Of Reputations and Harsh Words

September 29, 2010

In my recent Huffington Post piece , I pointed out what is already common knowledge, that people who don't like the New Atheism are trying to slander it as a "know nothing" movement.

I never intended to repeat such slander against the New Atheism. I detest slander against atheism, and I fight it. A reputation, once lost, is hard to regain. But it is worth trying.

I  am part of the New Atheism movement, and I wanted to defend it. By the third paragraph of my post, I isolate any genuine "know nothings" to a small crowd. I wanted to protect the New Atheism movement, which I believe is trying to intellectually engage religion, from slanderous repute by religious people. Those atheists who do engage religion in the public square (I nowhere claim that all atheists must do so -- only some folks may have the time or inclination, of course) to try to de-convert religious people are doing noble work making for a better society.

I recently had occasion to meet Richard Dawkins (a thrill), and tried to explain that my blog defines my intended target in a later paragraph. Which it does, and my definition excludes Richard himself (and excludes the eloquent leadership in the New Atheism -- don't ask me to "name names" since I could not in good conscience call out by name any people who might fit the profile but they aren't trying to be part of any leadership). Although the term "know nothings" is mentioned in my first paragraph, I do not use it for my own criticism or intend to actually aim it at anyone until the later paragraph. So I accurately told Richard where my precise and limited meaning of a "know nothing" was, and no deception is involved. I am grateful to Richard for listening to my clarification where my own meaning actually is, and for the spirit of a fair academic hearing.

But many people may still suppose that I was claiming that all atheism is ignorant (not true!), and all the same, I am to blame for the blog's convoluted path. By the time readers' eyes reached any later paragraph, the damage had been done. Judging from the intense reaction, many people have assumed that I was trying to fault all of atheism for ignorance. Not true. I do believe that we can do even better, but that is just ordinary exhortation to keep fighting the good fight in the right way. Nor do I claim that an individual atheist must know anything about religion/theology in order to have their own rational worldview -- my point is only that replacing religion in the culture requires that Atheism includes atheists undertaking persuasive smart engagement -- and when did that become a surprising notion?

A reputation, once lost, may be lost forever. All I can do is to repeat what I've been saying.

(1) Atheists can intellectually explain and defend the superiority of the naturalistic and humanistic worldview.

(2) For those seculars who wish to intellectually engage religious people, familiarity with intellectual defenses of religion is essential, otherwise no debate occurs and no one learns anything on either side.

(3) Those few atheists who claim that NO intellectual engagement with religious people is possible, because religion turns off believers’ minds, are choosing a pessimistic and self-defeating tactic. Respectful dialogue with religious people can and frequently does work well, often better than only resorting to ranting and raging against believers.

(4) Humanism dictates a moral duty to treat people with dignity and respect rather than simply demonizing them as sub-human. Humanism recommends educated appeals to people’s hearts and minds, trying to persuasively lure people to replace religious fantasies and creeds. Smart strategies may range from clever blasphemy to scholarly debate, and they all open cracks of doubt of believers' minds.

We may conclude then that secular humanism has nothing to fear from treating religious people as people with minds too. The proud tradition of secular humanism has always worked well by offering firm yet respectful intellectual engagement. New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins (of course! a hero!) are admirably in this tradition, and their argumentative books are having agood effect, as we see. I call for following their fine example, as I do myself. I do apologize for harsh words (I won't use them again) that got applied to the wrong targets. No one could enjoy that.


NOTE added at 4pm:  Because it has been suggested that my comments about these matters must somehow reflect those of CFI, the standard reminder is useful, that my blogging only reflects my own views and not necessarily those of CFI, its management, or staff. Commentary should not be assumed to be stating a position or agenda of the CFI organization.


#1 Derick Ovenall on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 8:42am

I’m afraid your “apology”, if indeed that’s what it was, comes too late for me, John.  Recently, I renewed my subscription to Free Inquiry for another two years.  After reading your article in the Huffington Post I called to cancel this renewal.  Much as i have enjoyed reading Free Inquiry over the last decade, I will not support an organization that attacks atheists so vehemently in a public forum.

#2 Bruce Gorton on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 8:48am

This is a huge improvement.

That said:

My four most important rules for arguing with religious people:

1: Recognise that you are in fact as much of a dumbass as any person you are going to argue with. Your logic is not going to be perfect so pay attention to criticism.

2: Familiarize yourself with the popular defenses and prepare to face ones you have never heard before. Generally the religious are not stupid, their rationalisations tend to be, but remember that a lot of very smart people possibly believed in the healing powers of leeches.

That doesn’t mean you don’t get to laugh at them.

3: Get the religious person suggesting reading matter to give you the argument. If they can’t, then either they haven’t read it or understood it, so why should you do their homework for them? If they can, then hey, bonus you have something interesting to read.

4: Don’t try to replace religion - if you deconvert somebody you are setting them free to make their own minds up. It may seem like you are taking something away from them, but it is more like a prisoner having his or her shackles removed.

And remember, different strokes for different folks. You may find one approach works for you, and someone else might find a different one works for them, and tone debates work for nobody. Lots of voices people.

#3 Bruce Gorton on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 8:56am

Derick Ovenall

I can sort of see what he is trying to say, but at least he acknowledges that what he said came out - badly. Very, very badly.


Now you have to try and get the apology onto the Huffington Post. It doesn’t really do much good here - it is the general public we are worried about.

#4 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 10:31am

Yes, a reputation can be tarnished, as is yours, Mr Shook.

By the way, a study just came out that suggests strongly that atheists/agnostics know more about religion than do the religious.

I guess you were too excited to blast secular rationality to consider what such a stupid thing would do to YOUR REPUTATION.

#5 Derick Ovenall (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 11:05am

Bruce Gorton

It’s an old trick, and an intellectually dishonest one, to attack something in public, and then repudiate your attack in private.

#6 Gnostikosis on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 11:15am

I’m not an atheist, however i notice that many who attempt to argue with the religious assume to be arguing against a religious fundamentalist.

Few religious folk claim to be fundamentalists any more. No one has to study theology, however if you are going to take up the argument against religious individuals you are going to have to understand the latest theology. You can no longer rely on the concept of the fundamentalist to win arguments.

I wouldn’t think Dr. Shook needs to apologize however he could have possible chosen his words with a little more care to better express his intent.

Written communication skills is IMO a constant study to try and find the right words to get the right intent across to a broad audience.

Cut him a little slack here.

#7 Ed Beck on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 11:32am

The eggshell sensibilities of some on our side are, frankly, becoming laughable.  We rail against the tantrums of “offense” by believers, then, from time to time, some of us wallow in it ourselves.

Calm down, friends.  Read the man’s clarification, then read it again, and leave the cries of “unforgivable!” to those who think their space-gods have been blasphemed against.

This touchy attitude really shouldn’t be our thing.

#8 Melody (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 12:05pm

I’m saddened that John’s repentance of his choice of words and thorough explanation of what he meant to say is not met with forgiveness and a benefit of a doubt. I hope that we are all treated better than this at some point in our lives when we’ve made a mistake.

#9 Joshua Slocum on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 12:16pm

Thank you for the apology John. I think there are a few really crucially important things I hope you’ll keep in mind:

1. We do need to criticize ourselves, because we’re not perfect, and any in-group can act ignorantly. However, you need to recognize the position of cultural powerlessness outspoken atheists occupy. It angered a lot of us to see that you found it a better use of your time to criticize a marginalized group in a public forum where religion is *already privileged* than to use your time to defend outspoken atheism.

2. You can’t - you just can’t - talk about “some atheists” being ignorant without naming names in this conversational climate. The average American is on a hair-trigger to find backing for their reflexive, irrational, slanderous contempt for atheists. The general public (especially the faitheist HuffPo crowd) is primed and ready to misconstrue things like that.

3. It’s actually not even informative to talk about unnamed “some atheists”. Why bother writing about it? If you find examples of atheists debating the religious from a place of ignorance, for goodness’ sake, tell us who they are so that your article actually illustrates a legitimate point for debate. It was downright weird that you didn’t, and that helped fuel the percept that you were deliberately flipping us off. I hope you can see why that’s a pretty reasonable reaction from a reader.

I accept now that you didn’t mean to throw new atheists under the bus, and I appreciate that. But you made some very elementary tactical mistakes, and you should have known better. Please be a little more careful next time. We’re not unreasonably thin-skinned, but we’re not yet at a time when we have to fight hard to even be considered to have a legitimate right to speak in the broader American social conversation.

#10 Joshua Slocum on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 12:17pm

Yikes, typo above. Should have read:

“but we’re not yet at a time when we DON’T have to fight hard to even be considered to have a legitimate right to speak in the broader American social conversation. ”

#11 Screechy Monkey (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 12:19pm

This is certainly an improvement, but it’s still far too coy and evasive:

“In my recent Huffington Post piece, I pointed out what is already common knowledge, that people who don’t like the New Atheism are trying to slander it as a “know nothing” movement.”

Well, not really, you didn’t.  You said that atheists are “getting a reputation,” and that this reputation was “a little unfair,” followed immediately by “yet…[and arguments why it’s an accurate reputation]”  Nowhere do you use the word “slander” or anything close to it, nor do you indicate that this supposed reputation is being spread by intentional falsehood.

“I never intended to repeat such slander against the New Atheism”

Perhaps you didn’t.  But you did repeat the slander, and you didn’t call it a slander.  The most you did was say that it was a “little” unfair—and then you proceeded to offer reasons why it was at least somewhat fair.

“By the third paragraph of my post, I isolate any genuine “know nothings” to a small crowd.”

Do you?  You don’t make any references to how small or large that crowd is, other than to say that there are “too many” of them.  You also wrote:  “many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough. Atheists cheer on such bold leadership, but what is really being learned?”  Thus implicating not just a “small” wing of anonymous followers, but accusing unidentified “prominent” atheist “leaders[]” of being part of the problem.

Which makes problematic your protestation in this post that “my definition excludes Richard himself (and excludes the eloquent leadership in the New Atheism—don’t ask me to “name names” since I could not in good conscience call out by name any people who might fit the profile but they aren’t trying to be part of any leadership).”

Your HuffPo piece doesn’t provide any definition.  And, as noted above, the article implies that some of the people you’re complaining about are prominent leaders.  That makes your refusal to “name names” quite disgraceful:  by tossing out an accusation that you ought to know most readers will take as being directed at a particular group of people, but refusing to specify who you mean, you tar them all with the same “know-nothing” brush.

“I am to blame for the blog’s convoluted path. By the time readers’ eyes reached any later paragraph, the damage had been done”

I applaud you for recognizing this.  But I think you’re being awfully kind to yourself in calling it “convoluted.” 

“I do apologize for harsh words (I won’t use them again) that got applied to the wrong targets. No one could enjoy that.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t really mind the harsh words if they’re backed up by something.  When people write that “New Atheist X is a jerk for saying ‘[insert quote,]’” it doesn’t bother me, because I know the reader has been given the context to decide whether the harsh words are justified or not.  (X may feel differently, of course!)

#12 Paul W. (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 1:57pm

What Screechy Monkey said.

Especially the part about it being far from clear that you were talking about a small crowd—-and I still want to know who.

I have no idea who you’re talking about.  I could make some guesses, but if I have to do that, it’s a serious problem—-it means that anybody less sympathetic to atheists could assume that you mean most of the people “cheering on” the “many prominent atheists” who “disparage theology.”

I can only think of a few prominent atheists who generally known for disparaging theology, even among people here, much less by people at HuffPo.

Obviously you meant Richard Dawkins and his ardent fans.

That may not be true, as you say it’s not, but that’s not really the point—-Dawkins and maybe his very most prominent ilk are the obvious candidates.

It seems to me that they’re the only plausible candidates—-how many prominent atheist leaders are there anyway, in any sense of “prominent” meaningful at HuffPo?

Not ten, I’m quite certain;  the list is shorter than that, probably more like three to five.  (If not just one—-Richard Dawkins.)

Relatively few HuffPo readers could name any of Dawkins’ ilk, but for those who could, as for many here, people are likely to guess Hitchens, Myers, Dennett, and/or maybe Vic Stenger.  (And Vic mostly because he publishes at HuffPo).

Few people would guess, say, Greta Christina or Ophelia Benson, or even Jerry Coyne, because while they’re suitably negative toward theology, they’re just not “prominent.”

If you’re not talking about the usual list of New Atheist suspects, e.g., the Four Horsemen and P.Z., and a very few others like Vic and Jerry, I honestly have no idea what prominent atheist leaders you could possibly have been talking about.

Nobody else fits your description.

It’s rather like saying “the president” in a discussion of U.S. politics for a U.S. audience, and then saying you were not referring to Barak Obama.  Maybe that wasn’t who you meant to refer to, but it’s who you did in fact refer to, and you need to address that issue.

What gives?  Did you forget you were writing for HuffPo rather than blogging at CFI?

Even so, who could you have meant that’s “prominent” even by the standards here?  I can’t think of many people I haven’t already listed, or any better candidates, given that Madalyn Murray O’Hair is dead.

If you can’t either, you need to give a more serious retraction and apology.

#13 SimonSays on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 6:30pm

Ditto what Ed said.

#14 articulett on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 6:32pm

The Pew study shows that Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants are the most theologically ignorant groups.  Moreover, it’s unlikely that the atheist are to blame, like you stated (Shook), because, as a group, they scored the highest. 

So you were just wrong.  But you wanted to believe the unnamed cabal of militant atheists (that surely must exist somewhere since people comment on them so much) were to blame, so you tossed your skepticism skills aside and confirmed the biases in your mind—spreading prejudice in the process—the very prejudice CFI has a mission to fight against.

You then blamed “popular bloggers” for misinterpreting what you wrote, when they, in fact, had not… thus blaming others for the fallout from your own bigoted commentary.  Pretending that you now meant some small group of non-prominent atheists that you have too much integrity to name is a further slap given your decided lack of integrity in writing the article and your slow, muddled, blaming responses.

If you had written in a similar manner about the ignorance of “some prominent black Protestants” or “some prominent Catholic Hispanics,” I don’t think this watered down apology would suffice. (Nor would CFI folks be dashing around defending you.)  If you blamed the ignorance of “some people” in these groups for the ignorance of others and “popular bloggers” for “enjoying tactics approaching slander” (a comment some would find more fitting of you) as you have done regarding “some atheists”, you’d probably lose your position at CFI—even though such commentary would not be in direct conflict with their stated goals. But you wouldn’t do that with these minorities.  WHY is it different with atheists??  I would be more interested in reading a piece where you describe having a prejudice that you didn’t realize you had—about how, even atheists, can absorb the prejudices spread by “belief in belief” and imagine there are “militant atheists” “harming the cause” even though no one has provided any evidence that this is so. I’m not really interested in reading about how Shook et. al. thinks “some atheists” are over reacting.  How about a real apology?

If you wouldn’t say it about another minority, why is it okay to say about atheists?  Even though we now know which group scored the lowest, would you dare refer to these groups as having a reputation (perhaps unfair) of being “ignorant know nothings”? Would you blame “some of their prominent members” for the ignorance of other groups?

Like Mooney, you have imagined yourself such a skeptical expert that you forgot that you, too, can be affected by cultural bias—and you, too, can confirm unfounded biases amongst groups that you are a part of.  I think if you showed an understanding of this, you’d find much more support and forgiveness amongst those who feel “thrown under the bus” by your Huffpo piece.

#15 SimonSays on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:56pm


If you wouldn’t say it about another minority, why is it okay to say about atheists?  Even though we now know which group scored the lowest, would you dare refer to these groups as having a reputation (perhaps unfair) of being “ignorant know nothings”? Would you blame “some of their prominent members” for the ignorance of other groups?

This is pretty much verbatim the argument that Bill Donohue gives every time he deems that Catholics are not afforded due deference in the popular media. Example: http://www.catholicleague.org/release.php?id=1710

So you’re basically advocating that atheists can’t criticize each other, unless I misread. I think what we *should* be doing is the exact opposite. We should be vigilant and criticize and scrutinize each other, as John was here.

As far as I’m concerned, “freedom of inquiry” also includes “freedom to disagree”. The CFI folks did not start the blog to have simply have a bunch of people cheer on the party line.

#16 Smith (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 9:11pm

From his Huffington Post piece, Shook wrote:

“Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough.”

So, who are these “prominent atheists,” Shook? How evasive can you be, Director of Education?

#17 articulett on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 9:22pm


It’s a false equivalency.  Donohue is balking at someone using “artistic license” to blow up the Vatican in a film.  I don’t think that quite compares to John Shook calling “some prominent atheists” “ignorant know nothings” who are partially to blame for ignorant theists.

Since Catholics do appear to be the most theologically ignorant according to the pew survey, John would be more accurate in calling them “ignorant know nothings”, and blaming other groups’ theological ignorance on Catholic ignorance.  But he did not and would not—and CFI would upbraid him if he did—not rush to his defense.  Moreover, I think the outcry from Donohue would be much bigger than it was for the film. (Even if Shook denigrated Catholics in this manner rather than atheists, it still would have been a bad argument). I don’t think calling unnamed people “ignorant” makes anyone less ignorant.  It can make people more prejudiced regarding the group and people they imagine the denigration is directed at, however.

However, calling “unnamed others” ignorant (like calling “unnamed others” dicks or claiming that they make America unscientific) doesn’t really serve any noble goal except to build up the self importance of the speaker making the claim as far as I can tell. What else could John imagine would come of such conjecture?  He wasn’t including himself in the criticism. Surely he didn’t think that those he thinks of as ignorant would identify themselves as ignorant and change? From my reading of his Huffpo piece he may be more ignorant regarding communication skills than those he aims to educate on the topic.

In any case, it’s a logical fallacy to assume your conclusion in your premise.  There was no evidence for Shooks assertions.  Perhaps very few people thought of atheists as “ignorant know nothings” until John planted the unsupported idea.  I’ve heard “strident”, “militant” and “shrill” applied to atheists—but not “ignorant”.  And the former terms are much more “opinion words”—not something as readily testable as whether someone is “ignorant” on a topic.  Given the evidence available, John would have been more warranted in making his claims about Catholic Hispanocs, right?  Would you be defending him if he had?  Would you be using the Donohue link if someone complained as though it was equivalent or supported your point?  Would you deem Shooks apology sufficient?

So, how does my complaint of Shook compare to Donuhe’s complaint in the article you linked?  I think a more apt comparison could be made if a Catholic denigrated “prominent unnamed Catholics” for something that Catholics (prominent or not) are not particularly representative of.  What if someone railed on ignorant creationist Catholics?  Catholics are not the religion that has big problems with evolution—but a rant about such a thing would surely give the impression that they do—and that they are ignorant because they do.  It would be a smarmy smear that Donohue could rightly complain about—just as others have done here.  (And I agree that it’s good of CFI to allow it.) 

I don’t think any atheists would be complaining if they blew up an atheist building or icon in some movie!  But I can see why you might want to imagine that complaints against Shook are on par with Donohue’s complaint over such. 

It rings hollow, because I think everyone knows that you wouldn’t be defending Shook so vociferously had he made a more accurate rant against ignorant know-nothing (kiddy diddling) Catholics (I know this is a tad unfair, because they aren’t ALL kiddy diddlers, right?)

I think my point is obvious. Your rationalizations don’t work for Shook’s piece anymore than they’d work for what I wrote above.

#18 articulett on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 9:51pm

And Simonsays, “verbatim” means “word for word”—I couldn’t find anything that was close to verbatim to what I said in Donohue’s reply.  Could you be so kind to point it out so that I don’t conclude you are making stuff up to prove your point the way I think John Shook did.  Evidence for assertions should matter, right?  (Or one should apologize for being wrong.)

I think you might actually have meant to say that you thought we were making similar points; you’d be less wrong if so—but you’d still be wrong.

#19 articulett on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 11:33pm

I have no problem with atheists criticizing other atheists or I would not be criticizing Shook. I don’t think anyone here has that problem.  I just think the criticism ought to be accurate and specific with supporting evidence if possible and hopefully) a clear goal in mind.  (I should think that a spokesperson for the CFI would also be aware of CFI’s stated goals when using their affiliation in an opinion piece, as well.)

I don’t think one should say things about one minority group that they would not feel comfortable saying about any other— John called the LEAST ignorant group “ignorant know nothings”—it would be unseemly and unproductive even if he had said it about the MOST theologically ignorant group. 

Shouldn’t John model politeness if he’s trying to get people to be more polite?

#20 James (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 5:15am

@Derick: Really? All it took to get you blustering with rage at an entire organization and its long history of promoting free expression was a single errant blog post from a single member?

Methinks Free Inquiry is probably not the magazine for you.

#21 Derick Ovenall (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 6:05am

@James:  John Shook evidently wanted to have his cake and eat it.  His article in the Huffington Post lists him as “Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow, Center of Inquiry”, and not as a single individual member of CFI.  If he had been writing as a private individual, there would have been no need to mention his position at CFI at all.  This is why I considered his article to represent the official views of CFI, and why I wish to dissociate myself from CFI.  I have yet to see his claim that these are his private views and not those of CFI appear in the Huffington Post.

#22 Derick Ovenall (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 6:32am

@James:  I have been a subscriber to Free Inquiry for over 10 years and I have read each issue cover to cover, including those occasional articles with which I disagreed.  It is one thing for an an article attacking the so-called New Atheists, accusing them of knowing nothing of theology, and comparing them to fundamentalist Christians to appear in Free Inquiry and quite another for such an article to appear in Huffington Post under the byline of the Director of Education of CFI and thus, by implication, expressing the official views of CFI.  This is why I wanted to dissociate myself from CFI, and why I canceled my subscription to Free Inquiry, although I shall be sorry not to have Free Inquiry to read every other month.  Note to Free Inquiry Subscription Department:  I would really like to get my $58 back!

#23 SimonSays on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 7:10am

@Derick Ovenall:

I have yet to see his claim that these are his private views and not those of CFI appear in the Huffington Post.

I do not know the update policy of HuffPo on blog posts (especially 2 weeks after original publication), however Both Ron Lindsay and many other people went on Jerry Coyne’s blog (ie the person who wrote the blog post entitled “CFI declares war on atheists”)and said multiple times that this was NOT the official position of CFI. John himself said this on this very blog post. Are you saying you still don’t believe this? Or that John posting this on HuffPo would make this more believable to you?

I can see why someone else who had not been following closely might still be under this impression, however it seems to me that you’ve been following pretty closely and there have been efforts on the part of CFI management via their CEO to allay this concern.

#24 Bruce Gorton on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 7:15am


No, he is saying that to people who don’t frequent this blog or WEIT, but do read the Huffington Post may end up with a false impression.

It is why when you do a correction you need to do it where you made the error.

#25 SimonSays on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 7:23am

@Bruce: They may, and this might be a good thing for John to do (again, assuming edits are allowed 2 weeks after the fact which may not necessarily be the case)

For what it’s worth, I had checked the first six pages of comments on HuffPo and just about every comment discussed the article on its merits without mentioning CFI. However after the WEIT article was published, CFI is mentioned a lot more. Can’t say for sure if one caused the other, but it is food for thought. Anyhow, if such a disclaimer will allay some concerns than so be it.

#26 Thebear on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 8:09am

Apology in no way accepted.

The HP post is so full of weasel wording and strawmen I have a very hard time believing it was not deliberate. At lest not to make som marketing-driven controversy.

And the real problem is the core message: You indicate that we do not know enough teology and should take it seriously. This is akin to saying we should not criticize homeopathy because we do not know the details. Taking religious people seriously as people is important, lending credibility to theology is bullocks. Too bad you can’t see the difference.

Anyway - if you did not know what effect your wording and *especially* your choice of venue would have - you really don’t ought to be talking in public anymore.

Resign from CFI, pull your book (unless you’re legally unable to), and wow to never speak of this things in public again then I might forgive you.

#27 steve oberski (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 8:12am

Keep digging John, the hole is getting pretty deep now.

Let us know when the retraction is published at HuffPo and be sure to include a link.

#28 paul_w on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 8:26am

I don’t think anybody here is claiming that John’s piece actually reflected the official view of CFI.  I certainly don’t.

That’s not the issue.  The issues are

(1) where you air your dirty laundry, if you are a responsible vice president and director of education for an advocacy organization whose mission includes de-stigmatizing atheism, and

(2) whether the unflattering things you say are even true, much less smart to say in that particular forum, to a hostile audience already biased against us.

John clearly implied that there is a substantial proudly ignorant know-nothing wing of the New Atheist movement, led by prominent new atheist leaders.

From what he said here a week ago and what he’s saying now, there is no such wing of the movement, and there are no such prominent leaders.  Once he excluded the Four Horsemen, he excluded all of the prominent New Atheist “leaders” except perhaps P.Z. Myers.  (It’s not clear to me whether what John said excludes P.Z.)

There are no other “prominent” new atheist “leaders” with a bunch of know-nothings cheering them on.

And even if he did mean PZ, PZ is just one person.  He’s not a plural “leaders.”

I think we all agree with a very reduced version of what John is saying.  There are some loud, proud, g know-nothing atheists.  You get a few of those in any movement.

John clearly was not saying just that.  He was making it out to be a big problem, with prominent New Atheist leaders leading substantial numbers of atheists, making atheists’ reputation as know-nothings only “a little” unfair.

What John has been writing here—-praising the actually prominent New Atheists, and praising atheists at large for their superior knowledge of religion—-is simply inconsistent with what he clearly said at HuffPo.

What he’s saying here—-and has been saying all along, here, I take it—-is mostly true or a reasonable thing to discuss.

What he said there wasn’t.  It was false, IMHO, and what he’s saying here now seems to confirm that.

John still owes us an explanation of why he would talk about prominent New Atheist leaders who are contemptuous of religion and theology, if he didn’t mean at least two of the half-dozen most prominent New Atheists.

There is no other reasonable interpretation of what he said, is there?

Can anybody think of any other prominent New Atheists he might have been referring to?

If not, I think John needs to do one of the following:

1) admit that he was talking about the actually prominent New Atheists, and was libeling them—-i.e., saying things he knows to be false and derogatory, or

2) admit that he was talking about them, but defend his claims, or

3) explain who else he could possibly have been referring to.

He’s back-pedaling and weaseling about having done so, to avoid either defending his claims, or retracting them, or at least seriously explaining them.

His “explanations” so far don’t explain what he actually said at HuffPo, and his weak apology is therefore a notpology.

#29 paul_w on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 8:45am

Here’s a list of prominent New Atheists:  Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, P.Z. Myers, and Victor Stenger.

(And I’ll bet very few readers at HuffPo would recognize most of those names.)

Who else?

I can list another tier or two (e.g., Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and a few others), but does anybody think they’re “prominent” in any sense remotely applicable at Huff Po?  I think we can leave them out.

Can anybody here think of any other plausible referents of John’s “prominent atheist leaders,” whose know-nothing followers “cheer on” their “bold leadership,” and confirm the image of atheists as proudly ignorant so well that it’s only “a little unfair”?


#30 Bo Gardiner (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 9:13am

Mr. Shook, I would kinda sorta accept your kinda sorta apology for the HuffPo piece… if you publish it on HuffPo, updating your piece. 

A quiet apology here will not be heard at all by those whose opinion of atheists you altered.

Unless updated, your article will stand indefinitely as ammo by those working against us.

It’s like apologizing for stepping on my toe… while refusing to take your foot off my toe.

#31 Derick Ovenall (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 10:44am

If John Shook didn’t mean what he wrote in his Huffington Post article, what did he mean? His so-called explanation here doesn’t begin to answer this question. If he stands by his remarks in both venues, he’s a very confused person and clearly a poor choice as Director of Education for the Center for Inquiry.  He certainly doesn’t merit an A in communication skills!  The only honorable thing he could do now after this egregious mistake, if indeed it was a mistake, would be to resign his post at the Center for Inquiry.  However, I’m not holding my breath over this one.

#32 Rieux (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 11:47am

Paul_w: I would agree with your extended list of Coyne, Blackford, Benson, and Christina and add Hemant Mehta, Julia Sweeney, and Jason Rosenhouse. Sweeney actually was fairly “prominent” (thanks to her reasonably well-publicized one-woman play Letting Go of God) a few years ago, though that has largely waned as she’s moved on to other interests.

Anyway, at present none of the above are “prominent” by HuffPo standards, and none of them are anywhere approaching “know-nothings.” I think they’re all admirable.

#33 Ed Beck on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 12:29pm

This arms-crossed foot stomping and huffing and puffing is amusing.  Coyne and PZ pull the rope and down drop the harlequins trying to out-defend and out-bluster each other.

Hit Shook on the reckless, loaded language and the anonymous “leader” claims—by all means.  That’s constructive, honest, and becoming of discourse within our movement (Russell Blackford’s 3-parts on this are instructive).  If it wets your whistle, stop donating to CFI, or cancel your FI subscription (oh the irony).

But the cries of “mortal sin!” and “he MUST resign to right this wrong!”—especially over a piece written to sell his own book—are beneath our side.

Check your emotions at the keyboard, tear him apart on substance, take a deep breath, and go drink a beer.

...or maybe I’m just jaded because I spent 2 hours listening to Ken Ham rant and lie about our side at a local megachurch on Monday, and I know who we should really be spending so much energy fighting against.

#34 SimonSays on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 12:41pm

Ditto what Ed said again.

#35 Paul W. (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 1:32pm


I agree with your recommendation of Russell Blackford’s 3-parter.  Everyone interested in this subject should read it.  I think Russell bends over backwards to be nice to Shook, but he also makes pretty clear numerous things that Shook does in his HuffPo piece, which many people seem to be ignoring.

But the cries of “mortal sin!” and “he MUST resign to right this wrong!”—especially over a piece written to sell his own book—are beneath our side.

The latter point undermines the former.  If you think Shook’s conflict of interest makes it okay, such that he shouldn’t resign, you couldn’t be more wrong.

I’m not saying that he should resign.  I’m saying that he should stop the disingenous denials, and come clean.

If he can’t do that, though, that is a serious problem.

By the way, one point from his HuffPo piece that makes it clear he was referring to at least some of the top half-dozen famous New Atheist authors is that he moans about how their work has provoked a flurry of bad apologetic theology.

Nobody else has done that.  There hasn’t been a spate of bad theology books published to counter, say, Ophelia Benson’s book.  That doesn’t happen.  The people he’s talking about are obviously the guys who have recently published much-talked-about bestselling books.

We all know who they are.  Shook does to.

But still he persists in this ridiculous charade of having a secret list of atheist “leaders,” leading and entire wing of the movement, that would validate his claims.

Hmmm… where have we seen that sort of secret list before?


#36 lucette (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 11:17pm

I am a fairly new member of CFI and am not clear about CFI’s policy concerning blogs, articles, content of classes produced by CFI employees.  When I read the HuffPo blog by John Shook, I became seriously upset. I could not believe my eyes, and thought that CFI was probably not for me.
Moreover, I am taking a CFI course from John Shook: “Nature and Morality”. In this class, I am also quite disappointed that the content has little to do with what I expect from CFI. Nothing warns us about the course’s philosophy. The price of the course is more than a subscription to FI but the content of FI represents far better what I expect from CFI. Are these CFI courses reviewed in any way by a CFI committee?

#37 Rohan Loveland (Guest) on Friday October 01, 2010 at 9:09am

Adding to what already seems to be a quorum, I’ll say that the only way John’s clarification can possibly be taken at face value is for it (or something equivalent) to show up on the original venue, or at least somewhere equally popular.

I also disagree w/ his argument that you need to be wholly familiar w/ religious arguments in order to refute them.  The Jesuits once wrote a treatise containing some large number (~80?) of arguments as to why the world must be flat.  Should we read it?

#38 liberalartist on Friday October 01, 2010 at 12:56pm

I’ve just read this HP blog after reading Dr. Shook’s clarifcation above. Sorry, but regardless of what is said above, what I got from this article is that Dr. Shook is a defender of faith. I thought the whole purpose of secular humanism was to provide an alternative to theology not to support it and find common ground with it. I also feel that Dr. Shook is doing what I have observed Chris Mooney doing - which is criticize the famous atheists in order to promote themselves and their own ideas. I find it a cheap trick not worthy of the intellectual standard of this community.

I am glad that Ron Lindsay has stated that this HP article is not representative of CFI, but having your CFI title at the top of the page, means that you are representing this organization. And I remain on the fence with regards to continuing to support CFI. I want to support this organization, it is the first one I found and I love Free Inquiry. Give me some reasons to stay!

#39 Ed Beck on Friday October 01, 2010 at 1:31pm

@ Paul - Others were calling for resignation, Thebear and Derick Ovenall specifically.

As for the conflict of interest, it certainly exists, and it makes things tricky.  As Blackford points out, that’s the problem with an organization that’s both think tank and advocate.  But given that unique situation AND the fact that it was a piece about his own book, I do think it’s an act of bluster to call for some manner of sacrifice via resignation.  There’s a tantrum tone about that—but so goes the internet (maybe I’m underestimating the job title being listed?).  A new piece at HuffPo would be best, since most readers there have no idea who/what CFI is.  Wholeheartedly agree there.

Also, in Shook’s use of “wing”, maybe I’m underestimating how large a group that seems to imply, to a point that it doesn’t bother me.

@ Rohan - After (only) brushing over the original article again, reading Shook’s response(s?), hosting a lecture by him at the University at Buffalo last night, and talking to Shook himself, I don’t think his point is that you need to “be wholly familiar w/ religious arguments in order to REFUTE them”—in the more commonly accepted sense of “your first premise is false, therefore the rest falls.”  Proving a god to be unproven is all too easy.  But theology is bigger than just that…

Shook’s point is that to undermine religious moral claims and emotional comfort for the population writ large and replace religious sentiment with a modern humanism in our culture, it DOES help a great deal to be familiar with some modern theology, if only to understand what it’s trying to explain, and what human frailties it’s trying to exploit at this point in time.  To convince believers, you often need to make those nuanced, more intuitive arguments.  Our stubborn ape psychology demands it.

And no, it’s not necessary for everyone to undertake that effort.  But, making a moral argument—and then forwarding humanism—is sometimes bigger than just repeating: true/false and rational/irrational.

Anyway, keep an eye out at http://www.UBFreethinkers.org for a video of Shook’s lecture soon, it should help clarify further…or maybe just start more arguments.  Who knows?

#40 Mark Tiborsky on Friday October 01, 2010 at 2:22pm

This resignation talk is silly.

“Atheists can intellectually explain and defend the superiority of the naturalistic and humanistic worldview.”

Precisely! John, you have your foot in the door at HuffPost- which, to my knowledge, has the largest readership of any online politics/news journal.

If you want to make amends for potentially alienating half of CFI’s “base” with your 1st HuffPost article, how about doing what you describe above for your next one?

#41 wbthacker on Friday October 01, 2010 at 3:21pm

Dang… by the time I logged in, all the good comments had already been made.

I won’t hold this against CFI.  I do suggest that CFI should be more careful about how its name gets used, reminding its officers that their public statements under the CFI byline *do* reflect on CFI, and on their competence to hold office.

Nor do I want Prof. Shook to resign, or anything like that.  I assume he truly is supportive of secular humanism and atheism.  This was a single incident, and I won’t judge him without reading a lot more of his writings to get some context. 

But the only way I can rationalize Shook’s explanation here with the HuffPo article is by allowing that he’s simply a terrible writer. He somehow communicated the opposite of what he intended, and I’m not alone in having read it that way.

So my conclusion is that Dr. Shook is probably a nice guy and a bright atheist, but it’s not worth reading what he writes because his words don’t really represent his thinking.  With so many fine atheist writers to choose from, I have better ways to spend my time.

#42 drollere on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:28am

two aspects of this post are self defeating.

1. “religious people” are not a solidarity but a social problem. the social problem needs to be managed with different tools and tactics, depending on the situation.

for example: a “religious person” who offers to engage in an “intellectual” debate should be kindly informed that all religions are superstitions, and there is nothing to discuss in an intellectual manner about superstitions. (we don’t have “debates” about santa claus, the easter bunny, ghosts, trolls and the tooth fairy.)

a “religious person” who offers rebuttals that are uninformed and illogical simply needs to be dismissed with indifference or sarcasm.

a “religious person” who offers laws or social policies that support religion or impinge on the free exercise of atheism needs to be pushed back firmly by law and, if necessary, by legal action.

the fundamental flaw here is that “religious people” acting as advocates for religious power have created the canard of “intellectual debate”. evolution or intelligent design?—let’s debate. jesus or natural law?—let’s debate. founding fathers for or against religion?—let’s debate. as dawkins points out, you only give these people credence, and support their covert agenda of asserting the relevance of religion, by meeting them on intellectual terms. it’s also obvious that these “debates” serve no other purpose.

there is nothing to debate here. just sit down and shut up.

2. any writer who spends an entire column explaining what he didn’t mean to say is both a sloppy thinker and someone who needs to find more substantive topics to write about.

obviously, if he is careful to treat “religious people” as all deserving the same respect and intellectual consideration, the problem is not simply with his writing skills.

#43 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:29am

The new atheism as a “know nothing” movement?  I’d call it a middle-brow fad. 

I’m going to have to add you to the list of those I cite when new atheists complain about my use of the term “new atheism”.  An increasing number of new atheists don’t seem to know that most of the big names in the new atheism can be documented as using the term.

How’s that for cluelessness?

Not too impressed with the new atheism as an intellectually coherent system.  My experience is that the old atheists who don’t care for the new atheism and who know the new atheists are pretty clueless are more coherent because they know the limits of what you can do with materialism and that it can’t cover most of life.

#44 Yahzi on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 6:56pm

Mr. Shook,

As others have pointed out, the problem is not in your tone but in your content.

You asserted certain factual claims. Being skeptics, we would like to see some evidence for these claims.

To wit, you wrote:

“many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough.”

The evidence I would like to see:

1) Some names. Since these are prominent atheists, they are already used to being called out by name, so surely they won’t object to your naming them.

2) A reference to any new arguments for God. At the very least you could name a single theologian whose arguments are not medieval. Then perhaps we could point you to refutations of their work. But in the absence of naming these mysterious “new theologians,” you have committed the very “mystery defense” of theology that your article complains of when used to defend God - namely, the defense of asserting that a reasonable definition and argument exists while refusing to provide one.

I do understand your problem, Mr. Shook. Your claims are being evaluated according to the standards of skepticism, rather than the standards of modern journalism, which no doubt flummoxes you. Nonetheless, if it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you could actually name a theologian who is a) not medieval and b) not throughly refuted, in your opinion.

#45 Robert Schneider on Monday October 04, 2010 at 8:35am

Mr. Shook:  You’re almost there, but something is preventing you taking the final step.  Some of your “notpology” above sounds like you recognize the damage you did with this piece, but you have not written a retraction OR apology on HuffPo; you have not placed the “disclaimer” on your piece at HuffPo, about this being your persona opinion, not an opinion representing the CFI’s Educational goals.  That is a bare minimum.

And even here, it took you five paragraphs to get even near a half-hearted, partial mea culpa for something you did in the first sentences of the HuffPo piece. 

Further, you continue to repeat your points 3 and four, which require… no REQUIRE you to make explicit arguments about explicit people! WHO among atheists refuses all engagement with religious?  Who among “prominent new atheists” demonize the religious as sub human?  I can say I’ve read a few blog comments that do this, but that’s a different animal altogether, now isn’t it? 

I have to agree with WBThacker above… you’re being intellectually sloppy in your writing, and your refusal to fully apologize/retract in the original venue shows that you are either incapable of admitting you made a mistake (and fixing it), or you are driven by motives that are in direct conflict with your role at CFI.

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