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.

Comments:

#1 transsami (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 1:57pm

Hence, science cannot reject them in full—for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there’s been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution?

I’ll take insults and snarky observations over defending creationism.

#2 Jerome Haltom (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:13pm

PZ uses a lot of hyperbole, no doubt. It’s his style. I want to try to avoid speaking for him, but I doubt he takes his own insults seriously. That’s why, between the insults, he uses actual words.

#3 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:19pm

@transsami,

That was not a defense of creationism—it was a statement about the limits of science. Why would I defend creationism?

#4 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:31pm

Correct me if I am wrong, Michael, but you are saying that one can not prove a negative, which any philosopher or scientist worth their weight in salt would agree. That’s not to say that god(s) or creationist theory are any more real than the invisible elephant in the trunk of my car.

#5 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:33pm

Michael De Dora has written another thought-provoking blog post.

Oh, it was provoking, alright, but it seems to have provoked annoyance rather than thought. And considering you are discussing PZ’s article here, and not De Dora’s, I’d submit that PZ’s article was the more thought-provoking of the two.

#6 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:39pm

I’d submit that PZ’s article was the more thought-provoking of the two.

You mean, there was more in PZ Myers’ article than an insult or two?  Never would have guessed, based on the coverage given here.

At least Myers actually quoted and addressed the post he was responding to, instead of clucking about manners and playing martyr.

#7 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:39pm

@Ron

Fair call.

Mind you, I think there’s a certain amount of irony in this. If Michael De Dora or John Shook take PZ to task for his tactics of resorting to snarky, hyperbolic polemics, I don’t think anyone should be particularly surprised that PZ should respond with a snarky, hyperbolic polemic.

I’m a fan of PZ’s blog, but I wouldn’t paint him as infallible - and I doubt he’d want me to. So I’m not saying the guy’s above criticism or anything. Far from it.

I just think his style of argument shouldn’t surprise people anymore. Yes, in writing PZ can be a colossal jerk. He knows this. He’s doing it on purpose. He’s not trying to make friends or keep the peace. His stance is intentionally one of open confrontation and naked contempt for nonsense. The implied argument in his emotional appeals and style is that people’s feelings aren’t as important as a solid argument.

Anyone calling him out for rocking the boat will just encourage him.

#8 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:46pm

@Michael De Dora in #3:
Because this argument is used by theists of all kinds, including creationists, to defend their belief in God. That of course does not make it wrong for you to support this argument, as long as the argument itself is valid and relevant.

But of course you, as an atheist, have rejected this argument yourself in your personal life, or at the very least consider it irrelevant. So why offer this argument when you don’t consider relevant yourself?

#9 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:46pm

I’m a big fan of PZ’s snark, but I think Michael’s post should have been criticized rather than attacking CFI for allowing open discourse on its blog.

#10 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:57pm

I’m a big fan of PZ’s snark, but I think Michael’s post should have been criticized rather than attacking CFI for allowing open discourse on its blog.

This has already been pointed out to you on PZ’s blog, but CFI isn’t being criticized for allowing “open discourse on its blog”.  It’s being criticized for employing in a high level position the sort of person who would forward such a silly argument as if it was meaningful in the situation.

Here’s the entire portion of PZ’s post about the CFI:

And a special thanks to CFI. What the hell were they thinking when they gave this milquetoast marshmallow a soapbox?  Does CFI stand for the Church of Fatuous Incompetence now?

The focus is on why the CFI chooses to associate with De Dora and give him a place where he can de facto speak for the CFI (or appear to to a casual observer).

The other 800 or so words of the post?  All about De Dora.  Trying to treat this as a hit piece on the CFI is disingenuous.

#11 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:58pm

@Deen,

The only reason I mentioned it was because it was relevant to the issue and my post about it.

Regardless, it’s still important to note the distinct uses and purposes of science and philosophy. That’s admittedly not something I’m an expert in, but again, that also doesn’t make me wrong.

#12 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:06pm

@Paul: Please look at the full body of Michael’s work before you decide that he is unworthy of CFI.

And I stand by my statement that PZ should understand that we allow a variety of opinions to be expressed on our blog and elsewhere. We also fearlessly criticize those opinions if necessary.

#13 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:22pm

Please look at the full body of Michael’s work before you decide that he is unworthy of CFI.

I never said he was or was not. 

I was pointing out that it is dishonest to try and frame Myers’s post as “an attack on the CFI instead of an attack on De Dora” like you were.  Would you retract #9?  You state you think PZ should have criticized De Dora’s post instead of attacking “the CFI for allowing open discourse”, when neither part is true.  He did criticize De Dora’s post, at much greater length than to the offhanded comment about the CFI.  And criticism of the CFI was for employing someone willing to publicly speak partially conceived ideas that seem to go against the mission of the CFI, not for “allowing a range of views”.  When an organization with a mission “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values” employs an executive that is willing to publicly opine that “well, we can’t disprove a negative, so it’s not scientific to say anything about religion” (a very well-known creationist talking point), that goes beyond simply providing “a range of views”.

As I said before, I do not say De Dora should or should not be employed with or blogging for the CFI.  That’s definitely not my place.  I’m just pointing out where you’re being actively deceptive with regard to what Myers actually said.  And Lindsay sure doesn’t help when he acts like Myers’s post was one long complaint about the CFI.  He shouldn’t flatter the organization so.  It was mostly a disagreement with De Dora, with a short “how can they put up with this guy” at the end.

#14 Mark Povich (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:25pm

The response to Michael is ridiculous. All sane persons agree that science has limits such as the ones pointed out by transsami in the first comment here. To think otherwise is to fall into the scientism that Massimo Pigliucci has been writing about. When theists say we have “faith” in science, that’s what they’re talking about - an unrealistic optimism about what science can do. And please, if you want to defend science, do a little philosophy of science.

#15 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:26pm

Sorry, that wasn’t quite right.  he said “science cannot reject them [creationism|religion] in full”, as if science does not utilize the principle of parsimony.  He did not claim science can say nothing about religion.

#16 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:46pm

@Melody (and sideways at Micahel De Dora)

If it helps at all: Although I frequently disagree with Michael, I wouldn’t call him unworthy of CFI. I find him a very gifted persuasive writer in a general sense… I suspect that much of the problem is a combination of two issues:

1) That his style of writing - whilst persuasive regarding a general audience - is a very bad fit for an audience of confrontational atheists, and;
2) Confrontational atheists are… well… confrontational, by inclination and conscious choice.

De Dora’s style of prose - and the subjects some of his articles - are as red flags to a herd of angry bulls. Of course we’re going to charge in with horns down - that’s exactly what we’re famous for doing in the first place.

But when he’s addressing a different audience about a subject that doesn’t stick in my craw, I can admit that he’s very good at what he does.

#17 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:51pm

@Paul: I believe that PZ treated the organization unfairly. You call that deceptive. Who am I deceiving, myself?

This does not mean that I am not a fan of PZ or I no longer respect him. I just expect him to treat his friends better.

#18 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:19pm

The only reason I mentioned it was because it was relevant to the issue and my post about it.

If someone challenges the relevance of an argument, you should do more than merely re-assert it was relevant. Explain why it is a valid defense of belief in God, but still not valid enough to convince you to stop being an atheist.

Regardless, it’s still important to note the distinct uses and purposes of science and philosophy.

And I think it’s important to note that science and philosophy aren’t distinct in the first place. Every decent philosopher should know the principles of science. And every decent scientist should know some basic principles from philosophy. Every decent scientist applies these principles on a daily basis. Think of the concept of falsifiability, or Occam’s Razor, for example - either of which should do a nice job of getting rid of the idea of God as the hand behind evolution, by the way.

#19 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:31pm

I believe that PZ treated the organization unfairly. You call that deceptive. Who am I deceiving, myself?

No, everybody here (or at least you’re attempting to).  Deceptive was how I referred to you implying that PZ did not criticize De Dora’s post, instead lashing out at CFI (he did a whole lot of the former, and two sentences of the latter).

You’re seriously going to pretend it didn’t happen?  It’s not like this is a long comment thread, where something like that is easy to miss.

#20 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:40pm

Yes, I am concerned about the two sentences.

#21 Simpleton on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:17pm

“Michael De Dora has written another thought-provoking blog post.”

Yes, the thought it provoked was one of disgust.

#22 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:40pm

Yes, I am concerned about the two sentences.

I’m concerned that you spent 3 posts refusing to admit that you were being deceptive when you implied that Myers attacked CFI instead of criticizing De Dora’s post.  Mainly because it’s a common accomodationist tack, completely ignoring substance to complain about peripheral issues or tone.

#23 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:43pm

@Paul,

Your lousy reference to “accommodationism” aside, have you considered that because the substance has been agreed upon by most if not all of us, that some people think we ought to consider such issues such as tone and approach?

#24 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:52pm

Your lousy reference to “accommodationism” aside, have you considered that because the substance has been agreed upon by most if not all of us, that some people think we ought to consider such issues such as tone and approach?

You’re saying that there was no substantive disagreement between Myers and yourself on the issue that spawned Lindsay’s post?  That would require ignoring his entire post aside from the 5 - 10 words that constitute insults (which, coincidentally, is exactly what resulted in this blog post).

#25 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:08pm

@Paul,

I was making a more general statement about those in the “movement” who are putting some focus on strategy. We already agree, so why not discuss how we can promote those agreements to the public?

In this case, Myers and I do seem to have a substantive disagreement about church and state. But our disagreement might seem larger than it really is due to the inflammatory rhetoric involved. This is more what I was getting at. Consider that Myers and I have certain foundational agreements. We are both atheists. We both believe in evolution. We both value the separation of church and state.

However, it seems we more disagree about the applications of our beliefs to society. It’s worth differentiating, because it allows us to realize we actually agree on a whole lot. For instance, Myers and I both generally believe that we ought to critique religious ideas. I just don’t see the high school biology classrooms as the place for such debate.

#26 Paul (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:15pm

I just don’t see the high school biology classrooms as the place for such debate.

Based on statements elsewhere, you see it as unacceptable to say “the earth is not 6000 years old”, whereas it’s acceptable to say “the earth is 4.5 billion years old”.  While I find the distinction understandable (saying what the evidence states without reference to specific false religious beliefs), what should the teacher say differently in the following hypothetical (borrowed from Sastra on Pharyngula)? 

“Teacher, how old is the earth?”
“4.5 billion years old.”
“You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So it IS 6,000 years old?”
“It’s 4.5 billion years old.”
“Not 6,000?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh, thank God.”

#27 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:23pm

@Paul,

Perhaps something like this:

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “Science tells us it is 4.5 billion years old.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “Not according to the scientific evidence.”

I’ll just imagine the kid is pushy, as kids usually are.

Student: “But my religion tells me the earth is 6,000 years old.”
Teacher: “Well, that’s your religion, and this is the science classroom.”
Student: “But it can’t be both.”
Teacher: “That’s for you to decide.”

Does that work?

#28 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:24pm

I don’t claim to have all the answers as to how teachers should handle this, and I wouldn’t for a second say they have an easy task. But they have to do their best to avoid going over the line.

#29 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:28pm

Hmm… I’d modify.

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “Science tells us it is 4.5 billion years old.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “Not according to the scientific evidence.”
Student: “But my religion tells me the earth is 6,000 years old.”
Teacher: “Well, that’s your religion, and this is the science classroom.”
Student: “But it can’t be both.”
Teacher: “That’s for you to decide - but remember that your exams are about what the science says, not about what you believe.”

#30 dougsmith on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:34pm

Any law which made it difficult to say, without caveats, that the world is not 6,000 years old (and anyone who says it is, does not know what they are talking about) is a real problem.

This reminds me of Simon Singh’s issue with homeopathy in England. One must have the freedom in the classroom to call something bogus when the evidence shows it. Isn’t that the whole point of schooling?

#31 ckoproske on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:45pm

The problem with “science tells us” is that it suggests a basically postmodern view of truth.  Science tells us one thing, religion tells us another, intuition another, etc etc.  I don’t think you’ll find much sympathy among CFI-types for the view that science (or reason) should be presented as one view among many valid (or to be properly postmodern, equally invalid) views.

Giving children 10 different versions of ‘truth’ to choose from is not a workable option.  I see no need to apologize for the statement “The Earth is 4.5 billion years old.”

Oh, and to Melody - actually, I think many philosophers would say you CAN prove a negative ... sometimes.  Depends on the negative, of course, and the context.  You could prove that I’m not your father, for example

#32 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:11pm

@Paul: Anyone in my community will tell you I am FAR from an accommodationist. It’s really laughable. I have made no comments defending any accommodationist point of view.

I wasn’t being deceptive when I spent 20 or more posts explaining that I am not concerned that De Dora got called out about something I disagree with him about. How many times do I have to say that this blog is for discussing various viewpoints that represent the spectrum of viewpoints of the secular community? I think that’s okay. You don’t. And I think PZ was out of line when he conflates Michael’s opinion with CFI’s when he knows better.

#33 Melody on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:18pm

@ckoproske or as I like to call you Colin:) That’s not an example of proving a negative. A child exists and you can test the DNA.

From Bertrand Russell (You know this one):

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”

#34 J. (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:32pm

While I do not agree with all of Michael’s views I admire that he consistently tries to understand the opposition and considers the likelihood of various approaches to actually succeed in a complex world. Some of the more vehement criticisms suggest approaches to achieving secular goals which may seem more directed to the production of heat than light. Rather than attempt to score rhetorical points useful criticism needs to propose tactics and approaches that may be more effective That Michael’s “moderation” seems so frequently to touch a nerve testifies that his targets are well chosen.

#35 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:38pm

@Colin,

That’s a problem we have to deal with, to some degree, but I think it can be dealt with quite well within the confines. Consider that teachers have a ton of room to detail how science is our most structured and committed effort to understand the world without ever discussing religion; they can talk all they want about the importance and truth of scientific knowledge without going into religion. Invariably, religion will come up, but considering what I’ve said here, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to relativism. We might be closer to the line than you’d like, but remember, we’re talking about public school classrooms here, not the public.

This is important to note. Don’t confuse what I’m saying. I’m specifically speaking about high school (biology) classrooms—not the public square. The difference is that church and state matters in the former, not so much in the latter. If atheists here think atheist activism should spread to public school classrooms, they will most likely not find a friend in me.

#36 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:40pm

Also, because people seem to be getting this wrong elsewhere: I am NOT the executive director of the Center for Inquiry at large, but of the Center for Inquiry’s branch in New York City. There is very, very big difference.

#37 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 10:02pm

“Any law which made it difficult to say, without caveats, that the world is not 6,000 years old (and anyone who says it is, does not know what they are talking about) is a real problem. This reminds me of Simon Singh’s issue with homeopathy in England. One must have the freedom in the classroom to call something bogus when the evidence shows it. Isn’t that the whole point of schooling?”

Douglass,

I would agree with you, but let’s consider implications here. If we suddenly allowed open talk on religion in public school textbooks and classrooms, what would happen? In the most religious areas of the country, we would invariably see the promotion of religion in the schools. In the more secular schools, I imagine we would have soft teachers afraid to offend speaking to kids who are largely secular already. Are you comfortable with this thought? Or would it be better if we had teachers educate children on their specific fields of study and let the facts fall as they may?

The separation of church and state might, in some secular eyes, hold freethinking back, but I think largely it is a better thing to have it. Freethought can spread without having the nail down religion in school classrooms. Indeed, it can spread right in the classrooms without having to do so.

#38 Deen (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 3:37am

If atheists here think atheist activism should spread to public school classrooms, they will most likely not find a friend in me.

Oh, please. As if that’s even the issue that we’ve been talking about. Saying “the earth is not 6000 years old” is hardly “atheist activism”, but a simple statement of scientific fact, backed by many lines of evidence. Nobody has argued for “atheist activism” in the classroom, not even close, and you know it.

If we suddenly allowed open talk on religion in public school textbooks and classrooms, what would happen?

Who is advocating fully opening public schools to religious discussions? What I’m saying is that any scientific claim, that is, a statement of fact that can be empirically tested, should be fair game in science class, regardless of its origins. Treating certain scientific claims differently just because they happen to be part of some religion’s dogma is not neutrality.

I’m not saying a teacher should go out of their way to debunk every religious claim they can get their hands on. However, I do strongly argue that when a religious claim that can be empirically tested is brought up, the teacher should be able to discuss the scientific evidence against it. After all, the evidence against a 6000 year old earth has already been accepted as religiously neutral, otherwise we couldn’t use it to teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old either.

What a teacher can not do, however, is comment on the theological or ideological implications of the truth or falsehood of scientific claims. I think we can all agree on that.

Or would it be better if we had teachers educate children on their specific fields of study and let the facts fall as they may?

Which is exactly what we’ve been advocating all along. Let the facts fall where they may, even if they may implicitly or explicitly falsify some cherished beliefs, religious or otherwise.

#39 dougsmith on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 4:20am

@Michael, re.: ” If we suddenly allowed open talk on religion in public school textbooks and classrooms, what would happen? In the most religious areas of the country, we would invariably see the promotion of religion in the schools. In the more secular schools, I imagine we would have soft teachers afraid to offend speaking to kids who are largely secular already. Are you comfortable with this thought? Or would it be better if we had teachers educate children on their specific fields of study and let the facts fall as they may?

The separation of church and state might, in some secular eyes, hold freethinking back, but I think largely it is a better thing to have it. “

——————-

The separation of church and state is, of course, part of the backbone of the Enlightenment, and it is a very fine thing to have. It means that the government through the classrooms cannot proselytize for a particular religion. One might assert as well (although NB: this does not follow from what I have just said) that the government should not be allowed to argue for strict atheism either.

But neither of those claims has anything to do with stating that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. If we go down the route that government must preserve sacrosanct every odd and false belief of every religion on earth, we are lost. I believe that in I Kings 7:23-26 there is the claim that pi is equal to three. If because of some interpretation of a religious text we are unable to claim flatly in science class that the world is not six thousand years old, presumably neither can we claim in math class that pi is not equal to three.

That is an absurd conclusion.

In these cases, the teacher need not say anything about religion: leave that up to the student. The teacher need only say, “The world is not six thousand years old. That is completely false.” As Colin says, it does truth a disservice to suggest that there are “truths for science” and “truths for religion”. There aren’t.

#40 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 5:32am

A few observations.

First, I hardly think I was “deceptive,” as some have alleged, when I took exception to the tone and some of the statements in Myers’s blog post. I did not imply that was the whole of his post, and, moreover, I included a link to his post so people could see for themselves what he said.

Second, it was appropriate to take exception to Myers’s insults. They added nothing meaningful to his points.  And I don’t think I should stand idly by when someone refers to CFI as a “church” of any sort. Not sure there is a worse insult to a secular organization than that – and it’s sadly ironic because, if anything, the diversity of opinion expressed on our blog convincingly establishes we are not a “church.”

Some have said I have deliberately avoided commenting on the substance of the issues being discussed. That’s not entirely true, but, in any event, I rarely comment on the substance of my fellow bloggers’ posts for several reasons, including the fact that some will inevitably and mistakenly think that because I am the president & CEO my views represent the official position of CFI. (CFI has a process in place for determining what positions to take as an organization, and that process does not consist of what I happen to think on a given day.) Moreover, I don’t usually have time to do follow-up comments on my own blog posts, let alone comment on what other bloggers say.

But here are few observations about what seem to be some of the substantive issues under discussion. (I am not going to direct these comments to points made by DeDora, Myers or anyone else, because that would then involve me in a secondary issue about whether I am correctly representing their views.)

To begin, we should distinguish between what constitutional law currently requires and what we might like the law and public policy to be. Current con law provides that government action is unconstitutional if it has the primary effect of advancing religion or nonreligion. Context is important in making this determination. A passage from a textbook used in public schools would have to be pretty blatant in commenting negatively about religion or atheism to be considered unconstitutional (and the textbook that sparked this discussion does not seem to present a meritorious constitutional issue under this standard.) There is no constitutional prohibition on teaching facts, whether one characterizes them as scientific, historical or otherwise.

Of course, what constitutes a “fact,” is not a matter on which there is universal agreement. Regarding religion, current jurisprudence requires government entities to refrain from making explicit observations about the truth of religious claims. This does not imply one cannot teach facts that might contradict some religious beliefs; it does imply that one cannot expressly teach as a fact that religious beliefs are wrong.

That’s the way the law is. Is that how it should be? It seems to me the law is basically where it should be. Obviously, we should teach the facts of evolution and geology, including facts about the age of the earth and so forth. But I’m not sure what is gained by also giving teachers the freedom to go further and say, “by the way, evolutionary theory shows that your religious beliefs about creation are just wrong and you should reject them as false.” If a religious student is paying attention and is open to changing her mind, she can draw her own conclusions. If she is not open to changing her mind, she is simply going to resent being forced to listen to what she considers atheist propaganda. Also, it seems to me we should foster and encourage critical thinking which, among other things, requires students to exercise their own powers of reasoning. Give them the science and the history; let them draw their own conclusions about what implications this has for certain religious beliefs. Drumming into their heads that “Genesis is wrong,” the Koran is wrong,” “the Book of Mormon is wrong,” or whatever, may make them nonbelievers, but their atheism will be built on insecure foundations.

Also, to move from the ideal back to reality for a moment, as matters stand now, allowing teachers to comment on religion in our current state of affairs would result in significant promotion of religion, much classroom confusion, and little support for a secular state. Teachers’ beliefs are not much different than the beliefs of the general population, and the U.S. remains overwhelmingly religious. If we say it’s OK to comment on the truth or falsity of religious claims in the public schools, what we’re going to get is not something like “evolutionary theory shows that the traditional creation story is false” but “there is much disagreement about evolutionary theory among scientists, but it’s clear that the complexity of life requires an intelligent designer, and this is the basic truth taught in the Book of Genesis.” If foregoing the illusory opportunity of pointing out explicitly the falsity of some religious claims is the price we have to pay to prevent many of our schools from becoming vehicles for religious indoctrination, somehow that strikes me as a good bargain.

#41 DuckPhup on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 7:52am

Re: “It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy (bad theology and philosophy, but that’s another matter). HENCE, SCIENCE CANNOT REJECT THEM IN FULL—for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there’s been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher’s cap to continue.”

@Michael De Dora #11 wrote: “Regardless, it’s still important to note the distinct uses and purposes of science and philosophy. That’s admittedly not something I’m an expert in, but again, that also doesn’t make me wrong.”

Actually, it makes you “not EVEN wrong”... in the sense conveyed by Wolfgang Pauli (Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! “Not only is it not right… it’s not even wrong!”) Pauli reserved such criticism “... for theories or theses so unclearly presented as to be untestable or unevaluatable and, thus, not properly belonging within the realm of science, even though posing as such.” (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Pauli)

First, you strongly imply that philosophy/theology are can be regarded as sources of ‘knowledge’ pertaining to the natural world, and that at the point of collision, they carry equal gravitas as science… which is patently ridiculous.

Second, those are not rational claims… yet you are essentially proclaiming that science is helpless and confounded when confronted with what amount to no more than baseless, irrational assertions spewed forth by stupid and gullible God-bots, or professional LFJs™ (Liars For Jesus), and that ‘science’ must fall-back on philosophy/theology in order to address them… and that is not even remotely true.

Finally… “That which is asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” ~ Christopher Hitchens

The ONLY people to whom that paragraph might be regarded as anything other than laughable are the stupid and gullible, and the professional LFJs™ whose cause you are (unintentionally? naively?) assisting.

#42 Paul (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 7:58am

Michael,

The separation of church and state might, in some secular eyes, hold freethinking back, but I think largely it is a better thing to have it.

Are you familiar with the Lemon Test?  The example that started this argument does not violate separation of church and state because of it.  The primary purpose of stating that the earth is not 6,000 years old when asked about it is secular.  Dr. Lindsay covered this a bit in #40.

I rarely comment on the substance of my fellow bloggers’ posts for several reasons, including the fact that some will inevitably and mistakenly think that because I am the president & CEO my views represent the official position of CFI.

But somehow the opposite is assumed when regional executive directors air their views?  This I don’t get.  Either all executives should be able to air their views without believing it reflects the official position, or none should*.  When you have some executives saying controversial things, but ones that disagree avoid criticizing substance because they don’t want their views to be taken as the official CFI stance, it does in fact have the effect of making the original comments seem like the de facto organizational stance.

*To be clear, I am not talking censorship.  I am talking about acknowledgement that when executives speak publicly, on a medium owned by the organization, the presumption is that they represent the position of the organization.  That is what this whole kerfuffle has been about.

#43 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 8:22am

@ Paul (#42)

You write: the presumption is that they represent the position of the organization.”

But the CFI blog “About” page is very specfic, in that it will present a plurality of opinions and ideas. Ron Lindsay stated this upfront on the day the blog was launched.

From his statement:

“Consistent with CFI’s mission, Free Thinking will offer uninhibited, unsparing, and provocative observations and insights on a variety of topics of interest to CFI and its supporters—including the supporters of CFI’s two principal affiliates, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism.

Bloggers will include members of the staff of CFI and its affiliates and prominent bloggers…we want our bloggers to be opinionated and candid. To ensure frank and open discussion, the content of the blogs will not be discussed with the management of CFI and its affiliates prior to posting. Accordingly, the viewpoints expressed on Free Thinking are the viewpoints of the individual blogger only and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of, nor should they be attributed to, CFI or its affiliates, or any of their directors or officers.

Free your thinking! Check in on our blog and register your own views. You may be pleased or annoyed—but I don’t believe you will remain indifferent.”

#44 Paul (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 8:34am

But the CFI blog “About” page is very specfic, in that it will present a plurality of opinions and ideas. Ron Lindsay stated this upfront on the day the blog was launched.

I am aware.  I was more concerned with pointing out that Dr. Lindsay stated he does not comment on substance because he is concerned people might take his comments as the position of CFI.  I was simply pointing out that that was inconsistent with the otherwise stated belief that executives commenting on the CFI blog do not speak for the organization.  Mixed messages, you see.  Yes, Dr. Lindsay’s position is further up in the hierarchy, but De Dora is still an executive.  Why would there be significantly less presumption that his views represent those of the CFI?

#45 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 9:22am

@Paul: Actually, as a reminder, I said one of the reasons I rarely comment on others’ blog posts is that some would mistakenly think I was speaking for the entire organization. “Mistakenly” is the key word here.
And, yes, some may also mistakenly think that because someone with a title at CFI is blogging for us that means that person represents CFI’s official views. But that is a risk we are willing to take because of the benefits derived from having a blog whose postings are not pre-screened and which represents a diversity of opinions within CFI about various matters.
On the other hand, as wise and as profound as I may be (you can stop laughing now), there is not the same level of benefit to be derived from my commenting on others’ posts, so, usually, the risk of confusion is not worth it. I see no inconsistency in my position.

#46 Michael De Dora on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 9:38am

As previously stated, I am an official blogger for CFI, but my posts indicate my philosophy, not CFI’s organizational philosophy. While I support CFI’s mission, and work to carry it out in NYC, the organization’s mission statement is rather broad, leaving room for a ton of nuance.

Now, I will admit that my views are voiced within CFI—but that doesn’t mean the organization is going to run with them. To take one blog post from one regional employee and negatively brand an entire organization with it would be folly.

#47 Deen (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 9:43am

@Ronald A. Lindsay:
I agree with your point of separating constitutional law, the ideal situation, and practical reality. You may well be right that in the current political climate, purely as a practical matter, it might be the easiest solution to not allow any mention of religion at all.

However, that approach has its own inherent problems. First of all, a teacher can’t honestly pretend that religion doesn’t exist, or that there are people out there who will deny what he or she is teaching. Second, even if you try to stay away from religion, religion will still happily come to you. And finally, if a science teacher is allowed to correct the local radio pundit when he says the earth is cooling, but not the local priest when he says the earth is young, isn’t that showing preference for religion as well?

#48 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 5:12pm

To clarify just one point, I think a lot of the shock-horror that De Dora is part of CFI is not a matter of orthodoxy; it has rather to do with the fact that (to be brutally frank) he’s not a very good writer. Okay, he’s a really bad writer. Look, he’s probably brilliant at all sorts of other things, including things I couldn’t do if you put a gun to my head - but he’s a painfully clumsy writer. Look at Ron’s comment at #40, for example, and then compare De Dora’s post, or his earlier posts.

This makes me, for one, cringe. It feels as if you’d asked a random high school student (not a particularly outstanding one, at least not in English class) to blog here. It just seems like a strange choice. This ain’t Austin Dacey, nor is it Ibn Warraq, nor is it Paul Kurtz, nor is it Joe Hoffmann, nor is it Tom Flynn, nor is it Stephen Law. CFI is packed to the rafters with good writers; it just is not clear why De Dora seemed like a hot ticket.

Sorry - but it’s the truth. I disagree with just about everything he says, but I would find him much less irritating if he wrote well. He doesn’t. The effect is fingernails on a blackboard. (Especially when he does things like jeer at Jerry Coyne, who apart from anything else is a much much better writer than he is.)

#49 Daniel Schealler on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 6:07pm

@Ophelia

I get what you’re on about Ophelia - but I think you’re being unfair.

From reading De Dora, it can be seen that his style of writing is consistently pitched for an audience of religious moderates and fundamentalists. I know a few moderates, and one of my mates is borderline fundamentalist. They would all nod in sage agreement with all of Michael’s posts here on CFI - both the ones that seem to be in their favor, as well as the one that doesn’t (his open letter regarding Constance McMillen).

To that kind of audience, De Dora is very persuasive.

The problem is that to those of us who are confrontational atheists, this tone and style are completely wrong. It (almost) doesn’t matter what he actually says; if De Dora (or anyone else) adopts the tone and style that suits an audience of religious moderates and fundamentalists, it’s almost guaranteed to trigger you and I into rejecting it. Even if he has a point, we probably won’t be able to see the needle for the haystack.

In exactly the same way, it doesn’t matter to an audience of religious moderates and fundamentalists what PZ says. When PZ rips out a phrase like ‘quivering gobshite’, that’s all they see or care about. That doesn’t make PZ’s arguments wrong, of course. It just makes those arguments impotent to persuade a religious audience - which is fine in PZ’s case, since that was never his goal in the first place.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have any problems with De Dora’s arguments themselves; I’ve been voicing disagreement with Michael loudly and frequently. But I wouldn’t go so far as to criticize his actual writing.

If I was going to criticize his persuasive abilities, it wouldn’t be for his overall talent as a writer. For the goal of persuading an audience of religious moderates and fundamentalists, his writing is spot on. Instead I would criticize his talent as a rhetor. Michael doesn’t modify his tone or style when his audience consists of mainly confrontational atheists. Until De Dora learns how and when to talk like PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens or Dacey, he’s going to have an uphill battle persuading us of anything.

Note that this isn’t to say that if he made a good argument we would reject it for style alone. Hopefully we wouldn’t stoop to that. But it’s hard to see his arguments for what they are when his tone and style keep getting in the way.

#50 Ophelia Benson on Friday April 16, 2010 at 3:41am

Daniel, no, my point wasn’t about his claims, it was specifically about his writing, his writing just as writing, not his writing-as-persuasion. It’s just bad writing. I don’t say that because I disagree with most of what he says, though I do - I could name plenty of writers I disagree with in similar discussions who write much better than De Dora (Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Massimo Pigliucci, etc - they all exaggerate wildly and misrepresent people they don’t like with startling abandon, but they write more or less competently). De Dora’s writing itself is peculiarly bad. If I were editing him I would be deeply frustrated because it’s the kind of writing that can’t be fixed without simply re-writing the whole thing oneself. In fact if he submitted an article to me I would just reject it for that reason, even if he offered something I entirely agree with.

So, I do think his persuasive abilities are pretty hopeless, but my point was to say that even apart from that, his writing is so bad that it probably accounts for the extra level of irritation he inspires. It was also to disagree with Ron’s suggestion that people were expressing surprise that De Dora works for CFI because he doesn’t follow some non-existent party line. I wanted to point out that at least some of that surprise is at his lack of skill at writing, which is not characteristic of CFI.

Ron put it this way:

“And with respect to competence, perhaps I am biased, but I would rank the overall quality of CFI’s bloggers as very high.”

Overall, maybe. De Dora in particular, decidedly not.

I’m pretty sure Ron is perfectly aware of this. Ron can write himself, so I’m pretty sure the badness of De Dora’s writing is not lost on him. I can’t help suspecting that it’s an embarrassment, but that’s purely a guess.

“But it’s hard to see his arguments for what they are when his tone and style keep getting in the way.”

Precisely. That was my point. The badness of his writing really does handicap him.

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