“Witch hunts”, Tim Hunt, and sexism in science

tim-huntAs with “shirtgate”, where Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor was in the news for wearing a shirt depicting naked scantily-clad women, the Tim Hunt case has prominently featured Richard Dawkins, telling us how to understand feminism and the issue of sexism in science.

In his letter to The Times (paywalled, so – sorry – I’m linking to the Daily Mail‘s quotes of the letter), Dawkins says:

Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but “disproportionate” would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.

‘A writer in the Guardian even described it as “a moment to savour”. To “savour” a moment of human misery – to “savour” the hounding of one of our most distinguished scientists – goes beyond schadenfreude and spills over into cruelty.’

One might hope that Dawkins is demonstrating “disproportionateness” via example, but he’s no doubt serious in this one-sided portrayal of events. Not only that, he’s perpetuating a misunderstanding he found in the libertarian Reason.com in his “moment to savour” quote – the Guardian quote, in context, reads:

Yet this is a moment to savour. Hunt has at last made explicit the prejudice that undermines the prospects of everyone born with childbearing capabilities.

In other words, it’s not the Hunt resignation that the author is savouring, but rather the opportunity it provides for discussing the ingrained sexism that is still experienced by women in professional settings such as laboratories (not to mention elsewhere).

When the speaker of the offensive remarks has felt the need to apologise, fully acknowledging that the remarks were inappropriate, seeing a senior male scientist like Dawkins describing reaction to those as a “feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness” is unlikely to reassure anyone who has concerns regarding perceived or actual sexist treatment of women in the workplace.

Yes, it’s true that some on social media had strong words to say about and to Tim Hunt. I don’t think it clear that this forced his dismissal, though. As usual, one can find evidence to support the case you want to make – Hunt and his wife claim that he was “hung out to dry” by University College London, and UCL say that he resigned (from an honorary, not paid, position) before they had a chance to speak with him about the incident.

He says he was joking when he made the remarks. And it’s true that many of the quotes of his remarks have left out the “now seriously” he utters in the second paragraph below:

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

But the issue is not whether he was joking or not. No reasonable person could doubt that he was intending to make a joke. The issue is what jokes you regard as appropriate or not, in which contexts. In a professional context such as this, addressing a room full of female scientists who have most likely encountered plenty of glass ceilings, this was a stupid and insensitive joke to make.

Furthermore, what Dawkins and others are perhaps not reading is the non-baying-mob part of the Internet, for example these tweets from someone who interviewed Hunt just after he made the remarks in question. Here’s one of the tweets:

Blum goes on to record that Hunt said “he was trying to be honest about the problems” – meaning he perhaps does have the sexist attitudes that the “joke” was purportedly ironising. If so, why should UCL want him in an honorary position?

I don’t know all the facts – very few of us do. And yes, I agree that social media can bring an unreasonable mob to your door. Another speaker at the same event (who confirms Blum’s account) Blum perhaps puts it best, though, in saying:

I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm. But if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones. Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.

The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession. The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry that door open means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.

Dawkins on “mild paedophilia”

RDRichard Dawkins has – again – demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about public relations. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you might be speaking the truth isn’t always the only relevant thing. Messages can get lost in their delivery, and in the perceptions of their audience – and we can therefore have a debate about the efficacy of a message that is, to some extent, separate from its truth-value.

The outrage on this occasion is his reference to “mild paedophilia” in an interview for The Times (paywalled), that was written up on Religion News Service and then (to my mind, at least) mischaracterised on Pharyngula (commenters, this is not a blog on which to rant about PZ, please – I think he’s being uncharitable in his interpretation of Dawkins, but Dawkins nevertheless said something very ill-advised and insensitive). [EDIT: here’s the full text, from the RDFS site.]

First, an important clarification: what Dawkins reports is not paedophilia, but child abuse. Paedophilia does not necessarily entail any physical contact, but simply the attraction – and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all. We all make it more difficult for them to get help through demonising paedophiles as child abusers.

Second, this is not a new story. At least, the fact that Dawkins was abused is not a new story. He’s referred to it in interviews, as well as in The God Delusion. His comment that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical abuse” has previously been the subject of willful misinterpretation by the physicist Peter Higgs, and others.

In this new interview, Dawkins repeats his claim that he doesn’t think he has suffered lasting harm, and suggests that neither would his peers have. That’s a problem already, of course, in that while he’s free to speak for himself, it’s rather risky – not to mention grossly insensitive, and likely harmful to some who do feel harmed – to assert that other victims of child abuse haven’t suffered harm. Then he says:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

This is the key passage, in which Dawkins again says something which is arguably true, yet an utterly stupid – and pointless – thing to say. To my mind, what he’s trying to say is:

  • That child abusers were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of their actions wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • That the victims of child abuse were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of what was being done to them wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • Our understanding of what actors did and felt within a particular historical time and context must be informed by the norms applicable at the time.

The fact that child abuse (and racism, and sexism, etc.) were always wrong is a separate issue to how people felt about those things, and their awareness of the wrongfulness of those things. And, how people felt about things (in fact, how they perceive things today) will obviously have an effect on whether people feel harmed, abused or whatever the case might be. That’s all that Dawkins seems to be saying. And the fact that it will appear to be an insensitive thing to say doesn’t make him wrong on those facts. What makes him wrong is arguably that it’s an excessively, and unproductively, insensitive thing to say.

So it’s not fair, or accurate, to say (as PZ Myers does), that he “can think of some lasting harm [to Dawkins]: [Dawkins] seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Not at all – this is a completely needless, and unfair, swipe at Dawkins, in that it asserts that he’s persistently, and currently, indifferent to the sexual abuse of children in general.

As discussed above, Dawkins thinks that some abuse, at a particular time, was not regarded as seriously (regardless of its actual seriousness) as it would be today. These are very different claims, and PZ Myers is simply picking the most uncharitable interpretation possible in order to discredit Dawkins.

Later in the post, PZ Myers says

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Again, to call it an “excuse” creates the impression that Dawkins condones child abuse. And the use of the word “permissible” implies a binary state, where either all teachers are going around abusing children, then sharing tales over tea, or one where all abusers are caught and punished to the full extent of the law. It was never permissible, not even in the 1950s. Yet, it’s still possible that people didn’t report it as often, or follow up on it as often, or perceive it in the same ways then, as they do now.

This doesn’t alter the fact that it was wrong then, as it’s wrong now. It doesn’t “excuse” it, as per Myers’ words above. All that it does is explain that people might respond to it differently then than they do now.

Dawkins, Muslims and trolling on Twitter

I had intended to write a post on Richard Dawkins’ most recent provocations on Twitter, which he kicked off with

RDbut a couple of people have gotten there before me – particularly Nelson Jones, who seems to have read my mind. As Jones points out, Trinity College has more Nobels than the Chinese, or than women, or any number of groups you might care to name (regardless of how carefully or accurately those groups were defined).

Yes, what he said was “a fact”, and in fact true. On Twitter, a few people have reminded me of this when I accused Dawkins of dickishness in the Tweet embedded above. I know that it’s a fact – but there are two ways of making the point that this isn’t the only relevant thing in this case. The one way is to say that facts aren’t all that matter – that there is a world of politics, and emotion, and strategy that might mean it’s sensible to point out certain facts at certain times, in certain contexts.

The other way of making the point is to agree that facts are all that matter, and to say that therefore, Dawkins should be wary of letting utterly predictable reactions get in the way of people seeing the facts that he’s attempting to highlight. As Jones writes, something in Islam (and this could easily be true for any other religion too) has gotten in the way of there being proportional representation of Muslims amongst Nobel Prize winners (and a number of other equally arbitrary metrics).

What that something is, is an interesting question – as is the question of whether atheists are disproportionately well-represented. But you can ask that question in less or more abrasive ways, and asking them in the way that Dawkins did will almost certainly result in making fewer, not more, people think about what the answer might be.

I’m not making the claim that it’s always wrong to ask questions abrasively – I’m making the claim that it’s disingenuous to say “I’m simply pointing out a fact”, or “everyone is over-reacting” when you have various options for how to express something, and you choose the one which a) doesn’t do any better a job of making the point and b) is likely to provoke more than alternatives would.

Twitter is not the place for nuanced debate. We (in general) broadcast, entertain, and often provoke. Dawkins is doing all of those, and he surely knows it. I don’t object, as I’ve said many times – it’s not a strategy that I want to employ for myself, but we need people to act as the lightning-rods. But that doesn’t mean it’s impermissible to ever say hold on, even on your strategy, that message is going to be lost in the quite predictable outrage. If people aren’t listening, you can’t do anything to budge their beliefs.

Read the Jones piece, as well as this one by Nesrine Malik. As Jones rightly points out, this is a pattern for Dawkins, and even (especially?) those of us who support his goals should be able to see how characteristic it is:

Dawkins’ well-honed technique (it often amounts to trolling) is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is “Your a dick”) and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.

Another example from earlier this year compelled me to respond, because it seemed to indicate quite plainly how Dawkins’ Twitter behaviour is often more about provoking, than facilitating debate:

In case it’s not clear to you what’s going on there, Continental and Analytic (to use the traditional, and contested, definitions) are different approaches to academic philosophy. It’s a summary term of a style of philosophy practiced in those regions, like (as my tweet highlighted) French vs. Greek food. These are both different routes to getting fed, and the styles of philosophy are similarly both routes to understanding the world. There is no necessary distinction between them, though – and therefore, nothing to deride by asking “what sort of a search for truth is region-specific?”

But absurdly, social media are so intemperate that we only seem to have two options in response to Tweets like the one that the post begins with: either to denounce Dawkins as an Islamophobe, or to support him vociferously, telling anyone who criticises him that what he says “is a fact” and that everyone is “over-reacting”. The middle-ground is, as ever, squeezed out of the picture – because on social media, we’re all shouting, all the time.

And I suppose it’s quite reasonable to worry about who might hear you, if you’re saying something like “hold on, it’s not that simple”?

The sound and fury of sanctimony

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesThe Easter holidays got me thinking – again – about what each of us could do to increase the odds of having a conversation on the Internet, thereby potentially changing our minds about something. In particular, changing our minds about how we perceive each other’s views on faith and religion. After all, changing our minds is what reading and writing should be about: discovering how we are wrong, rather than reinforcing to ourselves the ways in which we are right.

Easter brought these thoughts back because of the predictable squabbles that flared up between religious believers (well, Christians in this case) and those of us who don’t believe. Both of these groups can take themselves far too seriously: the non-religious through going out of their way to also be anti-religious, and the religious through taking offence at any slight, no matter how minor.

Some people did seem to go out of their way to be blasphemous, especially on Twitter, but jokes like the one that got me into brief trouble when I re-tweeted it (say Jesus backwards. Now say God backwards. Now say them together), or Barry Bateman’s quip about this being a day all about “caramel centered chocolate eggs” (which attracted a full day of judgement) are surely of the sort that can (and should) simply be laughed off as a difference of opinion.

Most of the time, a commitment to secular values would allow for both “sides” to leave each other alone, because their actions and beliefs, kept private, have no impact on others. But for both of these groups, the nuances of how (and why) people believe or disbelieve can get lost in convenient caricatures. In fact, sometimes even the truth is hostage to the will to (dis)believe. Two brief examples aren’t conclusive, but hopefully serve to make the point.

On the Christian side, the Church of England did themselves no favours through being caught out in what appears to be a blatant lie. In the run-up to Easter, they released the results of a poll indicating that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer – and gratifyingly for them, that belief in the power of prayer seemed to be on the rise in the youth.

The only problem is that the poll shows nothing of the sort. The 4 out of 5 figure is derived from the fact that when asked the question “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”, 80% of people gave a response instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I would never pray for anything”.

The desire to have a good-news story about the church, especially in the run-up to Easter, is understandable. And in light of 2011’s Dawkins’ foundation research indicating that fewer people seem to believe in the power of prayer than ever, this particular good-news story would no doubt be particularly welcome. But when your brand is built on virtue, and is in competition with others that claim you’re simply making stuff up, it does no good to make stuff up.

On the atheist side, I’m rather grateful to the majority of religious folk who are either disinterested enough or kind enough to not make more of an issue out of the continued civil wars around the role of social justice causes inside atheism, in particular the widespread allegations of misogyny. Instead, the focus continues to be on some of the more prominent voices for non-belief, and in particular, Dawkins himself.

And he seldom fails to disappoint those looking for a soundbite purportedly demonstrating the tone-deafness and hostility of atheists. While I do think most of the examples chosen to make this case are cherry-picked or misinterpreted, it remains true that doing our own cherry-picking or misinterpretation in response is no evidence of virtue.

Furthermore, he really does put his foot in it sometimes, like last week when he told his 660 000 Twitter followers:

He’s right on the logic, sure – but it would have been easy to be right while simultaneously not being maximally offensive.

I’ve addressed questions of strategy before, for example in relation to someone who does actually try to be the lightning-rod that Dawkins is perceived as being – David Silverman of American Atheists. While I haven’t changed my mind that we need people like him to expand the polarities of the debate, and perhaps to stretch the middle-ground for more moderate strategies, they do sometimes make the PR job difficult for those of us who think of religious people as mostly harmless, most of the time.

Likewise, the overly sanctimonious believers who seem to have sacrificed their sense of humour do the majority of believers no favours. Nor, of course, do those who argue against equal rights for gay couples or availability of contraceptives; or those who condone (through inaction, at least) child abuse or the stoning of adulterers and rape victims.

In short, there are all sorts of obstacles to being understood and to having a dialogue. Eliminating some of these require getting our own houses in order, rather than looking outward. But when we do look outward, let’s try to look at what’s in front of us, rather than being distracted by the convenient fiction of the stereotype.

Brief thoughts on the Global Atheist Convention (#atheistcon)

Earlier today I completed the seemingly endless sequence of flights that brought me back from the Global Atheist Convention, held over this past weekend in Melbourne. Both a feeling of being distinctly sleep-deprived and/or jet-lagged, as well as the fact that I need to write up and reflect on the notes I took during various presentations, mean that all I’d like to offer now are some very general impressions. First, Melbourne was quite charming – well-worth a visit if you get a chance.

But while a large amount of time was spent sitting in the sun eating and drinking with fellow heathens, the conference was what we were all there for. On the whole, it was a great event – certainly the best such gathering that I’ve been to, partly because of the great line-up of speakers, and also because of the organisation. There were no parallel sessions, so you could attend everything, and timekeeping was meticulous (well, except for the fact that some people in post-talk Q&A should have been given far less time, or no time at all in some cases. Like the guy who asked why it is that evolution hasn’t resulted in a brain that’s larger than the universe).

Of the 4000 in attendance, you’ll no doubt find dispute as to what the highlights and disappointments were. One thing I found to be a weaker element was the proportion of time set aside for comedy, where a fair amount of this comedy was geared at the ridicule of religion. Now I don’t mind that per se, but at a conference billed as a “celebration of reason”, it didn’t always seem appropriate to pluck the low-hanging fruits of religious absurdity. In fact, one of the highlights was the contribution made by the one theologian (Marion Maddox) who participated in the official events – she came across as far more strongly in support of secularism in education than the atheists on that panel. Another problem with the comedy was that some of it – Jim Jefferies in particular – didn’t quite manage the balancing act between provocation and offence in his jokes involving gender.

Peter Singer was also disappointing. He gave what amounted to an overview of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence in modern civilizations. It seemed a lucid and comprehensive overview of Pinker’s book (I haven’t read the book yet), but filled a slot in the programme that could perhaps have been better utilised through Singer presenting some of his own ideas. But the presentations that were good were very good, starting with a Dennett talk on free will on Thursday night (at the University of Melbourne, and not part of the official conference programme). Dennett did a great job of summarising the key elements of his compatibilist position, and it was somewhat of a pity that there wasn’t more discussion of this, especially in light of the new Harris book, and Harris’s explicit disagreement with Dennett on this topic.

In the main programme, I thought Dennett, Krauss and Harris the standout presentations, along with the “3 horsemen” panel, now with Ayaan Hirsi Ali added as a horsewoman (she was always meant to be part of the conversation that resulted in the 4 horsemen DVD, but had to withdraw at the last minute). Hopefully this will all appear on YouTube at some point, and I’ll certainly say more about these later on, once I’ve had a chance to read and think about my notes from those talks. Harris was probably the most provocative, and you can get a sense as to why I say that by reading Martin Pribble’s post about his talk. It was a thoughtful reflection on the inevitability of death and what that means for how we should live, but the thing that made a bunch of us feel rather weirded-out was the session of mindfulness meditation that he decided to get these 4000 atheists (and therefore probably skeptics too) to participate in.

And yes, these sorts of things easily give rise to accusations that we were indulging in some sort of “religious” gathering ourselves. This is also something I hope to write about later, including a confession that I was rather disappointed by the way some of our number responded to the Christian (on Saturday) and Muslim (on Sunday) protesters that gathered. Both of these groups of protesters said things they shouldn’t have – especially the Muslims with their “burn in hell” chants directed at Ali – but there were times when I thought the atheists crossed over from justified retorts into juvenile insult.

Lastly, I’d say there were many who felt deeply moved by the Hitchens tribute that was screened, and then also by the memories of Hitchens recounted by Dawkins and Krauss (especially the latter, as Krauss was a close friend of Hitch). The video of the tribute is below, and is well worth watching. In summary, I’m very glad to have been there, and to have met many great people – see you all again in two years.

“New atheists”, stridency and fundamentalism

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

During the Easter period we had the usual opportunity to read and hear plenty of content on religion and atheism, including ongoing debate around “New atheists” and their alleged stridency or militancy. But regardless of how particular individuals in this debate might choose to engage, we shouldn’t forget that it’s not automatically strident or militant to assert a point of view, no matter how much any participant might disagree with the view being expressed. More importantly, we shouldn’t forget that tone has absolutely nothing to do with the truth or falsity of what is being said.

Yes, atheists can be dogmatic. Anyone can be dogmatic, but while Catholics (for example) have little choice but to consider the Pope as at least broadly representative of their world-view, atheists have no obligation to fall into line behind a Dawkins or anybody else. One key advantage of an evidence-based worldview is that you can be persuaded by good arguments, and not persuaded by weak ones, regardless of who makes those arguments.

This isn’t to say that some atheists aren’t fundamentalist, nor that some aren’t uncritical disciples of some bestselling celebrity atheist. Both sides of these culture wars make the mistake of over-generalising, and both sides make the mistake of being unwilling to pick and choose between various potential points of view, based on the quality of the arguments for those points of view.

As I’ve argued previously, there are better and worse ways to encourage reflection on these issues – one way that certainly seems unhelpful to me is to caricature a point of view into labels such as “Islamophobic”, or to lump an incredibly disparate group of people together into a collective of “New atheists”. Some atheists are frequent offenders in this regard in asserting that “Muslims” or “Christians” believe one thing or another.

We should all stop doing this, but it might sometimes be slightly more difficult than atheists like to think it is. If you start from a position of thinking that a naturalistic worldview (in other words, one that can’t accommodate at least gods or souls, but often – and certainly for me – even things like free will) is our best guide to the truth, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an epistemological advantage over others, more generally.

Atheists can be fundamentalists, not only in their atheism, but also on other emotive topics like climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views.

But fundamentalist atheists typically only cause offence and irritation, while fundamentalist religious folk have been known to cause significantly worse outcomes – although these are becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of theocracies. (Lest someone feel inclined to yell out “Hitler” here, let the man speak for himself: “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter.”)

The Kim’s of North Korea are themselves gods, so their misdeeds clearly can’t count as evidence of evil atheism. Stalin was a fanatical Marxist, possibly a psychopath, and while he was certainly strongly opposed to religion, his potential atheism hardly seems the most plausible explanation for his atrocities. One could problematise any such example, and just as atheists shouldn’t cite the Reverend Fred Phelps as representative of Christians, Christians shouldn’t think of these murderous dictators as representative of atheism. Fanaticism, not only belief, kills – and the only question of importance is whether one type of belief (broadly metaphysical) is more likely to lead to fanaticism than the other (broadly naturalistic).

Of those readers that are Christian, few – hopefully none – will read the Bible as a literally true handbook on science, history or morality. Instead, it’s a sounding board for debate against the backdrop of a commitment to a certain sort of life, exemplified in the figure of the Biblical Jesus. That this is a better route to peace, economic equality and so forth than a fundamentalist reading of any religious text goes without saying, and critics of religion who don’t recognise this are certainly not playing fair.

But that this route is better doesn’t mean it’s the best route, and this is the point that is often emphasised by more sympathetic critics of religion. If we were to imagine starting afresh, disregarding the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed, we’d arrive at a different understanding of religion.

When faced with the choice between centuries-old texts that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational, we’d be far less inclined to take them seriously today if they were not so embedded in our cultures. They might well continue to serve a powerful role in our lives, but they wouldn’t lead to wars or to children dying while having demons cast out of them.

There are of course also more recent books that can serve the purpose of inspiration or guidance without including false or outdated claims, capable of interpretations that allow for misery. And while it’s true that many, perhaps even most, religious believers don’t reach for those interpretations, others do find them plausible – and it’s this ongoing possibility that is at issue for many atheists, particularly of the non-fundamentalist sort.

The believers of the type highlighted by the recent Dawkins survey are of little concern to me, because they aren’t the sort to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those who are inclined to do such things could count the moderate believers as being among their number (even while recognising their relative lack of commitment), and that larger number is the one generally cited in censuses or when a politician says that we are a “Christian” country.

As I often remark to my religious friends, if they were more active in denouncing Errol Naidoo, Fred Phelps, or Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau (not equivalently evil people, of course), many atheists would be left with little to do – at least in the supposed “name” of atheism. The (majority) of religious believers share many of the goals that non-believers do, and I do think it an obstacle to these shared goals that stereotype and caricature are so prevalent in the language of both the faithful and the faithless.

Leaving aside these regular misrepresentations of religious believers, it nevertheless remains true that atheists have things to legitimately be angry about – and also that it’s sometimes difficult to express these concerns without appearing to be dogmatic and hostile. While concerns around winning a public-relations battle shouldn’t lead us to forget those things that motivate the anger, persuasion remains impossible unless people are willing to communicate.

I don’t believe that encouraging communication needs to (or should) entail things like Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0”, but it at least needs to involve dealing with real people and their sincere beliefs instead of preconceived versions of these, designed for ridicule. But those sincere beliefs can be criticised, and doing so isn’t necessarily shrill, strident or militant. Labelling them as such can be a way of simply ignoring them, just as labelling a religious person as a superstitious fool can be a way of ruling them out of (a conception of) rational discourse.

We should all care about eliminating unfounded or dangerous beliefs, whether ours or our opponents’. At root, this is a key premise of naturalistic or atheist positions, and it’s indeed a pity that many who hold those positions sometimes appear as dogmatic as those they criticise. But how ideas are expressed only makes a difference to how they are received – not to their truth. All of us could sometimes do with a reminder of this, whether we celebrated Easter or just a few days off work.

Some questions from a believer

When I linked to my most recent Daily Maverick column on Google+, Mike Smuts responded with a lengthy comment that included some interesting questions. I thought I’d respond to them here, seeing as not everyone who read the column might spot the conversation on Google+. Mike’s full comment is posted at the end, but because of it’s length I’ll start with only his questions, with my responses interspersed.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

Of course, they certainly can. Being an atheist doesn’t guarantee that you’re sensible, fair or rational. In particular, it doesn’t guarantee that you are also skeptical of easy answers, or that you apply something like the scientific method to your own beliefs. So, for example, many atheists might be fundamentalist in their approach to various other emotive issue – perhaps climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views. They might believe in things which are (to my mind at least) as implausible as gods are, like a soul or free will.

Having said that, when atheists are fundamentalist, they cause offence and irritation. Religious folk who are fundamentalist cause death. And I do also think that fundamentalist is less likely with atheism than with religiosity, seeing as many (if not most) atheists are also skeptics.

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

Agreed. Not to mention the simple stuff like “women are not inferior to men” and “keeping slaves is a bad thing”.

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

Yes, your route is a better route than the literal, fundamentalist one. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best route. Imagine a fresh world, without the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed. Here, you have the choice between picking up a strange text that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational. First, there are plenty of modern books like that around – Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne come to mind. You’re using the book you are because it’s embedded in your culture, not because you’ve been able to make an objective choice that it’s the best book, despite it’s flaws.

Second, there are books that can serve these purposes without including a bunch of false/outdated claims. There are other sources of inspiration, awe, wonder and moral guidance. And all of these things speak to functions and events in your brain, not in your spirit. Your approach of thinking this sort of religious practice to be a “function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner” not only gives extra credence to a particular way of “not knowing”, but is also somewhat circular in assuming that we can’t “know” in spiritual matters. We can’t “know” that leprechauns don’t exist in a scientifically absolute manner either – but we have no good reason to believe that they do. All that we do know about the brain gives not a shred of support to the existence of a soul. Yet, somehow this idea is still treated more seriously than the claim that leprechauns exist.

And it’s easy to see why. We would like to be immortal, we would like to be reunited with loved ones in the hereafter, and we might like to have a better life after death than the one we have now. I understand all that. But wishing for it to be so doesn’t make it the case. It’s far more plausible that we are born and then die, and if we apply the same level of critical thought to claims regarding souls as we do with regard to claims regarding leprechauns, we would all agree on this. But we can’t apply the same level of critical thought, because we’ve experienced centuries of brainwashing involving various metaphysical notions, where we now see them as innately plausible rather than implausible.

Lastly, I’m really not that bothered by believers like you. You’re unlikely to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those that do that sort of thing count you among their number, and that number is used to buttress claims for teaching creationism in schools or other ways of making religion interfere with public life. That number is cited in censuses, and politicians can then say “we are a Christian country”, and act accordingly. And in general, these attitudes don’t contribute to fostering critical thought in terms of things like science, and might support truly dangerous beliefs involving prayer, homoeopathy or attachment therapy rather than medicine. They don’t contribute, in that they create a space for beliefs walled-off from the usual standards of critical enquiry.

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

Some atheists are more angry than others. Some strategies to counter religious beliefs are more productive than others also. Being angry has worked to convince people of the flaws in religion, and being polite has also done so. It’s a strategic choice. Mine is (most of the time) to be polite, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with being hostile, by definition. The key problem here is, again, that your question comes from a position of religious privilege, in that there is plenty to be angry about. Organised religion protects child abusers, for example. It can encourage homophobia, and teaching nonsense to kids in schools. As I’ve argued on this blog on numerous occasions, it can infantilise us- particularly with regard to our ability to reason about moral judgements. Read Greta Christina on this – she’s got a litany of reasons why we’re angry.

This is the question where I strongly doubted your sincerity. It’s a very easy dismissal of atheist concerns to label us as angry or aggressive, because it allows for religious folk to appear to be the reasonable ones, who’d be willing to hear us out if only we behaved. Does the movement offer anything of real value? A bizzare question. First, because much of the good any person does is not because they’re religious, but because they are inclined to do good. Second, because you should ask whether religion, on balance, offers anything of real value that can’t come from elsewhere, at lower cost to the species (cf. why we’re angry). And third, isn’t encouraging rationality, and trying to eliminate unfounded beliefs “of real value”?

Try this thought experiment: Someone comes to you, and expresses views that you think are completely unfounded, and wrong, and are known to result in various forms of social ill. But the views comfort them, provide them with a framework by which to understand life and so forth. They might even have books, written by people they consider their spiritual leaders in these regards. You present them with all the evidence supporting your view, which obviously outweighs theirs. Their texts are pre-scientific, and their views are simply the result of ideological blindness as far as you can tell. But they have faith in their viewpoint, and are unpersuaded. Now imagine that this person is a racist, or a sexist, and that those are the views they are defending. And now, tell me how you’re different. And then, think about the double-standard – it’s not okay for them to hold the views they do, contrary to all available evidence, but it is for you?

Of course, religion can (in general) not cause the harms those beliefs do. But it also can do so. And until everyone who is religious is simply religious in the fuzzy way the Dakwins study revealed, it will keep doing so, and be allowed to get away with it because it’s been given immunity from the usual level of critical enquiry.

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

Sure, and I suppose I’ve mostly answered this above. The point of the Dawkins data – as well as reported experience of people in the UK, Norway, Denmark, etc. is that religion is more and more a personal thing, or a social club, or something equally innocuous. So yes, it’s a sign of progress. But as I said in the column which prompted your comment, at one extreme this isn’t really religion in the typical sense anymore. And as I said above, these sorts of “believers” don’t really bother me, and they are going to keep increasing in number, which is great. But until it’s no longer the default that, for example, interfaith bodies are consulted by governments (with no secular representation), or that politicians can appeal to centuries-old texts to justify discrimination or bad educations, we’ve still got work to do.

The full comment:

I think I may actually lose a couple of followers with this comment. That’s because I’m actually a ‘believer’, but mostly interact with ‘non-believers’. This is not due to some secret mission to convert anyone, rather I enjoy a more philosophical and intellectual approach to life. Something sadly missing in discussions with many (not all) Christians.

Yet, in some ways I can identify fully with some of the results in the poll you mention. For me this is not so much a case of ignorance to the bible’s contents, but rather a more modern approach to my faith. A faith in which, ironically, I’m much more comfortable with questions than absolute answers.

I’ll try to explain and keep it short(ish). I think post-modernism, the information revolution and many other factors have presented a challenge to Christians. A very healthy and necessary challenge. Furthermore our history in South Africa of having had a ‘Christian-Nationalist’ system didn’t do Christianity any favours. The irony is that it substantially watered down discussions around faith, religion, etc.

While I fully realise the conflict in this statement, I can fully understand that based purely on logic one should reject faith of any kind in anything that cannot be either scientifically proven or logically argued. It’s also incredible how quickly the first natural philosophers, through reason only, were able to theorise the existence of atoms. More than a 1000 years before the first electron microscopes came into being. They were able to do this once they (mostly) rejected the idea that fables or myths were a viable avenue of understanding the physical world / cosmos.

I’m not going to try and justify faith or my believe here. It’s a personal choice for me. Suffice to say that with some exposure to non-believers I have long since dropped the idea of non-believers going to hell or facing some eternal punishment. I have gotten to realise that judging someone on their believe or non-believe alone is about as reliable as judging someone on skin colour, language or eye colour.

It’s in relation to the last paragraph that I’m actually engaging with you here. As a ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ individual coming from a Christian background and ‘Christian-nationalist’ environment (the latter still exists in many South African’s heads) the fact that most of the people who were also ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ tended to be non-believers influenced my view of believers to a great degree. I’m obviously referring to Christian believers as that reflects the context I have experience of. Thus, without conscious contemplation of the matter, I started to accept that Christians were behind the curve, conservative and often fundamentalist.

Now, I’m not saying that the previous sentence doesn’t hold, at least, some truth. But, in the same way that many (not all) ANC politicians seem to believe that racism is the sole domain of whites, I made (what I believe to be) the paradigm error that fundamentalism and its lessor cousins of prejudice and others were the sole domain of Christians (or other believers).

At this point I should perhaps point out that many of the ‘non-believers’ I refer to above would have been agnostic rather than atheist. Then I moved away from the city to the platteland about ten years ago and my ideas of ‘non-believers’ got a bit shaken up. I was suddenly thrown into a very small pond. In such a small pond one can’t be very selective of who you make friends with. This is both a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ thing. On the ‘good’ side you’re forced to befriend people with ideas you’d normally be isolated from. On the ‘bad’ side you have to stomach things that you personally may detest, in my case it means, amongst other things, to stomach racism and homophobia (of course I’m not saying ‘accept’ or ‘keep quiet’ about). You also discover that the very same people who have these (for me) ‘shady’ qualities also embody some other very exemplary qualities, from which you can learn and by which you can be enriched.

Basically my idea of non-believers got shaken up because here I was no confronted with non-believers, including atheists, who were not in all aspects (in my view) ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ or the like. In fact, I found many to be, in relation to some matters, fundamentalist… That was a shocker to me.

What follows is not meant as trick questions, I’m genuinely curious to get your take thereon. If you actually read this far into my comment and are willing to spend some time on this somewhere in future I’d welcome slightly longer answers than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

My sincere gratitude if you read all the way to this point! If we can have a constructive discussion on this I’ll appreciate it. I’m not looking for the shallow kind of to-and-fro one often encounter on the internet. I trust that my comment is above that

Slavemaster Dawkins and declining religious belief

As submitted to Daily Maverick.

Richard Dawkins’ recent failure to recall the full title of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the species” served as a useful distraction from what many Christians would like to forget. Namely, that very few of them – at least according to recent research on Christians in the UK – are religious believers in any substantive sense of the word “belief”.

Dawkins certainly chose a poor example to demonstrate this in pointing out that an “astonishing number [of Christians] couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament”. Remembering the title of a book is no indication of how little or how much of its contents you regard as significant, or of how much an influence it’s had on your life.

But using this example allowed the Rev Giles Fraser to ask Dawkins, on live radio, if he could remember the title of Darwin’s book. Dawkins asserted that of course he could, but then proceeded to be unable to do so. In case you’ve also forgotten, the full title is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.

While this is a longer title than “Matthew”, making these challenges asymmetrical, this is beside the point. Also beside the point is that remembering the order of four books isn’t the same sort of challenge as remembering the title of one. Dawkins was in error to use the example, and Fraser likewise misguided in thinking that Dawkins’ lapse demonstrated anything of significance.

What is of significance are the data collected in the survey of religious attitudes conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFS). Because while not remembering the title of a book says nothing about what you believe, what you say you believe certainly does. And in terms of reported belief as well as reported practice among the 1136 people recorded as Christian in the 2011 census, you’d struggle to find much difference between some of them and most atheists.

Nearly half of the respondents had not attended any religious services or meetings in the last year. Of the group who hadn’t attended a service in the past year, 32% hadn’t done so in the past ten years either. Of course, attending services isn’t a prerequisite for being a believer. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that only 28% of self-identified Christians surveyed reported that they believe in Christian teachings, and that 37% say that they “never, or almost never” pray. Other interesting details include:

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

Looking at these results, it’s difficult to fathom what these respondents mean when they say they are Christian. When asked that question, 40% report that being Christian means “I try to be a good person”. As do most of us, I hope. But for being a Christian to mean as little as this must be rather alarming to any “real” Christians out there who take verses like John 15:14 seriously, where Jesus is reported to say that “you are my friends if you do what I command”.

It might come as a surprise to you that this is somewhat worrisome to atheists also. Well, at last for this atheist. Because it’s far more important to me that all of us think carefully about what we believe, and know our reasons for believing what we do. Whether or not Christians who read (and follow) the Bible and pray are right or wrong, they’re at least consistent. That consistency allows for more productive debate, in that if any of us can be persuaded that we’re wrong on some foundational principle, it’s possible for us to change our minds more generally.

By contrast, if your belief system is filled with instances of cognitive dissonance – often accompanied by the epistemological disposition known as “making it up as you go along” – debate tends towards pointless. Your mind can’t be changed, because in terms of some of your beliefs, you don’t really have one. Furthermore, the fact that you aren’t quite sure what or why you believe is rarely an impediment to simulating firm conviction in matters of public policy.

One-third of the respondents, for example, are sympathetic to the UK having an official state religion, and more than half want state-funded religious schools. In non-religious schools, 40% of respondents think that children should be obliged by law “to take part in a daily act of broadly Christian worship”. But then, 78% of respondents say that religion “should be a private matter and governments should not interfere in it”.

It’s clear that most of these respondents don’t really know what to think, and perhaps aren’t quite sure what they in fact do think. And some of their responses are clear indications of religion simply being a matter of culture rather than belief, where the culture in question revolves around some general notion of “being nice”. On this model, even God appears to be nice – twice as many of the respondents believe in heaven as do in hell, which is rather handy for the 38% (of Christians, remember) who report that Christianity is “not very” or “not at all” important in their lives.

Dawkins’ memory-lapse is simply a distraction from what amounts to a crisis for Christianity in the UK. Those who think that crisis merits attention will make little headway by focusing on that lapse, or indeed by attempting to discredit Dawkins through alleging that he is descended from slave owners.

Likewise, Dawkins’ argument isn’t strengthened by pointing out that many Christians don’t know which book is first in the New Testament. The more pertinent point is that many of them don’t know what that book (or any of the others) says – and that they don’t care.

A follow-up post to this (of sorts) can be read here.

Links:

Easter media: theology takes aim at reason

The “Easter edition” of the Mail and Guardian includes an opinion piece by Steve De Gruchy (head of the School of Religion and Theology at UKZN), titled “Taking aim at the atheists“. Unfortunately, his aim is a little off – leaving me conflicted as to whether to go with the foot-in-mouth or bullet-in-foot cheap shot. De Gruchy begins with the claim that “Over the past few years the Mail & Guardian has given a disproportionate amount of column space on religion to the views of Richard Dawkins” – a claim that isn’t supported by a search of the M&G’s archives, assuming that we’re allowed to count pro-religion articles (including numerous articles by De Gruchy) in the “against” column of this alleged disproportionality. He continues:

Continue reading “Easter media: theology takes aim at reason”