Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I have always been interested in the phenomenon of disagreement. I find it interesting to observe, from a casual distance, as people go about arguing with each other over some issue or another.

One of the things that interests me is the huge inefficiency of disagreement – the way that disagreements generate a great deal of heat, but very little light, because of the way that people go about the project.

The current debate on framing, which I weighed in on yesterday, is providing enough bytes of data to make some interesting observations.


Actually, the ground was prepared for the current dispute on ‘framing’ by an earlier article that said that atheists were split between ‘militant, fundamentalist’ atheists such as Dawkins and Harris, versus ‘appeasement’ atheists such as Greg Epstein.

Please note the use of scare quotes in the above paragraph. These are the derogatory terms that people on each side have used to denigrate the others. They have become more widely known than any other term used to describe the group. This is largely because the people who use these terms wanted to find something that generated in their listener an emotional reaction of fear or loathing that was quite independent of the evidence – to ‘poison the well’ as it were.

So, even now, we do not really have a value-neutral way of describing each side of the debate. ‘Militant atheists’ have argued for the term ‘atheist activists’ – yet this implies that ‘appeasement atheists’ are not activist. They are active. They simply prefer a different set of tactics.

We could, perhaps, call them ‘confrontational atheists’ versus ‘diplomatic atheists’.

However, the issue I want to focus on is not, “What do we call these two groups?” It is the fact that so much heat is generated over the question of, “What terms should we use?” This problem emerged in the first place because of an interest that many outspoken individuals had in scoring ‘first blood’ by using a derogatory and demeaning label when discussing their opponents. Instead of focusing energy on an enlightening discussion of what ‘they’ said and whether those claims were true or false, we get derailed into a heat-generating discussion on the use of terms.

Now, I am more than happy to admit that I use emotional language in some of my writings. I call people liars, bigots, and sophists. I insist that emotional language is essential to moral discourse. We promote that which is good and avoid that which is evil by using the tools of praise and condemnation. However, I aim to tie my value-laden language to a foundation of fact. “Here are the qualities that define a bigot. Here are the reasons why those qualities are deserving of moral condemnation. Here we see the agent exhibiting those qualifications. Therefore, I condemn this agent as a bigot.”

There is no fault in calling a person who has committed murder a ‘murderer’ or a person convicted of rape a ‘rapist’. Nor is there any fault in calling a person who lies a ‘liar’, a person who uses obviously invalid reasoning to advance his position a ‘sophist’, or a person who promote hatred against members of a group without just cause a ‘bigot’.

If there are atheists who call for taking up arms in order to violently respond to the theist oppressors, it would be perfectly legitimate to call them 'militant'. If there were atheists who were actually arguing for giving theists the power the feed their enemies to the gas chambers, it would be fitting to call them ‘appeasers’.

Specific vs. General

Here is another example of inefficiency.

When Nisbet and Mooney presented their argument that scientists should do a better job of ‘framing’ their discussion, they made the mistake of including a recommendation that scientists show religious beliefs some measure of respect. This touched a sore spot for those who hold that religion is the root of all evil and deserves no respect. Those who had this attitude did not only respond by condemning this particular recommendation for framing science. They turned this into an objection to framing altogether.

This response is misguided. It is as if I wrote an article saying that people should save for their retirement. In the midst of doing so, I used the example of investing in XYZ Company. Somebody else comes along and says that XYZ Company is a poor company to invest in. The next thing I know I am faced with 100 rebuttals from people who are condemning the idea that people should save for their retirement. At which point, those who are in favor of saving for one’s future jump to the defense of that principle. The critics respond as if to say, “Everybody who thinks that one should save for their future is somebody who believes that people should invest in XYZ Company.”

Of course, there is nothing inconsistent with believing that people should save for their future without investing in XYZ company. There is nothing inconsistent with holding that scientists should learn how to ‘frame’ their findings without saying that they should deny that many religious beliefs are not only un-scientific but are things that science has proved wrong.

The gears keep slipping between the general question of framing and the specific question of how to treat religious beliefs, and these slipping gears continue to generate heat, rather than light. It would be useful if people could separate the two issues, specify which of the issues they are going to write about, and make an effort to stay on subject. If they did this, perhaps we could see more light, and less heat.


One of the claims that I often hear people make is that people like Dawkins and Harris are actually making things worse for atheists by giving their opponents ammunition and reason to hate. Others deny that this is true, claiming that the confrontational nature of Harris’ and Dawkins’ writings is good for atheism.

I would like to point out to the disputants in this case that these are empirical claims. As such, they should be tested by the ability of the general principles that lie behind these claims to explain and predict real-world events.

I am on the side that believes that ‘being nice’ will do no good. This would suggest that atheists are the least trusted group in America today is due to the fact that atheists are ‘less nice’ than other groups. Yet, I would like to see even a shred of empirical evidence to back that up. A group of atheists file lawsuits in court to enforce the laws that exist on the book and in the Constitution. A group of Christians assassinate abortion providers and blow up clinics. A group of Muslims crash airplanes into sky scrapers. This suggests a poor correlation between social status and ‘being nice’.

More importantly, I want to know if anybody wants to argue that negro slavery could be blamed on the fact that Africans were not sufficiently nice, or that Jews lacking civility were responsible for the Holocaust, or whether women who were inappropriately abrasive in their comments were the cause of the subjugation of women.

These assertions are not only false, they are denigrating in their own right. They are clear examples of ‘blaming the victim’. They state in effect that the people we should blame for negro slavery were the Africans, that the Native Americans brought about their own near extinction, and that the Jews created the Holocaust. At least, this would be the implication if anybody actually tried to make these arguments.

It is just as absurd to name atheist brashness as the cause of the public distaste over all things atheist as it is to name Jewish arrogance as that cause of the Holocaust. Bigots do not need to find an excuse to hate. They are going to hate no matter what. There is absolutely nothing that their victims could possibly do that the bigot will not interpret in a way that ‘justifies’ his bigotry.

The point that I want to make here is that these counter-examples count as evidence for my claim that atheist ‘kindness’ will do no good. It represents the type of evidence that is lacking in much of this debate on the question of ‘framing’. Who can actually show me the empirical evidence that Dawkins and Harris are having a net negative effect on atheism and providing a net positive effect on creationism?

Does anybody have any data to back up their side of the debate?


This blog entry was meant to highlight ways in which people pursue a debate that end up generating more heat than light, and end up getting nowhere. It involves using derogatory names as a way to score ‘first blood’ in a debate over actually speaking about the issues. They involve failing to focus precisely on exactly what one is disagreeing with and exactly why one thinks that it is wrong. It involves mere assertions without providing empirical support for one’s position.

It is also a debate that seems to assume that everybody must be involved in the same project. For some reason it is not considered acceptable for one branch of debate to be concerned with one project (identifying the flaws against religion) while another group pursued a different task (promoting acceptance of policies based on sound science). At the same time, we have a third group – the scientists – whose concern is with getting research published in the peer-reviewed journals.

Objecting to this is as absurd as saying that everybody must either collect stamps or collect baseball cards or read science fiction novels. Is there anything wrong with allowing different people to address different interests?

1 comment:

Bora Zivkovic said...

Well, I wasted nine long posts and many comments trying to say what you said here in just one post so clearly.