Category Archives: Atheism

“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [ link; link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes:

With few exceptions, the strategy for combating creationism has been one of attacking and dismissing the foundation of this belief system. Yet it should be obvious that mocking someone’s beliefs does not win ideological battles.

But is it indeed “obvious” that such tactics are ineffective? A gentler approach might lead to a more pleasant interaction, but one which, thereby, has little long-term impact. After all, religious commitments are largely emotional, and it may need emotion, not anodyne interactions, to alter them. I’m willing to bet that Dawkins has persuaded more people to adopt atheism than any other individual one could name, and he does have a rather large collection of letters and emails from converts.

Further, and if nothing else, open disrespect for religion can move the Overton window, altering how religion is treated in society. Indeed, haven’t the New Atheists largely succeeded in doing that?

I don’t claim to know how best to persuade people, and would be interested in actual evidence about this (which is not the same as people reporting what is “obvious”). I suspect that a range of styles, from the aggressive to the conciliatory, might be best overall, with different people adopting the style that best suits them. In particular, in the public media, an acerbic and dismissive attitude to religion might be optimal, whereas when talking to individuals, especially people you know, a more friendly and conciliatory approach might be better.

The book by Haley and McGowan is at the conciliatory end of the spectrum, though it itself is not aimed at persuading religious people, it is instead advice to the non-religious on how to persuade people. Their aims are ambitious, they want to persuade society to accept a secular and sceptical outlook that embraces science. They coin the term “evidism” to connote “the value of discovering and accepting truth in all matters”.

Only by empowering people, by lifting them out of ignorance and fear, can the strength of real knowledge begin to eclipse the power of traditional or intuitive false beliefs. The most effective way to achieve that empowerment doesn’t start with ridicule, which often causes people to retreat further into the ridiculed belief. It begins with empathy for those who still find themselves in the grip of those natural beliefs.

One immediate problem with the term “evidism”, however, is that everyone thinks that they themselves are judging sensibly on the evidence, and are arriving at truth. No-one thinks of themselves as needing “lifting out of ignorance and fear”.

We might think of the religious that way, but the term “evidism” could well meet the reply: “of course I’m judging on evidence, I’m an evidist myself, that’s why I’m a Christian and accept the literal truth of the Bible and reject the pseudo-science of Darwinism!”. Very few of those who reject evolution or climate change or the efficacy of vaccination think of themselves as rejecting science, they think of their opponents as rejecting science in favour of ideological atheism or “Big Pharma” or whatever.

I agree with the authors that there is no ideal term to rally around (atheism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, non-theist, freethinker; all have drawbacks) but I’m not convinced that evidism is an improvement, leaving aside the very low likelihood of an invented new term actually catching on.

A further strategy that the authors suggest is to re-interpret religion in ways making it fully compatible with science. They want to “give space for religions to evolve to change their positions on facts to be consistent with science”. The idea is that religion is too big, too entrenched to overturn, and thus a better strategy is to subvert religion by turning it into doctrines that accept the secular, scientific outlook that the authors want.

Well maybe, and there are already religious groups like this, the Unitarian Universalists and some varieties of Buddhism. But they’re very much minority positions. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if all religions with supernatural beliefs rejected their theologies and accepted naturalism? But persuading people to do that would likely be no easier than persuading people to simply stop being religious.

Religion is still sufficiently prevalent in the US that American authors can tend to accept its dominance as a given, but the experience of parts of Europe and Scandinavia shows that whole populations can simply — and over not that many decades — become less religious to the extent that religion is no longer as big a problem.

A large part of the 200-page book is taken up with advice on the nature of science, on promoting education and secularism, and on human cognitive biases that can get in the way of a scientific outlook. Much of this is sensible and knowledgeable and well worth a read. I couldn’t help thinking, though — and here I’m probably being a bit unkind — that much of this had a slight air of naivety, as though all we have to do is explain all of this to our acquaintances and they’ll be persuaded. Would that such would work! As a teacher I know that you can explain something as clearly as you can six times spread over a semester, and half the class will then demonstrate in the exam that they still don’t understand. And that’s about mere factual stuff that should be easiest to teach; changing people’s values and world view is harder.

What is lacking here is an account of having put all this good advice into practice and of how well it worked. The authors’ scheme needs to be battle tested, and shown to work better than the ongoing cacophonous debate. Have they tried the term “evidest” on their acquaintances? How did it go?

As it is, the advice is too theoretical, whereas what would interest me is reports of what did actually work in practice, of testing and controlled trials, and of hands-on experience of having changed people’s minds. Is Dawkins’s approach actually counter-productive? (Hard evidence please, not just gut feeling!) Does Neil de Grasse Tyson’s gentler approach (he refuses to even call himself an “atheist”, though he is one) work better? (Ditto!).


What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists

It is understandable that Christian commentators want to denigrate atheists. A common tactic is to claim that atheists think that most Christians are Biblical literalists and thus only criticise fundamentalist and literalist religion. The atheist is thus painted as naive, not very thoughtful and a bit ignorant. The tactic also implies that atheists have not managed to produce significant critiques of liberal religious theology.

This is mostly wrong; atheists are well aware of liberal theology, and nowadays most New Atheistic critiques address liberal theology (literalist theology is simply not a worthwhile target any more; I can’t think of anyone bothering since Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, as long ago as 1807).

But, Christians like to think otherwise, as exemplified by an article this Sunday in The Observer by “leading Catholic commentator” Catherine Pepinster. Continue reading

Deathbed conversions and the argument that Christians like best

Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.

Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were). Continue reading

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading

Secularism in the UK, a year-end round-up

sec_signAmericans are used to politicians openly mixing their faith with their politics, but British politicians usually “don’t do God”, to quote the advice offered by Tony Blair’s spin doctor. This convention, though, is breaking down, with David Cameron’s Conservative-led government increasingly being proud to “do God”. Such religiosity is meeting a mixed reception in a nation that is increasingly secular and which is no longer in tune with the traditional privilege afforded to religion by the British establishment.

It is said that Prime Minister David Cameron found consolation in his Christian faith after the death of his disabled son, leading to a much more overt Christianity. Further, the Conservative Party fears that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant UKIP will siphon off votes at the forthcoming election, letting Labour in. It is thus pitching its appeal at older, more-Christian, UKIP-leaning voters, and perhaps it is calculating that there are not enough secularist Tory voters to worry about losing any.

Cameron has declared the UK to be a “Christian country” while his Christmas message says that “giving, sharing and taking care of others” are “very Christian values”, adding that “we [the nation?] celebrate the birth of Christ”, despite the fact that only 13% regard Jesus as an important aspect of their own Christmas.

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A review of “Beyond an Absence of Faith”

This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation

Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.

What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:

At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …

This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:

I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.

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