Real Freethinkers Don't Try to Close Down Debate

Every movement has a discourse that is shaped by people who are passionate, committed, and forceful. Some feel so certain in their rightness that they try to control the discourse and purge those deemed insufficiently true to the movement’s cause.

A political example of this would be today’s U.S. Republican Party, which, as David Frum recently observed, has become “increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” It is now so far-right that some leading Republicans say that even conservative icons like Ronald Reagan would have a hard time winning the GOP nomination today. After President Obama’s reelection in Novemeber, Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote:

At a time when the need to broaden the party’s appeal seemed overwhelmingly compelling, Republicans narrowed their appeal to the most ideological fragment of the conservative base.

The same hardball tactics and ideological purity tests that have made the Republican party inhospitable for moderate conservatives are on display in the burgeoning atheist movement.Whenever some of the more tolerant brethren dare to acknowledge “that religion has some points in its favor,” one of the doctrinaire anti-religion enforcers shows up, teeth bared.

The contempt these atheist knuckle-breakers have for religion is almost pathological. What’s more, their intolerance for dissent within their own community borders on the fanatical, as I’ve pointed out here. P.Z. Myers, one of the loudest and most influential voices in the New Atheist pantheon, is unrivaled in his religion hatred. A recent post of his was titled: “How about we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?”

Hey, why stop there? Let’s just pretend that religion doesn’t exist at all? I mean, what is so important about understanding the history and role of religion in humanity?

Fortunately, there are atheists who aren’t in favor of closing down intellectual discussion. Such dialogue is both rewarding and frustrating, as Adam Frank writes this week at NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog:

Sometimes the debate between atheism and religion can be enlightening, showing us how both of these different approaches dive deeply into the currents of human experience. Sometimes, however, it can be deeply depressing, devolving into hard lines and acrimony. As an atheist, I often find myself exasperated with what I call “strident atheism.”

People in this vein seem intent on ignoring the long narrative of human spiritual endeavor. They often reduce it to histories of ignorance and intolerance. Believers in strident atheism convince themselves that it’s OK to ignore the scholarship on the long and ancient history of human spiritual endeavor.

Frank goes on to pay tribute to scholarship that has explored the religious domain and

the long history of humanity’s sometimes stumbling, sometimes horrific, sometimes transcendent attempt to engage with this persistent sense that there is more to life than day-to-day survival.

Frank makes it clear he is not a believer. It is also clear that he doesn’t believe in ridiculing those who derive some kind of meaning from religion. That’s the sign of a real freethinker.

UPDATE:  Another atheist has responded brilliantly to P.Z. Meyers. An excerpt:    

Religion is important not because it’s a human universal or because people find it important. It is important to study because it has direct, large impacts on the life of every human being on the planet. It impacts those of us who are atheist, raised atheist and will die atheist. It infiltrates our culture, out literature, our art, our history, our politics, and our philosophy. And if you want to be able to understand the human beings around you, their decision making process, or ANY of the topics that i mentioned previously, it is important to have a basic understanding of the theology and doctrine of a.the dominant religion of your culture and b.the major world religions. These are hugely important to being able to function as a human being who interacts largely with other human beings who are religious.

116 Responses to “Real Freethinkers Don't Try to Close Down Debate”

  1. mtvessel says:

    Is the current environmental movement filling the same need for immanence and transcendence as relgiion previously did?

  2. Buddy199 says:

    The complaint about the GOP being extreme usually comes from Democrats, which is natural from their viewpoint. Does it mean that the 48% of the population who voted for Romney are all squeezed into the far right tip of the bell curve? Unlikely. On the other hand, to that 48% it’s hard to believe the modern day Democrat party of Occupy Wall Street and Barack Obama could find room for a John Kennedy or Daniel Patrick Moynihan, let alone any pro-life Democrats. Extremists always see themselves at the reasonable center; it’s everyone else who’s crazy, evil or just plain not as smart as they are.

  3. mtvessel says:

    And as well, like the new atheists the environmental movement is adept at identifying the “truth” and those whose practices deviate from it

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    The complaint is coming just as much from Republican quarters. But hey, I’m sure Democrats would be more than happy if the Republican powerbrokers didn’t listen.

  5. bobito says:

    Wasn’t Romney the most moderate of the Republican candidates?

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    Yeah, he was! But he had fake being (or morph into) a Tea Partier to get the nomination. That should tell you something.

  7. Matthew Prorok says:

    So, if atheism and religion are both “approaches” we can take, but as a non-believer Frank thinks that atheism is a more accurate approach, what is the point of religion again? His article seems filled with what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”, things that on one level are trivially true, and on another level would be profound if true but are in fact false.

    Understanding the role that religion has played in society is one thing, and a valuable pursuit. Treating religion as though it were actually valuable, and had useful things to teach us, is quite another. As PZ points out, malaria has also been important in shaping the human condition, but we don’t teach classes from malaria’s point of view and act as though it were a good thing.

    And on an aesthetic note, Frank’s writing is terrible. He’s trying really hard to sound impressive. Too hard.

  8. bobito says:

    Agreed, and that is what killed the electability of Romney and McCain. Oh for a third party… 😉

  9. Nullius in Verba says:

    “But hey, I’m sure Democrats would be more than happy if the Republican powerbrokers didn’t listen.”

    I’m sure they’d be even happier if they did.

    It’s not my fight, but I’ve seen views from Republicans that they went too far over to the Tea Party, that they didn’t go far enough over to the Tea Party, that they moved/didn’t move on the wrong bits, that the policy was right but they didn’t get the message out, that they made several dumb mistakes that they never recovered from, that it was the biased liberal media being even more openly biased than usual, that it was the last-minute bump from Sandy, all sorts of theories.

    Democrats always say Republicans should be “reasonable” – meaning they should put forward Democrat policies – and say they should “compromise” – meaning they should do exactly what the Democrats want them to. A lot of Republicans get really irate when their own politicians do exactly that.

    It’s part of the information war. If the Democrats can persuade the Republicans that they’re out of touch and have moved too far towards the Tea Party, they can weaken their resolve and influence their policies in the direction they desire. Why wouldn’t the Democrat powerbrokers try that? The real question though is why anyone would believe them when they say it.

    The Republican candidate is supposed to represent Republicans. There’s no point in the Republicans putting up a Democrat candidate simply to get him voted in, if that means they’re still going to be stuck with Democrat policies for the next four years. That the Tea Party has gained such influence is indeed telling – it’s not because they’re unpopular! 48% doesn’t sound like it’s all that unpopular with the population at large, either.

  10. mikes says:

    I take it you didn’t even bother to read the Myers post. It has nothing to do with what you wrote here.

  11. Keith Kloor says:

    I disagree, obviously. He wrote about other things, sure, but I believe I captured his main point–and not just in that post, but a running theme of his.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    NiV, I love this:
    “If the Democrats can persuade the Republicans that they’re out of touch and have moved too far towards the Tea Party, they can weaken their resolve and influence their policies in the direction they desire.”

    Republicans don’t need Dems to persuade them–they must have to at the cold hard facts the voters recently delivered. Again, I have to say: The Dems will be tickled fancy if the GOP stays to the far right (in tone and policy) of the general electorate in 2014 and 2016. If that proves to be the case, the Republican party will be that much closer to political oblivion. Bank on it.

  13. mikes says:

    The post was about educational priorities and how religion shouldn’t be one of them. Not such a stretch for atheist freethinker? Should we shut down debate over the educational priorities of religion s other valuable subjects?

  14. Fed Up says:

    The science is settled. 100,000% of scientist agree in AGW and anyone who disagrees is evil. As much as I despise the Repugnant Neocons, they are pathetic amateurs when it comes to quashing legitimate debate compared to the compassion fascist Socialist Demagogues.

  15. Tom Scharf says:

    Democrats convene to discuss the imminent death of Republicans, and conclude the only solution is for them to become liberal. Repeat.


  16. Tom Scharf says:

    Those crazy Tea party people. Always yapping about fiscal responsibility and deficits. I totally understand how this message doesn’t resonate with Democrats, who have abandoned any semblance of responsibility. They don’t even pass budgets anymore, declare that deficits “don’t matter”, and have increased the deficit from $10T to $16T in the last 4 years, and according to Obama, the deficit work is almost done here. Good work.

  17. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Republicans don’t need Dems to persuade them–they must have to at the cold hard facts the voters recently delivered.”

    Yes, but which ‘fact’ was that? Too much, or not enough? The communications bandwidth is about 1 bit every four years, it makes it a bit hard to interpret “messages”. Although very easy to fit a preferred message to them. It’s amazing how often the message the Gods convey via the chicken entrails conforms exactly to the priest’s own opinions.

    I say again, 47% compared to 51% is not “oblivion”, whatever the Democrat spin would have you think.

  18. Excellent comparison! Both the truth of AGW and Atheism should be settled in the public sphere. Unfortunately, they aren’t.

  19. Tom Scharf says:

    You will never get Keith to document what he actually thinks the Tea party position is, only that it is extreme and will be the death of the GOP. He’s just repeating talking points here. He has to vent occasionally.

  20. Also, Kloor -seriously, just stop dismissing the good Jerry Coyne’s efforts to wade through the nonsense that is Sophisticated Theology (something that was viewed by most Christians who used the term as a Bad Thing before the rise of New Atheism) by denying that they exist.

  21. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom, republicans have lately convened themselves to discuss their predicament.

    I guess you’ll be yawning again in 2016?

  22. Also, atheists aren’t anti-theists-we don’t hate gods, we hate religion.

  23. Keith Kloor says:

    It depends where the 51% are at. The electoral map gets worse every election cycle for the Republicans–and that’s the map that counts. They also lost numerous very winnable Senate seats. If you looked at the whole picture, as clear-eyed, reality-based Republicans are, you’d know it was a bloodbath. That 51-47 percent number is deceptive to those who don’t know any better.

    Again, Democrats aren’t spinning it like this–Republicans are saying this, as well.

  24. Kevin Bonham says:

    If this is a Poe’s Law moment, forgive me.

    But are you saying that our understanding of reality should be determined by popular sentiment? Either the Earth is warming or it isn’t. If it is, it is attributable to human activity or it isn’t.

    Either there is a god or there isn’t, but of course that question isn’t really a matter of scientific exploration.

  25. Kevin Bonham says:

    PZ is the reason I started reading blogs, and the reason I started writing a blog. When I was a freshman in college, the edginess and affront that he projected were compelling, and helped me become more comfortable with my atheism.

    Now that I’m a bit older, I’m not sure if something has changed with him, but I just find his ranting and reactionary nature childish. And this purity bullshit is unbecoming. Not sure I agree with you on the compatibility thing from an intellectual standpoint, but science and religion are clearly compatible in practice (as many scientists are religious). Still, it’s worth having a discussion rather than calling each other stupid.

  26. Keith Kloor says:

    His discussion of religion in schools confused me. Was it just related to the Greek example he cited, or was he extending out from there?

    I would be dead opposed to mandatory religious instruction at a public school. But I don’t have any problem with the subject of religion–like a ‘world religions class’–being taught as an elective in high school. Yet it seemed like P.Z. was arguing against that as well, as a “useless subject.”

  27. harrywr2 says:

    I always find it interesting when Democrats refer to Republican’s I have never heard of when claiming to have some insight into Republican thought.

    In presidential elections it’s easy.

    The US Electorate always votes for the guy who would be the most interesting guest at a backyard BBQ.

    Romney doesn’t even drink beer…therefore he would certainly be no fun at the backyard BBQ. He lost.

    What the morons that run the party were doing nominating someone that doesn’t even drink beer for a contest that is determined by who would be the most fun at a BBQ is beyond my ability to understand.

    Bill Clinton beat Bush Sr even though Bush Sr’s approval ratings were thru the roof. Bill Clinton would be more fun at a backyard BBQ then Bush Sr.

    Bush Jr would be more fun at a backyard BBQ then Kerry or Gore.

    Barack Obama would be more fun at a BBQ then John McCain or Mitt Romney.

  28. Keith Kloor says:

    No, I don’t think that at all. I’ve been a life-long atheist. But if some American Indians believe they were born out of portal in the Grand Canyon, or Tibetans believe in reincarnation, I’m not gonna ridicule them for their beliefs. It’s the tradition they were born into and I’ll let them decide when it’s run it’s course.

  29. In practice, yes, but certainly not in theory. Can a discussion be arranged between practitioners of conventional medicine and homeopaths? Between biologists and cDesign proponentists? Between psychics and skeptics? Yes, but only be at the cost of integrity, reason, and truth.

  30. It would be a useless subject if taught improperly, as I am 100% certain it would be in most cases. Most teachers simply do not have qualifications in comparative religion. Social studies textbooks tend to be dry (i.e., attempt false objectivity) and written by those clearly unqualified to write non-fiction. cf.

  31. Keith Kloor says:

    Personally, I like and respect Coyne–and PZ. Been reading them for years. I could care less what they think of me, but the fact is: much more often than not, I agree with them. I happen to also think they are tone deaf to their own shrillness and I also dislike when they disparage fellow atheists who don’t hew to their particular brand of atheism.

  32. Yes, you could care less. So, please do, before you make yourself look even more niggardly with the truth. Extremism in the defense of truth is no vice, moderation in its pursuit is no virtue.

  33. No, no. I mean settled as established truth as certain as gravity and heliocentrism.

  34. Nullius in Verba says:


    “He has to vent occasionally.”

    Someone once suggested that Keith puts in this sort of liberal boilerplate to offset his excursions off-message. He’s criticising atheists, therefore he has to put in some liberal dogma to ensure liberals don’t just assume his account got hacked. I don’t know. It does seem to be a bit of a pattern…

    It’s reassuring, in its way, that the Tea Party has got them all so worried. Their borrow-and-spend-forever policy is going to run out of road eventually, and when it does the Tea Party will be there telling everyone “We told you so”. It’s hard to see how they’ll be able to claim they didn’t know. You can certainly see why they want to get rid of them, fast. They’re at risk of derailing the entire gravy train! But that’s proving difficult – they’re not going to go quietly. And as the debt grows ever more unsustainable (now there’s an excellent use of the word!) their problem is only going to get worse.

    You’re all headed for fiscal oblivion. The Tea Party are only the messenger.

  35. Keith Kloor says:

    Well, by that criteria, most subjects would be useless, including history and science, since we all know that textbooks tend to be dry and the subjects badly taught.

  36. Keith Kloor says:

    Sorry, that’s a bit too simplistic. But if you want to play that game, Independents/women/African Americans/Latinos vote for the guy that doesn’t scare them. True, Republicans have the majority of the middle aged white male vote locked up. Good luck getting back into office with just that demographic.

  37. Keith Kloor says:

    NiV, you crack me up. I’ve always noticed that when an argument doesn’t go your way, you resort to rank speculation about someone’s motives. Such a shame for someone who prides himself on logic and reason.

  38. Nullius in Verba says:

    “His discussion of religion in schools confused me. Was it just related
    to the Greek example he cited, or was he extending out from there?”

    He was extending it from the right of students to choose not to attend religious classes to not bothering to have religious classes. I don’t think he was saying they should be banned, I think he was arguing that people’s valuable education time shouldn’t be wasted on bronze-age fantasy fiction. And he supported the idea of a comparative religion course to study it as a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to a moral truth, but he thought that in practice it would revert to the same old indoctrination, since religiously-inclined teachers would be more likely to teach it.

  39. Nullius in Verba says:

    In what way was the argument not going my way? I thought it was going rather well!

    This entire post is a rank speculation on the motives of both the electorate and the Republicans. Yes, there are some Republicans who are saying such things – mainly those Republicans who dislike and fear the Tea Party. There are plenty of Republicans who have been heavily into pork barrel borrow-and-spend policies, too. But it’s not going to be enough to get rid of them, and their relevance is only going to grow as the burden of debt gets bigger.

    Political parties are there to represent the views of their own supporters – not to appeal to those of their opponents. Once you both accept the idea of compromising your principles to get more votes, you end up with two virtually identical parties fighting over the exact same centre ground with the exact same policies, and effectively no choice about policy at all. How does that serve the electorate?

  40. Not really. I know of many good and well-qualified U.S. history, science, and math teachers around where I live. Nowadays, teachers can make their own textbooks (from ), so poor textbook quality is less of a problem in fields in which teachers specialize. However, I do think that being a student in a poorly-funded and badly performing school district is worse than being homeschooled.

  41. Keith Kloor says:

    Politics is about compromise as much as it is about principle.

    You keep harping about Democrats and the opposition when I’ve given you ample evidence that even leading Republicans think the party has a major problem. Like I said, Democrats will pray to the political gods that the GOP follows your advice.

  42. jh says:

    I took a “biblical literature” course in college taught by an episcopalian minister. There was no hint of indoctrination. Much of the course was about the historical evolution of the bible and how and why its books came to be part of the canon.

    I’ve never had the slightest belief in any religion. But the Bible is the most influential book in the history of Western civilization. Perhaps, from the belief point of view, it’s fair to call the Bible “bronze age fantasy fiction”. But this fiction reflects the cultural and intellectual roots and evolution of a significant part of humanity. From that point of view alone, it’s essential reading.

  43. It isn’t bronze age. None of the Bible was written in the bronze age.

  44. jh says:

    “Treating religion as though it were actually valuable, and had useful things to teach us, is quite another.”

    The story of the Good Samaritan has no value? 🙂

    “And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger” (Leviticus 19:10)”

    Is this one of those things that “would be profound if true but are in fact false.”? 🙂

  45. jh says:

    Your criticism isn’t substantive. You’re nitpicking because you have no response to the point of my comment.

  46. jh says:

    What a hoot. Just a few years ago, when Bush was in power, everyone was wondering what happened to the Dems.

    Both Repubs and Dems and their supporters make the same mistake after every victory – they presume that the population has swung in behind their grand policy.

    The Dems won in ’08 bcz people wanted to throw out the bums that created the financial crisis. The Repubs won in ’10 because people wanted to throw out the bums that didn’t fix the financial crisis.

    Obama won in 2012, but beyond that, the parties resumed a stalemate.

  47. jh says:

    “That 51-47 percent number is deceptive to those who don’t know any better.”

    It’s also easy for knowledgeable people to deceive themselves. Hispanics have some cultural characteristics that are a natural fit for Republicans: religion, for one.

    The Republican shift to the “deep right” happened only two years ago. Remember George Bush? Compassionate Conservatism? That was just a few years back too. 🙂

  48. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Keith while I think you’re bang on with your critique of coal-bot, in the spirit of fairness I must nevertheless offer him at least a 1 point for the beer remark. OTOH, you might want to ponder whether or not you’re falling into the ‘moderation is a virtue’ trap. it seems to be a persistent theme of yours that doesn’t always serve you well (this particular case notwithstanding).

  49. jh says:

    Can a discussion be arranged between practitioners of conventional
    medicine and homeopaths?….Only be at the cost of
    integrity, reason, and truth.

    Hmmm…you just might be right. Let’s think this through. It might go like this:

    Homeopathic Practitioner: “hows the wife and kids?”
    Medical Practitioner: “you lack integrity, reason, and truth!”

    Ah, yes, you’re right. Some people can’t put their profession and beliefs down long enough to treat others with basic civility.

  50. jh says:

    No, Kettle, you’re black!!

  51. jh says:

    They aren’t?

    But we’re supposed to accept AGW because 97% of climate scientists accept it, aren’t we? Isn’t that settling in the public sphere?

    And your proof – or even your evidence – that there is no god? Is that science too? I assure you, I can construct a god well beyond the reach of scientific evidence.

  52. jh says:

    Wasn’t it Cheney who said that deficits don’t matter? 🙂

  53. Joshua says:

    Keith –

    A political example of this would be today’s U.S. Republican Party, which, as David Frum recently observed, has become “increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.”

    I still fail to understand why you gum up your quality work with this kind of nonsense. I’m obviously no Tea Partier (the arguments by “conservatives” on this thread are hilarious, btw), but the linkage you make is gratuitous and facile. “Shutting down debate” doesn’t align with political parties – just as it doesn’t align with positions on GMOs or climate change. Just as with your “anti-GMO lunatics are the librul version of “deniers,” you are making shallow associations that obscure the valid issues you’re interested in. Just look at the silliness this post has inspired in your commenters.

    Once again – what is at play here are the attributes in how people reason, and they lay beneath these surface distinctions.”

  54. dogktor says:

    Thank you Joshua. The tension between atheists and religious adherents is a deep enough sea to swim without muddying the water with politics and GMOs, though I do see the parallel with the Republican/Tea Party ( exclusionary to its own detriment) . As a person raised in a multi-generational atheist family in a culture which saw religion as “an opiate of the masses”, and has made a leap of faith in the other direction as an adult, I agree that atheists can be closed minded .A friend described atheism as a very cold religion to live with. One can believe in evolution and yet recognize that evolutionary science is incapable of addressing questions of morality, philosophy, ethics and is entirely useless as a guiding force through tumultuous experiences of life.

  55. Nullius in Verba says:

    “It isn’t bronze age. None of the Bible was written in the bronze age.”

    Bits of the Bible were borrowed from earlier Egyptian/Babylonian/Sumerian myths. The first books were compiled in the early iron age, but show signs of having been cobbled together from multiple prior sources. (e.g. the two separate creation stories in Genesis. There are three or four identified sources: priestly, yahwist, elohist, deuteronomist.) It was probably written and evolved over a much longer period prior to that.

  56. #1-It’s supposed to be, but there’s still a large climate denialist minority among the laypeople.

    #2- My evidence there’s no god is the same evidence that there are no magic pink unicorns.

  57. kdk33 says:

    How is it that 48% of the people are estranged from the people? How is it that 48% of the people are extreme? How is that those marginalized Extremists hold a majority in the house?

    Funnily, atheist do not hold a majority position in the US house of representatives.

  58. Keith Kloor says:


    I’m sorry this post isn’t up to your standards.

    Sorry, too, that you disagree with Frum and other political observers (including moderate Republicans). I happen to think that observation is spot-on.

    You also mischaracterize the argument I made in Slate–about anti-GMO opponents being the equivalence of climate skeptics. I showed very clearly, with examples and links, and how that is so.

    Lastly, the notion that somehow comments are reflective of a post is itself silly. You know well that commenters are a tiny minority of the overall readership. Most commenters (who have strongly held opinions) view blog posts through their own filters, usually seizing on the parts that they strongly disagree (or agree) with. That is always abundantly clear in your case.

  59. JeffN says:

    Well, we could look at data to find out if Republicans are “out of touch” by being conservative.

    Nope. Conservatives outnumber liberals 2-1 in this country. Why do they lose? Well, look at the congress and they actually haven’t, but in the presidential race “free stuff that someone else will pay for!” is a powerful promise when times are tough.

  60. Joshua says:

    Keith –

    Sorry, too, that you disagree with Frum and other political observers (including moderate Republicans). I happen to think that observation is spot-on.

    I don’t disagree that the Republican Party has become increasingly isolated from the general public – nor that it has become more extreme. I think that reality is easily proven, and anyone who argues otherwise is fooling themselves. I have quoted Frum in many a blog discussion.

    What I am saying is that your association of closed-mindedness with various groups of people, alternately, (libruls, foodies, Republicans, Tea-Partiers, etc.), is facile. Closed-mindedness is a tendency among all of us as we stake out positions in highly contentious debates about issues that overlap with out social, political, cultural, psychological identifications. Closed-mindedness is not associated with, or created by, any particular ideology. Making the associations you have been making, IMO, only distract from the useful discussion. The issue isn’t whether or not some atheists are like some Republicans (or some anti-GMOers are like some “skeptics”.) Those questions are a distraction. The interesting issue at hand, IMO, is whether some atheists are intolerant, ironically in the fashion that some religious fundamentalists are intolerant. I’m not completely convinced about your thesis there – but I think that there is some evidence to support your thesis, and I think it is an interesting question worthy of discussion.

    My point re: comments is that I know that it is difficult to generate high-level discussion in blog posts. There is definitely something about the format that promotes flying food – but I do think that your pattern of making facile associations can’t possibly help in that regard.

  61. Joshua says:

    dogtor –

    I have a similar background, and have a similar perspective. While I have not made your leap of faith (I made a half-leap to agnosticism), I have had to reconcile my own views about religion with that of my parents who stressed the destructive side of religious belief. I look at someone like Jim Wallis, and I have to recognize that there are many facets to religious belief. I have come to believe that all beliefs are a product of our starting premises, and that there is a certain arbitrariness to how we formulate our starting premises. That viewpoint relates to your comments about evolution (although I think that your “entirely useless” is a bit of an overstatement).

    I’ll check out the link.

  62. Joshua says:

    Why do they lose? Well, look at the congress and they actually haven’t,
    but in the presidential race “free stuff that someone else will pay
    for!” is a powerful promise when times are tough.

    They lost the popular vote for Congress – a rather steep drop from 2010. Obviously, gerrymandering is an issue here. What seems clear from the demographic data is that Republican rhetoric, if it doesn’t change, will lead to a party that is popular only in increasingly isolated parts of the country that, relative to the rest of the country, are decreasing in voters.

    And the beauty of it is that your “free stuff” rhetoric is precisely what will harm the Republican Party’s electoral prospects. Especially when you consider that the majority of those people getting “free stuff,” are elderly, or working poor, or have a disability. The more the Republican Party insists in tying it’s electoral prospects to insulting hard-working Americans and their family members, the more it will become isolated. It’s kind of like a reverse “hearts and minds” campaign. Very popcorn-worthy.

  63. bobito says:

    One of those two conservatives makes up the far right (give or take a fraction of a person). The rest are the people that understand capitalism is the way to go and must be protected, but that the “invisible hand” lets too many pass through it’s fingers.

    Thus, there is some need for “social justice”. This is where the right is failing as many of those 1 of 2 cross the line to insure that people aren’t spit out the back of the capitalism machine.

    Pure capitalism sounds great on paper, but doesn’t apply in the real world. I’d compare those think it does to those that think the US can make a significant contribution to reducing AGW. It sounds good on paper, it just doesn’t work..

  64. Brandon Joldersma says:

    You do Atheism a disservice by defining it that way. Atheists by definition do not hate religion, they just lack a belief in a supernatural god.

  65. Buddy199 says:

    Instead of “free stuff”, how about stuff that isn’t paid for which is driving the deficit into a death spiral?

  66. JeffN says:

    The point is that after demonizing “conservatives” for decades as out of step with the population, twice as many people self identify as “conservative” as liberal. The theme is a comprehensive bust. A fiction.

    Your aren’t really trying to claim that half of those calling themselves “conservative” are social justice liberals who are simply confused about the meaning of the label conservative, are you?

  67. mikes says:

    Deficits aren’t in a death spiral. You can attribute all of the deficit at this point to a) the stimulus and b) most importantly, the housing crash. up until 2006 the share of deficit to GDP was improving, even with the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars and an unfunded change to medicare. When the economy crashed the revenue declined sharply and the safety net had a large increase in output, both due to unemployment. Then the stimulus kicked in another tax cut and spending. This means that a) is attributable to b).

    Even with all the problems of keeping up with spending, 1) we have no seen any signs of too much inflation and 2) we can still borrow at record low interest rates.

    When the economy improves the deficit will be fine, as long as medicare spending (which is actually just heath care spending in general) is fixed within the next decade, but this is not as pressing as getting people back to work. It needs to be priority number one. Any deficit talk as a death spiral is not supported by any data I’ve seen.

  68. bobito says:

    That’s not what I’m saying at all. I did say “the
    need for SOME social justice”…

    The half I’m referring to are the people that either themselves, or who have close friends/relatives, that struggle and require some assistance for basic needs.

    If they fear that assistance will go away, and that someone close them will suffer because of it, they may be swayed to vote democrat. (Note: if the mainstream media is good at anything, it’s good a making people afraid…)

  69. Tom Scharf says:

    KK: “If you looked at the whole picture, as clear-eyed, reality-based Republicans are, you’d know it was a bloodbath.”

    An election cycle where the status quo was maintained is defined as bloodbath to you? One can only wonder what 2010 must have been….an apocalyptic end times?

  70. Tom Scharf says:

    So the liberal master plan is revealed. Appeal to poor people and then construct policy to maximize the number of poor people.

  71. Joshua says:

    The essential problem Republicans face is their insistance on fiscal responsibility and reducing the deficit,…

    You are deluding yourself. Take a look at the debt/revenue and debt/GDP ratios under the different administrations over the past 60 years. The debt side of those ratios has been higher in each Republican administration relative to the Democratic administrations that preceded or followed. The notion that the Republican Party (either party, actually) has been a party of “fiscal responsibility” is self-delusional.

    But hey, if it works for you to continue to paint tens of millions of American working poor, tens of millions of seniors, the disabled, and tens of millions of children born into poverty as moochers – have at it. I am well-stocked in popcorn.

  72. ronwall42 says:

    Unfortunately, there is a faction of fundamentalist Christianity that needs to be criticized. Those are the folks trying to force their particular brand of Christianity on others. As an atheist, I will continue to ridicule, expose and criticize them every chance I get. I believe most of us (atheists) have no problem with enlightened and intelligent Christian moderates. What we don’t want to see is the rise of an American Taliban.

    The Chickenhead cartoon is way off the mark and obviously the work of someone who has no real understanding of most atheists. I became an atheist by reading the Bible, plain and simple.

  73. Joshua says:

    Lol! No. The bizarro master plan has been revealed. Appeal to a minority by demonizing the majority. It isn’t that the Dems are “appealing to the poor,” it is that Republicans are isolating themselves from an increasingly large demographic – including many poor people or “moochers” who have been voting Republican over the previous few decades.

    But yeah – Demz are “constructing” policies to “maximize the number of poor people” Too funny.

    Keep it up. It’s working great! Why rethink the strategy?

  74. Keith Kloor says:

    I’ve not problem with criticism of fundamentalism in any guise, including the Christian, Hasidic, Islamic variants. What I have a problem with is criticism that broadly lumps all religions together and then condemns religion as one big stain on humanity.

  75. That wasn’t a definition (‘we’ is somewhat ambiguous), and even if it was, hate of religion is a good thing.

  76. Whose beliefs do you ridicule? Marxists’?

  77. JeffN says:

    That would be a good point if there was anyone out there who wanted all assistance to go away.

    At the risk of belaboring the point, the media has defined “conservative” as Teabagger who wants assistance to go away, denies science, religious nuts, yadda yadda.
    Yet when the pollers call and ask “what are you?” the people say “conservative.”

  78. Kevin Bonham says:

    Still getting used to these threaded comments – my question was aimed at Enopoletus…

  79. Kevin Bonham says:

    Ooooooh, I get it. You mean they should be settled by now in the public sphere, not that the public sphere should be in charge of settling.

  80. bobito says:

    Right, then Romney has one “47%” slip up and he becomes linked with the media’s definition of the Tea Party. Election over before it begins…

  81. Keith Kloor says:

    In an update, I have added an excerpt from another related post:

  82. “Evolved”, probably. “Written”, almost certainly not. I think the sources were first written down in the Early Iron Age and the books in the Late Iron Age (and later).

  83. Joshua says:

    The point is that after demonizing “conservatives” for decades as out of step with the population,

    Lol! Poor Jeff is such a victim! Day after day I turn on Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reily, Medved, Ingraham, Bennett, etc., all I hear is “demonizing” of “conservatives”

    Oh! The humanity!

  84. Kevin Bonham says:

    jh’s response below is the extreme example, but let me give you a more real example using your framework.

    An ex-girlfriend of mine had some pretty terrible intestinal problems. I of course encouraged her to go to the doctor and she saw a couple of specialists, and did some pretty unpleasant tests. Ultimately, the doctors couldn’t really figure out what was wrong with her, weren’t able to give her much advice except some prescriptions that didn’t really help.

    She then hears about some woo-woo crap the measures skin temperature and attempts to diagnose the problem that way (they use fancy equipment and make a pretty picture out of the heat map). I was skeptical, and I expressed my skepticism, but ultimately, I went with her to get this procedure done, and I only objected a little bit when the “technician” that did the exam spouted the benefits of alkaline water or some other nonsense.

    Ultimately, that didn’t help much either (though they tried to sell her a few thousand dollars worth of supplements), and I think my ex-girlfriend learned something. Yes, she wasted some money on this bull-shit test, but had I been completely doctrinaire about it, I don’t think any good would have come of it. She was at a point where she would have tried anything to get better, and if I had said “you’re stupid for trying that,” I’m not sure that she would have been able to listen. By being open but expressing skepticism, I was ultimately able to learn more about it and rebut their claims all the better.

    At some point, she saw a nutritionist and went on a gluten-free diet and that seemed to help, so there’s a happy ending 🙂

  85. Good. I view the two posts as complementary, not contradictory.

  86. Various matters of persuasion must be used for various circumstances.

  87. mikes says:

    Well, also, it’s an actual argument as opposed to the strawman in the OP. It appears freethinking is alive and well and no shutdown of intellectual discussion to report. Has PZMyers failed?

  88. Living_Right_In_CA says:

    Picture 2004 and reverse the parties.
    My people forget their history and compound it by being short-sighted.

  89. Living_Right_In_CA says:

    No, NIV has you nailed. You are a two-face dancing on a razor blade.

  90. Living_Right_In_CA says:

    What about the Democrats in 2004?
    Typical leftist (and stopy denying you are left everyone but you seems to accept that fact) take current trend and project that for the next 20 years as fact.

  91. Keith Kloor says:

    Yes, PZ has largely failed, as plenty of atheists do roll their eyes at his antics and do publicly challenge him. It is also notable to many that he usually responds in a snarling, derisive manner. It’s great red meat for his atheist choir, though.

  92. Living_Right_In_CA says:

    Do not forget that Republicans do not have the media in their pocket like the Democrats.

  93. Living_Right_In_CA says:

    Fox News reaches far fewer people than ABC, CBS, NBC, NYT, CNN, MSNBC etc.

  94. mikes says:

    The least you could do is acknowledge that you are in a disagreement with him, or don’t like his ‘sneering’, but that he is not shutting down down debate (it appears he encouraged it). There is quite a large difference. It’s weird to see that someone who has been begging for debate on the role of religion in society to be accused of such. It’s just factually incorrect. The ‘red meat’ comment is mere unhelpful triteness on your part. Just more distraction from an actual debate I’m sure PZ would love to have.

  95. JeffN says:

    Poor Joshy. How can I be both “a victim” and be claiming my POV is winning?

    Deep breath, read.
    I’m not saying I’m a victim, I’m saying the claim that conservatism is out of touch with the population is belied by the data. The strategy building a strawman definition of conservatism is failing, completely. Nobody is buying it. When nobody believes you, that doesn’t make me a victim.

  96. JeffN says:

    I take your point there, but I think the “47%” comment was less a factor than turnout. Those who wanted free stuff paid for by others turned out in greater numbers. When they start getting the bill (and they are) that will change.

  97. dogktor says:

    as a non-believer Frank thinks that atheism is a more accurate approach, what is the point of religion again? I see this statement as an attempt at shutting off the debate altogether once his mind is made up. God can not be proven or dis-proven, so atheism remains a belief system. A genuinely open minded, non-indoctrinating person would not be affronted/ fearful(?) of having their belief system (atheism) taught so it can freely compete in the marketplace of ideas and may even advocate for an elective comparative religion/spirituality course in which atheism is taught and tested with other belief systems (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, etc), encouraging students to make up their own minds.

  98. Buddy199 says:

    I wish I could be that optomistic. The Fed is creating a flood of money out of thin air, inflation is inevitable at some point. It always is when governments try to monetize their debts. We can still borrow at low interest rates because the U.S. is still considered the best house in a bad neighborhood and buyers still want our Treasuries. The debt to GDP is now 101%, in four years it will likely be above 120%. I don’t see the situation improving.

  99. Buddy199 says:

    The debt to GDP in 2008 was 70%, four years later it was 101%, Four years grom now likely over 120%. Obama has added more to the national debt in four years than Bush did in eight. The problem isn’t Republicans thinking that grannie and little Timmy are moochers. The problem is we’re broke and Obama could care less how much more febt he strangles us with. No wonder he’d rather talk about wars on women and pipelines.

  100. Nullius in Verba says:

    “The story of the Good Samaritan has no value? :)”

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the good Samaritan had turned up while the robbers were still there.

    The question, of course, is whether the value in it is provided by religion, or whether religion simply adopts the value that is already inherent in society.

    The story of the good Samaritan was actually a criticism of religion. The idea of charity to one’s neighbour was already well-established – but each religion considered only the members of their own community as ‘neighbours’. The story was pointing out how religions got it wrong.

    In this case, the story conforms with modern morality, so we see it as good. Other parts of the Bible definitely don’t (e.g. Numbers 31:1-17), so believers skip over those or make excuses. But the point in both cases is that the modern moral judgement is applied to the story, not extracted from it. We get our morality from a different source. People know and do it anyway, and they pick and choose from the Bible in accordance with it. So in what way does the religion add any value?

    Religion takes credit for morality, and so distracts us from the real source. It confuses by trying to codify in simple rules what is generally far more complex. It resists change and improvement. And it sometimes leads people to do things that conflict with modern morality, when they allow tradition and authority to override their own moral sense.

    Like any set of beliefs, religions have good points and bad ones. It’s certainly not right to deny the good points, and there being bad points certainly doesn’t mean the good bits aren’t good. But the privileged respect religions enjoy by which mentioning the bad points becomes taboo isn’t good, either. Especially for those religions where the bad points are (by modern standards) seriously nasty. Not all religions are as nice.

  101. Joshua says:

    First of all, you are ignoring the legacy of the previous administration’s policies. But even if we accept those numbers without considering that aspect – it doesn’t change the simple fact that the Obama administration would be an anomaly in that respect – the one Democratic administration that didn’t fit the pattern.

    I didn’t say that “the problem” was Republicans thinking that granny and little Timmy are moochers. That isn’t the problem in the least. As far as I’m concerned, that rhetoric by Republicans actually contributes to the solution.

    The problem represented by the debt is multifaceted. If you want to think that it’s because “Obama could care less” about debt, more power to you. I wouldn’t want to, not for one second, discourage you from that kind of conclusion!

  102. JeffN says:

    Joshua, what happens when you run out of other people’s money and can no longer hand out the free stuff? Or the debt gets so high you get stagflation? Who will love you then?

    Ask Jimmy Carter.

  103. BBD says:

    Cathedral building was funded by the taxation of peasant agricultural labour. They are prayers in stone and exercises in exploitation. They are beautiful and damned. Such is life 😉

  104. Just like the Egyptian Pyramids!

  105. ronwall42 says:

    I know this blog is aging fast, but I wanted to comment on the cartoon. Notice that among the books that it seems to mock are: “Skepticism”, “Unbelief” and “Evolution”, as if these are bad things. These are the very things that people should be reading, even Christians. The title, “Spurning the Truth” also says a lot about this cartoonist. Keith stated he has no problem criticizing fundamentalist. Well, this cartoon is a very fundamentalist view of atheist.

  106. Michael Larkin says:


  107. jh says:

    “The story of the good Samaritan was actually a criticism of religion.”

    There many interpretations of the story of the Good Samaritan by biblical scholars – some even suggest that the story was never told by Jesus.

    We all know well the common interpretation. However, even in that interpretation, it was not a criticism of religion. Jesus was a devout Jew. It was a criticism of the corruption of religion, a criticism of the people’s practice of religion.

    But the point in both cases is that the modern moral judgement is applied to the story, not extracted from it.

    How would you establish the difference? 🙂 Obviously any parable/fable we tell in any period is told because it reflects the values of that period, from Mother Goose to biblical stories. That’s a trivial conclusion.

    My friend’s child has ADHD. She provides the child with stories that portray the “proper” way to deal with situations that arise from ADHD. The stories help the child learn how to cope with various situations. Similar stories are frequently written, prescribed and used by medical professionals in their treatment of many childhood psychological disorders.

    Will simply reading the Good Samaritan instill the “proper” morals in all humans? Obviously not. Nonetheless, humans learn how to behave from one another. Stories are proxies for the behavior of other people, and people learn how to behave by reading them.

    So, I guess to sum it up, I think your contention that reading the parable of the Good Samaritan is a waste of time because we already know how to behave is antithetic to just about everything we know about how humans learn to function in society.

  108. jh says:

    #1 – If it weren’t for those meddling skeptics, we would have imposed my climate plan in 1996 and everyone today would think it had stopped the warming!!

    #2 – well, I don’t believe in gods or magic pink unicorns, but I can’t rule them out. Think black swans.

  109. jh says:

    “up until 2006 the share of deficit to GDP was improving”

    One might surmise that this improvement was due to balance sheets unknowingly bloated by the housing bubble.

  110. jh says:


    I’m not sure where that inflation will come from when companies are innovating people out of the workforce. The real threat is and continues to be deflation.

    But I do think you’re right about US debt. I shorted treasuries last year – a bit too early, I think. But at some point the crap yields that treasuries currently deliver will give way in the face of rising stock prices. Given the yields on many blue-chip stocks, it’s very surprising it hasn’t happened already.

  111. jh says:

    It’s great that your EGF finally found some help in the medical community.

    Her struggles reflect the problems that have given rise to the alternative medicine community. A close friend has some serious arthritis problems. She’s visited doctor after doctor with no help in sight. She got quite a bit of relief from chiropractic treatment for several years.

    Recently, she found an arthritis clinic and is, for the first time in probably a decade, getting beneficial advice and treatment from the medical community. None of the treatment she’s getting is revolutionary. It just happens that none of the previous doctors had the slightest idea about it, nor the interest in finding out.

    When it comes to the medical community, they’d best get their own house in order before they point fingers.

  112. jh says:

    “Treating religion as though it were actually valuable…”

    Nice piece on 60 min tonight about Mercy Ships – healthcare services to the worlds poor provided by – you got it – christian organizations.

    I’m having trouble casting this as a service that’s not valuable.

  113. RationalFearOfTerror says:

    Atheism is at its core a critique of religion, to claim atheists want to close down discussion on religion is the same as claiming fish are demanding to live in the open air.

    P.Z. Myers, asked a question “How about we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?” This is not in anyway stipulating “Let’s just pretend that religion doesn’t exist at all.” it is quite the opposite.

    If you read the post It is an open question which in fact is the reverse of what you are claiming P. Z. Myers is simply questioning the “forced religious indoctrination in …. schools”, In this case in Greek schools.

    P. Z. Myers determination religion is “literally useless, distracting, and narrow.” relates to religion being taught as a dogma of ‘truth’ and P. Z. Myers observes rightly “if religion is taught comparatively and objectively, it’s a good tool for breaking dogma.”

    P.Z. Myers is advocating religious studies as a ‘good’ just so long as such studies are carried out in a anthropological/philosophical framework which reflects on all religious codex – “world religions”.

    P.Z. Myers justifiably views singular religious studies on a specific religion in this case ‘Greek Orthodox’ “in schools” at the very least as a backdoor way of imposing religious dogma on young minds, possibly without any attempt on the part of the teachers to stipulate counter ethical constructs, versions of histories, etc applying to the same.

    Far from closing down the discussion if anyone reads his post will see P. Z. Myers is opening it up.

    Your claim is the same as determining Abe Lincoln a fascist, and although some determined he was in his time was he really?

    I would suggest you reflect on the CHICKENHEAD cartoon it contains a genocide construct of Other and it is not coming from the atheists.

  114. Ruth1940 says:

    Most religious folks are quick to tout the importance of religion, even insisting the Ten Commandments be placed on public property, but their knowledge on it is sparse.

    Awkward Moments (not found in your average children’s) Bible could spark interest in reading exactly what the books of the bible actually say: