Why I Am Not a New Atheist

Four HorsemenI was just listening to a lecture by PZ Myers about the Backlash Against the New Atheists at Skepticon 2 back in 2009. That’s actually a bad title for the talk, because Myers is really discussing the claim that the New Atheist movement is doomed to failure. In particular, some have argued that the movement is already fracturing into a bunch of subgroups who fight with others. Myers pooh-poohs this idea because atheists are not in open rebellion — as though Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t all get along at a conference where all they did was mock atheists.

The truth is that there is a problem in the New Atheist movement. I am an atheist. Yet I won’t self-identify as a New Atheist. For one thing, I don’t want to be associated with Richard Dawkins, who seems to think that totally legitimate complaints about sexism in the movement were invalid because western women’s genitalia aren’t being mutilated. Dawkins waited three years before offering the most pathetic of apologies. Unfortunately, the truly vile public statements made by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris will never even get that. In Harris’ case, I’m afraid we will have to live through decades of him finessing his racism.

But my problem with the New Atheist community is much deeper than this. As long as the movement is talking about religions, it is okay. But once they start talking about what they believe in, they show the true depth of their thinking. The following is a condensation of everything that you will hear at Skepticon about what atheists believe:

I believe in rationality. I only accept things that have proof.

This is patently false. Think about the Big Bang. As a physicist, I think it is reasonable to say that I know a lot more about it — especially the reasons why it is our current best theory for the origins of the universe — than the vast majority of atheists. Yet my knowledge is still based upon my faith in a whole lot of other people. I haven’t read Penzias and Wilson, much less Doroshkevich and Novikov. And because I have been on the inside of it, I have a much more skeptical attitude towards the scientific process than most atheists. But I do have faith in it because it works. The plumbing in my house works. The lights go on when I flip the switch. I have good reasons for believing, but believe I do.

I’ve long said that the strongest argument for creationism is “God is testing me!” It goes like this: God doesn’t want to make it easy for me to get into heaven. So he created the universe 6,000 years ago — Saturday afternoon — about tea time. And he did it in such a way as to make arrogant science types like myself just think that the universe is 14 billion years old and that humans evolved from single cell organisms. I’m not joking: this is the strongest argument for creationism. The reason it is strong is that it can’t be argued against. It might have happened. And unlike the “missing transitional fossils” and other creationist arguments, it never has to be updated.

If we go even deeper, we see that humans are not nearly as rational as we think. And atheists understand that to one degree or another. They understand that regardless of how much they try, their decisions about what president you vote for will not be rational. But they will doubtless be able to rationalize it. So why is it that religious faith is so important to condemn but not political faith in choosing a president? Most religious people are not fideists. I’d be happier if we stuck to attacking that, but the assumption in the New Atheist community seems to be that any religious person is a fideist, and that is not, you know, a rational or “evidence based” assumption.

The New Atheist community would be better off with this statement of belief, because it is more defensible:

I believe in things that work.

Of course, you have to be careful even there. I’m constantly amazed that people say things like, “Placebos don’t work.” That’s actually something you hear quite often from skeptics. But the truth is that placebos do indeed work. If they didn’t work, then scientists wouldn’t have to include them in their drug trials. The point of such trials is to find out if some expensive drug works better than a placebo, not to see if it works at all. The brain is complex and it is able to do amazing things.

Sam HarrisSo I think the question here is whether religion works. And I think, for many people, it does: for both good and ill — often in the very same person. And to not admit this strikes me as a very unappealing form of closed-mindedness. Probably the best example of New Atheist irrationality is the notion that there will come a day when people get beyond religion. The evidence for this? Zip. It seems much more rational to me to believe that in the year 2525, man will not still be alive.

But I don’t want to give the impression that I am more rational than the rest. It’s most likely that I have rejected the New Atheists because I feel rejected by them. Ontology-ignorant New Atheists (about as close to a redundant phrase as you get) love to tell me that I’m not really an atheist. Instead, I am supposedly an agnostic. For the record, I am as agnostic about God as I am about whether World War II took place.

Penn JilletteThe point is that there are divides in the New Atheist community. Why are the members of Atheism Plus going to want to continue to affiliate with the likes of Sam Harris and Penn Jillette? Movements are based upon what people believe. And ultimately, people who believe in social justice will care a whole lot more about that than in what happens to religion. And Penn Jillette will care more about keeping his taxes low. And Sam Harris will care more about his guns or whatever it is he’s into these days. What is this great thing that the New Atheists believe in? Evolution? So do Catholics! What does that prove? I know a whole lot of Republicans who believe in evolution, but that doesn’t make me a Republican.

I don’t see the New Atheist movement dying out. But I also don’t see it taking off. Even while America gets less religious, it doesn’t seem to be getting more atheistic. It will always be like libertarianism — a small, but important group — mostly because it attracts wealthy and privileged people. But I suspect that the New Atheist movement gains members at roughly the rate that it loses members — like me.


The image at the top of this article is of the “four [straight white] horsemen”: more or less the very definition of New Atheism. Notice that it consists of two bigots, one sexist, and Daniel Dennett.

After Afterword

I finally listened to the rest of the lecture. Most of the rest of the lecture is even worse. It amazes me that someone as smart as PZ Myers could be so clueless when he gets out of his area of expertise. I think the people arguing for the end of the New Atheist movement are wrong, and yet his counter arguments don’t hold up. It may be due to the fact that making good counter arguments would reveal just what an elitist (and thus limited) a movement New Atheism is. Regardless, you can’t counter a likely evolutionary basis for religious belief with, “But life would be better without religion!” Life might be better without meat too, but I still think that vegetarianism will always be a minority position.

Robert M Price on Historical Analogy

The Human BibleMy favorite example of the principle of analogy is this. Suppose you come into your house or apartment from a long day’s work. You just plop down on the chair, click on the TV with the remote — you don’t notice what channel it is — you weren’t the last one to use it. The first thing you see on the screen is a giant reptile looming above the Tokyo skyline — stomping the buildings into matchsticks. What’s your first reaction? “Oh, CNN!” No. You realize, “Okay, I got the SciFi channel” — or whatever they’re calling it now. It’s Godzilla. It’s The Lost World — something like that.

Well, you don’t know that! There you go with those presuppositions again — your anti-monster dogmatic worldview! It’s conceivable. I can imagine Gojira coming out of the water and all that. I don’t know how it would be, but I can’t rule it out. But I can’t take it too seriously either. Because I know of no experience by any reliable — Or unreliable! — witness. I do know of plenty of cheesy Toho Studio flicks in which this happens. So I have to assume this is another one. I could be wrong. It’s a probabilistic judgement. But what are the chances? And that’s all you’ve got.

—Robert M Price
Jesus is Dead

US and Israel Deserve Better Than Netanyahu

Benjamin NetanyahuI want to express how I feel about Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress yesterday. The problem is that about a year ago, I decided to remove coarse language from blog posts (except when quoting someone). And it seems that most of what I want to say really needs to be laced with profanities to get across my anger. I want him to leave my country and never come back. I want Israel to do something about him. As far as I know, the people of Israel are not too fond of how partisan Netanyahu has made relations with the United States. During the 2012 election, he was pretty clear who his choice for president was. But it should be clear to everyone in the world that Israel desperately needs the support of the United States. And if one of the two main political parties begins thinking that Israel is more of a problem than it’s worth, that’s very bad news for Israel. The only way that I could be more angry at Netanyahu is if I were an Israeli.

Let me be clear: the argument that Netanyahu is making is the argument that people always make when they want to stop negotiations. I heard it made again and again about the Soviet Union: it was so bent on world domination that it absolutely couldn’t be trusted to act rationally. These arguments are always shown to be wrong. That doesn’t mean powers like the Soviet Union or Iran are teddy bears that just want to spread sunshine in the world. But as Matt Duss summed up Netanyahu’s argument, “Iran is run by crazy suicidal apocalyptic mullahs who will crack under greater economic pressure.” But the world is a complex place with competing interests. Netanyahu claims that he wants a better deal for the west, but it is clear that what he wants to do is kill the deal. I’m sure he sees this as the best situation. This is also the man who sees the best situation for Israel as more and more illegal settlements to the point where a two state solution is impossible. As a senior administration official said, “The logic of the prime minister’s speech is regime change.” That is: war with Iran.

I think that Nancy Pelosi summed up what I’m feeling, except that I’m not sad; I’m angry (although she followed it up with a bunch of nonsense):

That is why, as one who values the US-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.

It’s also interesting that the Republicans who rightly bristle at President Obama’s executive action on immigration, should stage a stunt like this. It’s almost treasonous. In their giddy rush to embarrass the president, they have allowed a foreign leader an official opportunity to undermine the nation’s foreign policy. This is not “power of the purse strings” here; this is blatant sabotage. And it doesn’t matter if it is done with the foreign leader of an ally. They are siding with a foreign leader. To embarrass the president. This is the Congress that was going to show the nation that it could govern. I suppose this is one definition of it.

On this particular issue, the interests of the United States and the world do not line up with what Netanyahu thinks are the interests of Israel. We already knew that. He’s been whining since the negotiations began. There is no deal that he ever would have been okay with. If the emerging deal were half as good for the P5+1, he would have said it wasn’t good enough. If it were twice as good, he would have said it wasn’t good enough. No deal is good enough because in his mind Iran is the Islamic State is Nazi Germany. He wants an invasion of Iran. And I can’t say if that’s in the interests of Israel or not — in the long term I suspect it isn’t. But I know it is not in the interests of the United States and the world.

H/T: Vox

Is Nick Rowe a Cannibal?

Nick RoweNick Rowe is a real economist, and to say that I am not would be putting on airs. But I think he chose an article title that is more true than he realized when he wrote, A Silly Question for Anti-Austerians. In it, he argued that everyone is an austerian, it is just a matter of degree. He put forward an example, “Suppose the national debt was, let’s say, 1,000% (ten times) annual GDP. And suppose the budget deficit was, let’s say, 50% of GDP.” If you would favor austerity under those circumstances, then, in analogy with the old joke about prostitution (“Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”), it is just a matter of degree.

It is a silly question, indeed. I don’t think Rowe intended it as such, but it is the kind of question meant to shutdown debate rather than encourage it. It is the economics version of the ticking time bomb torture hypothetical, which I have discussed before. It is a form of apologetics, not real argumentation. It is a way of making difficult words meaningless. And the weird thing is that I don’t think that Rowe is an austerian. Not that it matters.

When Paul Krugman talks about someone being an austerian, he isn’t saying that under certain incredible circumstances she would be for austerity. Rather, he’s saying that she is for austerity under, for example, current European conditions. Rowe seems to be arguing that Krugman oughtn’t be able to do that because he too would be for austerity under some conditions.

Let me give you an analogy. Cannibalism is a continuum. Despite the fact that generally, humans will not eat other humans, there are times when they will. Specifically, people will engage in cannibalism when they are starving. And I really don’t believe people who claim that they would never do such a thing. The will to survive is incredibly strong. And let’s face it, as disgusting as the very idea is to me, it is just a social construct. So should we go around calling each other cannibals just because, under the right conditions, we would eat human flesh? Should we not be mean to Jeffrey Dahmer by calling him a cannibal just because we too might be cannibals under some circumstances? I certainly don’t think so. Words are not, nor should they be, linguistic straitjackets.

Now I image that Rowe might counter me by claiming that one only becomes a cannibal once one actually eats human flesh. But that is not what he is proposing. He isn’t suggesting that the word “austerian” be applied as a practical description: “He is an austerian when it comes to Greece but not when it comes to Finland.” And even that would be to trivialize the language. It’s very much like saying, “She’s a lesbian when it comes to attractive women but not when it comes to ugly women.” What’s with that? That just isn’t helpful in discussing anything.

Even though such hypotheticals really are silly and ultimately stop discussion by leading people down an intellectual cul-de-sac, that doesn’t stop people from being very interested in them. Indeed, there are gobs of comments on the article. But most of it is really about massaging the hypothetical. I didn’t see anyone who questioned the basic validity of the hypothetical. In addition, Rowe even pushed back against people trying to “dodging the question.” And that is the pernicious aspect of such hypotheticals. They even confuse those who are proposing them.

But I’m reasonable. Nick Rowe can call me an austerian if I can call him a cannibal.

Morning Music: Enzo Enzo

Le Jour D'à Côté - Enzo EnzoI may be in love again. I just discovered Enzo Enzo. It is hard to classify her. Most of her career, she was a chanteuse in the nightclub sense of that word. But in 2001, with the release of her fourth studio album Le Jour D’à Côté (“the next day”) she turned in a more traditional pop direction. And she’s done at least one album of children’s music. But I can’t find that much information about her. She’s certainly well known in France. But she isn’t necessarily a big star or anything (although according to All Music, she seems to have become a “household name” over the years).

The following is the music video for the first song on Le Jour D’à Côté, “Ils S’Adorent” (“they love”). I could do without the snake, but it is nice enough. And the song is very sweet with the bare minimum of sexy for a French pop song.

Birthday Post: Ray Mancini

Ray ManciniToday, the boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini is 54 years old. I’m not a boxing fan. And watching the lighter weight classes box is particularly brutal to watch — I assume because the ratio of punching energy to body size is greater for the lighter fighters. Mancini was a lightweight, which actually puts him in the middle of the boxing classes: between 130 and 135 pounds — still pretty small. So I have never seen Mancini box, so far as I know; and I don’t want to.

The only reason that I’m highlighting him today is because of the Warren Zevon song, “Boom Boom Mancini.” It’s one of my favorite Zevon songs. It tells the story of Mancini’s match against Duk Koo Kim in 1982. Mancini won the fight with a knockout in the 14th round. But Kim died four days later from injuries he sustained in the fight. Kim’s mother killed herself four months later. The referee killed himself a bit short of a year later (I can’t say for certain it was related to the fight.)

Zevon’s song takes aim at the hypocrisy of the boxing establishment and the nation as a whole. But it also seems to present a defense of men jumping into the ring and beating each other to death. The truth of the situation is that Kim’s death resulted in positive changes in professional boxing. Even worse, the song presents Mancini as cold blooded in response to Kim’s death, when it was just the opposite. How could it not?

Happy birthday Ray Mancini!