Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Soft-selling atheism

David DiSalvo put together a pair of videos highlighting two contrasting styles of advocating for atheism. Guess which one I think is more effective?

Worth a look.

15 comments:

Don Geddis said...

You're a heterosexual male, so you prefer the video with the girl?

:-)

Recently saw a similar video: Tim Minchin's "Storm". A humorous, artistic defense of science and skepticism, against quackery. In the form of a nine-minute beat poem.

Ron said...

> You're a heterosexual male, so you prefer the video with the girl?

So *that's* why I voted for Sarah Palin!

> Tim Minchin's "Storm"

Yes, "Storm" is absolutely brilliant. That's exactly the sort of thing we need more of.

Curt Sampson said...

More effective for what purpose? As previously a rather mild atheist, one who would even describe himself as an "agnostic," the second was far more effective at showing me that I should have a lot less tolerance for violations of human rights when they are done for religious reasons.

I would no longer even contemplate the idea that the Jyllands-Posten should perhaps not have published those Muhammad cartoons. The fact is, before my exposure to aggressive atheism, I was perfectly willing to contemplate infringing human rights in order to avoid offending religious people. I'm glad I never saw how far I might have let that go.

What would you say if you were talking to an otherwise nice, likeable acquaintance who insisted that it was wrong to publish the cartoons because they were quite obviously going to offend in an extreme way many Muslims?

Further: do you think all of the aggressive athiests should stop writing and talking, and leave it all to the toned-down versions along the lines of that from Julia Sweeney?

Curt Sampson said...

Well, I decided to take an extra ten minutes at lunch and watch "Storm." I found it quite amusing, but I'm surprised that you guys did.

I can't quite see how ranting at and slapping down a believer-in-nonsense at a dinner party is so different from the "agressive athiest" rant linked in the main post. Is the guest in question (and all of those like her in the real world) for some reason less entitled to have her mystical belief in "nature" and homeopathy respected than the folks under attack by the aggressive athiest?

It would seem quite the other way around, to me. "Storm" picked on someone with relatively benign beliefs as compared to those who think that gays should have restricted civil rights or, worse yet, that that heretics should be stoned or burned.

Would you do that at a dinner party?

Don Geddis said...

Someone who's already an atheist (albeit a "mild" one) is basically already on the same team. The task then is merely "preaching to the converted", or perhaps "riling up the base". Indeed, more direct approaches may have a stronger impact on you, getting you to hate the "enemy" and affiliate more strongly with "your team".

(I had much the same personal reaction as you describe, when I first read Dawkin's "The God Delusion".)

I think Ron's point is that people like you are in a tiny, tiny minority. The vast, vast majority of humanity is much more pro-God, and anti-atheism, than you're suggesting. How do you reach those folks?

Ron's point (if I understand it), is that atheists have a long, long way to go, to make any significant inroads into the vast bulk of humanity. And, in particular, that yelling at them for being stupid, isn't an effective approach.

Ron recommends things like (science) myths, humor, a light touch, (secular) ceremonies and traditions, etc.

"Storm", like Sweeney, is a humorous, entertaining, look at the subject. There's no question that the guy is on the side of science. There's no question that Sweeney is an atheist. But they aren't yelling at, or insulting, their audience. They're using humor and gentle persuasion. Yet with the same clear message.

Curt Sampson said...

Well, I must admit, I don't know right now what the best way to reach "those folks" is. There are probably many, depending on which segment of "those folks" you're talking about.

Show me market research on that, and I'll buy what you're selling. Tell me that the aggressive approach doesn't work because you just don't personally feel comfortable with it (or whatever other reason you have), and I'm going to wait for the market research.

As for "Aggressive Athiest" and "Storm," I'm not clear on who you're talking about as the audience.

If you consider the audience to be those already converted to the expressed point of view, both I think are fine; I certainly enjoyed both.

If you consider the audience to be those each performer was ranting about, I rather doubt that anybody similar enough that they could be sitting in that dinner guest's seat would consider the ordeal very humorous at all.

Worse yet, "Storm" even criticizes things that have no particular connection with belief in homeopathy and suchlike, such as the girl's tattoo, and does so before the narrator properly realizes what the girl's beliefs are.

And let's not forget that, while a video entitled "Aggressive Athiest" on YouTube is quite an appropriate forum for that sort of rant, attacking at a dinner party an otherwise nice girl who has few friends in a new country is, well, even as aggressive as I am, I have difficulty thinking of that as an appropriate forum. Presumably it's just a story, and not anything the narrator would really do, but still....

Ron said...

> More effective for what purpose?

For convincing people who are on the fence about believing in god to "put on the no-god glasses" (as Sweeny so brilliantly puts it) and keep them on.

> What would you say if you were talking to an otherwise nice, likeable acquaintance who insisted that it was wrong to publish the cartoons because they were quite obviously going to offend in an extreme way many Muslims?

This.

I am not against causing offense. I am against causing offense as a tactic for winning hearts and minds. There are times when causing offense can be an effective tactic, but winning people over from superstition is not one of them.

> Further: do you think all of the aggressive athiests should stop writing and talking

Of course not. I just wish they'd tone down their rhetoric a bit.

> I can't quite see how ranting at and slapping down a believer-in-nonsense at a dinner party is so different from the "agressive athiest" rant linked in the main post.

It isn't. But that's not what Minchin did. What Minchin did was recite a poem about slapping down a believer-in-nonsense as part of a comedy routine for an audience that consisted of self-selected people who wanted to see his act. That is a very different thing from actually slapping someone down in real life.

> Show me market research on that, and I'll buy what you're selling.

XO, are you listening? Can you vouch for me here? Quantamos? Anyone?

Curt Sampson said...

Ok, I'll buy (for a dollar) your argument that soft-selling atheism is more effective for getting the fence-sitters on board. But I must ask, is that what we need most right now? Or do we need more to get those who are already on board out of the closet, as it were, and in to the battle to say "I'm an atheist" rather than saying nothing at all?

As for Minchin, sure, he "recited a poem" about slapping down a believer-in-nonsense, and he recited it to non-believers. But if that's ok, what's wrong with Dawkins et al. also writing books, in which believers are slapped down, read by non-believers? It seems to me that in both cases, the non-believing audience is not offended, and the believing audience, if any, is offended. The difference, to my mind, is that Dawkins is saying his thing in a forum appropriate for such things, and Minchin is displaying for humour the idea of destroying a family dinner over that same conversation.

I find it rather ironic that I, the loudmouth Dawkins supporter, am the one promoting the idea of shutting my big atheist mouth at a family dinner while you guys who are against causing offence are the ones laughing at a depiction of someone having her feet put to the fire.

I'd like to believe I'm scrupulously fair about the situations in which I put forth arguments, but I'd be deluding myself if I thought I came anywhere near that ideal. In a book (or a comment on a blog post) with an atheist audience, I'll rant and rave. When it comes to doing so to the face of theists, I'm rather more reticent.

Ron said...

> Ok, I'll buy (for a dollar) your argument that soft-selling atheism is more effective for getting the fence-sitters on board. But I must ask, is that what we need most right now? Or do we need more to get those who are already on board out of the closet, as it were, and in to the battle to say "I'm an atheist" rather than saying nothing at all?

Actually, what worries me is not the fence-sitters. What worries me is the fundamentalists, like this guy. He's an American Christian expat who believes that working on the Sabbath should be a capital crime. Let that idea propagate unchecked and the world could become a very unpleasant place.

Also, what worries me is not the family dinners nor what happens in the comedy clubs. What worries me is when card-carrying scientists give atheism a bad name by levying criticisms at religion based on ignorance and unfounded assumptions. When a fundamentalist hears someone like Dawkins say that, for example, "the God of the Old Testament is ... the most unpleasant character in all fiction" that just helps cement their world view that atheists are corrupt and evil and ignorant and need to be brought back to God. Dawkins et al. have never come fully to grips with the fact that fundamentalists take it as axiomatic that God is good. Therefore, anyone who says that God is not good is wrong by definition, and anyone who says that God is "the most unpleasant character in all fiction" is dangerously deranged, and nothing that person says can be believed.

If an obscure comedian destroys his credibility with the fundamentalists there's not much harm done. But if the world's most prominent evolutionary scientist does so, that's a real problem for the rest of us.

Don Geddis said...

To be fair, Dawkins is famous because of his anti-religious ranting. It's not like he was, first, a world-famous evolutionary scientist (was he?), and then later added these wacko (?) beliefs, which harmed his scientific contributions.

I feel differently about Dawkins, than I do about Watson (DNA, racism) or Shockley (transistors, eugenics). With Dawkins, the atheism is the piece that's front and center, not the science.

(Isn't it? Or am I not giving Dawkins his scientific due?)

Ron said...

> Or am I not giving Dawkins his scientific due?

No, I don't think you are. Dawkins first came to prominence with his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." In that book he introduced two revolutionary ideas: that it is genes that natural selection operates on (rather than individuals or species), and the idea of a "meme" as a non-DNA based entity that also undergoes evolution through reproduction, variation and selection. Dawkins and his ideas were well known long before "The God Delusion."

If it were Dawkins's strident atheism that got him noticed, why is he so much more prominent than, say, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was even more obnoxious than Dawkins? Or Michael Newdow? Or Tom Flynn? (Have you ever even heard of Tom Flynn?)

Don Geddis said...

Sure, sure, not just an atheist. And lots of his atheist writings are based on evolution, which is his area of expertise.

But my understanding is that he's mostly a popularizer of science, which isn't quite the same thing as being a leading scientist.

I do think he gets credit for "meme". But "The Selfish Gene" was not a scientific journal article, it was a popular book. If you ask purely about his scientific career, evaluated by his peer group, it isn't clear to me that he stands out.

(As opposed to, say, Einstein, or Hawking, or Watson. Or Penrose -- who writes horrible books about AI, but had a lot of significant contributions to cosmology and geometry.)

On the other hand, you're right: I don't know those other names (except for O'Hair).

Ron said...

> If you ask purely about his scientific career, evaluated by his peer group, it isn't clear to me that he stands out.

What difference does it make whether he's distinguished or merely credible? The people for whom this matters don't draw such fine distinctions. It's enough for them to see one prominent scientist spouting what is to them self-evident and offensive bullshit to get all scientists (and potentially all of science) tarred with the same brush.

Look, I would love to be proven wrong about this. Nothing would make me happier than to read about an overwhelming flood of people giving up religion and crediting Dawkins et al. for making them see the light. But I'll give you long odds that that's not going to happen. Science has had over 150 years since Darwin came along to make its case, and fundamentalism is, if anything, more powerful than ever. In those few places in the world where fundamentalism is not on the rise (like Norway for example) it is pretty clearly not due to any Dawkins-style tough love at work. Fundamentalism doesn't yield to reason. Never has. And I don't think I'm going out on a very long limb when I predict it never will.

Curt Sampson said...

Ron, we seem to be in agreement about what we're worrying about, and diametrically opposed when it comes to promoting it.

I agree with you that the most worrisome ones are the strong fundamentalists such as your Christian expat example above, and that fundamentalism is not likely to yield to reason. So why would we care the the fundamentalists find Dawkins more or less offensive, when they will not change their views regardless?

The way we're going to keep ourselves from descending into some Handmaid's Tale horror is making sure that there are enough people motivated to prevent that from happening. Dawkins style certainly motivated me more than the restrained, "well, you need to respect other people's religious opinions" crowd.

Ron said...

> So why would we care the the fundamentalists find Dawkins more or less offensive, when they will not change their views regardless?

Because "will not yield to reason" is not synonymous with "will not change their views regardless." Just because something won't yield to reason doesn't mean it won't yield to anything. Reason is not the only way to win hearts and minds.

I think even Dawkins realizes this in his heart of hearts. Otherwise, why would he be making such a show out of helping the people of Haiti? He says it's because he wants to "counter the scandalous myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans." But how does Dawkins know it's a myth? Maybe unbelievers really don't care about their fellow humans. Has he done a study? Can you show me the citation? If Dawkins were really so dedicated to the truth do you not think that he should get his facts straight first? And if there is such a study, why not just point to it? Why bother with the dramatic show of helping Haitians? Is that really the most effective use of scarce resources, or is Dawkins succumbing to the very human but ultimately irrational tendency of people to pay attention to dramatic short-term needs at the expense of more long-term strategic interests?

I think what Dawkins is doing is terrific. But it's not terrific because it advances truth through reason. It doesn't matter whether unbelievers "really" care about their fellow human beings (whatever that means) or if Dawkins's effort is just propaganda. The truth or falseness of the proposition being put forth is not what makes Dawkins's efforts worthwhile, it's the results: people in Haiti get more help than they otherwise would (and yes, I think that's a good thing even though I can't muster a rational argument for it), and people will read about it in the pages of USA Today. I believe that the net result of this will be to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of some people who are currently inclined to believe that atheists are inherently amoral people, and I think this will be much more effective than any rational argument about the evolution of moral intuition or sociological study of the charitable giving habits of various belief groups.