemen video, for my edification. Also, the Bill Maher movie “Religulous.” I can’t make up mind (frankly) about drum-beating atheism. Is it a guilty pleasure (it’s at least that), or nothing to feel guilty about? Maybe if I watch both movies I’ll make up my mind!

  57. You can actually watch the entire four horsement video on YouTube. I really enjoyed it, and it’s instructive.

    In my view there is simply a distinction to be made between literal vs metaphorical religion and the attempt to conflate the two is where I depart (vigorously) from the new atheists to the degree that they are even in alignment on that particular issue.

    Just compare these two book titles though for a sense of the diversity even among the four horsemen:

    God is Not Great: How Religion Poisions Everything

    vs.

    Breaking the Spell: Studying Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

    pretty different.

  58. Jeremy Stangroom

    Jean

    It matters for the same reason that it is important to challenge AIDS denial, for example. If this stuff takes hold, then people will be harmed.

    it was Amos, not Paul, who suggested we go over there and sign a petition.

    I didn’t say otherwise. But Paul responded. I responded to him.

    if credentials and expertise really matter so much, Paul’s the one we’re going to have to listen to. He’s a practicing clinical psychologist

    Four points:

    1. I didn’t say credentials or expertise matter;

    2. But expertise does matter. Of course it matters. (You know I’ve taught university level psychology – including what was then called ‘abnormal psychology’ – right?)

    3. The fact that Paul is a clinical psychologist doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an expert in this area (though, of course, he might be)

    4. Not all experts agree. But the stuff Paul links to is extremely dubious (not the Institute of Psychiatry stuff). I’d be very surprised to find more than a handful of experts who’d disagree about that.

  59. Jeremy Stangroom

    We really should do this on a different thread, though (if we’re going to do it!).

  60. Ophelia, Of course that’s all disgusting stuff, but people who go in for it really do seem to experience critics as if they were white missionaries. So if critics want to have an influence, they need to be careful with tone. I think that’s the question–do you want to speak the truth (which does matter) or do you want to change behavior? Do you want to save the girls from beatings, or do you want to say exactly what the problem is with Islam? At least people who are on the frontlines (which means who? that’s an important question) do need to aim and express criticism very carefully. I think everyone who works on human rights issues on the ground would say that this is true. Whether western intellectuals “back home” need to observe the same rules is a little less clear.

  61. Jeremy On Paul’s page it says in Japan the label has been eliminated. How marginal and crazy could this movement be? I’m not sure if what the campaign wants is a change of word (why not? it’s a worn-out alarming word), or a total change in thinking about mental illness. Anyhow…it would be interesting to discuss, and Paul should have a chance to make a case before this stuff is dismissed. I believe he does work in the NHS with the full spectrum of patients.

  62. Faust, OK, will watch (have you seen Religulous?). Actually, I think ‘Breaking the Spell” is implicitly insulting. Religious folk don’t like the idea that they’re under some spell. But yes, Dennett’s style is quite different.

    Gotta go, all…don’t attack me too much while I’m gone.

  63. Faust, OK, will watch (have you seen Religulous?). Actually, I think ‘Breaking the Spell” is implicitly insulting. Religious folk don’t like the idea that they’re under some spell. But yes, Dennett’s style is quite different.

  64. No: Jean Kazez – wrong.
    “Endarkment” is a word coined AFAIK by Prof. Colquhoun as an opposite to the Enlightenment, as a catch-all for the rise of superstition, “woo” generally and religious closing-off of rational and scientific lines of enquiry.
    I note that Ophelia has kindly provided another set of (muslim) examples of the disgusting behaviour of profound religious believers.
    Alternatively, if “reasonable”/”moderate”/”enlightened” religious belief is an accaptable stance to take, then why is that when some particularly horrible fundamentalist sect of any religion behaves in a disgusting fashion we always, without fail, get this sort of response from the “moderates: “They are ( or were ) not PROPER Christians / Muslims / Marxists / etc. …. We’re different!”

    Oh, yeah?
    O.S.D. is still part of the Roman Catholic church, isn’t it? Is Ian Paisley a Christian minister, or not? Are the Persian and Taliban ayatollahs clerics, or not? Were Stalin, Mao Zhedong and Pol Pot Marxists, or not?
    Besides which, if these, and similar cases, are, or were not “proper believers”, why do those proper believers never, ever at any time, really DO anything about it, except whinge?

  65. You seriously telling me that you think that whether or not schizophrenia is a recognisable illness, and should be recognised as such, is something to be decided by a public vote? (Or that a public vote should be part of the decision calculus?)

    For what it’s worth, I certainly agree with you that the classification system should not be decided by referendum. Nonetheless I completely disagree with you that the public (all potential service users) should not be involved in the decision-making process. If many people sign a petition it may, at best, encourage the government to examine the issue formally.

    And that people can reach a sensible, worthwhile, view on the matter on the basis of a podcast debate and a few links? (The Intervoice stuff is really bad, by the way – incredibly misleading about what psychiatry really says about schizophrenia.)

    Yes, I think many people can reach a sensible worthwhile view on the basis of the information provided. The level of scrutiny required by people probably relates to the gravity of the decision (whether to sign the petition). I think you’re overstating the gravity of the decision and the sophistication of the arguments (or underestimating the ability of the public to understand them). Whether Intervoice (a service user organisation) are misrepresenting psychiatry on schizophrenia depends on what you and they mean by psychiatry (also, that article was co-written by a Professor of Psychiatry).

    If so, why don’t we do the same for cancer, because, you know, a lot of the same arguments against schizophrenia as a diagnosis can be levelled against cancer as a diagnosis.

    The main difference for me is that physical health diagnoses contain far less controversial normative judgements than mental health diagnoses, in particular schizophrenia.

    Anyway, we shouldn’t have this argument here. But I’ll probably do a post in the near future arguing in favour of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Then we can duke it out! :-)

    Yes, I agree – sorry for going on about this as it’s all very much off-topic. Look forward to discussing it with you anyway.

  66. Woops – sorry about the dodgy blockquoting.

  67. Jeremy Stangroom

    I’ll do a post about it. Sure there is an argument about whether schizophrenia is a single, discrete disorder (and the psychiatric profession itself is divided about it).

    But whilst that is true it doesn’t follow that the symptoms which are defined as schizophrenia are not the manifestation of physiological stuff.

    (So we know for example that a risk factor for schizophrenia is enlarged ventricles in the brain (see, for exmaple, ‘Risk factors for onset and persistence of psychosis’, Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (1998) 33: 596-605); we know that schizophrenia is highly heritable (if I remember correclty, if both your parents have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, then you have a 50% chance of developing the disorder); in the last five years or so, genes have been identified; we know the dopamine system is involved; etc, etc.)

    The trouble with Intervoice stuff is that it pretty much denies that there is any physiological basis for the symptoms. So it includes stuff such as:

    Schizophrenia is not a valid concept because it completely fails scientific tests. Therefore schizophrenia is not and never has been proven to be a brain disease.

    That is both incredibly disingenuous and virtually meaningless. And extremely irritating! :-)

    But I’ll do a post about it.

  68. Jeremy Stangroom

    Paul

    Sorry if I sound aggressive or agitated. I actually think this is an extremely important issue. But it isn’t personal! :-)

  69. So if critics want to have an influence, they need to be careful with tone. I think that’s the question–do you want to speak the truth (which does matter) or do you want to change behavior? Do you want to save the girls from beatings, or do you want to say exactly what the problem is with Islam?

    How does one do the one without the other? The girls are getting the beatings because the people doing the beating consider them to have broken Islamic rules. How does one go about changing such a setup without saying exactly what the problem is? It’s not a matter of saying exactly what the problem is with Islam just for the hell of it, or for polemical jollies, or to be Correct; it’s because the problem with Islam is directly causative of beatings of girls, so what can one possibly do but say so?

  70. Don’t the diplomats and human rights workers on the ground try to reassure people that their religion is not under attack, and the west really does appreciate how wonderful it is, and we are all people of the book, and etc etc etc Then, when people are all calm and don’t feel under attack, you say “But one little thing–about this beating of girls and not letting them go to school. Could we just talk about that?” It needs to be a surgical strike, or people freak out. I do think that’s the way to go on the frontlines, but I’ll grant it’s less obvious if you are way, way upstream, writing books for people to read back in the west. There the best way to have influence is less clear.

  71. Don’t worry Jeremy – I certainly didn’t think you sounded aggressive or anything. I agree with you it is very important. That’s a good starting point in my book!

  72. Well different people do different things, and I don’t in fact know in great detail what diplomats and human rights workers on the ground say. Many of them are themselves Muslims, of course, and many of them say ‘this kind of thing is not Islamic’ – but ultimately that runs into the problem that in fact it is Islamic, and that’s why it keeps cropping up again and again and again.

    At any rate…I strongly doubt that diplomats and human rights workers on the ground have much success with for instance the Taliban by reassuring the Taliban that their religion is not under attack, and the west really does appreciate how wonderful it is, and we are all people of the book. The Taliban is not that easily mollified, much less persuaded to alter its ways.

    And in fact I think it is pretty clear that the best way to have influence when writing ‘in the west’ is by not pretending that Islam is just wonderful and it’s all been a big misunderstanding.

    But then of course I would think that, having just done exactly that (i.e. not pretending) in a book with a robustly unapologetic cover.

  73. Jeremy: In previous discussions Paul has linked some interesting material on guidelines about treating
    troubled people. I hope that he sends us those links again. My concern (and perhaps that of Paul) is not the etiology of mental diseases, but the way potential mental patients are treated. That has a lot to do with the labeling process. The guidelines drawn up in Anglosaxon universities will be used by busy and stressed doctors, perhaps not psychiatrists, in 10 minute interviews in an emergency ward with troubled patients in Talca, Chile, but the diagnosis may begin a process of social exclusion and humiliation that may affect them all their lives. The diagnostic process is not analogous to that of cancer because its results have to do with whether the patient is a responsible agent or not. I agree that the subject is very important.

  74. Jean: I agree that violins are generally more useful in convincing people to change than drums. However, all of us here (I suspect) lack sufficient knowledge of Muslim cultures (there is not just one Muslim culture) to suggest specific ways to promote change. That is the task of specialists in the various Muslim cultures and languages and especially of moderates from the Muslim world.

  75. Jean,

    No I haven’t seen religulous. I suspect I will find it quite funny based on reports from friends. I have no problem making fun of dogmatists (or excoriating them for that matter). I just don’t think that religion is by definition dogmatic. There are extremely dogmatic religions and there are entities which can be classified as religious but are not (particularly)dogmatic. But in a sense that becomes a terminological dispute.

    Greg above typifies (Harris LOVES to talk about how people “typify” positions) the kind of argument by conflation that I find so…bad.

    Greg writes:

    Besides which, if these, and similar cases, are, or were not “proper believers”, why do those proper believers never, ever at any time, really DO anything about it, except whinge?

    Answer: so how does this bizarre read on “proper believers” whatever that is supposed to mean, account for the conflict within churches who have moved to accept gay, lesbian, and even transgender individuals into their communities? There are churches that literally split on this matter. Clearly this is an example of modern religion critisizing it’s own tradition. I’m not sure what else you would even call it. Splitting your chruch is more than “whining” it’s literally splitting a community on the basis of a moral judgement.

    Of course this kind of phenomenon is simply whitewashed away by those who would like to pretend that religion is a simple monolithic phenomenon. Ironicaly those outside of the religious communities weigh in on what the “proper” form of religion SHOULD be i.e. fundamentalist religions of the book.

    This is not to say that there isn’t a really grain of truth (it may well be a boulder of truth) in the assertion that moderate religious types perform a kind of cover function, but then, so does hyper relativism from the postmodern acadamia, including many atheists. But the issues here, and the way a “providing cover for” works is not simple and the broad brushing takes away from understanding the issues in play.

    To my mind the goal is rigorous thought. So very difficult to come by, and far more important than the conclusion that any given train of thought produces.

    This is what I take Baggini’s point to be when he writes:

    For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking.

    There are many ways in which we limit our thinking. Religion is just one of the ways.

  76. Although I have frequented TPM online and found the articles and content stimulating, this is the first time I have posted to one of your blogs. Greetings to all.

    As regards the violins vs. drums debate, it seems clear to me that it is a mistake to insult someone’s intelligence while attempting to appeal to it. So, if we are trying to engage a non-atheist, the violins approach is clearly the better of the two.

    But we should ask ourselves why we are concerned to discover which approach is more effective.

    For me, it is the realization that the future of the species may well be at risk, and that fundamentalist religious dogma prevent many here in the US from even considering the possibility that human activity could be contributing to climate change.

    Jean, what concerns me about the friendly atheist as you have described her is that she “doesn’t particularly want to convert anyone.” I don’t think we can afford to be so friendly anymore.

  77. The problem with having both your drums and violins Jean, is that the drum section is fairly convinced the audience the violins are playing to are stark raving mad, OR stupid, OR evil, OR misguided, OR deranged, OR deeply confused, OR broken, OR willfully irrational OR some combination of the above. There is no way for them to “play well with the others” because they are convinced the others are full of it even when they are “moderate.”

    I’ll quote Faust here because I think he pretty much sums up my stance on the ‘drummers”, too.

  78. Many of them are themselves Muslims, of course, and many of them say ‘this kind of thing is not Islamic’ – but ultimately that runs into the problem that in fact it is Islamic, and that’s why it keeps cropping up again and again and again.

    Are you referring to differences over interpretation? Not all Muslims agree with Sharia law interpretations of the Koran, just as not all Christians are Bible literalists. I think all Jean’s getting at with “It takes great care … to say what is wrong with conservative Islamic socieites without coming across like a white missionary” is that we should take care not to antagonise all Muslims in trying to criticize an aspect of conservative Muslim society. That helps no one. Don’t take the Bush Jr “you’re either with us or against us” approach; it doesn’t have to be The West vs. The Muslim World.

    At any rate…I strongly doubt that diplomats and human rights workers on the ground have much success with for instance the Taliban by reassuring the Taliban that their religion is not under attack, and the west really does appreciate how wonderful it is, and we are all people of the book.

    If Jean was thinking of the Taliban specifically, then I’d agree. Like I said: I think she just means to target aspects of some Islamic societies we want to change (mistreatment of women and homosexuals etc) rather than making it a generic criticism of Islam per se. Be critical of what needs criticizing, but take care not to be confrontational otherwise. The more we (liberal Westerners) look like we are engaging in “cultural imperialism”, the more I fear we may actually play into the hands of the likes of the Taliban.

  79. Darn, my block quotes didn’t work, so I’ll re-post. Sorry.

    Many of them are themselves Muslims, of course, and many of them say ‘this kind of thing is not Islamic’ – but ultimately that runs into the problem that in fact it is Islamic, and that’s why it keeps cropping up again and again and again.

    Are you referring to differences over interpretation? Not all Muslims agree with Sharia law interpretations of the Koran, just as not all Christians are Bible literalists. I think all Jean’s getting at with the “It takes great care … to say what is wrong with conservative Islamic socieites without coming across like a white missionary” is that we should take care not to antagonise all Muslims in trying to criticize an aspect of conservative Muslim society. That helps no one. Don’t take the Bush Jr “you’re either with us or against us” approach; it doesn’t have to be The West vs. The Muslim World.

    At any rate…I strongly doubt that diplomats and human rights workers on the ground have much success with for instance the Taliban by reassuring the Taliban that their religion is not under attack, and the west really does appreciate how wonderful it is, and we are all people of the book.

    If Jean was thinking of the Taliban specifically, then I’d agree. Like I said: I think she just means to target aspects of some Islamic societies we want to change (mistreatment of women and homosexuals etc) rather than making it a generic criticism of Islam per se. The more we (liberal Westerners) look like we are engaging in “cultural imperialism”, the more I fear we may actually play into the hands of the likes of the Taliban.

  80. Paul Hutton:

    I was indulging myself in a little raillery at the thought that S.K.would be a suitable case for treatment. Yes he was aware of his melancholia and the burden of his father having cursed God and it was a surprise to him that he survived past the age of 33. That was the myth that he lived or the form of the active imagination that enabled him to dramatise his inner struggle. He knew that though we have the whole beautiful house at our disposal we choose to live in the cellar.

    Every human being is a psycho-physical synthesis intended to be spirit – that is the building – but he prefers to live in the cellar, in the domain of the senses. Moreover he does not merely prefer to live in the cellar – no he loves it to such a degree that he is indignant if someone suggests to him that he move into the ‘belle etage’ which is vacant and available for his fancy, because it is his own house he is living in, after all.

    This myth of his early demise was the spur of his intense productivity and it caused a working through of the vast range of associations too large for one persona. So at 35 he comes to life again with the intuition that all this busyness was just the minding of his melancholia and that to continue on he needed to leave behind his despair and come to believe in the love of God and the forgiveness of sins.

    The forms of religion can be viewed as channels for the active imagination but they are lived as real and unironically. We all need healing and are to some degree caught in stimulus response automatisms and same old same old associations. Forms take the place of the wise mentor or counsellor. God as estate agent is showing us the upper floors but when the bombs fall the cellar is a safe place.

    Seeing as Islam has come up it is worth remarking that the Sufis have an extremely sophisticated system of spiritual stages with practices tailored for each. The stories collected by Idris Shah are specific to those stages .

  81. amos – unfortunately the “recital” really does say that women are inferior to men, etc….
    And, unlike the christian bible, the koran is supposed to be the literal word of “god”.
    I know there are christians who take this line, especially in the USA, and especially “King James”, but they are a minority.
    It is worth remembering that WE have come a long way in the past 150 years. Various public christians set their faces against the uise of anaesthetics in childbirth during the 19th Century, quoting the bible as their “authority”. Fortunately Vicky put a stop to that one.
    Unfortunately, we don’t have the TIME to wait for some sections of islam to go from 1387 to 2009 in less than 622 years, since we can’t allow the sorts of brutality that Ophelia describes to go on.

    Slightly off-topic, there has been an ongoing discussion on “Channel Two Forums” following 12th February this yesr – Chas. Darwin’s 200th birthday.
    It is, perhaps worth reading the weaselly, evasive, downright dishonest, and usually faux-philosophical objections put forward, inevitably by fundies (all christians, as far as I can see) to the established facts of evolution.
    Link here:
    http://www.open2.net/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=28
    But, if, in a country a s prosperous and supposedly well-educated as ours, there exists a group point-blank refusing to face established scientific facts, because they don’t like it, the poor dears, then how does one deal with the Taliban, et al?
    Didn’t Ophelia, or someone once comment that the Taliban rejoice in their ignorance and lack of education?

  82. The foremost thing that must be decided by anyone who wishes to “discuss” (or “proclaim” or “preach” or “yell from the roof tops”) religious belief is what they intend to achieve – what their goal is. Is it persuasion? Is it “conversion”? Is it merely exposure to the truth?
    If discussion is for the sake of persuasion, I don’t see how anyone can think the “drums” would be best. The “violins” are clearly the best at persuasion, and they are the best because they take human nature into consideration. I think that thinkers often underestimate the near-supreme power of human nature (I know I did). People are not clubbed into belief. The Crusades didn’t make many converts. Verbally assaulting someone with an overload of facts and statistics and flavoring them throughout with stinging jabs and intelligence-level insults will not persuade anyone into sharing your point of view, even if it is true. I’m not saying that the reaction of offense here is the right thing to do, but it is the human thing to do, and when dealing with humans, you’ve got to take that into consideration.
    Of course, some believe that mere exposure to the truth will plant a seed that will grow within an individual or a culture over time to produce the same persuasive effects that the more compassionate approaches do. I don’t share this belief, but it is nevertheless something that should be considered. The “drums” obviously believe this; otherwise their fact-flinging and insult-slinging would be for nothing more than personal satisfaction, and I honestly don’t believe such great people could be secretly so petty.
    Thus, I think the difference in approach is due not to a difference in the ultimate goal but to the differences in methodology between the different types of atheists. What needs to be determined is whether the intended results align with the actual results, something which I think would surprise and upset many of the “drumming” atheists – or maybe not.
    I think both types of atheists can have their uses – the drums are especially talented at direction public attention to certain issues, which is an incredibly powerful tool – but I do not believe that both can serve the same purposes in every case, and that the “friendly” athiests will have the most enduring and wide-spread human impact because they take into consideration the fact that they’re actually dealing with real human beings. Of course, I fully allow for the possibility that I am wrong.

  83. Time’s short today, so just briefly– I watched the first half of “The Four Horsemen” last night, doing my best to figure out why it is that people find these guys so irritating (when I don’t). I think they are all on their best behavior, and can be much more “in your face” and mocking, but I wondered how religious folks would respond to this video. I’m going to speculate that there is something about the utter confidence of these people that’s annoying. it’s annoying in the way an utterly confident theist (think Nicholas Beale, if you were in on that discussion) is annoying to atheists. Just speculating. Enjoy–

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-869630813464694890

  84. Interesting reflection, Jean, because confidence in oneself can be mistaken for dogmatism, although they are not the same: confidence in oneself has to do with self-esteem and dogmatism is an epistemological issue. Generally, the new atheists are accused of dogmatism mistakenly. There is something of “I have solved in 450 pages metaphysical problems that have plagued mankind for 3000 years” about the new atheists that could turn some people off.

  85. Well in my view they are considerably more circumspect in that video than they are in their books. I remember very clearly thinking when I watched it: well if they were this civil in their books I’m not sure they would have gotten the “four horsemen” title to begin with. I also think they very much avoid the points of conflict that they have with each other, which would have been much more interesting to me. I very much doubt, for example, that Harris and Dennett share the same philosophy of mind, for instance, and I know that Dawkins and Hitchens (and I believe Dennett as well) have quite different ideas about foreign policy.

    In any case if I recall correctly most of the money is the second part where Hitchens in particular says some very odd things and has some trouble articulating his position which I found…funny.

  86. We’ll watch the second installment tonight. I thought it was funny how everyone got quiet when Harris started talking about consciousness and spirituality. Hitchens comes across amazingly well in the first half, and in fact as the one with the best understanding of what religiosity is all about. Amazing, just because his book is not very subtle.

  87. There is something of “I have solved in 450 pages metaphysical problems that have plagued mankind for 3000 years” about the new atheists that could turn some people off.

    It certainly puts me off. I’m thinking of flirting with theism as a result (I’m only half joking!).

    I couldn’t quite make the jump to full blown religious, but I could probably make it to deism. I’d be a very irritating deist!

  88. Generally, the new atheists are accused of dogmatism mistakenly. There is something of “I have solved in 450 pages metaphysical problems that have plagued mankind for 3000 years” about the new atheists that could turn some people off.

    Yes but what I always think about that is that the entry to theism is not dependent on professional-level understanding of metaphysical problems, nor is the continued adherence to theism, so I think there is a place for amateur-level understanding of metaphysical problems in people making a case for leaving. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t also be professionals working on the subject, but given that theism is wide-open to everyone with no expertise required, that has to apply all the way around – it has to apply to opponents as well as adherents. A cat can look at a king. People can say ‘I believe in God and here’s why’ so people can also say ‘I don’t believe in God and here’s why’. The two are in that sense equivalent.

  89. DO IT JEREMY!

    If only because I would be terrificly entertained by the results :)

  90. George Tingey:
    By Jingo you must be pleased that Obama is ratcheting up the scale of the war in Afghanistan. It will be marketed as the good liberal war against the nasty Taliban who repudiate all decency and Darwin and no doubt it will be cheered on by the parrots squawking in the riggings. The torture victims from the last major conflict there have been assured their suffering in Gitmo must be put into perspective before the need to protect our guys. This is the bipartisan approach to war crimes and a revisiting of the Nuremberg defence. The Change you can believe in, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. What a wonderful recruiting device internment without trial and with torture is. The lesson – you can torture Muslims without any fear of retribution and there is no point to surrender, just fight to the death. It’s a virtual certainty that the Americans will be beaten out of Afghanistan.

  91. micheal reidy
    ONE – read my first name, correctly, please?
    TWO you have put together a very funny caricature of what I did not say at any point.
    It is a classical piece of “what-about-ery” as well.
    I have NEVER advocated torture, as you seem to imply, and I am on record elswhere, that those unfortunates in “Gitmo” should not have been there, or at least not under those conditions.
    They should have been treated as either:
    a] Innocents swept up by an indiscriminate sweep – and there were such..
    or
    b] “normal” Prisoners of War, treated under the Geneva Conventions, and monitored by the ICRC –
    and there were such – the great majority, in my opinion.
    c] genuine criminals, who should have been charged before the tribunals at the Hague-
    and there were such.
    The incredibly stupid and arrogant US administration of the time did none of these things.

    In the meantime, I’m assuming, following your lead, and tone of address, that you must approve of the Taliban’s treatment of women, and those who dare to play music?
    I think I’ll let Ophelia trash that one, because I can’t be bothered.

  92. Greg Tingey,
    You didn’t say whether you approved of the ramping up of the war in Afghanistan. One has the feeling that there is an attempt to create a climate of liberal approval for this escalation by presenting it as the only way to sort out the dastardly Taliban. Now I don’t like the Taliban but at the same time I just don’t think that this will work and that it will in fact be disastrous.

    The Gitmo business and Obama’s shabby manoeuvres are a demonstration that the high ground in morality is on a fault line. Curiously there has been little discussion in the liberal blogs that I visit about this almost as though there was an agreement that ‘our wise leader (of the free world) knows more than we do, let him at it’. Have you a perspective on that?

  93. Before we go offline (as Jeremy threatens in the latest post) I wanted to mention part II of the The Four Horsemen. Lots of fun. I’ve decided these guys are like the Beatles, and everybody ought to have a favorite horseman. With any luck, Ophelia will come back and say who she likes best. Drum roll…(ho-ho)…it’s Christopher Hitchens.

  94. Favorite Horseman: Dennett, because he demands the appocalypse proceed according to (gasp) inquiry and evidence.

    Least favorite: Hitchens. Sooooooooooo many reasons. Actually not really. Just a couple. Though I have to respect the fact that he wants religious people to stick around just so he can continue to enjoy beating them about the face and neck with his fabu rhetoric.

  95. Dennett-so boring.

    Hitchens–My guy for soooooo many reasons. I actually think he’s the one with the most complex understanding of religiosity. Dennett says–isn’t it terrible, they don’t doubt. Then Hitchens gives lots of illustrations to show that religious folk do doubt, and that in fact that’s an important part of religious experience and faith.

    I like the honesty of his saying he’d miss it if there weren’t religious people around to debate with. You get the impression he sees and enjoys the complexity of the world–and also sees his own peculiarities.

    He’s quite a drummer, but so artful at it–the man knows his poetry, history, art, politics. He has immediate access to huge amounts of information, while some of the others are more limited to logic 101 (yes, I exaggerate).

    Plus, the deep voice, the cigarettes and booze–altogether, obviously the John Lennon of the bunch. :-)

  96. I’m pretty sure that you’re saying that just made John Lennon roll over in his grave.

  97. Tingey, could you stop throwing my name around? You’re not going to ‘let’ me do anything.

  98. Faust, have you read any Hitchens besides the religion and Iraq war stuff? Unacknowledged Legislation for instance, or just any of the literary and historical pieces that appear every few minutes in ten or fifteen of the best periodicals? Jean is right that ‘the man knows his poetry, history, art, politics’ – he is mind-bogglingly well-read, and he is a very very good writer. It’s possible to disagree with him on everything and still see that.

  99. I did not like his God book, so was stunned to like him so much in person. Granted, I do like his essays, despite his apostasy re: Iraq. His Mother Teresa-bashing book was…well memorable. I must read something else now, because it won’t do to just have his picture on my wall.

  100. I wasn’t crazy about his God book either, but I always find him fairly stunning in person – on radio or tv and on book tours. That held-in, quiet, lethal, coiled effect – it can be frightening but when he uses it on for instance Kissinger, well, one feels the universe is adjusted.

    And now that B. Clinton is no longer The Only Popular Democrat On Earth, his Clinton book looks sweetly reasonable.

  101. I would never deny for a second that the man is an exteremely potent intellect. My sense of the man is that he is, in the end, an aesthete. The smoking, the drinking, he is a sensual man, and he radiates a particular kind of undeniable charisma. I think he is, above all a master of seduction. However, none of that: a command of aesthetics, a mastery of rhetoric, the ability to indulge in skilled hedonism appreciating both low and high forms of pleasure really raises him any higher than….say… “A” from Either/Or. And his position on Iraq yes, in the end, makes me suspicious of his character underneath all that “quite lethal coiled effect.” In fact I think I might see a serpent in there somewhere.

    But maybe, like Jean, I just need to read more of his stuff, but with the intent of going in the opposite direction. I was thinking of picking up Hitchens and his Critics actually, though really “understanding Hitchens” is pretty low on my priority list.

    Bottom line: when there is evidence that someone is a skilled seducer, redouble your efforts to see clear.

  102. No, that’s not it. He does have a certain charm, admittedly, but it’s not that overpowering. It is, to be blunt, a tiny bit condescending to talk of seduction. (He does impress people, including straight men, but that’s not the same thing as seduction.)

    I think you’re just wrong to say he is in the end an aesthete. It appears from what you say that I’ve read more of his stuff than you have, and that’s not how he strikes me at all. He certainly includes an aesthetic sense in his repertoire, but that doesn’t mean ‘that he is, in the end, an aesthete.’ He is in the end a lot of things, like most people. But you seem to be assuming that there’s something sub-rational lurking here – talking of what he radiates, repeating the word ‘man,’ etc. It’s not clear why you assume that…unless it’s because you’re addressing two women? Do you subconsciously assume that women are vulnerable to intellectual seduction? Not a very impressive assumption, if so.

    No; there’s nothing sub-rational here. I think Hitchens is a very good journalist, an often brilliant essayist and critic, and a powerful public speaker. That’s a judgment, not a tingle.

    God I get sick of condescension sometimes.

  103. Possibly I encouraged this with some goofy talk about the Beatles and John Lennon…indeed, did I say something about putting CH’s picture on my wall? It was a joke.

  104. Yeah well and possibly my bit of purple prose about the coiled effect also helped. But jeez, we should be able to mess around a little without dark warnings about the skilled seducer. Ecch.

  105. I actually thought it was a good description, and not so purple. He is fun to watch–sits there drinking and smoking, and then effortlessly draws on seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of culture, history, art…to make points that really are illuminating. But certainly this has got to be a matter of taste.

  106. I didn’t mean seduction that way, no sex references were intended. I think of seduction in a more general way, the general phenomenon of being ensnared by appearances. Pure presentation, a surface with nothing underneath. That’s certainly what a sexual seducer does, i.e. present the appearance that the seducer thinks will best accomplish their aim. But its not in any way limited to sex, e.g. advertising is to me seductive, or at least, it always tries to be, even when its not using sex in any way. Even in a standard dictionary definition sex is not necessary to the definition, it generally means “to lure” or “to lead astray” or “to entice.” So I could for example, if I was a political seducer, seduce the country into thinking that attacking Iraq was a good idea.

    You can replace “man” with “person” if you like and I would say the same thing. As for my comment about him being an aesthete I mean to say that he is someone who loves beauty, who indulges himself (in my opinion anyone who smokes like he does is self indulgent, I used to smoke and I certainly viewed it as a rather extreme indulgence and one I quit when my daughter was born), I’m not trying to say that he’s some AWFUL hedonist (I don’t like to throw rocks in glass houses), more that he is a MERE hedonist.

    I’m suggesting that I just don’t trust the man because I have the sense from him that he’s just in it for the game on some level. That’s how I interpreted his comments about not wanting the religous to go away, because he enjoyed arguing with them so much. It’s like a cat talking about how he hopes he doesn’t quite kill all the mice.

    Now, do I have an incomplete picture of the man? Sure. I could be way off base. On first blush he hits my gut dead wrong. I think he gets a lot of pleasure out of riling people up–sometimes just because he can, because he’s good at hitting buttons–something that can be good to do, but not if its done just for the fun of it.

    All of this is a caricature, my caricature, a really bad version of the kind of skilled caricatures that Hitchens is good at creating. Still, if I do get around to reading him more regularly perhaps I’ll come around.

  107. Hitchens is more worldly than the other 3 Beatles. His mind works with more variables or more complex variables. The attack which Eagleton launches at Dawkins at the end of his review of the God Delusion, an ad hominem attack on a straw man of the comfortable British academic, would make no sense against Hitchens, because Hitchens is so hard to pin down that no one could create a straw man of him. Hitchens is here when you’re there and there when you’re here. I can see the John Lennon analogy, because Lennon was constantly changing, constantly reinventing himself, as Hitchens is. As Faust says, he is less trustworthy, less dependable than the other Beatles, but that is a result of the amount of variables that his mind juggles. For example, Nietzsche is much less trustworthy than Mill or Bentham, simply because his mind is more complex, with more dimensions, more variables.
    That has nothing to do with intelligence or IQ: it’s a type of mind. I prefer Nietzsche; others prefer Bentham.

  108. Fair enough–interesting characterization. Of the four horesemen, he’s certainly the one with the most media success, so it’s really no wonder I find him compelling. Evidently lots of people do. The question is whether he’s deep-compelling or shallow-compelling. Now I’m going to have to be on the lookout for him in the media so I can get more data. I have to say, his affiliation with Vanity Fair is not a good sign. Shallowness is that magazine’s specialty.

  109. Fair enough–interesting characterization. Of the four horsemen, he’s certainly the one with the most media success, so it’s really no wonder I find him compelling. Evidently lots of people do. The question is whether he’s deep-compelling or shallow-compelling. Now I’m going to have to be on the lookout for him in the media so I can get more data. I have to say, his affiliation with Vanity Fair is not a point in his favor.

  110. I too like the comparison of Hitchens with Lennon. He does seem to be the most interesting of the four. If I could invite one of them over for for dinner, Hitchens would be the one.

  111. Oh good, it’s come down to a question of which one we want to have a beer with.

  112. Faust: Don’t invite Hitchens for a beer. He’ll have 3 or 4 and leave you with the check to pay. Better invite Dawkins. He’ll only drink one beer and share not only the check, but the tip.

  113. Are we going to complete the analogy? I suppose Dawkins, as the other well known one, is Paul McCartney: talented in a solid, prosaic kind of way. Harris = Harrison; Dennett = Ringo?

  114. Oh good, it’s come down to a question of which one we want to have a beer with.

    Your invited too.

    But seriously, it kinda does come down to that: assessing who I find the most interesting. They all seemed fine to me. I didn’t find any of them annoying or offenive (although I could see how a committed believer might). They’re all probably reasonably interesting people. But in the end they didn’t really convince me of anything; as Jean

  115. I have to say, his affiliation with Vanity Fair is not a good sign. Shallowness is that magazine’s specialty.

    But he writes very unVanityFairish stuff there. I think his waterboarding piece was there. And he writes for every serious periodical you can think of, pretty much literally – there are times when he seems to have something in every single one at the same time.

    The idea that he’s ‘a surface with nothing underneath’ is, I’m afraid, completely absurd. It’s possible (in the sense of reasonable) to despise everything that’s underneath, but not to think that there is nothing.

  116. *you’re*!…

    …and to finish that post: in the end they didn’t really convince me of anything; as Jean suggested, it was all a bit Phil 101 really. So assessing who was most worthwhile comes down to who would I most want to have a beer with.

  117. Oh wait, I lost the plot, didn’t I – the question was who was best on the video, which I haven’t seen.

    Never mind.

  118. Wait, I didn’t refer to them all as philosophy 101. I said that Hitchens was so dazzling that he made the rest look a bit phil 101. Yes, Dennett is Ringo…I hope neither of them mind.

  119. Oh Ringo, play those drums!

    I will say this: If Hitchens would give us all a rousing rendition of “Imagine” then that would be a recording I would keep close at hand.

    Some clarification of my earlier point about Hitchens, with which I am not satisified:

    1. I do want to emphasize that I’m more trying to articulate a gut reaction rather than offering anything that could be considered an actual critique of the man. I’m not positioned to offter the latter, as I don’t have a sufficiently comprehensive knowlegdge base of his work.

    2. Upon reflection I think Ophelia is right that my account doesn’t really work (even as a caricature), i.e. that overemphasizing his aesthetic approach is not really adequate for someone as complex as Hitchens.

    3. Therefore I offer yet a third articulation of my general gut reaction. I think perhaps I suspect him of being a skillled practitioner of bullshytt, specifically as articulated by Henry G. Frankfurt in his wonderful little essay “On Bullshytt.”

    4. This is atually what I was sort of getting at via my “beer” remark. In 2000 the line in the press was that George Bush was the “kind of man you would want to have a beer with” while Al Gore was boring, effete and “too intellectual.” In other words: W. was just “more appealing.” So I’m making fun of responding to people on that basis: of how “appealing” they are, regardless of the “reasoning” behind it. As Jean says it may come down to a “matter of taste” but it’s that kind of essentially aesthetic reaction I would want to avoid in general when trying to suss out philosophical positions. On the flip side, the very same critique can be applied to my own gut reaction, i.e. one could accuse me of simply having a negative gut reaction according to taste, and that may have some truth to it as well.

  120. Having a beer with either Bush or Gore doesn’t interest me. With Obama, yes. The point is that having a beer with someone is a way to learn from him or her; direct teaching, face to face, as the Zen saying goes. I suspect that all I have to learn from Dawkins is written in his books and that there is something, perhaps not something that is easy to put into words, that I could learn from Hitchens from talking to him. As to being a bullshit artist, I’m not familiar with the work you cite, but Hitchens investigates his facts: see his work on Kissinger for example. Our friend Eagleton is a bullshit artist.

  121. Faust, Interesting that you mention “On BS.” I just read Frankfurt’s other book “On the Reasons of Love”–and wrote something about it at my blog. It’s really excellent! I was thinking “On BS” was pretty much just a party favor (for a highbrow philosophy party?) but maybe I’d better read it!

    I did not get the impression, watching CH, that he’s a BS-er. A BS-er takes a little bit of knowledge and tries to make it look like much more. Whereas with Hitchens, I actually get the impression of a vast reservoir. By the way, I like Amos’s term–“worldly.” Yes, you get the impression that the others (especially Dennett and Harris) have learned certain ways of thinking and arguing within the halls of academe. They are natives to specific disciplines. Hitchens is (well, obviously) not academic.

  122. He has a good deal of academic cred though – he read PPE at Oxford, he teaches at The New School, etc.

  123. I just read Frankfurt’s other book “On the Reasons of Love”–and wrote something about it at my blog. It’s really excellent!

    It really is excellent isn’t it? I’ve not read a bad review anywhere. Someone (can’t remember who) said they really liked how all Frankfurt’s ideas and essays all mesh really nicely – there’s something intrinsically satisfying about the way his famous and much earlier essay ‘freedom of the will and the concept of a person’ is so essential to the thesis he presents in ‘The Reasons of Love’.

    I also quite like his moral scepticism. Although he recognises the authority morality has over us, he quite rightly recognises that there’s more to life than just trying to be good. I’d be interested in how Frankfurts view of how we ought to live our views contrasts with Singer’s!

    Finally, Frankfurt’s definition of love as a “disinterested concern for the existence of what is loved, and what is good for it” (p.42) takes some beating.

  124. Paul, I had all the same thoughts about the book. I too like the way he talks about morality as important, but not overriding. One of the reasons I like it is that it clears space for rigorous moral thinking. You can think thorough what’s right, wrong, etc., without having to think that your conclusions immediately dictate what you must do. Eg you could agree with Singer about what is morally right, yet say that morality is not constantly going to be your first priority.

    Yes, I’m not so sure about his definitions of caring or love, but there are some great insights in there about why love matters.

  125. Sounds like it’s time for me to pick up “The Reasons of Love.”

    As for On BS, it’s a very short little piece, but I can offer the short thesis as follows:

    The BSer is not interested in truth or falsity. The BSer is primarily interested in accomplishing a goal, in getting something done. So while both the liar and the BSer represent themselves as endeavoring to communicate truth, the liar is only hiding the facts, whereas the BSer is not interested in the truth or the falsity of the facts, only in a particular agenda which may or may not be served by the facts in this or that particular instance. Hence politics and advertising are thick with BS due to the fact that both politics and advertising are principly about getting things to happen, getting things done, and not to discover truth or falsity about any particular set of propositions. The BSer can be utterly sincere, because his intentions may be quite ernest, even if his project ultimately is a question of his agenda, an agenda which is quite seperate from questions of truth and falsity. In sum, the BSer wants to sell you something, in the broadest possible sense of “sell.”

    So I react to Hitchens as someone who is trying to sell me something, and I don’t really buy it. But again, that’s not a reaction that I can offer a particular firm grounding for, at least not for Hitchens globaly (though I could offer some specfic pieces that he has written that would authoritatively fit the bill), and to the degree that I exceed my knowledge of Hitchens with my comments, I could myself be accused of Bullshytting about Hitchens, though hopefully I’ve supplied enough caveats.

    In any case a great little essay, the man is a very economical writer.

  126. Faust: I could be wrong, but my guess would be that Hitchens lies more than the other 3 and bullshits less.

  127. That is, Hitchens is much more Maquiavellian than Dawkins or Dennett, but less innocently self-deceived and hence, deceiving others.

  128. Jeez, nobody be shy about just making up stuff and saying it. Don’t have any inhibitions about having hunches that people tell lies and then publishing them.

    Talk about bullshit – doesn’t anybody have any sense that it’s not very ethical to slander people this way on the basis of sheer guesswork? That this isn’t some literary game but a matter of throwing mud at real people?

    Get a grip, will you?

  129. And by the way just saying ‘I could be wrong, but’ isn’t good enough if the next claim is ‘X tells lies’ – not when you’re just guessing, that is, just making it up.

    Get your moral compass adjusted. Sheesh.

  130. Guffaw.

  131. Well I’m not saying that the man lies, the whole point of introducing Frankfurt was to try to suggest that what I percieve is not about lying at all. It’s a totally different angle.

    Nor am I “guessing” I’m saying: I have a reaction, I’m trying to understand and articulate my reaction, I could be wrong in my reaction because my knowledge is limited. I suppose I could just say “he rubs me the wrong way” but if I then ask well “why does he rub me wrong” and I try to describe it then I offer an account of what I have percieved on the basis of limited knowledge.

    If you want to turn that into “slander” then go right ahead, but I’ve nowhere said “this is how Hitchens is” I’ve said “this is how Hitchens SEEMS to me.”

    In any case this has gotten entirely too speculative and more about me trying to articulate a heretofore unexamined bias and not enough about the original post though I think that got hashed out thoroughly enough anyway.

  132. Hitch underwent waterboarding for all of 25 seconds or so before he shouted stop. I give him credit for that. He has no doubt that it is torture within the meaning of the act. But if you don’t prosecute those who put such vileness in place are you not saying in effect – first I will wring my hands and then I will wash my hands and then I will look the other way, towards the future.

  133. Everyone I’ve ever met lies, bullshits and at times tells the truth, including myself. Faust’s introduction of the concept of bullshit, a nebulous realm between truth and falsehood, lead me to speculate on whether Hitchens lies more than he bullshits, although, I imagine, he does both, as I do. I could be wrong, and Hitchens could be that rare human being who neither lies nor bullshits. If so, my apologies to Mr. Hitchens. By the way, I never sustained that Hitchens always lies or lies more than he tells the truth, just that he lies more than he bullshits.

  134. Faust, I was talking about amos, not you.

    amos, I repeat, I think it’s not ethical to say that people lie just on spec. You don’t know that Hitchens lies, so you shouldn’t say he does.

  135. I figured it out eventually :)

    I was keying off the phrase “nobody” in “nobody be shy.”

    Anyway, that’ s why I wish this site had nested threading where individual comments generate their own threads. I’m not sure if that is in the cards or not though for the redesign.

  136. Ophelia: I assume that everyone lies at times. In fact, Frankfurt my link on bullshit (above) also remarks that everyone lies at times. By the way, Frankfurt in a way concedes a higher ethical value to someone who lies than to someone who bullshits, given that the liar recognizes that truth exists or matters, while the bullshit artist is beyond truth and falsehood. I agree with Frankfurt. So, when I guess that Hitchens lies more than he bullshits, I’m praising him. Slander is not my intention. In fact, if you read my posts through his whole discussion, you’ll see that I constantly defend Hitchens, that I have a high opinion of him. However, I cannot imagine a human being who does not lie at times. That I defend Hitchens and find him to be the most interesting of the four new atheists indicates that I find his work to be worthwhile and it would be absurd for me to find his work worthwhile if I found it to be generally false. I consider Hitchens to be an exceptionally lucid person, lucidity being an important virtue for me, and if I follow Frankfurt’s distinction between lies and bullshit, as outlined above, a lucid person will lie more than he or she bullshits, since he or she will be aware of what is true and what is false, unlike the bullshit artist, who moves in a realm where truth no longer matters.

  137. It’s hard to indulge in people-talk without getting out of synch. So that’s that…and I’m not even going to say whether I think Dawkins is Paul and Harris is George or the other way around.

    As to nested threads…I often think a blog with nested threads look a bit terrifying. But I guess it depends on the graphics. The Daily Kos is nested and not terrifying. That might be an idea….

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