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Chris Mooney - Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief
Posted: 11 May 2011 08:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Special Guest Host: Ronald A. Lindsay

In this special episode, Chris Mooney changes places and becomes the interviewee—and then finds himself facing some probing questions from CFI president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay. This frank interview is all substance and no fluff as Mooney is asked to defend accommodationism and his Templeton Foundation fellowship. The tough questions elicit vigorous replies as Mooney restates his belief that some of the New Atheists are adopting the wrong tactics in criticizing religion.

In the second part of the interview, Mooney discusses his recent work on the psychology of belief in general, emphasizing how our commitments and our values shape our reasoning and our processing of information.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. For many years he practiced law in Washington, DC, and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses.

As well as a usual host of Point of Inquiry, Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write “The Intersection” blog together for Discover blogs.

Note: This episode was recorded on board the 2011 CFI Greek Islands Cruise on which Mooney was a speaker.


http://www.pointofinquiry.org/chris_mooney_accommodationism_and_the_psychology_of_belief/

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Posted: 11 May 2011 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Fascinating.

I thought Mooney sounded a bit…scornful at times. A bit dismissive. A bit certain of his own conclusions.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 01:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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When Mooney says that he thinks that we should go through pastors and other trusted agents to enact hard change, it seems he thinks that PZ, Dawkins, and the other ‘New Atheists’ think that’s a bad idea. But I’ve never heard them say that. In fact, I’ve heard the opposite. If that’s the tactical and strategic approach he wants to take, then he should go ahead.

But where does he get the idea that only one approach should be used?

Mooney, go ahead and try the soft sell approach. I’m sure that it’ll be useful with some people. But where do you get the gall to say that everyone else has to stop any other approach and only try what you’re comfortable with?

Pharyngula is full of people who say that PZ’s confrontational approach was important to their deconversion. The Atheist Experience’s forums are full of people who needed to hear Dillahunty to think about their religion a different way.

Go ahead with your approach, but please don’t pretend you have justification in saying that it’s the only valid approach.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The main reason for the decline of religious belief in Europe is because the main European religions so fully discredited themselves during the 20th century by lining up so completely to sanctify their respective nationalism on both/all sides leading up to and during the conflagrations of two world wars. Religions in the USA did the same, but here the people did not experience the abject destruction experienced by those in Europe - Americans could continue to feel “righteous” about their WW military interventions. Less so with Vietnam, but that was quickly reinterpreted so as to shield the respect and dignity of its ideological cheerleaders. In European society, the respect and dignity of the nationalistic cheerleaders (including esp. those who claimed to know “God’s will” was backing them) was mortally wounded by the destructiveness of the wars.

Europeans are more likely than Americans to “believe” in evolution not because they are more secular, but rather because the deeply blood&soil; mystical trends of 19th and early 20th century religion itself had been teaching various forms of “evolution” for nearly a century (not Darwinian natural selection, but evolution nonetheless.) This was not the case in the USA, where strongly Calvinist-tinged theology tended to set strong barriers between God and Nature, rather than stress God-as-expressed-through-nature, the key element of European “Natural Theology.”

Modern citizens of the world are suspicious of the claims of “scientists” to summary Truth about the universe we live in is not because of hostility toward experimental empirical inquiry per se, but because we have witnessed over and over and over again how quickly and easily “scientists” line up at the trough of military and corporate money with very little or no thought whatsoever about the consequences of their work.

If we saw the New Atheists, CFI and such folks as offended by and concerned to publicly expose, embarrass, condemn and ostracize the thousands of physicists, chemists, biologists, computer programmers, technologists and such whose whole careers are built on slurp from those troughs as they apparently are offended by the biology teacher who also happens to hold some religiously compatible beliefs about what was before the Big Bang, then the anti-accommodationist view would have a lot more integrity and be a lot more convincing.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 05:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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dliecht - 11 May 2011 02:10 PM

Modern citizens of the world are suspicious of the claims of “scientists” to summary Truth about the universe we live in is not because of hostility toward experimental empirical inquiry per se, but because we have witnessed over and over and over again how quickly and easily “scientists” line up at the trough of military and corporate money with very little or no thought whatsoever about the consequences of their work.

I’m not even sure that’s it’s worth responding to you, but I’m doing it anyway.  This is a nonsense explanation of things.  People question scientists when scientists question their beliefs.  People believe scientists in exactly the issues that aren’t challenging their beliefs.  So, people will dismiss global warming science or evolution because they hate the consequences (or perceived consequences), but they’ll gladly accept the latest medical research.  There was a study I saw a while ago (in skeptic magazine, I think) where they asked people about scientific issues.  They found that people tended to “shop around” for experts on contentious issues.  If scientists aren’t telling them what they find convenient to believe, then they look elsewhere and disparage the science and the scientists.

Besides, if “Modern citizens of the world are suspicious of the claims of scientists because…” then you have another issue of explaining why Americans, rather than Europeans, dismiss evolution.  What?  Are Americans more aware of the duplicity of scientists?  Does America have a much larger history of scientist’ duplicity?  You actually sound like someone who’s about to start complaining about “big pharma” and “Western Medicine”.

dliecht - 11 May 2011 02:10 PM

If we saw the New Atheists, CFI and such folks as offended by and concerned to publicly expose, embarrass, condemn and ostracize the thousands of physicists, chemists, biologists, computer programmers, technologists and such whose whole careers are built on slurp from those troughs as they apparently are offended by the biology teacher who also happens to hold some religiously compatible beliefs about what was before the Big Bang, then the anti-accommodationist view would have a lot more integrity and be a lot more convincing.

What nonsense.  But, maybe you’re thinking about some unspoken anti-Western Medicine viewpoint that you have.

As far as the podcast, Mooney at one time said that scientists like Newton studied the universe because they believed they were exploring God’s handiwork.  I’ve never believed that scientists actually believed that.  Even in the middle-ages, I think they used that explanation to fend-off their anti-scientific critics and bring some religious approval onto their hobbies.  People like Newton studied the universe because they were curious about the universe.  Keep in mind that these scientists worked in a period of history where authors would dedicate their books to God or the Pope as a way to avoid censorship.  Sometimes, they were advocating viewpoints that were diametrically opposed to teachings of the church, and this was their way of smoothing things over, rather than draw the ire of the church.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 06:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Tinyfrog, you need to learn to read what is actually written, without immediately interpolating all of your own assumptions and prejudices. What I wrote has nothing whatsoever to do with non-Western Medicine - a rather bizarre leap on your part. When I say modern citizens of the world, if I have any group of people in mind at all it is a highly educated, culturally sophisticated, reflective and articulate bunch - people among whom Chris Mooney is a man in good company. Seeing what science and technology has actually wrought in this world, they find it all but comical that people get up in the name of science to lecture others on the proper construction of meaning and morality. Of course science, medicine and technology have brought us good things, things we like and would be poorer without. That is a given. But to point out that those things that threaten our species with concrete extinction potential (environmental pollution, nuclear weapons, biohazards of various kinds) are all very directly related not to what religionists have done but to what scientists and technologists have done (largely at our behest, but that is beside the point) does not commit one to life in a cave. It only shows that science and technology also are very human - all too human - enterprises whose practitioners also work mainly on the basis of self-interest, with same limits of vision shared by every other human, largely in response to short term gratifications and incentives, and motivated by the same kinds of nationalistic prejudices that motivate everyone else. No one is saying scientists and technologists are collectively any worse people morally than, say, drug store clerks - but only that there is no evidence either that they are any better, certainly not that their adherence to their profession creates any moral improvement among them at all (ask any Dean of Sciences how little that is the case!) and that they delude themselves mightily when they think otherwise. Of course modern world citizens (see above to remind yourself of whom I speak here) have a high respect for experimentally attained empirical knowledge. Such respect is what makes them who they are. But they will put to the same scrutiny such claims as they arise that science and technology is what will get us out of the mess that science and technology itself (again, at our behest, but that is beside the point here) largely created in the first place. If you can’t see that, Tinyfrog, if you again want to respond with “that’s nonsense,” I can only wish you the best of life in your Tinyfrog bubble world.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 06:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I found this interview fascinating in exactly the opposite view of other posters. I seemed to hear the interviewer ignoring the central point of what Chris and other “accomodationists” have. He seemed totally unwilling to entertain the idea that people in general do not respond in rational ways when it comes to strongly held beliefs, and that there is research to show this. It was like a homeopath demanding a skeptic provide a major study on “this” brand of nothing, for “this” exact condition, and claiming that in the absence of the study, there is no problem with homeopathy.

The skeptical movement is growing and consolidating and feeling stronger and more confident, and meanwhile, the scientific literacy of other US is going down, and woo and altmed are increasing.  I’m not sure the current approach doesn’t need some tweaking, and I think that’s what Chris is suggesting. Current tactics are not seeming to have much effect, so let’s look at other tactics.

As an “accomodationist”...and I prefer the term “gradualist”...I share the views other atheists have about religion, but my goal when I discuss issues of science with believers is not de-conversion. That is simply not realistic unless the person is already questioning his faith. My goal is an increase in science knowledge and skepticism which in my experience is far more corrosive to faith than ridicule or frontal assault. I myself was a believer until I became fascinated with science. As I read more and more and found more and more conflicts with creationism, I began to question faith itself. I went through a period of being a Christian evolutionist, then a Theistic evolutionist, then realized that I was only hanging onto my now very weak faith out of habit. During the time when I was still a believer but beginning to question,  the “strong atheists” I met tended to push me back toward belief, make me defensive in exactly the way the research is telling us. You cannot argue someone out of a position they weren’t argued into in the first place.

Too often this debate is polarized. I do not think atheists should shut up or hide their disbelief, but they should recognize how the human mind will react to it, and not be surprised and offended when the people they talk to get defensive. And accomodationists should realize that there are times when people are questioning their beliefs and need a shot in the arm by a Dawkins or a Dennet.

I think the skeptical movement spends too much time looking for heretics and not enough on welcoming those who are questioning and interested but wondering if they will fit in.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 04:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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As far as the podcast, Mooney at one time said that scientists like Newton studied the universe because they believed they were exploring God’s handiwork.  I’ve never believed that scientists actually believed that.  Even in the middle-ages, I think they used that explanation to fend-off their anti-scientific critics and bring some religious approval onto their hobbies.  People like Newton studied the universe because they were curious about the universe.  Keep in mind that these scientists worked in a period of history where authors would dedicate their books to God or the Pope as a way to avoid censorship.  Sometimes, they were advocating viewpoints that were diametrically opposed to teachings of the church, and this was their way of smoothing things over, rather than draw the ire of the church.

tinyfrog, I think this is a serious candidate for the most ignorant comment that I have ever read in the Internet! If you wish to pontificate about the history of science then it pays to learn something about the subject before you open your mouth. By anybody’s standards Newton would count as a religious fanatic in any age. Religion was the main driving force behind all of his diverse activities and above all his science whose secrets he had, according to his own utterances, been selected by God to reveal.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 07:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Thanks very much to Chris and Ron for this contentious and enlightening conversation. I’m glad to get a lot of these issues out on the table for CFI to deal with and for PoI to air. I’ve always felt that a ‘big tent’ approach to CFI’s issues was best, one that embraced differing approaches to these trenchant and difficult problems. To that end, I thought both Chris and Ron made interesting and valuable points.

A few observations of my own:

(1) This is a minor point. Re. the question as to whether it was their religious views that caused Galileo and Newton to search for knowledge, I think claims on either side of that issue oversimplify. Sure, what they were looking for was to an extent underwritten by their views about God. However one should also not forget that what they did, and in particular what Galileo did, was in opposition to some Church teaching and in opposition to the centuries-old tradition that one found truth only in scripture and not in investigations of the natural world. One might say that both Galileo and Newton’s personal investigations were more in the spirit of the Protestant reformation, seated as it was in the notion that each person could judge scripture for him or herself, than in the teachings of the Catholic church. But that said, their lives’ work involved at least an implicit rejection of scriptural tradition.

As for Newton, he seems to have held heretical religious views; and anyone capable of writing,

I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

... has a different agenda than one thought of as typically religious, even though he may have himself been deeply so in other contexts.

(Here I’m bracketing the background point that much of modern atheism gets its punch from the rejection of the argument from design, for which we have to thank Darwin and the late 19th century).

(2) Chris made the point very well that reason itself is weak. As Hume said, it’s slave to the passions. The concern here is that we not take the lesson that reason is therefore useless. It bears repeating that although reason is not the panacea it’s sometimes made out to be, it has its place, and it needs to be preserved. (I’m sure Chris would accept this point). Though it’s true that we are often, even usually, mislead by pre-existing emotional baggage on issues, we can also work to mitigate that baggage in ourselves. The scientific process, using repeated experimentation and peer review, is designed for just that purpose.

(3) It may be very difficult or impossible to change beliefs by rational persuasion, but there is a long literature about how to persuade. It’s called “marketing”. The best book I know on this topic is by psychology professor Robert Cialdini, in a book called Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion. I think everyone involved in CFI should be aware of its contents. To take one of his examples, if you want to influence someone, it helps to be overtly nice to them. This is a classic marketing strategy (the “loss leader”), but also used by religions around the world to gain converts. There are other reasons than sheer good will to engage in charity work.

(4) One question that remained unasked in the conversation is whether the New Atheists are really so popular because of their supposed role in converting people to atheism, or rather if their popularity stems from their ability to preach to the choir. My view is more the latter, and both strategies are essential in any sociopolitical enterprise. Some political speeches, some politicians and pundits, perfect a moderate message to try to appeal to the wavering middle, or event wavering opponents. Then Chris’s approach is right. But other politicians and pundits are very good at ‘motivating the base’, as they say. And the base is essential. It’s from the base that you get volunteers, donations, people on street corners, etc. You need people who are skilled at making these folks feel welcome and necessary, and a message seen as milquetoast won’t do for that. One thing that struck me, watching videos from Dawkins’s barnstorming across the US South several years ago, is how his message was met by such (one wants to say) rapturous adulation by his audiences. It was emotional rather than rational, but after all, that’s the point, right? And I think it’s also why Chris’s very well reasoned and documented pushback on New Atheism is so virulently disliked by many within the movement: because the New Atheists are so skilled at doing an emotional service to the movement itself.

So while the New Atheist message isn’t so good at converting committed Christians, that’s really not it’s best purpose. It’s best purpose is at unifying the base.

That said, it’s clearly been the case that some Christians have been converted by their message. Dawkins has a Converts’ Corner full of them. It may be a drop in the bucket, but it should at least be mentioned.

In summary, I think both sides in this long debate have made good points. On the one hand, organizations like CFI should make better use of classic marketing strategies rather than naïvely assume that the average Joe or Jane is likely to be swayed by rational argumentation, much less scorn. On the other hand, in order for the movement to be successful it must be adroit in preaching to its own choir with messages of solidarity, strength and support, most particularly as the movement remains small, and in places where it may even feel embattled.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 08:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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You quote two commonly repeated lines that I think we must acknowledge and then purge from the rhetoric on this topic:

Jansob - 11 May 2011 06:26 PM

He seemed totally unwilling to entertain the idea that people in general do not respond in rational ways when it comes to strongly held beliefs… You cannot argue someone out of a position they weren’t argued into in the first place.

I believe the first sentence comes out of studies like John Haidt’s on moral motivations (though there are likely others…I am not in a “citing” mood this morning.)  And the second one is a trope that is blithely tossed off as wisdom that cannot be questioned.  Really?  Tell me what beliefs someone arrives at via means other than reason.  I dare you.  grin 
Those two quoted sentences are essentially a euphemism for saying that “People who have been conditioned to act defensively, react defensively when they perceive they are being “attacked.”  There ARE rational roots to conditioned behavior, and you can not “de-program” a conditioned response by trying to sidle up next to it and say, “It’s OK to continue that response.”  Pointing out the flaws in those conditioned responses, and providing alternative explanations, is all we can do.  Confronting reactionary, defensive behaviors (by many methods, including yours and including those who would mock or ridicule) is the way to let the world at large know that the taboo of discussing and questioning “faith” assertions is broken and an invalid argument.

Let us drop the euphemism about “strongly held beliefs” being arrived at through processes other than reason (which I roll up to include personal experience, observation, trust of authority, and repetitive conditioning.)

Being willing to express and defend “science knowledge and skepticism,” in the face of religious demands to do otherwise, is the sum total of the argument made by atheists who would snicker your euphemistic self-branding as a “gradualist.”  If you are compromising scientific method and evidence to accommodate a religious person’s assertions of persecution, or “alternative ways of knowing,” or to placate their ASSERTIONS that science and religion are compatible (as methods of analyzing how the world works) you are an accommodationist.  If you attack other atheists who will not kowtow to demands of the religious that we not question their assertions, and demand that they join us on the field of inquiry to discuss and analyze those assertions, you’re an accommodationist.

I think I may have just come up with a new comedy bit, (with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy): 

“If you <insert behavior here>, you just might be an accommodationist.”
If you avoid asking piercing, falsifiable, testable questions about a topic because someone says “Oooooh….I’d rather you not question my faith”.... you might be an accommodationist.
You might be an accommodationist if you take money from an organization that asserts there is compatibility between science and religion, and works to avoid questioning that assertion.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 03:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Ok, here we go again with this stuff.

First of all, the things Chris Mooney asserts as fact run contrary to my own annecdotes of a confrontational style of attack against false beliefs (including religion). It doesn’t always work, but you still do change minds and I’ve changed a lot in my life… not online in particular, but my friends and family and work colleagues. Even when I haven’t won, I count it as doing some good in opening that persons eyes to the fact that their religion is not only disrespected by some people (something I never saw growing up), but they have REASON for it. I usually tell from visual signs of embarrassment that they can at least see where I am coming from.

My number one problem with the accomodationalists is that they are part of the problem when it comes to protecting the respect that religion has. In my upbringing religion enjoyed universal respect and nobody ever questioned it and if even some atheists are afraid to question it then what do you expect to achieve? You’re not going at the root of the problem. If accomodationalists like to pretent you can’t change minds in a direct way, then where are they getting this assumption that going the long way round is going to result in more success?

In the end, it’s going to come down to percentages.. I think maybe both approaches DO work, but to varying degrees and the accomodationalist approach selling out it’s principles which alone is inexcusable for me. But they aren’t “selling out” if they already have an affection for religion or spirituality nonsense like Chris Mooney does. I’m just getting sick of the accomodationalists saying that the way I do it is doing more harm than good or that we only convert the people who are already half way there. It’s arrogant. I know the die-hard religious folk who I could not convert certainly wouldn’t have taken an interest in science either.

I was stunned when I heard Chris Mooney applied to Templeton. It’s hard to take his intellectual honesty seriously when I suspect he is doing what he is doing to win the Templeton prize, thus becoming a millionaire. How CAN you take him seriously when there is a plausible motive that he is chasing a carrot on a stick?

Templeton is there to SUPPORT religion and protect it in the modern era of science. I doubt Chris Mooney even wants to convert anyone out of religion since he appears to do what he can to encourage some version of Oprah-like religion or spritiuality. In the words of P.Z. - it makes me want to puke.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I vote for Ron Lindsay to host every show.
His sense of balance and being able to cut through rhetoric was perfect.
Maybe someone can put what Ron Lindsay did into words better than I, but basically Ron is everything I want to hear in an interviewer.
He knows how to keep on track, how to allow the interviewee just enough rope to hang themselves, and when to stop and just move on.

I thought Chris Mooney was completely lost in this interview.
One moment Chris was backed into such a small corner that the situation reminded of me of a famous guitar player:

Here’s what Ron and Chris said:
Ron: We don’t know what Galileo may or may not have done had he been in a different culture, but I’m not sure that means we have to concede to religion an important role in scientific discoveries
Chris: [pause] The fact is that it was a motivating factor for the early modern scientists

And this strikes me as a parallel interview
Spinal Tap interviewer: But why don’t you just make 10 louder and make 10 be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel: [pause] These go to 11

[ Edited: 20 May 2011 05:24 AM by FurryMoses ]
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Posted: 12 May 2011 08:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Robert Schneider - 12 May 2011 08:14 AM

Really?  Tell me what beliefs someone arrives at via means other than reason.  I dare you. 

Um, is this s trick question? How many children sit down and rationally decide to accept their parents’ religious beliefs? I’d venture to say not many. They accept these beliefs not because they rationally examine them, but because it’s a part of their identity as part of the family and community.

If you’re right, then we’re all wasting our time. A simple flyer explaining why religious faith is unreasonable should be all it takes. As beliefs are arrived at only through reason, people will simply process the information and arrive at the right answer. Why did no one else think of this?

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Posted: 13 May 2011 12:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Ron asks Mooney if he has any evidence for his assertions on the negative effects of gnu atheism on science popularisation.

Mooney says he doesn’t, it would be difficult and expensive to get. Okay…

Then Ron asks if it is just a hunch.

Mooney procedes to do a complete 180 and claim that its more than a hunch because he has all sorts of knowledge and evidence pointing to it being true.

lolwat?

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Posted: 13 May 2011 05:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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This is quite depressing. Like religions, the skeptical movement now has schisms, heretics, and factions. Skeptics who want to reach out to people who are our allies on 90% of the science issues are being insulted and called names because they are not pure enough. Those of you who are former Christians may recognize a strong whiff of Calvinism in the air.

I’ll continue to educate those around me on science and teach skeptical thinking (which I think in the long run is corrosive to faith)...but I won’t really stay connected with the “movement” if it becomes synonymous with evangelical atheism.

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Posted: 13 May 2011 06:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Jansob - 12 May 2011 08:48 PM
Robert Schneider - 12 May 2011 08:14 AM

Really?  Tell me what beliefs someone arrives at via means other than reason.  I dare you. 

Um, is this s trick question? How many children sit down and rationally decide to accept their parents’ religious beliefs? I’d venture to say not many. They accept these beliefs not because they rationally examine them, but because it’s a part of their identity as part of the family and community.

If you’re right, then we’re all wasting our time. A simple flyer explaining why religious faith is unreasonable should be all it takes. As beliefs are arrived at only through reason, people will simply process the information and arrive at the right answer. Why did no one else think of this?

First of all, leave aside this rational nonsense - reasoning doesn’t have to be good in order to still be reason.

Second, what you are describing there is still rational - the kids have limited sources of information and are trusting them to tell them the truth.

[ Edited: 13 May 2011 06:16 AM by Bruce Gorton ]
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