CFI: Home to Both Atheist Fundamentalists and Religion-Loving Wankers?

April 14, 2010

Michael De Dora has written another thought-provoking blog post. He makes some interesting points, some valid, some perhaps not. But I'm not here either to defend or criticize the substance of Michael's post. He is capable of his own defense and as far as criticism goes -- well, there seems to be a surplus of criticism.

Of course, Michael's views, just like the views of anyone else, are properly subject to close examination and criticism. So I have no complaints about those who criticize the substance of Michael's post. However, I do want to make a couple of observations about some of this criticism, in particular a blog post by PZ Myers .

First, I find it remarkable that in the space of a few months, CFI is alleged to have been taken over by "atheist fundamentalists" and then by those who are wishy-washy about religion. Was there a coup and then a counter-coup of which I was unaware? Both aspersions, of course, lack empirical support, and it is regrettable to see them being made by two learned individuals, Paul Kurtz and PZ Myers, who claim to base their beliefs on evidence.

The individuals who write for CFI's blog are, for the most part, CFI staffers and, therefore, subscribe to CFI's mission statement. Beyond that, they have their own views, including their own views about how best to advance our mission. The posts on our blog, Free Thinking , represent their own personal views, not the views of CFI (as the "About" page for the blog makes clear). We wouldn't want it any other way. One of CFI's core principles is a commitment to robust free expression. Reviewing each blogger's contributions before they are posted to ensure they adhere to some management-dictated party line would be inconsistent with that commitment. It would also undercut one of the goals of the blog, which is to generate discussion among atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists about issues of interest to them. Given the response to Michael's posts, he seems to be contributing to that goal.

Contrary to what PZ Myers has suggested, CFI does not stand for the "Church of Fatuous Incompetence." Among other things, we're not a church. We don't all sing the same tiresome hymn and recite the same tiresome creed --we don't have a creed -- day in and day out. And with respect to competence, perhaps I am biased, but I would rank the overall quality of CFI's bloggers as very high.

Finally, let me note that PZ's post is, how shall I put it, a bit hormonal in tone. I took exception to Paul Kurtz for smearing CFI, justifiably I believe, and I believe it is appropriate to take Myers to task for his intemperate tone. "Witless wanker"? Oh, come on. Are we still in junior high? Insults are easy, mindless ways to pump up the home crowd, but at the end of the day they usually function as substitutes for argument. They certainly contribute nothing to the exchange of ideas.

Maybe that's the real issue some have with Free Thinking. On Free Thinking , one usually finds arguments, not invective or snarky observations. Apparently, there are other blogs where you can find that.


#52 Jeremy Beahan (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 1:42pm


Your response in this post was measured and thoughtful. The tantrum that PZ and his clones are throwing is embarrassing.

I dont agree with De Dora, but I could never have expected his post would provoke such venom.

If we who consider ourselves critical thinkers cannot respectfully disagree even over matters like this, then what hope is there?

#53 Daniel Schealler on Friday April 16, 2010 at 7:46pm


I probably should let this go… But it’s just not in my nature. ^_^

The articles I’ve read from De Dora have all been persuasive pieces, which is why I judge them as such. I don’t think it’s appropriate to critique them for not living up to the standards of, say, a journalistic article on Sure, by those standards maybe (I’m no judge) his writing is bad. If that’s all you meant then I withdraw my objection.

Still… That’s strikes me as an odd mode of critique in this context. You may as well criticize a children’s cartoon about King Arthur for not communicating the subtle themes of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to critique Sonic the Hedgehog for being a terrible first person shooter. Such a critique may very well be accurate… But it would also be weirdly out of place.

The key point I was trying to make is that Michael’s tone and style are excellent as examples of how to address an audience of religious moderates. So by that standard, his writing is very good indeed.

Confrontational atheists and religious moderates have very different tastes when it comes to the pathetic or stylistic tropes that they find appealing. I’ve long suspected that this has a more to do with why someone is an atheist or a believer than most people think.

The point is: You can’t talk to a religious moderate the way that you’d talk to a combative atheist, and you can’t talk to a combative atheist the same way you’d talk to a religious moderate.

So although I consider Michael’s choice of tone and style to be very bad, I simultaneously consider his execution of his chosen tone and style to be very good. Tragically good when his audience consists of confrontational atheists, of course - but very well executed nonetheless.

Oh: And when I said it’s often hard for me to see his arguments because his tone and style get in the way, I was speaking as a combative atheist. To me his articles are trying to get me to swallow a pill by hiding it in a spoon of codliver-oil - so of course I spit it out before I even notice the pill is there. But to a religious moderate, it’s like easing down a pill with a spoon of honey. Although it’s an obstruction to me and those who share my tastes and preferences, it isn’t an obstruction to a different audience.

#54 Ophelia Benson on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 8:16am


“The articles I’ve read from De Dora have all been persuasive pieces, which is why I judge them as such.”

You mean they’ve persuaded you, right? They certainly haven’t persuaded me, and I don’t think they are at all persuasive. I think De Dora is surprisingly bad at persuasion - especially surprisingly for someone who majored in Communication.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to critique them for not living up to the standards of, say, a journalistic article on”

I’m not, particularly, but then I don’t separate writing standards into those for Slate and the like and those for blogs. Why would I do that, why would anyone? There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. Why would anyone say “well it’s just a blog, so I’ll write badly”? For one thing, that’s no way to attract and keep readers.

If I’m thinking of any standards in particular, the standards would be those of other writers on this blog; I mentioned Ron specifically.
You say it’s out of place to say his writing is bad. I don’t see why. His writing is all we have,  after all. That’s the medium here: writing. And as I said, I wanted to reply to Ron’s claim that the stuff about “why this from CFI?” was just orthodoxy-enforcement; I wanted to explain that it is at least partly to do with basic competence. This is a blog; it is a writing-based medium; it is a group blog with the CFI brand on it; it seems bizarre for CFI to add a blogger who is not good at writing. That’s why I think my point is relevant and not out of place.

#55 Lippmann’s Agent (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 11:35am

“There’s good writing and there’s bad writing.”

Say Ophelia, Do you view the rest of reality in such black and white terms?

#56 Ophelia Benson on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 12:10pm

Say “Lippmann’s Agent” -

Yup, all of it.

But more seriously - yes, I’m saying De Dora’s writing is objectively bad. Just for one thing, he leaves out words, often.

I don’t know what to tell you. I’m an editor, and I would either reject anything he sent me if the content were not worth the trouble of re-writing, or if the content were brilliant I would accept it with a groan at the huge effort of re-writing it. I would not consider the writing okay as it stands. Editors do have to make these calls, you know.

#57 Daniel Schealler on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 10:03pm

Shit. Sorry Ophelia, I just lost a medium-sized response that I rushed - I haven’t got time to respond again today.

Grrr… frustration. I’m gonna make a fortune one day when I invent a way to punch the internet.

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