Tag Archives: atheism

Atheists aren’t shrill – just disgusting?

Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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Secular democracy and its critics

“Secularism” and “secular”are very much maligned words. Partly because they are not really understood by some people. But also because some religious people feel threatened by the words.

But they shouldn’t. Despite some attempts to equate the words with atheism and oppose them to religion they really don’t mean either of these. Unfortunately, though, some people insist on using the words that way.

Consulting dictionaries is not always helpful either because they usually list several different meanings.

What does “secular” mean?

However, when we use words like “secular” and “secularism” to describe our modern society definitions equating them with atheism or opposition to religion are completely inappropriate. When applied to society the meaning is more aligned with neutrality towards religion and other beliefs. As the cartoon implies.

So proper dictionary definitions of “secular” include:

  • “Not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters;”
  • “Worldly rather than spiritual;”
  • “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: eg secular music;”
  • “Of or relating to the worldly or temporal;”
  • “Of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly.”

And so on. You get my point.

Secularism - Monk doing monastery accounts

Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).

I have the picture of a medieval monk sitting at a desk in an old monastery. A candle by his side he is doing the monastery accounts. He is doing secular work. (I don’t think even the most convinced religious apologists would consider accountancy “sacred.”)

We are all “secularists”

All of us, no matter our beliefs, are involved in secular activities most of the time.

As a scientist I worked alongside scientists with all sorts of beliefs. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Bloody hell, one of them was even a member of the ACT Party.

However, despite our different “world views”, we did our work, our scientific research, in basically the same way. We were all involved in collecting evidence, hypothesising, testing ideas against reality, producing effective scientific theories and validating them against reality. Our religious beliefs did not change the way we did our job.

Scientific research is secular – but done by people who hold many beliefs.

Most of you will also be doing secular jobs. If you are an accountant, a plumber, a builder, or whatever, your religious beliefs just don’t influence your work. Your job is secular. And you don’t feel any conflict with that.

Democracy secular by definition

We can look on society in much the same way. Of course opinions and beliefs inevitably do intrude into political and social activity. But while we can express religiously derived views we are actually dealing with a society which does not have uniform religious beliefs. Our society is pluralist. Religious opinions are very diverse. So while in New Zealand you can argue for an ethical or political position because your god told you it was correct or it is written in your “holy” book, such arguments are completely ineffective (outside your direct religious community).

This inevitably means that simple religious arguments cannot carry any weight politically or socially. The sensible protagonist will look for arguments which have wider appeal.

And that’s how it should be. Our political system is democratic, Our society is pluralist. No one belief can be imposed by loyalty. We have to engage in the market of ideas, putting forward our best arguments. And the best arguments are the ones that most people can respond to. Religious arguments just aren’t effective.

Consequently, in democratic, pluralist societies the political and social activity, the live discussion of ideas and decision-making about the best social or political situation, is inevitably secular. It must be to be democratic.

Our politics and social activity is secular even though the participants may hold a range of religious views.  It is secular because it is democratic.

So those religious apologists who argue that modern society somehow
“privileges” secularism over religion are making a basic category error. It’s like a political party condemning democracy, the very institution which provides them with a venue for their activity.

Unless of course, they would prefer a society which was undemocratic, but placed them in power while denying all other parties the freedom to exist.

Perhaps this is the way these religious apologists complaining of the “privileging” of secularism see it. Perhaps they would like to return to a society where there religious arguments were the only ones allowed in public discussion.

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2012 Global Atheist Convention – Melbourne

The organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne have announced that tickets will go on sale from September 1st. If you are planning to go I recommend an early purchase as they did sell out quickly last time. And successful as the 2010 Convention was this one is shaping up to be even better.

Convention organisers are announcing confirmed speakers one at a time – The latest is Ayan Hirsi Ali who is certainly going to be a crowd drawer. She is one of my heroines.

Photos of the other speakers so far announced are below. Click on the individual photos to go to their details.

Daniel DennettRichard DawkinsSam HarrisChristopher HitchensAnnie Laurie GaylorLeslie CannoldPZ MyersLawrence KraussEugenie ScottPeter SingerCatherine DevenyDan BarkerFiona PattenLawrence LeungKylie SturgessTanya SmithAyaan Hirsi Ali

Hitler objects to atheist charge

I haven’t seen any of those dubbed Hitler raves lately – until last night.

And this one seems very fitting. He is reacting to the claim, made by some religious apologists, that he was an atheist.

A load of rubbish, of course, as Hitler points out.

Hitler Learns Christians Claim He Is An Atheist – YouTube.

Thanks to @akicktotheeye

Are scientists hostile to religion?

Book review: Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund.

Price: US$19.72; NZ$59.97
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195392981
ISBN-13: 978-0195392982

This book reports on the recent  Religion among Academic Scientists study in the US. A research project identifying the range of views on religion held by US scientists, and determining the statistical distribution  of different beliefs among US scientists.

Elaine Howard Ecklund gives an overview of the research and the questionnaire it used. She also includes data from other studies. Data collection was funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation (the major grant was US$283,549) Participants were randomly selected from seven natural and social science disciplines at 21 US universities (I think the way such studies often neglect the non-university scientific institutions is rather short-sighted). The questions used related to religion, spirituality and ethics.

While the data and interviews of this study are interesting and useful I don’t think they necessarily support the author’s conclusions. I explain why below

Ecklund is a sociologist and currently the director of The Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

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Confronting accomodationism

Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

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What’s special about religious “knowledge?”

Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, has repeated a challenge (see Once again: does religion produce knowledge?). He does this after renewing once again his argument that religion as a “way of knowing” is an illusion. This was in response to an article by Patrick MacNamara objecting to his Coyne’s claim in a guardian article:

“And although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.”

Jerry finishes his piece with:

Christopher Hitchens has offered his challenge to the faithful, and I have offered mine:  tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.  Like Hitchens, I still have not received an answer.”

I know how Jerry feels. I bet he get lots of claims but do any of them stand up?

See also: Jerry’s book Why Evolution Is True.

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Myths within a myth

Yes – this is going to be about religion – a common source of myths. Specifically the “conflict paradigm,” “conflict hypothesis” or “conflict myth.” Really the myth that there is such a “paradigm”, “hypothesis” or “myth” claiming  religion is and always has been at odds with science.” If you see what I mean. Think of Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls.

This is a story put about by Christian apologists (“militant Christians”) who would have us believe that there is no conflict between science and religion. That actually Christianity is the mother of science. And any conflicts that do occur are really the work of atheists, or “atheist scientists.” These atheists are the ones putting about a false myth.

I want to unpack the myth advanced by these militants.

Of course there are conflicts between religion and science – inevitable when the epistemology is so different. Whereas religious knowledge is based on revelation and authority, science is based on evidence, reason and testing against reality. But this is a principled difference – it’s not the same as claiming religion is and always has been at odds with science.”

Religious and non-religious scientists work alongside each other with no ideological conflict. And “atheist scientists” are hardly to blame for the very public attacks on science by creationists and intelligent design proponents.

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It’s that time of the year

Book review: Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal. Scott C. Lowe (Editor), Fritz Allhoff, Fritz Allhoff (Series Editor) Stephen Nissenbaum (Foreword)

Price: US$15.56
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October 19, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144433090X
ISBN-13: 978-1444330908

OK, this book is topical. Not only because of the timely subject. It’s also  appropriate to review now because it’s the sort of book one might consider giving or receiving as a present on Saturday. And it’s the sort of book one might enjoy reading next week.

Well, it’s obviously not your usual philosophy book – it’s far more approachable. It is, after all, part of the “Philosophy for Everyone” series. In fact, the philosophy is not obvious in some articles – it looks more like common sense. And the approach is slightly ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ especially with the essay titles and the notes on contributors (called “Santa’s Elves”).

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Aussie wisdom

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism Edited by Warren Bonett.

Price: AU$35.00
Format: Paperback (448pp )
Size: 234mm x 153mm
ISBN (13): 9781921640766
Publisher: Scribe Publications (November 2010).

This is a book by Aussies, for Aussies. But given our similar histories and cultures there is a lot here for Kiwis as well.

It’s a collection of short articles by 33 Australians. They cover personal recollections and reflections. National history, education, social and cultural areas. Politics, philosophy and science. There is even a section on “Religion and the Brain.”

As is the nature of such collections most readers will find something of interest. And different readers will inevitably have different favourites. My review reflects my own interests.

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