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The Four Horsemen
December 23, 2007 8:52 PM   Subscribe

The Four Horsemen: Just in time for holidays, enjoy a pleasant chat between the world's most famous atheists - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.
posted by empath (79 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Saw this a couple of days ago - it's pretty good.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:07 PM on December 23, 2007


Excellent discussion. I promise to offend my family with it tomorrow.
posted by localhuman at 9:18 PM on December 23, 2007


I don't believe in atheists.
posted by Avenger50 at 9:20 PM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


They start the video talking about what's offensive. It's intresting, because I know a girl who'd be offended by Chris Hitchens sitting there smoking. Indeed, it seems quite rude to me to smoke indoors, sitting at a table with non-smokers.

Just an observation.

I've heard a theory that the sort of Militant Athiesim displayed by Dawkins and Hitchens is actually a European response to the spread of Islam, whereas in the U.S. Muslims are pretty powerless and thus the Liberal (and therefore secular) instinct is to try to protect them.

But who knows.
posted by delmoi at 9:30 PM on December 23, 2007


Unicorns God doesn't care if you believe in him like you don't care if God believes in you.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:30 PM on December 23, 2007


I just found this awesome clip about the oddity that is christian television:
Ladies, when you are doing laundry, if you are grouchy about it, are you doing laundry in the love of God? Because when you do laundry in the love of God, you can get a harvest.

Words are things or they are word things. So when I say words, I just release a thing but you don't see the thing when I say it, you heard the thing before you saw the thing, because I said the thing, it's heard before it's seen.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:43 PM on December 23, 2007 [6 favorites]


Words are things or they are word things. So when I say words, I just release a thing but you don't see the thing when I say it, you heard the thing before you saw the thing, because I said the thing, it's heard before it's seen.

Sounds like something Don Rumsfeld would say, while tripping on mushrooms.
posted by delmoi at 10:05 PM on December 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Words are things or they are word things. So when I say words, I just release a thing but you don't see the thing when I say it, you heard the thing before you saw the thing, because I said the thing, it's heard before it's seen.

Dianetics is some hardcore shit.
posted by Mikey-San at 10:07 PM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Sounds like something Don Rumsfeld would say, while tripping on mushrooms.
posted by not_on_display at 10:08 PM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in atheists.

You don't have to. They actually exist.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:15 PM on December 23, 2007 [14 favorites]


I would hope that some people would actually watch this before commenting on it, because they fairly systematically bring up most of the objections to atheism in this talk, and they treat many of the criticisms quite seriously and with respect.

I think it was just getting good when they cut it off at the end of the second hour. Hitchens was just getting warmed up to the topic of how American militarism is going to save the world for secularism, and I could tell that everyone else was itching for an argument.

It's also a nice foreshadowing of what the world would be like should the atheists win the argument-- more of the same -- more war, more conquest, more intolerance. Ape will always kill ape, religion or no.
posted by empath at 10:47 PM on December 23, 2007


Ape will always kill ape, religion or no.

This makes me wonder who would win in a fight between Grape Ape and Magilla Gorilla.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 10:55 PM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Ape shall not kill ape!
posted by incomple at 10:56 PM on December 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's also a nice foreshadowing of what the world would be like should the atheists win the argument-- more of the same -- more war, more conquest, more intolerance. Ape will always kill ape, religion or no.

I don't think so. I'm optimistic about the future. I honestly think the fire of war will be extinguished in my lifetime. I suppose we'll see.
posted by delmoi at 11:00 PM on December 23, 2007


The point was made that while religion may not breed conflict, it often becomes the dividing line in conflicts. Atheists have one less identifier at hand to separates them from other people.

This, in my mind is what makes the work of these four worthwhile; their arguments are relevant because there are still roadblocks on the path to a secularized society.

I also found it interesting that they dwell on the taboo of criticizing religion without offering ideas on how to dismiss it.
posted by FissionChips at 11:36 PM on December 23, 2007


If your fire of war goes out, then we will attack you and enslave your entire tribe.
posted by Slap Factory at 11:37 PM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Wars are always fought over scarce resources. Religion just makes them more vicious.
posted by empath at 11:46 PM on December 23, 2007


Hey Dick! What's happening?

- Oh, just dwelling on the purposelessness of existence in a chaotic and pitiless universe, Sam. You?

Thought I'd get Chris and Danny over for an arbitrary celebration of numerical change in the culturally-dominant chronological mapping paradigm relating to the Earth's sun-centric orbit, it being December an' all. Wanna join?

- Well, I'm genetically predisposed to! Why don't you get your guitar out, we'll all have a sing-a-long!

Great! "Silent night / meaningless night / all is random / movement of particles without intention ... "

- Mmm! Your human larynx, viewed as a purely arbitrary stage of specific organ development occurring billions of years after life began to exist in one form or another, appears to produce a sound that is compatible with my “aesthetic sensibilities” (so to speak) – where those sensibilities arise from a certain brain chemistry that is itself the result of the same evolutionary processes that, no doubt, occurred in strict concordance with the aforementioned developments in sound-production in our species; therefore it could not be said to be surprising in any way that the audible cries originating from the former (i.e., the larynx in question) should complement the latter (i.e., the aesthetics under discussion) in as much as they cause a pleasant emotional response in a (human) listener (e.g., in this case, myself).

Too true, Dick! Care for some egg-nog?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:12 AM on December 24, 2007 [16 favorites]


Hey all! This was a really interesting discussion; thanks for the post, empath.

Christopher Hitchens' position, expressed in the second hour of this discussion, troubled me. He said, I think, the following:

1) He'd be happier for (supernatural-based) religion to continue than to be utterly vanquished because he enjoys "the dialectic" (i.e., the ongoing debate between reason and religion).

2) Any supernatural-based religion is potentially as dangerous as any other. (While Islam is the big quantitative threat now, other religious fundamentalism have posed, or pose, as worrying threats, even with fewer adherents - e.g. the Catholic church's alliance with fascism in the 1930s, or the effect of Jewish fundamentalism in helping to light the powder-keg of the "Holy Land".)

3) He is a supporter of war (armed conflict - not reasoned debate) against the forces of religious fundamentalism. Forces which he (according to point 2 above) are latent in all religions.

Is he therefore saying that he'd like religion to continue, despite the fact that this would lead to the war between the forces of reason and the forces of religion, simply because he enjoys debate? A debate that he believes he is winning (intellectually), and whose continuance would only serve to refine his arguments?

Isn't that quite horrible? To consider war, and its attendant horrors, an acceptable price for a continuing refinement of an argument you believe you've won anyway?

Anyway, first ever post to the blue. I'd ask y'all to be gentle, but in the spirit of the video - expose my fallacies, hypocrisies and idiocies!
posted by laumry at 3:45 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


I liked Dawkins suggestion about quantifying people's level of offense.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:41 AM on December 24, 2007


jeffburges: I found that kind of appealing as well, until you get to the end of The God Delusion and he starts comparing the effects of child molestation by priests to the effects of impressing upon a child the image of her Protestant friend burning in Hell. The first he describes as mearly "icky," the other as "traumatic."

I think that's complete horseshit and it's one of the reasons that Delusion utterly failed to make an impact on the religious community.

i shouldn't be on metafilter today. i have to do two worship services and a dinner at the church. for all the people who only go to church on christmas eve. :/
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:02 AM on December 24, 2007


It's lovely to see four smart people, sitting in a room, having a discussion. It makes me a bit lonely, as I feel I'm missing this sort of discourse in my life. However, as a atheist of many years standing, I've heard all these points countless times. Which is why I was more warmed by the general intelligence than the particular application of it.

What endlessly fascinates me is "why now?" and "what does this portend?" Ten years ago, you'd never see a public broadcast of four atheists, sitting in a room, discussing atheism. You'd never see all of their books on bestseller lists. How has this happened?

I don't buy that it's a response to 9/11 and Fundamentalism. At least not entirely. Maybe those forces were straws that broke some camel's back. But whence comes the camel? It strikes me that such a cultural shift (and I'm not saying that there's been a cultural shift towards atheism, but there does seem to be one towards a higher tolerance to discussions about atheism) must stem from the interactions of many complex, historical forces.

I wish Dawkins and company had spent some time on "why now?" Dawkins didn't become an atheist two years ago. Neither did Dennett or Hitchens. So why did they only recently write books? (Or why, only recently, were they about to get their books published? Or why, only recently, did their books become best sellers?) Harris is younger. I'd have liked to hear his view, too. Do atheists his age feel less shy about publicly declaring their atheism? Why?

There's a wonderful, speculative book by Jacques Barzun called "From Dawn to Decadence." Barzun's thesis is that modern history started with the Protestant Reformation -- with the idea that the individual's rights trumps the states. Since then, there's been a gradual erosion of state-mandated ritual, leading all the way up to burning the flag. Barzun claims that there's been no other time in history where a state allowed people to burn their nation's flag (or seriously considered a debate in which its people claimed the right to do so). Is public, open discussion about atheism just the next, inevitable part of that "nothing is sacred and each person thinks for himself" process? Is it part of that disillusionment that started with Viet Nam and the assassination of Kennedy? Is it a product of globalization and the lightning-fast spread of information? All of the above?

I'm also wondering where this will lead. I don't buy that it's going to lead to an enlightened age. But it's got to lead to something. Barzun thinks it's leading to some sort of collapse. And that it's impossible to predict what will come after the collapse. It will be something different, but we don't know what. But his claim is that once culture reaches a point where there are no taboos or universally held (or mandated) rituals, a culture has gone in its current direction as-far-as it can go. Certainly, if you define culture as a set of universally shared rituals, that must be true.
posted by grumblebee at 8:08 AM on December 24, 2007 [3 favorites]


quidnunc kid -- if you unpacked the assumptions that Christians make in the same way, it would appear just as absurd.
posted by empath at 8:15 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is he therefore saying that he'd like religion to continue, despite the fact that this would lead to the war between the forces of reason and the forces of religion, simply because he enjoys debate? A debate that he believes he is winning (intellectually), and whose continuance would only serve to refine his arguments?

Isn't that quite horrible? To consider war, and its attendant horrors, an acceptable price for a continuing refinement of an argument you believe you've won anyway?


I'm not a Hitchens supporter, but I think you're mashing up two separate things he said (to your credit though, he wasn't all that clear on these points, and he gave me the impression that he was still working through them in his own head).

He said...

a) He needed the argument between theists and atheists in order to refine his own ideas.

b) He was in favor of way against Fundamentalists.

c) He believes all religions are potentially dangerous.

Part of your confusion, is that the last statement (c) implies that some religions may never reach their potential to cause serious harm.

To me, it sounds like Hitchens is groping towards something like this: "I enjoy a rough and tumble debate. It's how I think best. In fact, I can't think clearly without it. So I hope people with opposing views to mine don't go away. On the other hand, I will keep a wary eye on these people. I think they have the potential to cause harm. Should they reach this potential, I will stop debating with them and start fighting with them."

At one point, Hitchens made it really clear that he is uninterested in debating militant Islamists. He said that it's come down to a question of survival for him, and he no longer cares what they have to say.

I can easily relate to this. I love discussing art and literature. I happen to think "The Great Gatsby" is a great book. I'm happy that there are people who disagree with me, because they help sharpen my opinion about the book. On the other hand, if these people advocated burning the book, my relationship towards them would change very quickly.
posted by grumblebee at 8:52 AM on December 24, 2007


grumblebee, It's not just 9/11 but Dominionism, Shrub, and 9/11. Dawkins has been writing about this for many years, but others like Dennett are becoming less shy for these reasons.

Dawkins & co. don't want to tear down social norms. They want society to consciously design it's social norms based upon scientific research.

Baby_Balrog, Your statements don't connect the way you think they do: Dawkins suggested quantifying offense. If someone did it, maybe he'd learn how to write a book that Christians can read? ;)
posted by jeffburdges at 8:56 AM on December 24, 2007


It's the Apocalypse Ponies!.
posted by mecran01 at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: I think there have been other times in history when Atheism or non religiousness was acceptable. Look at all the Deists who founded the United States. Could Thomas Jefferson get elected today? Bertrand Russel sold a lot of books in his day, and he wasn't religious.

So I don't really think you can consider this the result of some monotonic process. Rather, it seems like a reaction to the ascendancy of religion in this country, as well as a more vocal Islam in Europe, which is freaking out all the neocons over there (like Hitchens)
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2007


grumblebee, It's not just 9/11 but Dominionism, Shrub, and 9/11.

So do you think we need nothing more than recent events to account for the popularity of Dawkins & company?

I can't prove it, of course, but had Shrub (etc.) have happened forty years ago, I doubt my parents' generation would have vaulted "The God Delusion" onto the best-seller's list. I'm not saying that early 21st-Century events had no effect. I'm sure they had a great effect. But they don't seem sufficient to me.

Dawkins & co. don't want to tear down social norms. They want society to consciously design it's social norms based upon scientific research.

To believe that (a) this could happen and (b) it would necessarily have a beneficial effect strikes me as an act of faith on par with the ones Dennett and his buddies criticize. And I say that as somebody a Strong Atheist and as someone who believes that the alternative -- rampant theism -- is dangerous and crazy.

What makes these guys think that a society based on rationalism would be a good place to live? Given the fact that we've never had such a society, that's an unscientific claim. The best we can do is to say that a society based on superstition has its problems. And that one based on rationality would be different. Better? Different problems? Who can say?

I also think these guys avoid discussing what it would take to bring such a culture into being. PERHAPS it might be possible for a charismatic leader to be pro-science and for him to gain a huge number of followers -- followers who would accept Darwinism (etc.) because their leader told them it was Truth. But such a culture would be as dogmatic as the one we currently live in.

In order to bring about a rational nirvana, we'd have to train people to think rationally from the cradle. We'd have to train the majority of people to think this way. Which means an overhaul of education. I don't know about you all, but I didn't learn much rational thinking in my public schools.

So first we'd have to have first-rate education, which probably means paying people who think like Dennett and Harris enough money so that they'll teach in public schools. Or it means overhauling the media industries so that they inundate young people with intelligent, rationalist-based programming. Then we'd have to make this education and programming available to all people. Not just available. We'd have to hamper any enticing alternatives.

I can't even imagine what sort of upheaval we'd need to enact this stuff. And I'm not convinced we'd be living in a good world once we did enact it (I'm also not convinced we'd be living in a bad world).

I AM convinced that I'd have more friends. But that's about it.
posted by grumblebee at 9:25 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: I think there have been other times in history when Atheism or non religiousness was acceptable. Look at all the Deists who founded the United States. Could Thomas Jefferson get elected today? Bertrand Russel sold a lot of books in his day, and he wasn't religious.

You may well be right. On the other hand, I've never seen such a spate of books -- POPULAR books -- coming out with titles like "The God Delusion" and "God Isn't Great."

"Why I Am Not A Christian" pales against such titles.

I'm not a historian. How public were the Founding Fathers about their Deism? Did Franklin proclaim it in his Almanac?

There's a difference, too, between saying, "I am not a Christian, because..." and "You Christians are deluded, because..."
posted by grumblebee at 9:29 AM on December 24, 2007


I'll put it another way, which I can only do through personal anecdote. It was only about three years ago, I started feeling comfortable casually admitting to my atheism -- even though I've been an atheist for a couple of decades.

Of course, I wouldn't feel comfortable admitting this everywhere, and I never push it down people's throats, but if I'm with a group of educated people -- even total strangers -- and someone says, "So are you a Jew or a Christian," I'll generally say, "I'm an atheist," and it no longer feels like I've dropped a bomb in the room.

I've been lucky enough to grow up in environments in which my atheism was unlikely to ever get me into physical peril. But there was a time -- not very long ago -- where it would have been a social gaff for me to bring it up, even if there were other atheists in the room. Now it's not. Why not?
posted by grumblebee at 9:37 AM on December 24, 2007


(I have a whacky theory that I have the gay community to thank for this. I noticed that when things reached a point where my friends completely accepted gay people -- and when gay people in my social group felt completely comfortable discussing their lifestyles, many other taboos vanished. But I may be missing a chicken that lead to this egg.)
posted by grumblebee at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2007


quidnunc kid -- if you unpacked the assumptions that Christians make in the same way, it would appear just as absurd

Oh yeah? Well I'm going to insult your (un)beliefs further by NOT giving my teddy bear a name!

In fact - maybe I won't even admit to HAVING a teddy bear!

HA HA HA HA HA! How do you like THAT, atheist? Yeah, suck it up.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:15 AM on December 24, 2007


The rise in the casual acceptance of atheism is a direct response to the increase in fundamentalism, no? With the rise of the Moral Majority and evangelicals in their mega churches in the 70's came the inevitable backlash.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:31 AM on December 24, 2007


My impression has been that open atheism isn't at all new or modern. Perhaps there were more incidents of persecution and intolerance of atheists in the past but there were more incidents of persecution and intolerance in general, against all groups, in the past.

Mark Twain was openly critical of religion more than a century ago and that was possibly a reason for his popularity as a speechmaker and writer. And of the little bit I've read of G. K. Chesterton, a Catholic author during the early 1900's, much of it seemed to be a response to a popular atheism.
posted by XMLicious at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2007


grumblebee writes "I also think these guys avoid discussing what it would take to bring such a culture into being. PERHAPS it might be possible for a charismatic leader to be pro-science and for him to gain a huge number of followers -- followers who would accept Darwinism (etc.) because their leader told them it was Truth.

First of all, we should explain to the students that there is no such thing as "Darwinism" in science. Plenty of science has amended Darwin's theories, and no science is based on one person's ideas anyway.

But such a culture would be as dogmatic as the one we currently live in.

As long as the belief is based on science and rationality and not just a list of facts, there is no need to suppose that.

"In order to bring about a rational nirvana, we'd have to train people to think rationally from the cradle. We'd have to train the majority of people to think this way. Which means an overhaul of education. I don't know about you all, but I didn't learn much rational thinking in my public schools.

Some schools or teachers - the good ones - teach critical thinking. That won't always help when you get into stuff like climate modeling, where it's easy to inject doubt by playing off the uncertainty of the models (without doing any science to refute it). But not everyone needs to be scientifically trained to trust in the process, because it is transparent and available for anyone to learn. That said, everyone should be taught the scientific method as a part of basic education, and learn how to put it in practice. It's not voodoo or shrouded in mystery.

"I can't even imagine what sort of upheaval we'd need to enact this stuff. And I'm not convinced we'd be living in a good world once we did enact it (I'm also not convinced we'd be living in a bad world)."

I dunno. Was it better before the Renaissance? Should we return to doing medicine based on phrenology, humors and the color of bile?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:02 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Some schools or teachers - the good ones - teach critical thinking.

Critical Thinking™ is a brand of packaged books, curriculum materials, and workshops that are primarily authored and licensed by a guy named Richard Paul.

(I agree with the sentiment that teaching empirical and analytical thinking is good, it's just that this Richard Paul guy really annoys me. Whenever you see a course offered somewhere with the term "critical thinking" in its title, that's probably a cookie-cutter course based on his stuff. The people who buy into it get kind of cultish about him personally too.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:36 AM on December 24, 2007


I dunno. Was it better before the Renaissance? Should we return to doing medicine based on phrenology, humors and the color of bile?

It was a worse world (in many ways) before the Renaissance. I'm not sure what that has to do with what I'm saying.

The thing about science is that it adds to our body of FACTS about the world. Facts are neutral. They are not good or bad. They can be used for good or bad ends. They are often used for confusing ends -- ends that are both good and bad at the same time.

Some people seemingly mix the gathering of truths with morality. That's what I don't get. Let's say we built a culture that was dedicated to truth. Okay, but what does that have to do with a culture that's dedicated to goodness? Or badness? It the idea that if we were all perfectly rational, we'd realize that it make sense to do good? How does that follow?

Sure, all kinds of bad things come from ignorance, but that doesn't imply the opposite.
posted by grumblebee at 12:16 PM on December 24, 2007


It the idea that if we were all perfectly rational, we'd realize that it make sense to do good?

It doesn't follow, but who is saying that it does? They're merely saying that irrationally sure doesn't lead to goodness.
posted by empath at 12:22 PM on December 24, 2007


We have a problem
posted by homunculus at 12:30 PM on December 24, 2007


Whenever you see a course offered somewhere with the term "critical thinking" in its title, that's probably a cookie-cutter course based on his stuff.

That's insane that the phrase "critical thinking" has been trademarked by someone! I'm sure there are still plenty of schools innocently teaching generic critical thinking courses, though. It really is a very standard phrase.

But there was a time -- not very long ago -- where it would have been a social gaff for me to bring it up, even if there were other atheists in the room. Now it's not.

In NYC it's pretty much never been socially taboo to be atheist (I grew up here and never met a real christian until I went to Massachusetts as a teenager - there were Jews, pseudo-Buddhists, atheists & cultural christians, ie, christmas trees & easter bunnies but no jesus), but I do agree that it's become more mainstream-normal in recent years... It feels sort of like a pendulum swing to me, rather than a serious significant shift in consciousness, but who knows.

Not a bad conversation, but as usual I end up feeling like these guys think they have more figured out than they do, because they focus on the guys who have even less figured out. But as they say near the beginning, the complex deistic theologian type thinkers aren't even getting their word out, and when they do they aren't correcting the fairy-tale believers, but the atheists. Still, this seems like missing the good questions... but I suppose I'm too invested in esoteric areas of study to begin with.
posted by mdn at 1:22 PM on December 24, 2007


They're merely saying that irrationally sure doesn't lead to goodness.

Yes, and I disagree. I've seen so many examples in my life of irrationality leading to goodness, irrationality leading to badness, rationality leading to goodness and rationality leading to badness. Even the terms "goodness" and "badness" are complex, because something that helps us may hurt our children -- or vice versa. The lesson I've learned is that outcomes are often crapshoots.
posted by grumblebee at 1:23 PM on December 24, 2007


I agree with you, mdn. I'm still waiting for a dialog between a really brilliant atheist and a really brilliant theist. Both are out there, but they don't seem to be talking to one another. Or maybe they are, but they're discussions aren't penetrating my radar.
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on December 24, 2007


They actually talked about that a bit in the video-- about how Atheists would prefer to beat up on Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell instead of debating 'moderate' theists.
posted by empath at 1:35 PM on December 24, 2007


Whenever you see a course offered somewhere with the term "critical thinking" in its title, that's probably a cookie-cutter course based on his stuff.

Nonsense. It's a generic phrase, and colleges everywhere have courses entitled "Critical Thinking" that have no link whatsoever to the brand you mentioned.
posted by yath at 3:22 PM on December 24, 2007


grumblebee, I made a specific claim about Dawkins viewpoint, with the subtext that "his" position is kinda naive :

Dawkins is correct in the sense that all the real improvements in the human condition have come from thinking more rationally. However, you can't just force it on upon everyone, or you end up with totalitarian communism.

Here the main problem is that society is a complex beast that evolved memetically, just like our bodies evolved biologically. You can't just understand it well enough to redesign everything. But you can push a decisive improvement and wait for the system to adapt. If your improvement is more rational, then it may stick.

At this point, I'm not sure collapse even matters much : It doesn't all collapse simultaneously. Those that don't collapse continue evolving until others seems as backwards as Islam today.

Also, I fully agree that civil rights followed by gay rights have been major stepping stones towards atheist rights, but Shrub and 9/11 are still playing a major role.

Atheists & homosexuals have been relatively open in intellectual circles for quite some time. I imagine the civil rights movement pointed out that there are real benefits to moving freely outside those circles. Shrub and 9/11 just paint a more vivid picture of these benefits.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:26 PM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's not that hard to win the culture war with Islam, just heavily fund collage TV networks & studios, allowing the students create massive quantities of (lower quality) cutting edge programming, convince Europe to do the same, subtitle the better ones in various other major languages, and broadcast this all over the world for free.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:35 PM on December 24, 2007


grumblebee, You might find some interesting stuff at the Harvard Divinity School. But I suspect Dawkins is waay beyond their understanding, while Hitchens & Harris are too populist.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:47 PM on December 24, 2007


I didn't mean to imply that the specific term "critical thinking" was trademarked, I was using the symbol sarcastically. I remember that they had some annoyingly generic phrases memorized but I don't think they had simply "critical thinking".

I took one of these courses back in the mid-nineties and at the time, in trying to investigate it on the internet, all the search results I got related to the phrase "critical thinking" all lead back to this Richard Paul guy, as did the textbook we used in the class (though it was written by a sycophantic disciple of his, not him) and all of the books in the college library that had the phrase "critical thinking" in the title. But maybe the non-Richard-Paul-related stuff just hadn't made it on the internet yet or didn't have good SEO.

I guess there are a bunch of other things that annoy me related to it: the guy who taught the course was an ass, he was more concerned about looking smart than anything but wasn't actually very good at thinking critically, but many of the students thought he and his "Dr. Paul" (eerie... foreshadowing this election?) were brilliant guru-like geniuses or something. But this entire "critical thinking movement" seems to me like a clumsy re-branding of rationality, logic, and empiricism - it's your basic Sherlock Holmes or Classical Studies stuff - while trying to paint itself as something innovative and modern without acknowledging those trends that prefigure it by hundreds or thousands of years.
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 PM on December 24, 2007


@grumblebee

I would also dismiss, with grave suspicion, any utopian ideal; as I would ideas justified only by invoking crises. As a top-down solution, foisting rationalism on an unwilling nation is bound to fail, and probably the goal of very few. The goal of many authors and organizations, and I think it's a tough enough nut to crack without being all-encompassing, is what was introduced by Sam Harris in "The End of Faith." That is, to encourage more people to scrutinize faith where it's used as an explanation for otherwise unjustifiable beliefs and actions.

He gives the example of religious opposition to embryonic stem cell research, saying that there's no biological basis for prohibitions on research involving spherical clusters of ~150 cells bound for waste disposal. The scientific basis for this claim is based on our understanding of the circumstances necessary for consciousness, suffering, etc.; but it is subject to revision. They could be wrong -- there's the potential for an immediate ban on such experimentation, and secular outcry against things like abortion, if new information tells us we're wrong. I know you're not advocating religious reasoning, but questioning whether there's enough of a potential difference between it and a secular variety for positive change. It's different in a basic and significant way. There is no information that could influence faith, because it's independent of information, independent of facts and new developments, because it's baseless. If it's both baseless and sacred, what is there to say about it? How can we ever hope to persuade a religious person of anything he/she's decided on based on new information when they're convinced the final word was made millennia ago?

There's always the risk any approach, even one founded on rationalism, could coalesce into some other form of dogma (as far as the public and politics are concerned, where rhetoric trumps genuine comprehension, it's very possible), but we have specific and immediate issues to get beyond religion on, because we have to move issues out of the taboo and into the realm of real discussion.
posted by evil holiday magic at 2:49 AM on December 25, 2007


jeffburdges: Dawkins is correct in the sense that all the real improvements in the human condition have come from thinking more rationally. However, you can't just force it on upon everyone, or you end up with totalitarian communism.

I'm so tired of hearing this brainless bromide repeated: atheism = communism. It's principally advanced by the Christian right in America, but it has seeped (perhaps due to its brevity) into the minds of the intellectually meek and not-so-explicitly-religious. Let's be clear: at no point do Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, or Hitchens espouse the idea that religious people should be prohibited from believing in utter nonsense, nor should anybody be prevented from believing, writing, teaching, or promoting anything. What they do say is that people who voice explicitly irrational and superstitious ideas in public must be challenged by reasonable people less they cede control of public discourse (and thus institutions) to the irrational. Sam Harris advocates a "conversational intolerance" of dogmatic thinking (of any stripe) and largely what each of these authors are calling for is a suspension of the customary respect automatically granted to religious ideas when they make empirical claims about the universe and attempt to enforce their dogma in shaping public policy. These are not unrealistic and outlandish hopes. Too much reason, humility, and discussion does not kill people. Dogmas do and this is why each of these writers has devoted space in their books to discussing how officially atheist communist regimes were no different from other regimes in sanctifying their own terrestrial dogmas and mythologies over supernatural ones. Reason, doubt, humility, evidence and a genuine desire to know truth fuel science. This is why science is antithetical to almost all religious thinking, which makes virtues of none of these.

None of this is new and we'd all be better off if everybody participating in these discussions -- where the same weary objections to a caricature of atheism are made over and over -- actually read their books, not reviews of them, before letting their mock-outrage run wild on the internet.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:56 AM on December 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


You don't have to. They actually exist.

Eh? I wish someone with cleverer snark was following me around.
posted by Avenger50 at 12:02 PM on December 25, 2007


I'm so tired of hearing this brainless bromide repeated: atheism = communism. It's principally advanced by the Christian right in America, but it has seeped (perhaps due to its brevity) into the minds of the intellectually meek and not-so-explicitly-religious.

Plus, what does it have to do with communal ownership of the means of production?
posted by delmoi at 11:00 PM on December 25, 2007


jeffburges : ...You might find some interesting stuff at the Harvard Divinity School. But I suspect Dawkins is waay beyond their understanding...

This is exactly the attitude that people find silly and offensive about militant atheism. As an atheist it disheartens me because it makes atheism in general look like dilute intellectual snobbery.
posted by XMLicious at 11:58 PM on December 25, 2007


It's not that hard to win the culture war with Islam, just heavily fund collage TV networks & studios, allowing the students create massive quantities of (lower quality) cutting edge programming, convince Europe to do the same, subtitle the better ones in various other major languages, and broadcast this all over the world for free.

That's absurd. Americans have been soaking in that stuff for generations, and yet look at the Christian right. I mean 95% of our cultural output is garbage that I wouldn't even want to watch. I mean, who would give up their religion for Just Shoot Me, Dharma and Greg, and Will & Grace.
posted by delmoi at 12:24 AM on December 26, 2007


Let me just ask, can there actually be a "Militant Atheist"? I mean, how can I be militant about the lack of a belief? It's like the "fundamental atheist" attack...the absence of a belief is a hard thing to be fundamental about. To echo Innoculated, I'm tired of such sloppy reasoning.
posted by Dantien at 11:09 AM on December 26, 2007


Yes, in fact there are and have been militant atheists.
posted by empath at 11:23 AM on December 26, 2007


Also, when I first became an atheist, I was pretty strident about it. There's nothing worse than a new convert.
posted by empath at 11:24 AM on December 26, 2007


Let me just ask, can there actually be a "Militant Atheist"? I mean, how can I be militant about the lack of a belief?

It's not a lack of belief in god, it's a belief in a lack of god.
posted by pompomtom at 8:43 PM on December 26, 2007


It's not a lack of belief in god, it's a belief in a lack of god.

What you describe is "strong" or "gnostic" atheism, which makes a positive claim about the nonexistence of a deity. There is also the more common variety, "weak" or "agnostic" atheism ("agnostic" is commonly used to mean uncertain, but, as I understand it, it really refers to knowledge and the disbelief that something can be known), which is what the previous poster probably referred to. There's also the ignostic position, which I'm leaning toward nowadays, that doesn't consider "god" a coherent term.
posted by evil holiday magic at 2:31 AM on December 27, 2007


No it's not pompomtom. "Militant Atheist" and "Militant Feminist" are terms used by conservatives to describe people who frequently express such opinions, i.e. atheists or feminists who care whether others agree with them. Such terms are obviously designed to be derogatory. If you think about it "militant christian" would mean essentially "evangelism".
posted by jeffburdges at 7:27 AM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Let me just ask, can there actually be a "Militant Atheist"? I mean, how can I be militant about the lack of a belief?

A militant atheist is one who believes they've got special access to truth, that atheism is the only conclusion that can be reached through rationality, and that their adoption of atheism proves that they're exceptionally rational personally. They are intolerant of and scorn those who do not share their lack of belief to the point they're frequently willing to say things like "those guys at Harvard are so dumb, I bet they can't even comprehend Richard Dawkins, he's so far beyond them because they're religious."

I think the worst thing about it is that many of the people I've known who behave this way also appear to believe that since they aren't religious they must be immune to the flaws, fallacies, and darker parts of human nature that have resulted in many of the most spectacular hypocrisies and evils that have been done in the name of religion. The facile assumption that atheism is the right way of thinking is a mirror of the attitudes they're purporting to criticize as inherent to religion. Really horrible things have been done in the name of rationality and science - e.g. eugenics, racial supremacy - and though that sort of thing is by no means a part of atheism to pretend that atheism makes you immune to it, or that everything bad somehow derives from religion, is hypocrisy, arrogance, and foolishness.

-

Good point about new converts, empath. I think it might be because I've always been an atheist that the things I said to the Christian kids on the grade school bus seem all the more childish.
posted by XMLicious at 11:48 AM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't agree that "militant atheist" is a meaningful term. Not believing in a deity may not give a person special license to speak out of ignorance and presumption, but assigning the word to the behavior seems arbitrary to me. I could be wrong, but it just seems anecdotal.

What's really awesome is the term "atheist fundamentalist." That kills me.
posted by evil holiday magic at 2:46 PM on December 27, 2007


...but assigning the word to the behavior seems arbitrary to me.

Arbitrary it might be, you can argue that they aren't being militant if you want, but you sure know what's being referred to when someone says "militant atheist" doncha?
posted by XMLicious at 3:47 PM on December 27, 2007


Arbitrary it might be, you can argue that they aren't being militant if you want, but you sure know what's being referred to when someone says "militant atheist" doncha?

I don't -- I actually said I don't think it's a meaningful distinction, and agree with a previous poster that characterized it solely as a straw-man invented to slur atheists. What does it mean? Drive-by rebuking? violent debunking? fearsome smugness? rapid-fire questioning? The unjustified presumption of absolute truth knowledge invoked in your description of "militant" atheism is pretty standard to theism; they call it 'faith' or something -- I don't know, I'm not religious. There's actually a genre of presuppositionalist apologetics devoted to the argument that theism must be assumed as a basis for all reality to make sense, and most Abrahamic believers assume most of the world's people will roast for eternity. "Militant" theism, which does have an actual ongoing representation in the world, doesn't need to torture the definition to call itself "militant," even by the most literal definition.
posted by evil holiday magic at 2:44 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not a huge fan of diluting the word "Nazi," but the phrases "soup Nazi" and "fashion Nazi" make total sense to me. I don't for a second think that someone who says "Mary is a fashion Nazi" means that Mary throws people in concentration camps in they wear white after labor day. I understand that it's a metaphor. It's a pretty sharp, clear metaphor, too. Like I said, I'm a bit disturbed by "Nazi" being linked to something relatively mundane, but I would never say, "There are no fashion Nazis! Well-dressed people aren't supporters of genocide!" because I understand that, in this context, "Nazi" isn't intended literally.

Same with "militant atheism," as it is being used here. Maybe "militant" is used literally by some theists who oppose atheism. In which case, those theists are dishonest or deluded. But I don't get the impression that anyone here is claiming that atheists are members of a military or military-like organization. Or that they're violent.

It makes total sense for me to say, "John is a militant 'Star Trek' fan" or "My mom is militant about me cleaning my room," so why not "militant atheist"?

Upthread, XMLicious defined HIS use of "militant atheist" as follows:

A militant atheist is one who believes they've got special access to truth, that atheism is the only conclusion that can be reached through rationality, and that their adoption of atheism proves that they're exceptionally rational personally. They are intolerant of and scorn those who do not share their lack of belief to the point they're frequently willing to say things like "those guys at Harvard are so dumb, I bet they can't even comprehend Richard Dawkins, he's so far beyond them because they're religious."

Clearly, he doesn't think militant atheists go to West Point, carry guns, etc. Clearly, he is speaking metaphorically. At least it's crystal clear to me, and it's hard for me to understand how it could he unclear to someone else. Which is why I don't get evil holiday magic's claim, above, that he doesn't "know what's being referred to when someone says 'military atheist'..."

I could understand if he objected to using the word "militant" metaphorically. I wouldn't share that opinion with him, but I'd get where he was coming from. But I don't get his claim of ignorance.

All that aside, there are many types of atheists. Among them, there are is the type that keeps his lack-of-faith to himself and there is the type that preaches it -- the type that ridicules people who believe in God. It's useful to have a word for that type. If we rule out "militant," we can use a different word. But militant is short, sweet, and to-the-point.
posted by grumblebee at 5:36 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


The feigned incomprehension or ignorance is a favorite rhetorical tactic of Dawkins. He blinks his eyes rapidly, forces the sneer from his face and says something like, "I don't... I can't even understand you. I'd love to take you seriously, really I would, but the words coming out of your mouth only fit together in such a completely non-sensical way that it simply bounces off my brain when I try to think about it. My brain is extremely logical and rational, you understand, so really it's my fault, but you're just going to have to believe something else or I won't be able to take anything you say seriously." All while affecting a composed innocent expression.

Not that the guy isn't brilliant and certainly he's made major contributions to evolutionary biology if nothing else, but he's a snobby elitist asshole much of the time. Though I probably notice the feigned incomprehension bit because I'm liable to do it myself if I don't keep a tight rein on my own assholicity.
posted by XMLicious at 8:32 AM on December 28, 2007


XMLicious, you may be right, but there is an alternate possibility: Dawkins isn't faking it. PLEASE note that I'm not disagreeing with you. I just don't think you're necessarily right (though you may, in fact, be right).

I say this, because I'm often accused of faking incomprehension. I guess you'll have to take my word for it (or not), but I'm not faking it. People assume I am, because I'm smart. Since I'm smart, they can't see how I can honestly not understand what they can easily understand. So via Occam's Razor, I must be faking.

I have the same sort of "rational" mind that Dawkins has. "Rational" is a bad word for it. "Literal" makes more sense. I am so literal, at times, that if you say something like, "I would never had voted for George Bush, senior, had I known he'd choose Cheney as his running mate!", I might very well not understand what you're talking about. I'd either go into crazy research mode, hunting all over the web to see if the elder Bush and Dick Cheney ever joined forces -- or I'd just blink and stare at you, unable to process. The thought that you might have accidentally said "senior" when you meant "junior" would probably not occur to me.

One time, when I was in college, a professor wrote "King Henry" on the board. Only he didn't quite get the "n" right in "King." What he wrote looked more like an "r" to me (he didn't make the curve of the "n" come all the way down), so I saw "Kirg." You'd THINK that, since the next word was "Henry" and this was a history class, I would have been able to figure it out via context. But my mind just got stuck on "Kirg." I remember reading it over and over, trying to figure out what it meant. But the meaningless of it just shut down my ability to reason. I finally asked my friend, who was sitting next to me, what it meant. He said, "King, you idiot!"

Often, when I hear Dawkins speak, he sounds eerily like me (and he's given me some understanding of why people have accused me of snobbery). Of course, it's VERY possible I'm projecting. Even if I'm right, I guess you could fault Dawkins for assuming his over-the-top literalism (faked or not) is a natural way of thinking.
posted by grumblebee at 9:00 AM on December 28, 2007


The same thing has happened to me, though probably not as frequently as you describe.

The thing with Dawkins is that he consistently speaks as if many aspects of religion are notions that one would have to be stupid or unthinking to hold. So it's not just part of his rhetorical interaction with people, he also genuinely just refuses to take religious people seriously; they're not rational thinking beings like him, they're fundamentally flawed or meme-blinded or something. Maybe it's all involuntary - maybe he's compelled to be an asshole this way - but I still think it's nothing he ought to be lauded or emulated for compared to his other accomplishments.

I'm also suspicious because he doesn't seem to do it with other things. I've only noticed it when someone presents an argument or position on religion that doesn't fit with his views or isn't handily condemnable.
posted by XMLicious at 9:53 AM on December 28, 2007


Leaving Dawkins aside (speaking more of a general skeptic), what are we to make of this exchange?

Guy: 1 + 1 = 2. The Earth revolves around the sun. All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; therefor Socrates is mortal. 2 + 2 = 9.

Skeptic: You're stupid.

I'm assuming here that religious beliefs hold the same truth-content/sense as 2 + 2 = 9. That's not necessarily my real point-of-view, but I'm running with it for the sake of argument.

My question is, assuming theistic beliefs are foolish, do only fools believe in them? Many skeptics seem to think so. I disagree. I've met many intelligent people who believe in God. To me, there's no rational reason for this belief. So how do I explain the fact that (otherwise) rational people hold it?

This way: either I'm wrong (it is rational to believe in God) or people aren't 100% consistent. A reasonable definition of "a rational person" is someone who is rational about most things -- not all things.
posted by grumblebee at 10:16 AM on December 28, 2007


On the other hand, it's possible that Dawkin's "bewilderment" is a rhetorical device. A Socratic device. He may think that by acting naive, he'll force people to explain themselves REALLY CLEARLY (or to admit that they can't). My only problem with this is the dishonesty. If he's playing people, I don't care what his motive is. It's still distasteful.

But I once took a wonderful class from a guy who took this approach honestly. Strangely enough, it was an improvisational theatre class. The guy who taught it insisted that we report observations without interpreting them. In a given class, a girl might get up and perform; then we'd discuss it. The discussions often went like this:

Me: Even though I could tell Alice was nervous, she still did a good job, because...

Prof: No, you don't know whether or not Alice was nervous.

Me: Well, she seemed nervous.

Prof: What do you mean by that?

Me: Her hands were shaking, and...

Prof: Then that's all you can say. Say, "her hands were shaking..."

At times, this was infuriating. People would say, "Oh come ON! It was obvious that she was nervous!" but the professor never allowed this. In the end, I was grateful that I endured a semester of this. It changed my thinking and made me deeply aware of how much I assume without strong evidence. But the prof didn't delude anyone. He was clear and honest about his intentions from the get-go. And he never pretended that he didn't make assumptions. He just said that, for the duration of this class, we were all going to try not to make them.
posted by grumblebee at 10:24 AM on December 28, 2007


All good points. I'll try to be more open-minded when listening to Dawkins in the future but I'm pretty skeptical (ha!) that he's really very interested in other people explaining themselves; I think his primary focus is for him to explain them.
posted by XMLicious at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2007


My big problem with Dawkins is his (faith-based) belief that the world would be a better place without religion. His argument seems to be that the world is a pretty messed-up place WITH religion, but one can't conclude from that that it would be better without religion. It might be just as bad, but in a different way; it might be better; it might be worse. Religion is so deeply interwoven with culture(s), no one can say what sort of a world this would be without religion. It would certainly be different.

I'm an atheist, but I'm bored by Dawkins's (and company's) agenda. The world is RIFE with erroneous, pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why focus on this one? I know the answer to that question seems obvious: because belief in God is so pervasive. But what's the GOAL, here? To rid the world of religion? That's not likely to happen. To preach to the choir? BORING! (This member of the choir is bored, anyway. I already disbelieve, so I don't need convincing.) To get into a pissing match? Been there; done that; I think I was twelve.

I DO think God should be discussed, but I just keep hearing the same stuff over and over. And I think there are better uses of Dawkins' time. How about helping out with explaining Global Warming to people; or stem cell research... I know he mentions this, but he comes at it from an angle of "religion stops people from accepting stem-cell research." That's not the only angle one can use to deal with the problem.

I much prefer Skeptics like Sagan. He sometimes used the stick. But he preferred the carrot. Rather than berating people, he spent most of his time explaining the romance and glory of science.
posted by grumblebee at 12:25 PM on December 28, 2007


@grumblebee
I could deal with the figurative term "militant" atheist if, as I'd said, we didn't have literal "militant" theists. If the term can encompass radicals with bombs around their waists, and those feverishly brandishing Occam's Razor, what does it mean anymore? What if literal "militant" atheists did manifest somewhere? We'd be all out of things to call them (kidding here, sort of). It's a minor point, but I see it, along with the term "New Atheism" as a means to further caricature and marginalize our views.

I also don't think Dawkins is feigning incomprehension; it's just the way he reacts to non-sequitur. I've been in that position many times. I like Sagan, Dennett, Ken Miller, and other mellow or specialized skeptics, but I don't think we should spend time trying to hone a perfect singular approach to this, because I don't think there is one. Your suggestion about approaching the advocacy of stem cell research, etc., differently, is a valid one, but Dawkins is already a controversial figure with his own niche. I won't mince words: I think getting people to be critical of religion is important and has been since the advent of real sciences. But we have to approach it myriad ways, from the subtle to the confrontational.
posted by evil holiday magic at 5:51 PM on December 28, 2007


Atheists have imprisoned, killed and persecuted people for believing in god in the past. Let's not forget Communism and the Reign of Terror. Atheism and rationality are not a panacea. Purely rational thought can lead to atrocity on an epic scale. And militant atheism is a very real and dangerous phenomenon. It may not be a particularly bad threat now, but given the right circumstances, it could be.

Dogmatic thought is the problem, not religion or atheism. We must always allow others to believe what they will, even when we are confident they are absolutely wrong. Never stop arguing with people you disagree with, but one should test one's own assumptions as much if not more.
posted by empath at 3:19 PM on December 30, 2007


@empath
I somewhat agree, and would further emphasize the point you made about communism as an expression of dogmatic ideology, and not an inevitable consequence of a view. This distinction is important to my concerns for America, as a current dogmatic thought of actual concern is theism (the Abrahamic religions); and while I agree with you wholeheartedly we should be skeptical of anything represented as a cure-all, I do think a rise in rational thinking in this particular country during this particular time would at least bring some of the problems out of the shadows, and let us work on actually solving them. Right now, a lot of issues are difficult to even seriously discuss, and that doesn't work.
posted by evil holiday magic at 7:27 PM on December 30, 2007


To clarify and expand on this:

I somewhat agree, and would further emphasize the point you made about communism as an expression of dogmatic ideology, and not an inevitable consequence of a view.

The 'view' I mean is a religious one. Even a very religious person is capable of compartmentalizing well enough to cope with the myriad ways they're forced to contradict, or at least decide beyond the scope of, their own texts, and of course the west doesn't bear out atheists having an inclination for oppression and brutality (though, of course, the appearance of self-proclaimed atheists in history is dependent on the consequences set for apostasy, so our explicit history is admittedly short).
posted by evil holiday magic at 8:58 PM on December 30, 2007


...of course the west doesn't bear out atheists having an inclination for oppression and brutality...

I think you may have missed empath's point about the Reign of Terror and his link to it above. Both western and Marxist atheistic notions are very related to Voltairish French Enlightenment thought.

In responding to your point that communism [is] an expression of dogmatic ideology, and not an inevitable consequence of a view I wholeheartedly agree with you and I'd point out that most of the negative things that militant atheists accuse every variety of religion of are similarly not inevitable consequences of having religious beliefs, but are due to the kinds of dogmatic ideologies that find fertile ground in human minds with or without religion in the mix, to use a Dawkins biology allusion.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Yeah, to revisit the Reign of Terror stuff that really is exactly the attitude that seems dangerous to me. I think it's a short step from the frequently rather ignorant vehement intolerance of religion on the part of modern militant atheists to "we're so fucking rational that we guillotined all the fucking priests in France."
posted by XMLicious at 3:08 PM on December 31, 2007


Oh and on a more careful re-reading of your comment, evil holiday magic, what I said about dogmatic ideology above is maybe the same thing you were saying.
posted by XMLicious at 3:16 PM on December 31, 2007


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