Tuesday, June 08, 2010

 

Oblivious In Atheism


Jason Rosenhouse doesn't like what Stephen Prothero said about atheists, particularly:

[Interviewer Garrett] Baer: Proselytizing atheists like Dawkins have carved out a niche within a largely religious public sphere. Would a less emotional, less evangelistic atheism be capable of maintaining even this degree of influence?

Prothero: I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem. Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don't want to be associated with proselytizers.

Jason objects:

Where is the evidence to support this canard?

There is, after all, an obvious data point against what Prothero is saying. Rampant hostility towards nonbelievers long predates the arrival of the New Atheists. This hostility is the result of mindless religious bigotry. More precisely, it is the result of the commonly held belief that atheists have no foundation for morality. It is not a response to anything atheists have actually done.

The public opinion polls do not record any backlash against nonbelievers in the last few years. In fact, the numbers are slowly but surely going in the right direction.

Strangely, Jason ignores this:

Baer: Still, today, the New Atheists have succeeded in attracting a lot of public attention? Isn't this significant?

Prothero: The public role of the New Atheists is, in my view, important. Most obviously, they are raising questions about precisely the things many people value most, not least God, Jesus, and the Bible. More urgently, however, they are calling the Religious Right to task. There used to be a gentleman's agreement that kept both our faith and our doubt out of the public square. After Christians raced into U.S. politics in the 1970s and 1980s, that agreement was breached. Many of the New Atheists are criticizing the God proposition not only because they don't believe it but also because they object to the conservative political uses to which that proposition has been put. Here too they are advancing the conversation, by pointing out there is a price to pay for enlisting God in political projects.

Now Prothero does make the real point about the ignorance of atheists of theology (that the "Courtier's Reply" cannot disguise) namely: that not all religions are the same ... a blind spot they share with their bitter enemies, the fundamentangelicals.

But back to Jason:

As for nonbelievers eschewing the term "atheist," I very much doubt that has much to do with distaste for "prostletyzers." Another possible explanation is that people do not want to associate themselves with a social group that is despised in many parts of the country. Yet another is that the term "atheist" tends to imply, somewhat unfairly in my view, a level of certainty that many people do not feel.

Really, Jason? You are going to float the "canard" that those of us who are nonbelievers but don't self-identify as "atheists" are cowards? And since you demean Prothero for a lack of evidence of his "canard," are you are prepared to offer evidence of yours?

As to "a level of certainty that many people do not feel," have you upbraided Jerry Coyne for his claims that science has ruled out the supernatural? Or do you think science has no claim on giving anyone a level of "certainty"? When you show me the "New Atheists" who express any real lack of certainty, I might concede your point. But I ain't holding my breath.
.

Comments:
I agree with you on the first point, that hostility towards atheists is independent of feelings about the New Atheists. But I also don't want to be associated with vicious proselytising atheism -- the very thing I hate in religious people.
(Of course, if the attack is both warranted AND funny, then hack away!)
But, frankly, some of the reasoning of the more vocal atheists is poor and petty -- philosophers have properly rubbished the God Delusion -- and not as rational as they proport to be.
I'm sure you know these people better than I do, but I doubt Prothero is calling atheists cowards. The opposite of certainty, in my book, is modesty, not cowardice. I'm sure a lot of people feel strongly there is no God, they know there is no God, and nothing has been good enough to persuadedthem there is a God, but perhaps they are honest and know they can't absolutely prove there is no God. I wish religionists could also show some modesty (i.e. honesty) about their beliefs, but whenever they show the least bit uncertainly, they seem to be on the verge of a crackup.
 
Nice post John, I couldn't have said it better ;)
 
About the 'atheists like Dawkins' thing and distrust, I actually came across this entry from one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Rees:

http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/09/why-are-atheists-so-disliked.html

Essentially, from what I understood a fellow named Will Gervais did his master's thesis on how the public seems to distrust atheists and performed a lil' experiment where he gave one group of believers something to read on food (this was the control group), one group an article which stated atheists were a growing segment of the population, and one group a statement of Dawkins' claiming that religious belief was 'nonsensical.' He then measured how much each group distrusted atheists afterwards.

As the proprietor of that good blog pointed out, reading that atheists were everywhere, so to speak, demolished the groups' distrust of atheists, but what's most interesting to me is the graph--I'm no statistimagician, but judging by the bar for Dawkins the group which read his anti-religious statement didn't have their 'mean distrust' reduced at all. Maybe I'm misinterpreting the study (the entry is almost a year old, so I thought it might be rude to leave a comment asking some newbie questions about statistics) and it's obviously just one study done for a master's thesis, but still, after reading it I can't help but feel a bit suspicious about Dr. Rosenhouse's at least implied belief that there hasn't been a backlash against atheists because of rather than despite the New ones.

I do wonder if I should leave a comment on that post asking for clarification, though...even if it is a year old, the host seems like a cool guy, I don't think he'd mind.
 
WIC:

I'm worse than a non-statistimagician, I'm innumerate. However, I think the results are in accord with Wilkins' "social glue" theory of religion or what may be even better described as the "peacock's tail" theory of religion. Religious practices are an extremely expensive way of signaling that you are part of the "in-group" and, therefore, that you can be trusted -- much the way that a peacock's tail is an extremely expensive way to signal your fitness to the pea hen.

Theists have adapted to modern society (somewhat) by accepting that other theists, with different denominational signals, are (somewhat) trustworthy. "New Atheists," of course, are deliberately signaling that they are the opposite of the in-group and, therefore, it follows, are untrustworthy. When theists learn that there are more atheists than they thought, that may cause them to consider other in-groups (such as "Americans") and reduce their distrust of "generic" atheists without reducing their distrust of those deliberately signaling their "untrustworthyness."
 
C'mon, John, just admit that science has shown that you're a coward.
 
Really, Jason? You are going to float the "canard" that those of us who are nonbelievers but don't self-identify as "atheists" are cowards?

How do you get from Jason's statement to the claim that he's calling such atheists "cowards"?
 
How do you get from Jason's statement to the claim that he's calling such atheists "cowards"?

About the same way Jason gets that it is a "canard" to say that "a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence." But if you said that lots of people in the south in the 60s didn't believe in Jim Crow laws but didn't want to associate themselves with a social group that is despised in many parts of the country, how should you take it?
 
:confused:

Pardon me for being dense, but what social group did you have in mind in your Jim Crow analogy?
 
" I wish religionists could also show some modesty (i.e. honesty) about their beliefs, ..."

I think that's a reasonable request. My experience is that the ones who are the most certain are the most vocal. I think there's a lot of survey evidence out there that says quite a few people have a spectrum of belief that includes doubt. I know mine does, do I'm not about to impose my beliefs on anyone.
 
JJ:

Where Jason said:

As for nonbelievers eschewing the term "atheist," I very much doubt that has much to do with distaste for "prostletyzers." Another possible explanation is that people do not want to associate themselves with a social group that is despised in many parts of the country.

Jason seems to think atheists are the [n-word] of America today and we agnostics and other unbelievers who don't identify as atheists refuse to be associated with them for fear the hate will rub off on us, just as it might have happened to "[n-word] lovers" at one time. Now, I'm not endorsing Prothero's claim that we "don't want to be associated with proselytizers," I'm just pointing out Jason's inconsistency.
 
Speaking of the N-word, when Obama was elected, some people were shocked, only because they assumed a woman would be president before a black man. But I say an admitted atheist as president is an impossibility. There is a religious test for high office in America, though it's not entreched in law.
 
But I say an admitted atheist as president is an impossibility.

I don't disagree ... at least for the moment. Atheists are certainly a disfavored group now, though that research that WIC referenced shows that it may not be immutable. I just don't see any evidence that their status has anything to do with other nonbelievers choosing not to identify as atheists.
 
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