How not to defend yourself (gnu atheist style!)

For those of you who don't know, Rob Talisse and I have been posting about atheism and argumentative civility over at 3QuarksDaily.  First, here; the follow up here.  Our book, Reasonable Atheism is on the shelves now, too.   In the blog posts, we've been trying to untangle the ugliness about the charge of 'accommodationism' among the atheists. Well, that angers the gnus, because they keep thinking that people are wagging their fingers at them about tone.  And angry atheists don't like to be told to be nicer.  (And, by the way, nothing about what we'd written was about tone, anyway. So…)

We criticized PZ Myers, of pharyngula fame, for making an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false.  The point is that there's a difference between being wrong and being stupid, and Myers makes the error all too often.  He posted a comment on our first entry (Feb 7, 2011 10:36:49 PM) and said that there are 'irrational reasons'.   But only people are irrational.  Reasons are irrelevant, insufficient, poorly arranged, and so on.  A person may be irrational for holding those reasons, but that's the point.  He's making the error in spades there.  We made the distinction again in the follow-up and even provided some examples.  And then Myers defends himself with this:

Dear sweet goddess of academic loquaciousness, is the whole book written in that style? Is anyone going to be able to read it? Those three paragraphs nearly killed me with their preening opacity! And, near as I can tell, all they're doing is fussing over the conjunction of two words that they found incomprehensible.

Wow.  That we were hard to read is a defense?  Seriously?  I now know why Myers thinks that most sophisticated defenses of religious belief are totally stupid.  He doesn't understand them, because he has no interest in reading hard things.   A shame, really, that someone who stands for rational discourse and reason helping has no interest in responding to criticism with any.

Oh, and if we needed to make explicit the form of the fallacy, it's ad hominem abusive.  Classic, baby, classic.

18 thoughts on “How not to defend yourself (gnu atheist style!)”

  1. Scott,

    Please do not read this as an attack you you or your beliefs.
    In your first link, you use Aristotle as an example…"Given the evidence he had and the tools at his disposal for gathering evidence, Aristotle was highly justified in holding his (false) beliefs.  He was entirely wrong, yet frighteningly smart."
    I see this as saying religious beliefs are just like Aristotle's beliefs, and with time and the advances of science, those beliefs will be proven wrong.  Aristotle, I believe, did not try to sell people on beliefs he knew to be false.  I agree with the direction you are heading with this, if my observations are correct.
    Since I cannot read your book yet (and I look forward to doing so), I cannot comment directly on why Myers criticized you so strongly.  I do agree that his comments were not a defense, but a weak attack.  If he thinks your book is hard to read, invite him to read Kant or Lyotard.  I would love to watch his fuzzy little head explode!
    In your second link you make the following statement…"It is nonetheless worth affirming this publicly, because at least one version of the charge of accommodationism…denies that one can be a religious believer and yet not be irrational or stupid.  And that’s simply an error."
    I read this as you saying a religious believer is either irrational or stupid (use of double negative).  Am I reading this wrong?
    This is a contradiction to your previous statement (Made in the first link) "Yet the distinction between being wrong and being stupid is essential to our cognitive lives.  We affirm in Reasonable Atheism that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong.  Yet having false beliefs does not make one stupid; it simply makes one wrong."
    I await your clarification on my observations.
    I look forward to reading your book so that I can decipher why people are attacking you so strongly, and seemingly without reading your book.  What a bunch of lemmings these people are!

  2. Hi Brian,

    I think part Scott (and Bob's) frustration stems from the fact that people haven't yet read the book, as it is not yet available.

    As far as the contradiction goes, I think there's a misreading in there.  Here is the fuller context:

    " Our claim is that the distinction between belief evaluation and believer evaluation is crucial to the ethics of argumentation. If that amounts to accomodation, we've said that we are accomodationists.

    If the majority of New Atheists agree with us about these points, so much the better for us all. It is nonetheless worth affirming this publicly, because at least one version of the charge of accommodationism– perhaps not the most prominent, maybe not the one endorsed by the most visible New Atheists, but certainly one that is expressed by people who identify as New Atheists– denies that one can be a religious believer and yet not be irrational or stupid. And that’s simply an error."

    If I read this opaque and preening prose correctly–joking here–that's what people accuse the "accomodationists" of not seeing–i.e., that you're irrational if you're religious.  Aikin and Talisse deny that.  You can be wrong, but not irrational. 

    Only a crazy person, however, would make that distinction.

    Done joking now.

  3. When in April does the book come out?

    I have been locked in a much different debate and far less fruitful one with Gnu-Atheists for about a year now. It did not start out that way but I think my main position on New-Atheists (that’s how I refer to them) is that they are trying to evangelize people into their beliefs and it does not matter much to the Gnus if the people they convert actually understand the arguments (let alone logic) and claims they are making just as long as they agree (camp quest anyone?). This is one of the ways I view the Gnus as just as religious as fundamental Christians.

    But I think the main thing that you are talking about in this article addresses much of the opposition that I receive from the Gnus. Any sort of criticism raised against their position is Straw manned then disregarded as irrelevant or irrational and then the person dismissed in some sort of abusive means. But at least Myers shook it up a little bit first he abused you then straw manned your point.

  4. First, a quick apology for being away from the computer for so long.
    For Mike:
    1. The dilemma between stupid or irrational you saw is one that we are rejecting.  We note: for the new atheist, the charge of accommodation…. Moreover, we say that this is an error.
    2.  Your point about Kant and Lyotard is right.  I am confident that I'm an accessible writer for a philosopher.  By any other standard, I doubt that I"m easy.  But there's a difference between clarity and accessibility.  One can be clear without accessibility, as I think Kant is crystal clear once you get his vocabulary.  He's just not accessible.  Lyotard is another issue.
    3. Finally, your point about pharyngulite lemmings is, sadly, true.  For as much as these new-atheist types like to think of themselves as freethinkers, they seem to toe the party line as determined by their leaders. 

  5. For dcz,
    1. The book is in pre-release.  The Vandy bookstore just got a big box of them, and some students of mine came to class the other day with copies asking me to sign them.  (That, by the way, was a high point)  Amazon is still pre-ordering them, as the official pub date is APR 15.
    2. Please send along the link to your tangle with the gnus.  (I used to call them 'new atheists,' but they themselves like 'gnu' — it's almost like tea partiers wanting to be called teabaggers.)
    3.  On the analogy with fundamentalists, I hesitantly disagree.  Evangelical is a better analogy, as they are also in possession of good news (news I too think is good), and they feel the need to bring it to people's attention (which I also try to do… I wrote a book, you know), yet they hold those who reject their message in contempt (which I do not agree with).  Fundamentalists are a group who read the Bible a certain way, and they take no intermediaries between themselves and the text.  I don't see the gnus that way.
    4. Finally, to be clear, this is not, at least for me or for Talisse, an issue about tone. We both are notorious for our heavy rhetoric.  It is an issue about what's required to be someone who can honestly say: I won that argument.  The first thing you have to do is think it was an argument, which requires that you think the other person is rational, and gives arguments.  If you don't think that, you can't take yourself as having won any such exchange.

  6. Before I give the link some history on the argument with the Gnus. It started as drunken trolling and me wanting to work on catching fallacies in arguments and arguing off the cuff. So a lot of it turned out to be some really bad philosophy and even worse arguments that went to weird places with people who were amateur philosophers just as much as I am. So I don't know if it is really worth your time…. (Nor is it worth any of my philosophy professors’ time as well. In fact if you are one of my professors it would be best if you just don’t go there.)
    That being said here is one of the posts with some of my better commenting and it goes along with the camp quest comment. If you don't know what camp quest is, it will help.  Here is the link:
    If you go to the most recent post on that blog you can see one persons point disregarded because they use a Young Earth Creationist in their discussion.
    As for the book release, first congrats.
    On a sarcastic note, no kindle edition. I have to buy this thing called a "paper back." What are we in the 1300's?

  7. Scott,
    First, as I am used to this, I take no offense at being called Mike, but my name is Brian.  My last name is M I L K E.  Everyone leaves off the "L" and calls me Mike, or Mr. Mike.  Another good chuckle!
    Now, on to the good stuff!  In your reply to me, you answered me by saying that you reject this…which this?
    That religious believers are not irrational or stupid, thus making them so?
    Or, are you rejecting the charge that your book falls under the charge of accommodation?
    Rejecting the "charge of accommodation" outright would be great if that is all it was, but including the example/description of that charge brings another view of that rejection, and thus my question of contradiction.
    I am further confused by your reply when you say, "The dilemma between stupid or irrational you saw is one that we are rejecting."  which seems to support my claim of contradiction.  What dilemma?  I can see no dilemma here, since beliving in something intangeable, unprovable, and as varied as there are races on this planet simply by blind faith is irrational AND stupid.  But that is my opinion, and not fact, and as such, is just as believable as "there is a god."

  8. Brian,
    What I believe the double negative that you are hung up on is being used to provide one of the definitions for accommodationism. So what the phrase is saying is an accommodationist is a person who does not view religious people as irrational or stupid for having the beliefs that they hold. To say this affirmatively would be to say an accommidationist is a person who views religious people as rational and intelligent.
    As for your blind faith comment… I do not think that many religious people believe in God simply by blind faith. Yes some religions use blind faith to support some of their dogmas. But believing in certain aspects of God "blindly" is different than believing that there is a God "blindly". Many people who believe in God base that claim upon some sort of argument that they view as cogent. Now you might not agree with the strength of their argument or the truth of their premises, especially when it comes to perceived personal experience, but that does not make them stupid or irrational for believing their argument is correct.
    Have you ever been wrong about something you believed you had justification for believing? That did not make you irrational or stupid, it just made you incorrect.
    Besides even Atheism requires a little blind faith. (I know I am going to get s#!t for saying that but oh well…) 

  9. Dcz,
    The discussion looked out of hand on the blog you sent me.  I'll admit that my inclinations are to steer clear of those, as I all too often take the tone that people need to be taught some philosophy. Trolls don't cotton to that. 
    About an edition for e-readers, it was part of the contract that they'd release an e-book too.  I suppose it may be a bit later.  (If you want, I may be able to provide you with a PDF.  Just shoot me an email)

  10. Brian,
    First, sorry for the name confusion.  And thanks for being a good sport about it.
    Second, the stupid or irrational line for believers is the view of those who make the accommodationism charge.  We reject the use of accommodationism as a charge and we reject those as the only two options. 
    Third, you're right about the fact that blind faith is a proper object of criticism,  but, again, I don't think that 'stupid' or 'irrational' are the appropriate terms for it.  Rather, reckless and disappointing, but given the way people are raised, the social pressures on people to profess and genuinely believe, and further ways that human minds are biased toward confirmation of their beliefs, I'd hardly hold people of faith to be irrational or stupid.  In fact, the atheist who holds them to a real rational standard may be the first person to really treat the believers as genuinely rational creatures.  We have a moral obligation to be exemplary in this.  It's not about atheism, but about the value of reason.

  11. Thanx for the PDF offer but if it is supposed to come out electronically it should be fine once the release date comes. There is no pre-sale or pre-ordering for an electronic copy, it takes like ten seconds to download once it comes out. So there is no logistical worry of shipping copies and all of that. Also I would not have time to read it right now anyway I have three research papers to work on over the next month so i have to read the research for that.
    As for the blog, I did warn you. It wasn't like I was entering something I was deeply interested in when I frist started and I also wasn't really looking for the most informed conversation anyway. (had to keep things at my level) I have not really commented there in a while, I still pay attention to it though to see what they are up to. 
    Also I have read some of your tone on here in the past and I am too thick skinned to let tone bother me. If I am wrong I am wrong, as long as you set me straight I am fine with it. If I feel like I need to stand my ground I will and if I don't understand what you mean I will beat the dead horse till I do. I am more likely to annoy you before you really bother me. I am sure Dr. Casey will vouch for that.

  12. Dr. Aikin,

    It would be blameworthy for PZM to engage in "an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false," but this simply isn't the case. This isn't about defending PZM (he's capable), but about the straw man. Acting on beliefs that are demonstrably false (YEC) warrants contempt for the person, and the overwhelming majority of PZM's posts are of this kind. PZM's site is hardly a series of blog posts about little old ladies who are stupid because they pray for their grandchildren. They majority of the site is directed towards calling out religionists who seek to use their (usually political) influence to make policy that is in accordance with poorly evidenced or reasoned beliefs. This is what's contemptible.
    It's also bad form to accuse someone of an ad hominem and follow up with one of your own; "he has no interest in reading hard things." Pretty "classic" as you say.

  13. Hello Nevyn,
    Glad to have the pushback.  But it would be nice were it accurate or relevant. 
    As for accuracy, Myers' blog is a clearinghouse for contempt.  That it is regularly directed at those who deserve it is one thing, but that it is directed at the religious for the simple reason that he doesn't like their views is another.  Myers all too often meets up with people he disagrees with, and he quotes them all in Comic Sans.  Just an example, here's how he treats Alvin Plantinga:
    Plantinga is no dummy, but he's difficult to read.  Myers opens and closes confusing the two.  That's what's being criticized.
    As for relevance, you need a brief lesson on how ad hominem arguments work.  They work as follows: Speaker S has fault X, so the things S says are untrustworthy, false, or unacceptable.  That's why it's a fallacy.  The form of Myer's defense against us is that A&T are bad writers, so they say false things, or at least they aren't worth bothering with.
    Now, take a longer, harder look at my evaluation of Myers.  Nothing follows from the posed evaluation, except that there's an error, one that's been criticized independently of the assessment of his character.  That's not an ad hominem argument, but an assessment of someone's performance in critical exchange.  The lesson is that not all evaluations of a speaker's vices are ad hominem arguments.

  14. Dr. Aikin,
    Glad to oblige. Note that I never said PZM or his site was without contempt, there's certainly plenty. You claim PZM is guilty of "an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false." I claim this is not the case by pointing out the kind of examples he often browbeats, " Acting on beliefs that are demonstrably false (YEC) warrants contempt for the person, and the overwhelming majority of PZM's posts are of this kind." I am indicating a relevant distinction between disparaging someone for acting on bad beliefs as opposed to disparaging them for having the beliefs at all. Your response above appears to do little more than simply restate your original claim, i.e. "that it is directed at the religious for the simple reason that he doesn't like their views"
    Setting aside who needs lessons on what, I'd say "fair enough" on the ad hominem, but I took a longer, harder look. Nowhere do I see the claim from PZM that what A&T say is false, only that it's poorly written. Neither is there a claim that it isn't worth bothering with, but that it will be oppressive to read (if you take this to imply it's not worth bothering with, OK, but that's hardly a "classic" ad hominem and not a clear implication to me at least). So it looks like an assessment of A&T's ability to clearly communicate, not that what they are saying is untrue. But you're right, on a closer look, your assessment is name-calling, not fallacy-committing.
    Mind you, I am not advancing this claim. As a philosopher, I'm used to this writing style and PZM clearly is not, nor does he seem to have the patience for same. As to his piece on AP, I read PZM as saying AP is foolish for not just having bad ideas (which PZM argues are bad for very specific reasons) but for advancing those bad ideas. This also goes against your claim that PZM "dislikes" (whatever word we want to use) religious people "for the simple reason that he doesn't like their views" when he very clearly enumerates where he disagrees and why.

  15. Nevyn,
    First, you've changed your charge. Originally, it was that I was arguing ad hominem, too.  Now its that I don't have much of a case. Or haven't made it. Or that you were saying something different and irrelevant.  Or to insinuate that maybe you need to teach me a lesson.  Good grief.
    Second, I'll admit that the quote I provided, I didn't have Myers' conclusion.  It was all name-calling.  But if you followed the link, there was plenty there that his conclusion was to ignore A&T. 
    Third, more of a lesson about ad hominem arguments and fallacies generally.  Rarely do actual forms of argument actually take those of the textbook.  One regular feature of them is that their conclusions are suppressed.  Slippery slopes, arguments from hypocrisy, and so on.  Same goes for ad hominem.  And here's how to spot them– whether the abuses are things we reason to or reason from.  We've got a fallacy when we have the latter, but not necessarily with the former.

  16. Dr. Aikin,
    I really don't want to drag this out, but your commentary is particularly bothersome considering your position and publishing record (I'm thinking of your paper on straw men-which I thought was quite good, BTW). I don't understand why you would (or how you could) misrepresent what I've said thus far, especially considering that my commentary is right here.
    You accuse me of:
    1. Changing my charge.
    My original claim was that you say X is bad and fault PZM for doing X. I pointed out that PZM does not not do X, and charged you with a straw man. See above, "It would be blameworthy for PZM to engage in "an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false," but this simply isn't the case. This isn't about defending PZM (he's capable), but about the straw man." This is the third time I've used this sentence. The straw man charge remains and has not changed.
    2. Originally I charged you with arguing ad hominem.
    I also accused you of an ad hominem at the end of the comment. However, the majority of the text regards the straw man charge. Regardless, I reiterated the straw man charge in my second post and responded to your advice re: ad hominem arguments.
    3. I charge you with not having much of a case or not having made your case.
    There's a sense in which this is true, but it's only by way of committing the straw man that I pointed out from the start. That's been my point all along. If you're talking about the ad hominem (remember, there are 2 charges in the exchange now), by the very definition and text you provided, the claim that PZM commits a "classic" ad hominem abusive doesn't hold. If it was so classic, why would you have to refer to the text that you did not post in order to support your claim? If it was so classic, why do we have to wheedle out the suppressed conclusion?
    4. I was saying something different and irrelevant.
    I really don't know what you're referring to here. In your initial response, it was you who claimed my comment was neither accurate nor relevant ("Glad to have the pushback.  But it would be nice were it accurate or relevant"). I have indicated a distinction that I think is relevant and explained why I think it's relevant with examples. The only difference beyond elucidation that I can find is conceding that you engaged in name-calling instead of an ad hominem on PZM. 
    5. I insinuate I need to teach you a lesson.
    This charge is very perplexing. In your initial response you say, "you need a brief lesson on how ad hominem arguments work." Certainly no insinuation from you there, you come right out and tell me I need a lesson. I reply, "Setting aside who needs lessons on what." This isn't an insinuation. This is an attempt to move beyond what could very easily be taken as an insulting charge. I attempted to employ some conversational charity and "set it aside."  Again, though, you are giving, "more of a lesson about ad hominem arguments and fallacies generally" in your last post.
    It does not seem to me that you have looked very closely at what I have written. At least, I would hope that's the case, because the alternative looks like deliberate misrepresentation. (I know there are other possibilities-forgive me for trying to avoid a lesson on false dichotomies).
    So all in all, I'm just confused by your sloppy responses (evidenced by 1-5 above). Just one more thing jumped out to me as well. If what PZM said in response to your discussion about "irrational reasons" was a defense, and as a defense was the appropriate target of an ad hominem charge, wouldn't your comment, "Second, I'll admit that the quote I provided, I didn't have Myers' conclusion.  It was all name-calling. " constitute a defense, and be a classic example of the tu quoque?

  17. Jumping in on this whole thing late here, but I just realized how big a deal people have making over this on the pharyngula blog. I personally don't have anything important to add to the "discussion" other than that, contrary to your detractors, I find your writing on the subject to be clear, concise, and substantive and that your distinction between evaluating beliefs and believers in the context of the new atheist movement helpful.
    I did want to say something about the comments regarding this topic on your blog which I found hilarious: Myers actually accused you of committing the fallacy of the excluded middle…
    You seem to be committing the fallacy of the excluded middle. The New Atheists, those bad guys, treat religious believers with contempt; you, the good guys, think believers are "fellow rational agents". It's wrong at both extremes.
    Not only does Myers ad hominem you, but he straw mans you by accusing you of constructing a false dichotomy! And he thinks a false dichotomy is one that commits the fallacy of the excluded middle…
    You guys better stop using such big words before you get accused of committing the existential fallacy.

  18. It may be that I was in graduate school in the Humanities during the 90's, but I have a visceral repugnance to this sort of intellectually slovenly criticism: "You use big words" (OK, that's tendentious–"you express yourself in unnecessarily complicated language (to conceal the lack of content)"). Probably deserves a name in the fallacy hall of shame–I always think of the Leiter-esque abuse of Derrida as a paradigmatic example. But the orgy of anti-intellectual, rabble-rousing at Pharyngula, may now become my go-to example.

    It's certainly a sort of ad hominem, but ad hominem contra style: Attack the style rather than the substance. This is not to say that many academics don't need a BDSM sort of editing, but questions of style are not questions of content, and PZM and his commenters seem to confuse the two.

    There's a further level of fallacy at work. The argument seems to involve a dismissal of the content not just through the attack on the style, but through an attack on the person's intellectual character on the basis of their style. So, ad hominem contra style might be the best designation for this tedious argument. Sometimes, I suppose, one could draw conclusions about an author’s intellectual character based on their style, and to be fair Myers draws only the conclusion that he is not interested in reading a book written in this style, though it seems implicit that he is judging the value of the content in saying this. Though such an inference would have to be very modest and with a low degree of certainty, it seems to me.

    I think what I find so annoying about the argument is that it tends to infer from the difficulty of understanding something that the difficulty must be unnecessary. I think that inference is probably underwritten by an assumption of one's own intelligence that would allow one to infer that if something is difficult for you to understand, then it must be unnecessarily unclear. There’s a sort of lazy arrogance at work here that I find repugnant

    Alternatively, it seems to me that the burden of argument would only be met if one could restate the author's views without loss of meaning (presumably judged by the author or some other neutral party who understood both the author's meaning and your translation).

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