atheism and monsters


Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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90 Responses

  1. E.D. Kain says:

    Maher is such a snob, I think he’s simply so wrapped up in himself that he truly believes this sort of tactic, because he thinks it’s funny, will be successful in converting new atheists. I just don’t recall the last time smacking someone over the head with a stick worked to convince them of your point of view…Report

  2. Bob says:

    I am going to shout guilty as charged. I do ridicule the religious, and have no intention to mend my ways, and it has nothing to do with the fact I am in Kansas. Irrationality, I’m mean religion, deserves no respect or hearing. That is my stance. Freddie, you seem to imply that reasoning with the religious, being respectful of their insanity, might move them from the dark side. You ask if any one can point to an instance where being disrespectful has born success. I’m more than willing to consed that I can not. But I turn the question to you, can you point to an instance where reason and civility worked?Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    So the religious are insane, now? So you condemn the vast majority of the world’s population as undeserving of your basic, human respect? So I can expect you to deal with me disrespectfully due to my religious views, is that it? And I, in turn, should I respectfully treat with you and your disbelief, or extend that same level of antagonism to you?Report

  4. Bob says:

    Yep, E.D. if you believe in god I do have questions about your sanity, at least in that one regard. I don’t recall asking you or any one, or you, to respect my view, but perhaps you will point that out to me. It is so clear, to me, where the vast majority of disrespect comes from. The religious toward the nonbeliever and religious toward other religious. Do you want examples of religious on religious disrespect, and worse? I doubt if that will be necessary. And since we are disagreeing, I think Bill Maher is a true wit.Report

  5. cwk says:

    Well *of course* their purpose is to get “giggles from the converted”. I can safely say there are no atheists who expect the FSM to get a Christian to renounce God. There are, IMO, two things people like Dawkins believe they are accomplishing:

    1) They’re creating a sense of solidarity for atheists. “There are people out there like you, so you can come out of the closet.” It’s not right to call it the atheist “Benedict Option” since they aren’t trying to disengage with the world, but they are trying to create a safe communal space in which to operate.

    2) They’re trying to showcase the aspects of religion that atheists believe to be absurd, not to convert the true believer, but to persuade the average pseudo-religious western citizen. The people who say they “believe in God” because they were taught to, but haven’t actually given the matter any serious thought.Report

  6. E.D. Kain says:

    It is so clear, to me, where the vast majority of disrespect comes from. The religious toward the nonbeliever and religious toward other religious.

    That’s clear to you? Were you present through the 20th century? Did you ever read about Stalin or Lenin or Mao or any of the other atheists responsible for murdering tens of millions of people?

    Come on. The problem is fundamentalism and disrespect for others–and obviously atheists fall into those traps, too.Report

  7. Bob says:

    E.D. you forgot Pol Pot. Here is the deal, religion does not make people good, atheism does not make people bad.Report

  8. E.D. Kain says:

    Indeed, Bob. But treating people with respect can make them good, can make you feel good, and certainly doesn’t lead to turning anyone bad…Report

  9. Bob says:

    E.D. you seem to be equating “good” with religion. I absolutely reject such a notion.Report

  10. Bob says:

    This discussion started with Freddie making a plea of respecting religious belief. No mention of good or bad. You injected the notion of good and bad action by bring up the atheist bad guys, see how bad the atheist are. As I said, I reject the notion that religion leads to ethical behavior. But this is really not the point of the issues raised. We could go tit for tat bringing up good behavior here, bad behavior there at at the end of the afternoon we would just have a big pile of tits and tats. I’m not really interested in that particular game theory. Neither do I wish to pit your knowledge of history against mine, I’m thinking we are both well versed in that subject.Report

  11. E.D. Kain says:

    You injected the notion of good and bad action by bring up the atheist bad guys, see how bad the atheist are.


  12. Bob says:

    See your comment #6Report

  13. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob, that was a direct response to your comment #4 in which you claimed the vast majority of problems stem from religion and the religious. So who was it exactly that brought good vs bad into this conversation? My example was meant to show that there are bad people regardless, not to lay claim to any superiority. Bad people use whatever they can, be it religion or politics or celebrity status, to do whatever bad things they do.Report

  14. Bob says:

    I did not use the terms good or bad. I used the term Freddie cast the discussion in, I am not a Manichean.Report

  15. E.D. Kain says:

    You’re arguing semantics. Unless you placed a negative value on disrespect you would not have used it in your statement above. As you are human and place value on things, those values inevitably come down to “good” and “bad” no matter what fancy terminology you like to cloak it under. You were calling religious people bad in so many words.Report

  16. Bob says:

    No, Im calling them insane and the insane are incapable of rational acts therefore they have no knowledge of how there actions might be judged.

    But I don’t think we are making any head way here, and so I declare you the winner. And really, I have enjoyed the discussion. ThanksReport

  17. E.D. Kain says:

    Insane’s a cop-out…but you’re right, as is always the case arguing faith, headway is not to be made.

    Let’s call it a tie.


  18. Bob says:

    Mr. Kain, you are a gentelman, as the name of this bloge says.

    Now, if only Freddie would answer my question.Report

  19. Freddie says:

    can you point to an instance where reason and civility worked?

    I can think of many instances where civility and reason created a more constructive dialogue for all involved; perhaps no minds were changed on the ultimate question “is there a god”, but many minds have been changed about the thousands of ancillary issues and questions being considered. Certainly, peoples minds have been changed in the opposite direction. Conversion and “being born again” happens all the time. So if the question is merely one of whether, on balance, disrespect and derision are a match for inclusion and friendliness, in the specific question or generally, I would say the evidence tells us absolutely not.

    That’s to say nothing about my first-principles preference for a dialogue of mutual respect and the assumption of good faith.Report

  20. Bob says:

    I think you answered the question, thanks.Report

  21. KipEsquire says:

    I consider mocking the mockworthy such a high value-added social good as to almost qualify as Randian altruism (i.e., we shouldn’t do it unless we’re paid to do it).

    (P.S. If you find the FSM too much of an artificial construct, then try the Holy Prepuce, which is a very real element of more than one dogmatic Christian sect (but just as mockworthy as the FSM).Report

  22. Bob says:

    And Kip, as long as we are into the unmentionables lets not ignore Holy under ware. And I don’t want to ignore native Americans, see Ghost Dance. That really work out well.Report

  23. James Williams says:

    I think that the whole FSM business is a little easier to see in a positive light if you keep in mind that its home context is debates about teaching creationism/”intelligent design” as part of the biology curriculum. The argument is something like: 1. from a scientific standpoint, the FSM is at least as viable a hypothesis, if not more so (no problem of evil here!), than a typical Western monotheistic deity; but 2. it would be patently preposterous to take pastafarianism seriously as a hypothesis for consideration in a science classroom.

    More generally, it is probably better to take the FSM as lampooning not so much religious belief itself, but rather the tremendously inflated attitudes & practices that we have in our society & government with regard to religious belief. There’s a kind of background presupposition that religious belief, practically _any_ sort of religious belief, is good thing. (This of course has the implication that atheism is a bad thing.) And the FSM serves to highlight, and hopefully ultimately deflate, that presupposition.Report

  24. Dave Hunter says:

    I think what James Williams above me says is right on. I only disagree slightly and would say that what the FSM, along with its many variations, ridicules is, more specifically, a tendency for people to try and treat their religious faith as if it is rational. By definition it is not. The FSM is a useful reminder not to try and impute rationality to one’s faith just because it’s a popular faith.Report

  25. jake says:

    Thank you.

    As a believer who went through several years of atheism, I firmly believe that reasonable people who take a skeptical view toward the existence of god can end up with different views on the topic.

    Note: i did not have a “come to jesus” moment, i was not knocked off a horse, and I was not confronted with a burning bush.Report

  26. matoko_chan says:

    I’m left with three possibilities when I consider the atheism of disrespect. Either people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Meyers, Bill Maher, and assorted don’t know that the way they are confronting these issues is disrespectful, in which case they are tone deaf to a frankly absurd degree; or they think that, tactically, the way to get the kind of change they say they want is to ridicule people into believing as they do, in which case they have a dramatically underdeveloped understanding of human psychology and sociology; or they are more interested in producing ridicule than in producing change.

    I was in the fifth grade when I realized that other children just disn’t learn as quickly as I did. It came in the form of a revelation that ripped open the top of my head with the fierce canopener of epiphany. So actually Sir Richards position is deeply respectful….he believes anyone can understand his elegant arguments agsinst superstionalism. The sad truth is most homosapiens sapiens simply do not have the substrate to “get” Dawkins.
    The strong truth is that you need a certain IQ gradient to be able to choose faith. A capacity for superstitious (translation–religious) belief is hardwired, and so for most there is no choice. Faith is the only option.Report

  27. E.D. Kain says:

    Good lord, matoko, your modesty is overwhelming. I read the rather pithy “God Delusion” a while back, and what struck me most is that any intelligent person would actually spend so much time arguing over the existence of God in this day and age. It’s an unprovable theory, the existence or lack thereof. His arguments aren’t elegant; they’re the reverse absurdity of Decartes, and rather less eloquent than Descartes’ equally foolish attempt to prove God’s existence.

    And I disagree that one needs a high IQ to choose or not choose faith. Perhaps that was the case once upon a time, but not anymore. I’d say intelligence really plays no factor at all in faith. Some of the most brilliant people I know are atheists. Some of the most brilliant people I know are religious.Report

  28. matoko_chan says:

    “Some of the most brilliant people I know are religious.”
    Yes but they chose faith.
    I am not saying thinkers can’t be believers….. Dr. Ken Miller and Dr. Francis Collins spring to mind. But the vast chunk of the middle of the IQ bellcurve don’t have a choice….they are forced to be believers… they just dont meet the IQ gradient to understand evolutionary biology or evo theory of culture….or quantum mechanics for that matter.
    That is why Dawkins arguments fail.Report

  29. E.D. Kain says:

    Can an argument really fail simply because some don’t understand it? I mean, does evolutionary biology fail simply because as a Theory it is too complex for those of a certain intelligence bracket?

    I fail to see how that works.

    The argument fails because when dealing with the existence or non-existence of God we really can never, ever prove it one way or another. Plain and simple. Dawkins just gets his kicks slamming religious scientists, when he should focus entirely on proponents of young earth Creationism or the snakes that make up the Intelligent Design movement.Report

  30. matoko_chan says:

    “I’d say intelligence really plays no factor at all in faith.”
    Then you would be WRONG.
    There is a negative correlation between religious belief and IQ.Report

  31. E.D. Kain says:

    Right, matoko. Of course you would say that without any evidence to back your claim.

    I’d say probably the finest mind in blogging today is Daniel Larison, who also happens to be very, very religious. Freddie is right up there, and he’s an atheist. So once again, I’d say it plays no role whatsoever. Two smart writers of two entirely opposing “faiths”…Report

  32. matoko_chan says:

    Dawkins objection is to supertionalism in general.
    Of course, this useless.
    Homosapiens sapiens is hardwired for superstitionalism, and for religious behavior, and the hardwiring was laid down in the EEA (environment of evolutionary advantage). Dawkins himself coined the term Culturally Stable Strategy (CSS) for evo theory of games.
    He is actually far more respectful than I in believing that the vast majotity of hss is capable of understanding his arguments.
    I think he is wasting his time.
    Might as well try to explain the American presidential electoral process to a talking dog…..with lipstick lol.

  33. matoko_chan says:

    “Of course you would say that without any evidence to back your claim.”

  34. matoko_chan says:

    Larison is a fine writer.
    But dont delude yourself, please.
    He has enough substrate to choose.Report

  35. Judd says:

    Most atheists know they aren’t EVER going to deconvert religious believers. Believers believe what they do despite a complete lack of evidence – that’s what faith is. No amount of contrary evidence to their beliefs will ever convince them to give up their religion. So we atheists have moved on to simply ridiculing them – because that’s all they’ll listen to.Report

  36. James says:

    Personally kip I preferred the idea of it ascending up to Heaven along with him, so that the two could be re-united.

    But let’s not get me “anti-circ” ranting…Report

  37. tom says:

    FSM is supposed to be funny. As an atheist with a sense of humor, I do think it’s funny. Atheists concerned with “converting” anyone are just another variety of fundamentalist – who needs that?

    What got me about the whole FSM exchange was the people who try to change the subject from their imaginary friend to “morality”. With the Monotheisms’ long history of crusades, war, genocide, torture and oppression, with morality like that, who needs evil?Report

  38. theod says:

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster is introduced as a way of showing that anybody can invent anything as having godlike powers. The true trick is getting people to believe in it; support it; fight for it; write tomes; and make special dance and rituals about it. The making-up part is what starts the ball rolling with all subsequent activities. “In the beginning God created man; and man being the perfect gentleman returned the favor.”Report

  39. gnomestrath says:

    Going back to the original article which started this thread ….
    It is overstating it that many atheists are insufficiently respectful. Most athiests simply can’t be bothered with Religion even to think about it. I think it is right for a some of the more active participants like Dawkins et al to act in an ‘ aggressive’ and inconsiderate manner. In some ways it is a battle ground where there is an active manipulation of the thinking and beliefs of children which needs to be resisted. Remember the battle is with the fundamentalists. They are not trying to convert them just inhibit others being converted.Report

  40. Chet says:

    There’s more atheists, now, than Jews. Are we supposed to believe that’s in spite of a modern, outspoken ethic of atheism? Please. Keeping our heads down didn’t work for 3000 years; it’s absurd to suggest it’s what we need to do now. For every religious believer who is driven into a more strident fundamentalism in response to the arguments of atheism, several believers – who only ever believed God was a poetic metaphor, anyway – awaken to their disbelief and take a stand for secular reason.

    And honestly, no matter what the atheist says or how he says it, believers are going to take it as disrespectful – because they see an assertion that there probably is no God as fundamentally disrespectful. There’s no respectful way to tell them that.

    So why even try? Let the truth be spoken bluntly, plainly – and, yes, brusquely. There’s really no other way to communicate truth.Report

  41. Matt C says:

    I think atheism lacks a natural “mission,” unlike the Abrahamic religion – particularly Christianity. Where would Christians be today with St. Paul?

    Religious people have much to learn in this regard; derision is used by atheists and theists alike.Report

  42. Carolyn Ann says:

    “I just can’t quite wrap my head around what, exactly, a film like Religulous is supposed to accomplish, besides box office success. Maher and his producer both have said that they wanted their film to generate discussion and change. But how?”

    You can’t extrapolate? You make it seem that you’re in need of a guidebook!

    Personally, I don’t care about converting anyone. If they get atheism, fine. If they don’t: fine. As for militant atheism: I simply object when someone tries to impose their morality on me, or others.

    Carolyn ANnReport

  43. Carolyn Ann says:

    (Darn it – there’s no way of editing a spelling error!)

    Carolyn AnnReport

  44. DivGuy says:

    Homosapiens sapiens is hardwired for superstitionalism, and for religious behavior, and the hardwiring was laid down in the EEA (environment of evolutionary advantage).

    I think the funniest thing about the anti-pluralist atheists is the way that they are willing to believe any damn-fool thing, so long as it’s dressed up with the slightest patina of science.

    The willingness of anti-pluralist atheists to take EvPsych just-so stories – none of which have any scientific backing in the strong sense – and IQ quasi-racist bullshit as examples of the hard-won rational truths that the religious can’t accept is, well, it’s funny to me.

    There’s always been a strong whiff of neo-conservatism to the anti-pluralist atheist movement, and not merely because two of the three most popular books of the movement were written by neocon scumbags. (Sam Harris is the other one – See Sam Warblog”.) It’s the belief that rationality and truth have been so fully achieved by my particular culture that our norms and ideals no longer require critique and the most important task is to go out and convert the Other. Liberal anti-pluralist atheists tend gloss over the fact that their movement is quite specifically historically and culturally situated, and that their constant statements of superiority and ridicule attack not only Christian Fundamentalists, but also pretty much everyone who lives in India. I think when you find yourself arguing that practically everyone who doesn’t live in a small portion of the world is irrational and deserving of ridicule, it’s time to step back and question the norms and ideals that brought you to that point.

    I’ll also add, in response to Freddie’s point above about why he critiques atheists, that I think there’s a big difference between external and internal critique. I am an atheist, and it matters to me a lot that people who share my beliefs act in ways that I think will be politically and socially productive. I think the anti-pluralist atheists and being non-productive, even destructive, and I’m arguing with them to change.Report

  45. Free Barabbas says:

    I was just at holiday gathering and some cousins were playing some sort of spirit animal/tarotish card game – where you get your personality profiled – and my christian aunt began ridiculing it as weird etc etc. So i shot back at her that you believe in a talking snake and worship a zombie carpenter who performed magic tricks. And that’s not just as weird. She shut her mouth after that. I wish I had thought of the age old Mark Twain Quote: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” Thats a perfect non-offensive yet clever way to get everyone on both sides of this issue to think instead of running their mouths.Report

  46. Mike Cagle says:

    Interesting post and comments (which I found from a link on Andrew Sullivan’s blog). I’m a non-religious person who believes in treating others with respect (and I tend to), but I enjoy Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Mahrer, and the FSM.

    First, there are a lot of people who are only nominally religious, but have doubts or haven’t thought about it much. I think these authors and the FSM can reach some — reassure them that their doubts about deities are not unreasonable. The FSM and aggressive atheist writers can strengthen the doubts and questions and the mental independence of these people — get them thinking. Religious propaganda can be very aggressive. I think equally aggressive anti-religious arguments can reach some of those people — who are actually already looking for it, in many cases. The FSM could get some people to think about the idea of a deity in a different, unfamiliar way, which helps them to understand that they are really already skeptics when it comes to odd imaginary personages, in generaal. Then they can take the next logical step. If they wish. Anyway, it makes the non-rational nature of their belief more explicit and obvious.

    But I think “preaching to the choir” is okay too. Non-religious people are mostly respectful and polite toward those with religious beliefs, and they suffer a lot of socially-accepted disrespect in our society. So, if they can then read Sam Harris or watch Religulous or see a FSM sticker and get a chuckle and feel good about themselves and like they are not alone — that’s a good thing. It helps strengthen the self-respect, happiness, optimism and equanimity of the non-religious. And it’s fun entertainment!

    Finally, ridiculing someone’s beliefs is NOT the same as ridiculing the person — “love the sinner, but hate the sin” and all that. To point out that a religious belief is nonsensical is not to say that the person holding it is bad, or unworthy of respect, or that a lot of their other beliefs, actions, ideas, attributes, etc., may be very smart, sane, admirable, and so forth.Report

  47. bananahammock says:

    I think you are misinterpreting the role of the FSM. It was brought about as way to bring attention to the fact that School Boards were adopting a policy where religion would be taught along with evolution in our science classrooms.

    While an act of derision – I believe it was directed at school boards and not a religion in general.Report

  48. antichrist says:

    I know jesus loves me, because he give me head every night.Report

  49. Joe S. says:

    Most atheists believe that evolution is a common process and that there is nothing special about the existence of humankind. Thus, given a universe of inconceivably vast scope, is it not plausible — no, make that probable — that somewhere on another planet, a Flying Spaghetti Monster has actually evolved?

    And according to many physicists, there are infinite parallel universes in alternate dimensions as well. So I wouldn’t rule out invisible pink unicorns either.Report

  50. mark says:

    Freddie, I’m replying to your original post, not the long string of comments in between. I’ve used things like the FSM (though I prefer the unicorn) and not in an attempt to ridicule…. One often reads arguments aimed at nonbelievers that seem designed to appeal to our sense of logic. The unicorn helps me illustrate to believers how these arguments sound in the unbelieving ear. I agree, though, about Dawkins and Maher and their ilk – they accomplish nothing.Report

  51. GBJ says:

    I, too, live in a blue section of a blue state. In a one of those liberal university communities that harbors disrespectful atheists. Despite this fact I’ve never answered a knock on my front door to find some advocate for godlessness trying to get me to join his club. For some reason the knocks I get are always made by some sort of Christian with a handful of invitations to church services.

    I can’t say I’ve ever been annoyed by atheists in this way. And if ridiculing the ridiculous is disrespectful of my door-knocking visitor, then I have no intention of being polite. They can believe in fairies if they like, but I don’t have to pretend it is anything but childish fantasy.Report

  52. Bob says:

    Mark, where exactly does Freddie assert that Dawkins and company “accomplish nothing?”

    Dawkin’s, “The God Delusion,” spent well more than a year on the NYTimes best sellers list. This is something of an accomplishment. It provoked a lot of discussion. Sam Harris has also written two best sellers, but according to you this does not count as an accomplishment.

    Look Mark, if you think atheist thought was being discussed 15 years ago as much as it is today then you are correct, Dawkins, Maher, Harris have accomplished nothing. On the other, hand if you can bring yourself to admit that atheist thought is much more now in the public discussion you gotta admit that these guys have accomplished a good deal.Report

  53. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob, I deleted your post because you crossed the line. We have a commenting policy, and you need to stick to it.Report

  54. FS says:

    Great post. I have long found the FSM an immature trope that serves no other purpose but to alienate people and undermine the public image of atheism. It strikes me as the equivalent of a little kid screeching “Poo poo poo! Shit willy pee pee!” at the grownups in a desperate attempt to get their attention.Report

  55. Bob says:

    E.D. Thanks, I did cross the line.Report

  56. Paul Fidalgo says:

    I am perplexed. Yes, Maher is disrespectful, because he is a comedian. But Richard Dawkins is not out there mocking the religious and making babies cry: he makes reasoned arguments and doesn’t tolerate superstition to be used as evidence. How is that name-calling? I am always amazed at how someone can read books by Dawkins, Harris, etc., and come away thinking that they are bullies. Dawkins may not be the most suave personality, but he’s simply stating his case with confidence. Perhaps it’s the confidence that makes people so uneasy. God forbid an atheist not hedge his or her thoughts.Report

  57. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob, of course. We all cross the line at times.

    Regarding Hawkins et al my final take on the matter is they’re all just out branding themselves and selling books. That’s their right, of course, and I’m sure it makes them all lots of money. But like the religious folk I admire, I admire the quiet, thoughtful, and respectful non-believers the most.Report

  58. Laertes says:

    “What’s being accomplished?” That’s a good question.

    Dawkins and his lot do their good in two ways.

    First off, they provide cover for the mainstreaming of atheism by defining the extreme position.

    Broadly speaking, if you’re an ordinary sort of vegetarian, the reason you aren’t a freak is because you aren’t out throwing red paint at ladies in fur coats. If it weren’t for PETA, YOU would be the extremist.

    Secondly, however awful he may be, many believers expect atheists to be far worse.

    I was raised all churchy. It didn’t take, but I remember it all very clearly. If you don’t have that background, you really can’t understand what a horrifying and alien creature the atheist is to Believers Of A Certain Sort. I’m not going to say that all believers are what I was, but a bunch are, and to these the atheist is a genuinely frightening creature–an amoral savage as dangerous and unpredictable as an enraged and starving kodiak bear. The atheist is a living rejection of all that is good and natural, whose every breath is a deliberate mortal sin. His natural urge to rape and murder isn’t checked by fear of God, but only of earthly justice, and he’ll kill you for fun if he thinks he can get away with it.

    Believers expect atheists to be such deeply horrible people that as rude and blasphemous and shocking as Dawkins may be, he’s still living proof that atheists aren’t half as bad as a believer would expect.

    And what if Dawkins was scrupulously careful to avoid giving offense? In that case he’d be just another atheist philosopher, of which there are no doubt several, and I’ve heard of none of them and neither has anyone else. He’d write and publish his papers, and talk to other philosphers at his conferences, and my churchy friends wouldn’t know his name, and they’d think I was the crazy one instead of Dawkins.Report

  59. Robert Gibbs says:

    I got here by way of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. I think Freddie makes some really important points. Scanning through the comments I felt compelled to respond to something I saw written by Paul (#57) with whose work I became familiar when I was in grad school studying Shakespeare.
    Paul, your suggestion that Dawkins and Harris are simply confident in their defense of atheism and that this is the only reason people think they are bullies doesn’t ring true for me. In “The End Of Faith” Harris specifically advocates the use of ridicule and hostile marginalization as useful tools in the fight against religion. With regard to Dawkins, Freddie does a good job of explaining how the FSM is inherently disrespectful as an illustration. Dawkins could use any number of different images to show that the existence of God is unlikely, but there is a certain low grade cruelty inherent in the FSM. Dawkins equates something believers hold dear (God) with something exceedingly stupid and ridiculous (the FSM), setting aside for the moment the fact that this sort of treatment of deeply held beliefs is hurtful (the emotional equivalent of insulting a person’s dead mother) the FSM illustration is unavoidably insulting as it suggests that believers must be stupid to believe in such a thing. In that same vein, Dawkins and Harris both frequently use the word “insane” to describe a belief in God and it’s not hard to see how the suggestion that you’re crazy might cause offense. Both Dawkins and Harris suggest (sometimes explicitly but usually implicitly) that smart mentally stable people do not believe in God or the supernatural, just one example is Dawkins’ advocacy of the term “Brights” as an alternate label for atheists (If atheists are “Brights” then what are theists, “Dulls?”). I imagine that calling believers ridiculous, crazy, and stupid (or implying as much) is probably emotionally satisfying for aggressive atheists, but it’s not respectful and I know it turns off a lot of reasonable people. Paul, you say that atheists shouldn’t have to hedge their thoughts, and that is true enough, but Freddie (and other critics of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Maher, etc…) isn’t criticizing aggressive atheists (or in Maher’s case agnostics) for their thoughts but rather for the way they choose to express them. Some people believe that in order to tell the truth as they see it that truth must be presented in the most harsh and unvarnished terms, but you can still be uncompromising in expressing your position while at the same time being respectful and sensitive to those with whom you disagree (call it tact, diplomacy, or simply kindness, it’s maybe not the best tool for making rhetorical points, but it works well when you are actually trying to win over an individual). Dawkins and Harris choose not to apply that sort of sensitivity in their arguments, and that is their right, but having made that decision they cannot complain about being viewed as bullies.Report

  60. bcg says:

    Religion altogether matters less and less to more and more people. But imagine 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, the kind of person it would take to be an atheist – it would require a towering arrogance, and so that’s been the font from which atheism has drawn its advocates.

    A long effort towards ecumenicism and tolerance has made stance on religion more like a favorite color, so people are less defensive when you do reject the existence of God – but for a long time, it would take a particular type of person to do this, and that type of person is abrasive and doesn’t think much of rubbing other people the wrong way.

    It’s different now, so atheists like Freddie can exist, whereas 100 years ago, the Freddies of the world were probably more in the camp of social justice Christianity.Report

  61. matoko_chan says:

    Divguy, I just state facts.
    Also, I am a practicing Sufi, not an anti-pluralist atheist.
    Stick your fingers in your ears and shout lalala I don’t really care.
    The facts are that there is a negative correlation between religious belief and IQ. Why are so many scientists atheists? Why do college students become atheists?
    My hypoth is higher IQ self-selects atheism.
    It is not deterministic, because higher IQ homo sap. can choose, like Francis Collins or Ken Miller or Stu Hamerhoff.
    Or perhaps it is, she says mischieviously, and dependent on the genetic distribution of capacity for religious belief.

  62. matoko_chan says:

    I should say, dependent on the genetic distribution of capacity for religious belief AND ALSO on the distribution of the bellcurve of IQ.
    Perhaps they are covariants.

  63. matoko_chan says:

    But imagine 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, the kind of person it would take to be an atheist

    The only atheists back then were simply, dead atheists.Report

  64. matoko_chan says:

    Or closet atheists.

  65. bcg says:

    I think Maher and Dawkins are being effectively persuasive – not with whom they are speaking, but rather with their audiences. If you paint believers as credulous, dim-witted, not able to keep up with Maher’s social adroitness, then the viewer will take Maher’s side – but notably, the believer doesn’t.Report

  66. mark says:

    Bob 53,

    I meant that they’re not going to talk anyone out of their belief – just sell a lot of books (or airtime in the case of Maher). But to the extent that Dawkins inspired reasoned discourse (see Sullivan vs Harris, for example) he’s done a good thing – A guy who throws a brick through a window has certainly accomplished something, and his action may lead to useful discussions about crime. But look, the religious will always be with us. They feel a need for their belief that no reason will ever address and their belief motivates many beneficial actions. Are Dawkins and Maher wise enough to speak down to them, or disparage their beliefs? Nah.Report

  67. Fr33d0m says:

    Wonderful comments, I think I’ll add this to my feeds.

    One point though. There isn’t much about Atheism or atheists that isn’t considered disrespectful by some theists–specifically in my experience Christians. Still some atheists are intent on using shock as a means to express their opinion and to me their level of disrespect seems more problematic than something like the FSM.

    There is little more disrespectful than using the legal system to force your belief system on me and my children.Report

  68. Bob says:

    mark, your comment, #67, is a far cry from your original statement. Thanks for expanding on your intent.Report

  69. mark says:

    OK Bob. I could tell I’d ticked you off a little, and didn’t mean to.Report

  70. Bob says:

    Yes mark, I was ticked off. You ascribed views to Freddie he did not voice. I think he was saying name calling and arguing in bad faith accomplishes nothing. But Freddie can weigh in on this if needs be.

    I’ve calmed down and if apologies are in order, and they are, they are owed to you. So please accept my apology.Report

  71. Soma says:

    Can some of you folks not read? The context of the FSM’s creation was already adequately described in these comments – – it was a quite specific reaction to creationist non-sense, rather than some invention meant to invalidate the whole of Christianity. Though I must admit, the fact that it has the theists’ blood up is telling in itself.Report

  72. Chris Dierkes says:


    You’re right that the original context for FSM was to poke fun at creationists. Since I’m a religious non-creationist I have no real problem with that. I would say however it has developed now into broader contexts (via the media, pop New Atheism/philosophy, etc). And in some of those contexts, there is a de facto assumption that the creationist theology and their vision of God is equatable with Christianity or with all religious belief in a transcendent en toto.

    I think FSM lampoons a very immature understanding or view of God. We could argue I guess about how effective or humorous the lampooning is, but that really isn’t the main point.

    When FSM gets conflated with New Atheist discourse (Freddie’s point) then there is I would say a de facto assumption that the only possible God (the real definition of God) is the one that FSM works on and critiques. This is why New Atheist types always call out so-called liberal and/or moderate believers as hypocrites and say the fundamentalists of each faith are the real believers. Since they (The New Atheists) know how to knock down the fundies a peg, but they generally don’t have an answer for alternative God depictions.

    Which means they–who admit off the bat they are non-religious or even anti-religious–are the ones in the position to decide what is true religion or not. Which means they somewhere hold an idea about what constitutes real religion. But my point is I think that’s like taking advice on what constitutes true/genuine art from someone who says that art is an illusion or entirely false. You could but do you think their opinion on the matter is a particularly well informed one?Report

  73. Chris Dierkes says:

    oops sorry–the “theys” in the last graf=New AtheistsReport

  74. Robert Gibbs says:

    Soma, I don’t think anyone here claimed that the FSM was an “invention meant to invalidate the whole of Christianity,” only that it was calculated to be provocative disrespectful and therefore probably counterproductive in winning people over. Also, theists may have their blood up about the FSM but Freddie is an atheist and his criticism comes from his belief that the FSM feeds into the popular conception of atheists as mean spirited and hostile (which is fine, except that lots of people who might be open to reasoned debate on the subject of God are turned off by that sort of attitude). Finally, regardless of the original intent behind it’s invention, Dawkins’ and many other atheists have come to use the FSM as a short hand symbol of the stupidity of belief in God (and by extension the believers themselves). Dawkins has every right to do this, but let’s not pretend that the intent behind the FSM is anything other than malicious (even if that malice is only directed at people you don’t like such as creationists). The problem for Dawkins and others is that when they adopt this disrespectful posture many reasonable people who may not necessarily have strong feelings on the subject of God will find those aggressive atheists to be unpalatable (if for no other reason than they may know, respect, and care about people who believe in God but are not the imbeciles Dawkins and Harris et al. imply that they are by invoking the FSM).Report

  75. Mark says:

    Robert 75

    Hear hear. Exactly what I was trying to say. Now, what about fr33dom’s point – that attempts on the part of some believers to legislate their beliefs onto the rest of us is a kind of disrespect? Obama has said that while it’s perfectly desirable for religious people to be informed and driven by their belief, the legislative solutions they propose must take the beliefs of all, including, lately, those of non-believers into account.Report

  76. asb says:

    But like the religious folk I admire, I admire the quiet, thoughtful, and respectful non-believers the most.

    What, then, do you make of someone like Voltaire? A “respectful non-believer” he was not, and ridicule was his primary weapon. If we eliminate ridicule from the quiver of satirists, you can kiss goodbye Thomas Nast, Gary Trudeau, the Daily Show, Charlie Chaplin (I’m thinking of “The Great Dictator” here, which comes perilously close to a Poe invocation, but I’ll take that risk…) and countless others. What separates the FSM from Stephen Colbert’s parody of right-wing blowhards, for example?Report

  77. E.D. Kain says:

    One difference is that while politics can be tried and tested, and parody or satire can be an effective political tool, faith or non-faith or whatever you’d like to call it, is in the end unprovable. Now when we enter into the realm of politics and religion–Sullivan’s Christianism etc etc–than those same tools become effective again. Voltaire was as often as not lampooning the powers behind religion, and often he fell into the same trap that many of today’s atheist’s for hire fall into (or the religious when they attack atheists): there is simply no end to this debate. It is pointless in the extreme. Faith or the lack thereof is simply circumstantial, and people aren’t often convinced one way or another save through life experiences.Report

  78. asb says:

    I’m afraid I don’t see your distinction. You say that, unlike religion, “politics can be tried and tested”. While this is true in theory, I don’t know that it is an accurate representation of how things work on this, the world in which we live. Do tax cuts stimulate the economy better than government spending? Commence religious wars in 5…4…3…

    Besides, many specific religious claims can be tried and tested as well. A virgin gave birth to a half-man, half-god while escaping from the cruel dictates of King Herod, in the wake of a nationwide census. We have methods of historically validating these corroborating details. While we may not be able to disprove the Spinozan “god is just a metaphor for nature” type god, we can certainly prove or disprove those gods whose existences make more specific factual claims.Report

  79. Mark says:

    asb – you can’t prove that the virgin birth did not happen, that water wasn’t turned into wine, or that nobody walked on water. Nor can you prove that God does not exist – take it from a professional scientist: nonexistence is unprovable. I don’t believe in these things, but I don’t pretend that my views are provable. They aren’t. To your earlier point, ridiculing someone’s faith is quite different from Steven Colbert ridiculing some blowhard on his excellent show: people of faith have a strong emotional commitment to their beliefs, and, in general, cannot change them. Such things are not for ridicule. And what would be the point of ridicule, in any case? Do you think you’ll talk believers out of their beliefs by making fun of them? I doubt it.Report

  80. Weemaryanne says:

    So, let me get this straight:

    Mocking believers is bad because it makes them squirm.

    Threatening nonbelievers with eternal torture is — well, not not-bad, but at least understandable because after all, the threateners really really really believe it’s true.

    …. Oddly enough, this does not make a compelling argument.

    And you needn’t try the fast fade, Freddie. You’re a threatener, too. I don’t care how mild your brand of Christianity may be, it still comes down to turn-or-burn. If you haven’t killed my unbelieving ass yet, you’re expected to do so nevertheless. If you don’t plan to do so then you’re not a Christian. (Check your instruction manual — it’s all there and it’s perfectly clear.)

    Now stop whining about being mocked. It doesn’t serve to mend that tattered dignity you’re so desperately trying to wrap yourself in.Report

  81. Paul Fidalgo says:

    Robert (#60):

    I think if we consider the works of Dawkins and Harris to be offensive, then the bar is far too low. If kid glove sensitivity is what is required, then everything is going to be seen as an unfair, overly aggressive attack. If something is a deeply held belief, then it should not be so easily withered by critique. I do not mean to suggest that these folks are PR experts and always come across as perfect gentlemen in all cases, but on the whole, to say that a group of people’s contentions about the nature of the universe are totally misguided, while not a comfortable thing to hear, is not an unfair attack. In the world we’re not living in, any refutation of religion is instantly equated with assault. If similar tactics were used to refute a political ideology, no one would bat an eye.

    Believe me, I am pro-tact. I thought, for just one example, that the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s “religion enslaves minds” holiday sign was a really bad PR move. I think atheists need better TV talkers to represent us than just Hitchens and Newdow. I want a far better communications and messaging apparatus behind the erstwhile atheist movement (it is what my blog, really, is all about – click the link on my name to see). So while there will always been phrases here and there from atheist X or Y that may be ill-advised, to lump them all up and say “screw them, they’re all meanie-heads” is too easy and just wrong. The arguments are sound, serious, and necessary. They may not always be pitch perfect, but those who disagree with them need to get thicker skins.

    Oh, and if you don’t like Brights (I do), keep in mind that Dan Dennett has recommended we call non-brights “Supers”! Can’t argue with that, can you? Very positive. 🙂Report

  82. Robert Gibbs says:

    Paul (#82),

    I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I followed the link to your blog and I will definitely be checking back there again, really interesting and engaging stuff. At the risk of extending this conversation beyond the point where it is annoying I did want to address a couple of the points you brought up.

    First, I think I should clarify my position a little bit. I do not mean to argue that atheists should shy away from a frank and open debate about the existence of God and the relative merits of belief in that existence. I concede that there are some people for whom the debate alone will be offensive, however, I think that there is a middle ground between using kid gloves and the inherently (and I would suggest purposefully) disrespectful tone established by using terms like “insane” to describe believers and comparing a belief in God to believing in the FSM. I want to stress that at this point in my argument I am not yet suggesting that a moderate tone between kid gloves and calculated disrespect is necessarily the right tone to strike, only that an alternative exists (You actually illustrate it quite nicely when you suggest that believers “contentions about the nature of the universe are totally misguided,” this is an uncompromising statement but far less provocative and inflammatory than saying or implying that “people who believe in God are crazy and stupid.” ).

    You suggest that Dawkins’ and Harris’ more aggressive rhetoric would be completely unremarkable in the political sphere and I think you’re right about that, but I also think that’s part of the problem. The tone that the New Atheists strike is useful in a number of different ways; it attracts attention and sells books, it solidifies a base, and it helps set the terms and tenor of the debate, after those things have been accomplished, though, I think that the more derisive and hostile elements of the New Atheist’s rhetoric begin to work against them. I suppose that my fundamental criticism of the tone that Dawkins, Harris, and the New Atheists often employ is not that it’s mean or unfair but that it is not an effective way to win over many moderates and change the minds of believers. And I should say, I recognize that the majority of Dawkins’ and Harris’ rhetoric is actually pretty respectful, but both men can’t resist the temptation to twist the knife every once in a while when the opportunity for mockery comes along. The impact of those (comparatively rare) disrespectful elements of Dawkins’ and Harris’ work is so much greater than everything else (they get all the all the media attention and drive the controversy which drives the book sales) that they don’t have to do a lot of it before a large swath of people perceive the two men’s rhetoric as off putting. Dawkins and Harris’ approach is maybe good and useful in debate, but it’s not so useful when you are engaged in a one on one conversation with someone trying to win them over. Dawkins and Harris and their peers on this front have established a tone for contemporary atheist expression, and it is largely combative and disrespectful. That ad campaign you mentioned didn’t arise out of nowhere, it was part of a continuum, and while I suspect that Dawkins and Harris themselves might criticize it as counterproductive it is attributable to an approach to this debate that they helped establish.

    Ultimately I think that approaching this topic as one would a political debate has limited usefulness. When I wrote about people reacting to their deeply held and deeply felt belief in God being insulted (not just questioned) I did not mean to imply that their beliefs would whither, quite the opposite, in response to disrespectful (perceived) attack the positions are likely to calcify and become more entrenched and make those believers less likely to listen or be reasoned with. Most people in America occupy a space in the middle of the faith spectrum and are probably disinclined to engage in a debate in the first place. They find themselves just as turned off by combative religious people as they do by combative atheists, but where they encounter many examples of non combative religious people in their every day lives the people who publicly proclaim themselves as atheists are more rare, and their rhetoric can seem almost entirely negative (this isn’t true, but that’s the perception that exists).

    And finally, “Supers” is hard to argue with but I can’t help but hear a sarcastic note in there, like a bunch of students in a classroom pointing to the weird kid over in the corner eating paste and wearing his underpants on his head, “look at the ‘Super.’”

    Ok I’m done. This was interesting, thanks again. Best Wishes.Report