Monday, June 14, 2010

Thoughts On New Atheism. (Yet More Pet Peeves.)

Time for another post for my pet peeves series. I would like to address this new atheism that seems to be promoted by more and more.

I will not be blogging much about this as I think promoting the literacy and the love for science is helpful, whereas the science vs. religion debate is fruitless. Those who spend all their time engaging it completely have their priorities mixed up. (Like any extremist-minded person does.) People: spend some time promoting good science and not always attacking things science says nothing about!


1. Firstly, I Don't Take Issue With Them Being Atheist.

Let me start out with saying I do not take offense that they are atheist. I actually understand where many are coming from. They see that many traditional claims made by religious people seem untrue (like the world being only 7000 years old) and see many religious people rejecting basic science like evolution. Furthermore, they think a world with no God fits the data better than one that does. They just don't see evidence for God in nature so they have a hard time believing God is there.

Fine. I'm not going to discuss this here. In am not attacking atheists in general but these new atheists who not only oppose religion but for whatever reason seem obsessed with it.

*Also, I apologize in advance if I appear to be stereotyping all atheists.* They are not all like this... but some are.

2. They're Being Hypocritical When They Make Claims Without Applying Basic Scientific Rigor.

A quote:
They trot out tired, half-truthful stereotypes, and they cherry-pick historical examples of religious wrongdoing while ignoring the innumerable instances in which the faithful have performed great acts of decency and charity.
I will make this simple for them to understand: They can't get their claims published in established, reputable, peer reviewed journals.

They will claim how important it is to use evidence, good intellectual rigor and tout how believable claims should be strong enough to stand the peer review process. And yet their new atheist claims usually are not! (And they hope we accept their unpublished claims!)

Where has Dawkins published a paper in a reputable journal demonstrating religion is more harmful than good? (As he claims.) Where are the articles showing religious people fall into the stereotypes they glean from cherry picking history? (As any good scientist knows not to do.) They reality is, when it comes to scientific rigor, new atheist are hypocrites. (Or show me their own peer reviewed journal articles backing such claims!)


3. Many Have Become Fundamentalists Themselves. (Often Belittling Scientists Who Are Better Scientists Then They Could Ever Dream Of.)

Some new atheists have become as fundamentalist minded as the very people they deride. They live in a world where everything is black and white with no grey. I personally know of many who can't stand someone is a great scientist... if they happen to even be understanding of religious people.

Even if I won a Nobel Prize for physics (which won't happen by the way) all they would see is the fact that I am LDS and wrote a post like this. For example, take the Templeton Prize winners. Many of these people are better scientists than the vast majority of all these new atheists will ever be and yet they are often derided and treated with ridicule.

Once you have crossed the line to demeaning scientists who are 10 times the scientist you will ever be because they find meaning in something beyond the realm of science... you have officially become an extremist.


4. Many Hide Behind Science To Promote Their Pet Agendas.

New atheists are no different than than politicians who use the the politicization of science to promote their pet agenda! The fact is: science neither confirms nor denies the existence of God and these people try to hide behind pseudo-scientific arguments to do just that. Anyone who tries to to use science to prove God does or does not exist is wasting everybody's time and is being just as disingenuous as the above politicians.

Science cannot prove the existence of God, the Easter Bunny or for that matter the existence of good, love, beauty, morality, etc... And yet they are so quick to write volumes on how foolish people are for finding meaning in the former entities and yet not the later ones. There is definitely a biased agenda at play here.


5. What They Should Do.

If you are an atheist who is concerned with the horrible level of science literacy in the world, fine. I'm not attacking that. What I am attacking is a hypocritical, non-rigorous, fundamentalist agenda some have taken up pretending it is somehow backed by good science!

What these people need to do is get their priorities in order:
  1. Demonstrate the wonders and benefits from accepting good science.
  2. Demonstrate how much progress has been achieved from humans using science at their disposal.
  3. Stick to claims that can be backed by the peer reviewed literature and avoid pet agendas that have nothing to do with science.


Since I wrote the above I wanted to add this for reference:

6.  Atheism Causes You To Be Unproductive And Unsuccessful In Life.

Look at the above two images.  This study clearly shows that while atheists have a higher IQ on average, they also end up with less money than other people on average.  Obviously atheism causes you to be unproductive, unsuccessful and live largely below your potential.  How many politicians, generals, famous actors and actresses or successful businessmen are atheist?  Basically if you are smart but don't want to amount to much in life, studies that you should take up atheism.

Obviously this is a joke, but one made to prove a point.  There are probably 100 reasons besides atheism to explain why atheists have above average IQs and yet cannot figure out how to make as much money as the average person or hold political office, etc...  I recognize this.  It would be dumb of me to jump to such conclusions from such a non-rigorous interpretation of data such as.

I just wish some atheists would give religious people the same courtesy.   I wish they would pause and ask themselves if they have sufficiently gone through the 100 reasons, other than religion, to explain the data they like to flaunt?  For a people with such high IQs, I must say it seems like such an intellectually stupid thing to do.

Please just stick to promoting good science!  Blanket lumping together and attacking religion in general is often done unscientifically, is unproductive and a waste of time. (It is as unproductive and intellectually disingenuous as me writing books on how atheists are just unsuccessful eggheads.) But then perhaps people prone to atheism are naturally good at being inefficient and unproductive and so I just have to realize that trying to tell such people to do something helpful with their lives won't work. Again, joke. :)


  1. Joe,

    First let me say that I like the new look. My only issue is that the post area is very narrow. Can we possibly widen it a bit?

    Second, I have to agree with you. I would take issue with someone trying to promote God under the mask of science just the same way that I would take issue with someone trying to promote "no God" under the mask of science. If you don't like religion on philosophical or emotional grounds then argue on philosophical or emotional grounds, but when someone tries to use science to make their personal opinions seem more valid than another person's, I think they've gone too far.

    Some political commentators on the right often complain about "academic elitism" - this is the kind of stuff that drives those claims. When someone in effect says "I'm a famous scientist, therefore my opinion on God counts more than yours", that just feeds the anti-science crowd's message and hurts the cause of general scientific literacy.

  2. Nick,

    Thanks. I made the post area a little wider. Let me know of any other changes that need to happen.

  3. "If you don't like religion on philosophical or emotional grounds then argue on philosophical or emotional grounds,"

    I agree Nick. You can't pretend science somehow supports a non-scientific claim.

    I'm just being matter of fact here.

  4. For a sane dialog on science and religion and good criticism of the social discussion, give
    You're Not Helping a try. They often criticize the new atheists as 'Not Helping' as well as many specific scientific tirades that are not based in reason.

  5. Stan. Wow, that looks like a very interesting link! Thank you.

  6. I know atheists and a big problem is that when you show them some good proofs about the fact that they are wrong, they prefer to ignore it (and can say they do prefer); may be thus they feel more like being someone special. And generally they have a bad character.

  7. We should all stick to rigorous thinking, and you're right that many atheists fall short. But two thoughts.

    Why atheists must do more. Most atheists denounce religion not just on evidential grounds, but on moral grounds: the net effect of religion is harmful to society. So, many atheists have a moral duty to actively advocate disowning religion, the same way someone who (say) denounces nuclear war has a moral duty to actively advocate disarmament.

    Why science must say more. "Science cannot prove the existence of God, the Easter Bunny or for that matter the existence of good, love, beauty, morality, etc" -- Certainly science must weigh in on these things, once you provide a precise definition. You're right that science very rarely offers deductive proof. But scientific evidence is usually inductive. For example: you must agree that steady state cosmological creation doesn't happen, that the Dirac sea doesn't exist, and that the E&M aether doesn't exist. There's no deductive "proof" of these things. But they're still confirmed by our most rigorous scientific evidence.

    Similar rigorous evidence can (in principle) be applied once one provides rigorous definitions of "miracles" or "omniscient entities" -- or even "egg-laying bunnies." You'd presumably be willing to accept 5-sigma evidence that the Higgs boson doesn't exist (were it to arrive). Wouldn't you accept similar evidence that omniscient-miracle-working-leporidaes don't exist, either?

  8. Bryan,

    Thank you for your thoughts. They are very good ones. Here are some responses:

    1. "you're right that many atheists fall short." And these are the ones I am attacking. Unfortunately, they go around making very unscientific claims when *In my opinion* they should stick to what is really helpful: promoting good science.

    2. I'm glad you point to a link with some studies. That alone is more helpful then anecdotal cherry picking.

    A. However, you will find on that same Wikipedia page there are studies that challenge findings of other studies. Furthermore, that page is biased. That page is devoted to the criticism of religion. You won't on that page, find all the studies that have ever found some type of positive effect coming from some type of religious group.

    B. Also, many of the studies restrict themselves to religious fundamentalists whose belief's/culture's do not apply to most religious people. For example, statements like "Dr. Shirin Ebadi has criticized dogmatic Islam" cannot be applied say to all Hindos, and yet Hindos are religious people.

    C. Most atheists I meet define religion as "belief in the supernatural" and yet my personal view is that falls far short of being a good definition. For example, I went to a Shabbat Dinner with some local Jewish friends. They all tell me they don't believe in a supernatural God but believe that it is good for people to come together weekly to maintain their culture and traditions that they believe have held their people together for millennia despite everything the Jews have gone through. (Think Fiddler on the Roof.) *These people are religious* and yet hardly fit the above definition and furthermore I also have a hard time believing a study examining the taliban applies to them.

    Therefore, I have a hard time thinking a true scholar would suggest "religion is harmful" is a definitively true statement. I think the more correct statement would be "certain types of religious thought can be harmful in certain ways, and other types of religious thought have shown to be helpful in certain ways."

    However, with a statement like the above the militant new atheist general attack on religion falls flat. (In my opinion).

    2. "once you provide a precise definition."

    But this is one of my points Bryan, there is no definitive definition that applies to all religious people. And I find it interesting that some atheists, who sometimes like to point out they have higher IQs, can't figure this out. (Although interestingly, Jews and Episcopals, religious peoples, have them beat intellectually.) Religion is complex, intermixed with millennia of cultures, traditions, supernatural beliefs, secular beliefs etc...

    Again, I'm convinced *the best* you can do is find certain types of religious thoughts are helpful and some are harmful. It's up to people, in my opinion, to embrace the helpful ones and reject the harmful ones. I also don't think it is the job of scientists to deride people who are trying to do this.

    So I believe attacking religion in general is not where scientists need to be focusing all their energy. They should focus on promoting good science and things will work out.

  9. Bryan,

    I will say, going with me above commentary that some aspects are potentially good and some are potentially bad. If you can find a "5 sigma detection" as you put it that a specific religious point is bad or wrong (and I'm sure it will only apply to a specific point and not all religious aspects in general) than I agree that people should highly consider rejecting that specific point.

  10. Okay, added a sixth point above in the main post.

  11. >>focus on promoting good science and things will work out.

    Well put -- we certainly agree on this point!

    On the "harm" argument -- the wikipedia page was just meant to be an indicator, not conclusive evidence. I suppose someone will have to sift through more studies to close the case on the issue. Although there is this... :)

    Your points are well taken; I think we each see where the other are coming from. Thanks for your thoughts. -- BR

  12. Bryan,

    Thank you for your thoughts as well. I believe they are helpful.

  13. Cartesian,

    It is unfortunate whenever anyone has a bad character over this stuff.

  14. Oh boy, it's a tough topic to write about. I agree Joseph with everything you said. I also find, and agree with many points the neo-atheists (as I call them) try to push. I also agree with Bryan's comments. I think those who do not believe in God are just as justified as those who do (since there is no conclusive evidence either way). I also think that there's nothing wrong with those who admit, intellectually, there is likely not a God (the Easter Bunny analogy), but choose to believe/hope/have faith in one regardless.

    I think that spirituality and religion (meaning that which elevates humanity to another level) are generally a good thing. However, I do think that, on the whole, religious organizations (those things that have authority and all too often assert it in the lives of their followers) do more harm than good when viewed through the lens of current society as well as history.

    Where I strongly disagree with the neo-atheists is that I don't actually think a world free of religion would be better. In other words, people kill people, people manipulate others, people hurt and control others, etc. These are typically couched in the scenario of an organization/tribe of some kind. But neo-atheists fail to see the beautiful mythology that religion can provide (particularly rituals).

    Great post Joseph. I think you have barely scratched the surface of what could be said on the topic.

  15. jmb275,

    Your right, this is a tough subject and the surface has barely been scratched. Maybe in the future I will do these topics more justice.

  16. Hi Joseph Smidt,

    your criticisms are very valid. Basically, it's important that those of us who are postive, atheist and responsible stand up to give a better picture of what atheism really means, rather than leaving it and the public image of atheism in the hands of the extremists.

    I as an atheist do try to do this myself and have done so for quite a long while. Allow me to give a link here to my own blog:
    Stranger In An Even Stranger Land
    in which I'e been quite vocal in some of my own criticisms of my fellow atheists, such as in this old blog post of mine:
    The too-small world of atheists and resulting risk of self-made problems.

    You can also use the tag atheism on my blog to find more such posts.

    All the best,

  17. Gurdur,

    Thank you for your comment and I am happy to check out your posts. I really appreciate it.

  18. Do you feel that the burden of the scientific proof that you demand rest solely on atheists?

    I'm unaware of any peer reviewed studies demonstrating that (any or indeed all) religion constitues a net good in this world.

    And when there is inadequate evidence for a hypothesis, is it not scientific to discuss it's prior probabilty based on plausibility from current knowledge.

    This is a central crux of critical thinking that is much used by atheistic writers (not to mention scientists of all stripes), of which the "new atheists" are just a fraction.

    Do you feel it has a place here?

  19. David Bennett,

    I appreciate your comment.

    "I'm unaware of any peer reviewed studies demonstrating that (any or indeed all) religion constitues a net good in this world."

    Which is why I don't make the claim that is does.

    The only people who need to put up proof are those that make claims about others as if they were true. If atheists claim (and some do) that religion has a negative impact on society, they need to prove it before that make such claims. If religious people want to argue religion constitutes a net good on society, they need to provide evidence backing up such claims.

    It is as simple as that. Nobody is is under the burden of proof more than anyone else.

  20. And religious people, and institutions do argue that.
    With great vigour.

    I presume you've no problem with those who disagree voicing their dissent.

    Not to mention, I think that atheistic writers make more reference to the evidence base available than their religous counterparts.

    In additon, I take issue with your statement:

    "Nobody is is under the burden of proof more than anyone else."

    The inplausibilty of a claim surely has an influence on the amount of evidence required to accept it.

    Religion, in general and in every specific case, makes claims relating to the world we live in that are remarkable.

    And yet these claims are accepted without critical thought or any measure of evidence.

    And often, no amount of evidence will influence the acceptance of these claims.

    This part of religion is one of the chief peeves that the "new atheists" have.

  21. David,

    Again I appreciate your thoughts.

  22. Well, although I appreciate your appreciation, I'd prefer to read about your reasoning regarding the statement I quoted:

    "Nobody is is under the burden of proof more than anyone else."

    This statement stands pretty incongruous with what I have to assume is the methology you use day to day as a physicist.

  23. David,

    You are confusing what I meant. I agree that people who make more outrageous claims should be required to back them up with strong proof. Or as Carl Sagan said "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". I agree.

    But this is not what I was going after with the statement. I was trying to say is that nobody is exempt from needing to provide evidence for claims. That is what the statement meant.

    But that means atheists shouldn't make statements about religious people they can't back up with good science. They pretend as if they are being scientific when making such claims, but if they are blanket claims without being based on concrete evidence they are in the wrong.

    You look really bad when you try to pose as science's friend when your claims of religious people are as much opinion not backed by evidence as anything coming from the opinions of religious people.

    And the same goes for religious people.

    And don't try to weasel your way out of this by saying "well look at religious people". A respectable atheist would try to stick to claims backed by evidence whether religious people are doing so or not.

    For example:

    Just because some biologist may submit a paper to a science journal based on false unproven claims doesn't mean I need to start doing that myself and excusing myself because of the biologist. My papers I submit to journals must be full of good science that I can back up with evidence irregardless of what others are doing.

  24. I'm grateful for the clarification.
    Internet discussion makes getting sidetracked even easier.

    The study of religion or belief (treated as different phenomena by most research) tends to be either the observational type or relates to behavioural studies of small acts of human performance.

    Having noted the possible methodoligical short comings, it is clear that the majority of the best literature points to the conclusion that belief is associated with harms and religion, when it appears to have beneifts, is often just a marker for sociological confounders.

    If you are serious about wanting to look into this area, there are a couple of journals I'd suggest.

    The Journal of Religion and Society
    Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

    I'd also recomend the blog Epiphenom, a well updated summary of the best of this sort of literature run by a numbers guy who calls out bad methodology regardless of the conclusions.

    However, I feel I have to say that none of this should be new to you.
    The "new atheists" all reference such studies in their works (or at least the people I assume you're referring to: Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and Dawkins (whom you've mentioned by name).

    This is not to mention the Governmental or NGO released reports that don't get submitted for peer reviewed journals.

    So, as I see it, the research does exist, and the "new atheists" use it to inform and back up their work.

    Is it possible that you want the "new atheists" to publish work in journals as well (or instead or books for a lay audience)?

    Sam Harris has published relevent work in the Annals of Neurology (
    and PLoS (
    (I listed these ones as there is no paywall!).

    And to list Dennetts contributions to the field would drown the page in text.

    I'm not sure if this is new to you or you want some higher purer level of evidence (possibly an impossible level in an area so fraught with political and societal confounders).
    But I'd be pleased to discuss either option (or any ones I neglected to think up).


  25. David,

    Thank you for this list for references. These are very helpful and I'm glad you are extending a helping hand in this area.

    I am all for a serious scientific undertaking to examining the good, bad and ugly of religion. (I'd also be for a serious undertaking on the good, bad and ugly of atheism.)

    However,it is my opinion that this is an extremely complex undertaking and requires people to be very serious about being scientifically accurate. If new atheists are willing to be as scientifically rigorous in their examination of religion as they are with say, studying evolution, I would be very happy.

    But angry people shouting religion is bad, in my opinion, falls very short in this regard.

    Religion in has shaped human culture profoundly and is very complex, can have vast differences between groups, and touch people's lives in so many different ways. To make blanket statements like "religion is bad" in my opinion is an extraordinary statement. Which religions? How are they bad? Etc...

    To me it is like saying "music is bad". Music has shaped human culture tremendously and comes in wide varieties. Is it possible to categorically say music is bad? Which music? How is music bad? When and in what ways?

    These are delicate issues and I think they should be handled delicately and clear headed. It just may be that some aspects of religion are bad and some are good just as much as some music is bad and some is good. A serious scientific examination may be able to address many of these issues. But until such a serious scientific investigation is completed I think making blanket statements about religion or religious people must be done with caution as much as my statements saying I think inflationary cosmology implies a multiverse needs to be done with caution.

  26. I imagine that you need more time to do more than glance at the literature (again I would point towards Epiphenom) but I do have some comments on your recent post.

    "I am all for a serious scientific undertaking to examining the good, bad and ugly of religion. (I'd also be for a serious undertaking on the good, bad and ugly of atheism.)"

    The research that I've pointed you towards tends to include both groups, each being the others comparison.

    "Religion in has shaped human culture profoundly and is very complex, can have vast differences between groups, and touch people's lives in so many different ways".

    While religion is no doubt interwoven throughout human history and has many different faces, names and doctrines there is considerable evidence that belief and religion effect people who live within them in fairly predictable ways. The patterns are remarkably consistant.

    On a side note, I'm suprised that you consider stating hypothesis about cosomology deserving of delicacy and caution.

    I had understood physicists to be no less thick skinned that workers in other fields who would advocate rigourous critique of ideas to be the best way of advancing scientific knowledge.

    And I personally would advocate (although there is a range of opinion in this regard) the same strategy with religion.

  27. Having noted the possible methodoligical short comings, it is clear that the majority of the best literature points to the conclusion that belief is associated with harms and religion, when it appears to have beneifts, is often just a marker for sociological confounders.

    'Belief is associated with harms' and 'religion, when it appears to have benefits is just a marker for sociological confounders'

    If only there was reliable research showing anything of the sort then that wouldn't seem like such special pleading.
    Of course, the chance that the research will show anything so blindingly simple is minimal.

    This kind of simplistic claim would lead you to believe that the Christian or Jew who helps others because they believe God wants you to be the Good Samaritan is doing it purely for sociological reasons, but the religious people who invade their wealthy but weakly defended neighbour on the pretext of 'immorality' or any other 'religious' excuse, are in fact doing so purely out of 'belief' and not for any sociological reasons like stealing all their shit.

    It's prima-facie absurd, or as many would put it "an extraordinary claim". And would require extraordinary evidence to prove it.

    Far more likely is that it's a damn complex question, that people's motivations are mixed, and in determining whether someone does something 'good' or 'bad' as a result of what they believe or as a result of how they're socialised we'll find out that it's a complex mix of the two and depends on the situation they're in.

    p.s. David you misunderstand Joseph's point about Physicists - it's not that he's worried about the "thin-skins" of the other physicists, it's just physicists can be notoriously hard on those who make extensive claims with certainty when the data does not support such certainty.
    Complex and surprising hypotheses are fine, but don't go around insisting you're 100% confident of your answer unless you have the data, and preferably peer-reviewed evidence to justify it. (And never claim 100%)


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