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Chris Mooney - Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief
Posted: 15 May 2011 12:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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tinyfrog - 11 May 2011 05:31 PM

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.

You’ve never believed that any scientists believed they were exploring God’s handiwork?  I think you should do a little more historical research.  There’s a lot of evidence for theological views having a bearing on approach to science (e.g., Peter Dear pointing out the differences between the mixed mathematical sciences approach of Catholics like Galileo and Pascal, vs. the more empirical approach of Protestants like Boyle and Bacon).[1]  While there are no doubt cases of insincere expressions of religious commitment used to stay out of trouble, in the case of Newton and Galileo I think there’s no question that they had sincere religious beliefs which influenced their notions of natural law—in Galileo’s case, sometimes negatively, such as his insistence on the perfection of circular motion which led him to discount the work of Kepler.  (BTW, it was criticism from fellow Catholics that got him to change the title of his major work from _Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea_ to _Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems_.  Since his theory of tidal motion was quite wrong—another area where Kepler got it right—this turned out in hindsight to be a good change.)

On the other hand, the works that have made the strongest case for a war between science and religion—John William Draper’s _History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion_ (1875) and Andrew Dickson White’s _A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom_ (1896) are both polemical works now regarded to have seriously distorted many of the historical events they describe.  See, for example, Ronald Numbers, editor, _Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion_ (2009).

[1] I’ve written a bit more about this on my blog: http://lippard.blogspot.com/2010/04/galileo-on-relation-between-science-and.html

[ Edited: 15 May 2011 02:24 PM by Jim Lippard ]
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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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Robert Schneider - 13 May 2011 08:13 AM

Coyne, very explicitly, argues that an organization like the NCSE, whose mission is improved SCIENCE education, need not take a position on religious belief at all.  Yet they do: not only adopting a favorable, “accommodationist” position toward religious belief, but actively fighting against those who advocate NEUTRALITY.  They seem to buy into Mooney’s explicitly political argument that it is in our “political” best interests to grow our constituency.

What’s your evidence that the NCSE is “actively fighting against those who advocate NEUTRALITY”?

I think there have been a few statements associated with the NCSE that go too far in claiming compatibility, but they are rare and don’t seem to be part of official NCSE doctrine.  In general, they simply make the claim that compatibility is *possible* between science and religion, which is true in the abstract though untrue in the case of most believers, in my experience, with a few notable exceptions.

I thought that Mooney in general did a better job of defending his position than Lindsay did in attacking it.  In particular on the Templeton issue—to be such a purist as to say that it’s wrong for Mooney and Shermer to take Templeton money, or it’s wrong for people like Hitchens, Shermer, Pinker, and so forth to participate in Templeton projects that are part of mainstream examination of science, religion, and culture—that seems to me to force atheists into a ghetto.  Self-proclaimed atheists are perhaps 1-2% of the U.S. population.  It’s better to interact and engage with reasonable people regardless of their religious views.

That said, I don’t agree with Mooney in every particular, and I’d characterize myself as a pluralist, not an accomodationist.  I don’t object to the “new atheism” project in general, and think it has been effective in provoking contemplation of the idea of atheism much more widely, at the very least.  The idea of the Overton Window, though perhaps in need of better empirical support, does at least make some sense to me.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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lumberjohn - 15 May 2011 08:25 AM

Chris was arguing that the New Atheists were wrong in their approach while Lindsay was defending them.  I did not see it as Lindsay saying it was wrong for Chris himself to take an accomodationist approach, but rather wrong to criticize the more confrontational approach of the New Atheists.  (I’m leaving aside the Templeton issue, as that is really something different).

Chris was completely unable to defend his position.  His basic argument was that “believers” are not converted by the confrontational approach.  But this is a gross overgeneralization.  Chris’ position would make sense only in no believer were ever convinced by this approach.

No, Chris would have a point if it were true that a confrontational approach had more of a tendency to increase belief in believers than to dissuade them from their beliefs, which was what he argued for based on the empirical studies he referred to.  Lindsay gave that specific counterexample you offer—that surely some people do change their beliefs, and Chris acknowledged that to be the case.  All that his argument requires is a relative tendency for confrontation to increase belief rather than change it, which he argued for citing a few empirical studies and his prior PoI interview with Lakoff about belief activation.

As long as a confrontationalist approach would be persuasive to any believer, then Chris’ argument falls apart, and there is ample evidence that many believers are persuaded by such an approach even if the majority, or even the vast majority, are not.  At this point, the only thing Chris could do to save his position is to show that, counteracting this persuasive effect on believers, the confrontationalist approach causes more people to become believers, and he offered no evidence of that, nor am I aware of any.

Your last sentence contradicts your prior claim (“Chris’ position would make sense *only* ...”), and Chris did refer to evidence though he didn’t cite it except for Lakoff.  He’s also referring to studies like the work of Brendan Nyhan and Dan Kahan.  All of them have been PoI guests interviewed by Mooney.

My personal belief is that believers are persuaded by a continuum of approaches—from completely non-confrontational to completely confrontational, and the evidence as I understand it fully supports this.  If one is going to be critical of any approach, he has the burden of marshalling the evidence against it.  Chris has thrown the stone against the confrontationist approach but has presented no evidence that it does not advance the ball overall. 

If everyone could just agree that a unified approach is unnecessary, then this entire argument could be put to bed and we could move on to more constructive discussions.

I think you’re right to an extent, which is part of why I’m a pluralist on this issue, but I think we should rely on the empirical evidence rather than our personal beliefs.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 02:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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I never said I agree with everything that Chris Mooney says, but I think it is better to work with religion on issues with which we agree, such as NCSE does with the Clergy Letter Project, than to shrilly and vehemently oppose it as Dawkins and the new atheists do, or even to stand disdainfully aloof from it as Myers and Coyne insist that the NCSE should do.  That is why I say that I am more of an accommodationist than a new atheist, more in the Gould/Scott/Mooney camp than in the Dawkins/Myers/Hitchens camp.  But even though I don’t agree with Dawkins that religion is evil and must be fought, I believe he is helpful in encouraging those who are unhappy in their religion to leave it and take a stance of positive atheism.  I do not agree with Chris Mooney that (if I’m not misinterpreting him) scientists like Dawkins should not write books expressing their religious unbelief, or that other scientists like Francis Collins should not write books expressing their religious belief.  I do agree with him that evangelical, militant, antireligious atheism is not the right approach for a large number of our fellow citizens, and we need a diversity of approaches from a diversity of people and beliefs to be effective.  And I am glad Chris Mooney, Eugenie Scott, and other moderate voices are there to counteract the loud voices of all you preachers of atheism.  As to the issue of accommodation vs. new atheism being two extremes of a graduated scale, I feel that even though I am mostly an accommodationist, there may be times when I can tell people why I don’t believe or talk about the problems I find with religion, but how much of that I can get away with and still be considered amicable to religion, I’m not certain.  I would err on the side of accommodationism.

[ Edited: 15 May 2011 03:09 PM by rasmur ]
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Posted: 15 May 2011 03:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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rasmur - 15 May 2011 02:56 PM

I do agree with him that evangelical, militant, antireligious atheism is not the right approach for a large number of our fellow citizens, and we need a diversity of approaches from a diversity of people and beliefs to be effective.

That’s not what Chris Mooney is saying. As someone else here pointed out, Chris Mooney wants us ALL to be accomodationalists and that not only is outspoken atheism ineffective, but does more harm than good.

And to your comment about antireligious atheism not being the right approach to a large number of the population, are you saying a softy soft approach is more effective for a larger majority of the population? I just want to be clear that this is a BIG grey area that is often painted as a black and white issue by the softies.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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You’ve never believed that any scientists believed they were exploring God’s handiwork?  I think you should do a little more historical research.

During Galileo’s time, 100% of the population of Europe had to claim to be not just Christian but the politically correct kind of Christian or risk being tortured to death.  Any professions of religious interest by people of that era whose work otherwise proved that they knew better are highly suspect.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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rasmur - 15 May 2011 02:56 PM

I never said I agree with everything that Chris Mooney says, but I think it is better to work with religion on issues with which we agree, such as NCSE does with the Clergy Letter Project, than to shrilly and vehemently oppose it as Dawkins and the new atheists do,.....

Hitchens is a bit shrill and vehement.  Dawkins is just vehement.  His “God Delusion” is quite calm, but refuses to concede anything to religion.  Given that a lot of the religion advocates out there (especially the Tea Baggers movement) are not only shrill and vehement, but deliberately manufacture and flood the airwaves with lies after manner of Joseph Goebbels (that Catholic German kid you’ve doubtless heard about), I’m actually kinda thrilled that there are some vehement voices out there presenting and defending science and objective truth to the best of their considerable ability to understand it.  I think it is possible to be vehement and still make common cause and have calm (if not friendly) debates with those religionists who are as appalled by the antics of the Bill Rileys of the world as we are.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 04:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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ullrich - 15 May 2011 03:16 PM


You’ve never believed that any scientists believed they were exploring God’s handiwork?  I think you should do a little more historical research.

During Galileo’s time, 100% of the population of Europe had to claim to be not just Christian but the politically correct kind of Christian or risk being tortured to death.  Any professions of religious interest by people of that era whose work otherwise proved that they knew better are highly suspect.

It takes only a single counterexample for his purported belief, and I think Newton’s private wriitngs suffice.  I’m also very skeptical of the claim that Galileo was a closet atheist.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 06:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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Jim Lippard - 15 May 2011 01:10 PM
Robert Schneider - 13 May 2011 08:13 AM

Coyne, very explicitly, argues that an organization like the NCSE, whose mission is improved SCIENCE education, need not take a position on religious belief at all.  Yet they do: not only adopting a favorable, “accommodationist” position toward religious belief, but actively fighting against those who advocate NEUTRALITY.  They seem to buy into Mooney’s explicitly political argument that it is in our “political” best interests to grow our constituency.

What’s your evidence that the NCSE is “actively fighting against those who advocate NEUTRALITY”?

I don’t have a cite on the tip of my tongue, and it is completely possible that I’m wrongly attributing Mooney’s (and other CFI authors) support of NCSE Accommodations, to NCSE itself or its representatives.  I’ve read virtually everything written from Coyne, Myers, Dawkins, Mooney,  Shook, etc. on the topic as it arose, and after all these years ... yes, I look back and this goes at least to 2005… it is a bit of a blur.  I’ll retract the claim until it is validated (or not).

Jim, are you an NCSE Employee?

I think there have been a few statements associated with the NCSE that go too far in claiming compatibility, but they are rare and don’t seem to be part of official NCSE doctrine.  In general, they simply make the claim that compatibility is *possible* between science and religion, which is true in the abstract though untrue in the case of most believers, in my experience, with a few notable exceptions.

Here we go again with the compatibility equivocation.  Explain to me the “abstract” in which these two divergent “methods of knowing” can be “compatible,” and be sure to explicate the special definition or limits of “compatible.”  Further, let’s be clear:  Are you talking about whether the “Religious approach to acquiring “knowledge” is compatible with “the scientific approach to gaining knowledge,” or the completely wrong-headed and uninteresting (IMHO)claim that religion and science are “compatible because there are religious scientists.”  I don’t care if Francis Collins can simultaneously be a Christian and a geneticist.  It does not make the scientific method compatible with the Nicene Creed as sources or methods of “knowing.” 

Please, use your few notable exceptions to help explain.

Can their be comity between religious and non religious people?  Yes.
Can diverse people with diverse beliefs sets be on the same side of an issue that is in no way related to their religious beliefs? Yes.
Are science and religion (or scientific thinking and religious thinking) compatible?  Ultimately, not without making some twisted linguistic gymnastic** maneuvers that do damage to the concepts of scientific thinking.

There are not two ways of “knowing”.  There are, however, multiple ways of making decisions in life, based on what you CHOOSE to believe constitutes evidence for or against your proposed actions.  Including “revealed sources of truth” in your set of valid evidence is NOT compatible with science. 

**(Apologies to Elvis Costello, and “The Loved Ones”... “spare us your theatrics and verbal gymnastics; we break wise guys just like matchsticks.”)

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Posted: 15 May 2011 08:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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No, Chris would have a point if it were true that a confrontational approach had more of a tendency to increase belief in believers than to dissuade them from their beliefs, which was what he argued for based on the empirical studies he referred to.  Lindsay gave that specific counterexample you offer—that surely some people do change their beliefs, and Chris acknowledged that to be the case.  All that his argument requires is a relative tendency for confrontation to increase belief rather than change it, which he argued for citing a few empirical studies and his prior PoI interview with Lakoff about belief activation.

What Chris cited would potentially support only the proposition that a confrontational approach might make the person to whom it was directed dig in deeper, and thereby be unpersuasive to them.  He cited nothing that would suggest such arguments made to the general public increase the number of believers.  In other words, when you say"to increase belief rather than change it,” it would be limited to increasing the belief in someone who is already a believer—increasing the intensity of their belief and perhaps resistance to change.  But what is the accommodationist alternative?  That approach wouldn’t make the person more likely to disbelieve.  They would simply go on their merry way.  So with respect to that believer, the two positions are a wash, equally ineffective.  Moony must do more, then, to attack the confrontationist approach.  He must marshall evidence that it less effective across the board than his own approach, and he simply hasn’t done that.

I think you’re right to an extent, which is part of why I’m a pluralist on this issue, but I think we should rely on the empirical evidence rather than our personal beliefs.

Agreed.  Which is why I cited examples for my position while Moony has cited none for his.

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Posted: 16 May 2011 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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Jim Lippard - 15 May 2011 04:58 PM
ullrich - 15 May 2011 03:16 PM


You’ve never believed that any scientists believed they were exploring God’s handiwork?  I think you should do a little more historical research.

During Galileo’s time, 100% of the population of Europe had to claim to be not just Christian but the politically correct kind of Christian or risk being tortured to death.  Any professions of religious interest by people of that era whose work otherwise proved that they knew better are highly suspect.

It takes only a single counterexample for his purported belief, and I think Newton’s private wriitngs suffice.  I’m also very skeptical of the claim that Galileo was a closet atheist.

Neither had to be an atheist in order for their motives to be something other than “exploring God’s design.” They could well have been simply “exploring things they found interesting.”

And their exploration may well have taken them further without the load-stone weight of centuries of the mental oppression the church represented. Heck they may have even been rendered irrelevant as earlier discoverers could well have arisen without the threat of torture for going against dogma.

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Posted: 16 May 2011 07:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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kennykjc - 14 May 2011 04:28 PM

the religious are in the majority and so angering and opposing them is a loosing strategy

I have a huge problem with this assumption. Yeah, lets not fight for the gay rights because that would just anger the religious majority. Absolute nonsense!

I dunno why you think it’s a bad thing to rile the religious up anyway, because following the accomodationalist logic this would just turn more people against religion. But I doubt that, because that would mean your logic would be coherent.

I agree with you that new atheist attacks on religion will not change believers’ minds

This is why I have contempt for accomodationalists, because this is a lie. Stop repeating it.

I am envious of others who can make the perfect point succinctly!  Well done, kennykjc!!

Your first tactic:  Take the argument and apply it to other situations to see how absurd it would sound.  Excellent. 
Here’s another version:  “You shouldn’t protest to abolish slavery because it will rile up the white-folk… you abolitionists are messing up the incredibly valuable work we in the House Servant’s Guild have been doing.” 

Second:
What are the presumed effects of “riling” the opposition?
1.  They won’t like us?
    Too Late… that’s the status quo.

2.  They might fight back and make our position even less comfortable? 
    Sounds like time to stiffen our backbones, and face the challenge of robust debate.  If we stand on principle, decency, openness and commitment to reasoned discussion, their irraitonal, unfounded counter-attacks will only further make our point. 

3.  Offending the religious might provoke physical attack?
  Who would be in the wrong in that case?  Is appeasement out of fear of repercussions desirable?  Again, there is clearly a difference between lashing out and attacking people, vs. questioning a person’s assertions and challenging their “right” to impose their beliefs on others.  Moderating our position, at the expense of central principle, to avoid a threatened reprisal does not seem like a good tactic.  Why… if it were, wouldn’t we all be in favor of adopting blasphemy laws to help protect religious sensitivities and avoid the riots and killings?

4.  “someone’s” relationship will change?    Yes, there are profiteers in any war, and they will fight anyone who might undermine their “profits” (whether they be fame, fellowships, or actual book royalties.)

And your final line…excellent.  Repeating an unfounded assertion does not make it true.

It bears repeating:  If Mooney can admit he made a mistake, and stop pointing fingers at others he believes are less effective than himself (without providing anything other than assertions, hunches, anecdotes and aspersions to that effect) then this whole “accommodationism” debate largely evaporates.  I’d love to find some face-saving way to allow him to “rejoin the team” but he keeps publicly shooting himself in the foot while attempting to fortify his original position.

It’s making things worse, and to paraphrase a participant in this debate… “Chris Mooney, YOU’RE NOT HELPING yourself.”

[ Edited: 16 May 2011 07:15 AM by Robert Schneider ]
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Posted: 16 May 2011 11:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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Robert Schneider - 16 May 2011 07:06 AM
kennykjc - 14 May 2011 04:28 PM

the religious are in the majority and so angering and opposing them is a loosing strategy


I have a huge problem with this assumption. Yeah, lets not fight for the gay rights because that would just anger the religious majority. Absolute nonsense!

Well said, Robert.  I completely agree.  If Mooney wants to do his accommodationist thing, I’ve no problem with that, but at some point confrontation is inevitable and necessary—particularly with the religious fanatics who consider any contradiction of their insane beliefs to be confrontational and more importantly who consider it their god given duty to impose those beliefs on the rest of us.

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Posted: 16 May 2011 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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This idea that the stance of the New Atheists “won’t change believers’ minds” really is the problem here, since that is what those who criticize their approach always seem to fall back on.  There is ample evidence just on Richard Dawkins’ website that this isn’t true.  Clearly, such arguments do change some believers’ minds, so they do advance the ball.  That is real evidence of actual numbers of people persuaded by the confrontational approach.

What do we have on the other side of the coin?  What evidence is there that such an approach moves the ball backwards?  All Moony can provide is research showing that, in general, people that believe something strongly often become defensive when that belief is subjected to a frontal assault.  Even if we were to grant that such research can be applied to religious belief, which I think is a reasonable though not necessary assumption, that only means that a confrontationist approach is likely to cause someone who is already a believer, and probably not likely to change their mind anyway, to become less likely to change their mind during the course of the argument.  It says nothing about what the long term effects of such confrontation would be.  For instance, the religious person might, after having his belief effectively attacked several times, go in search of confirmatory evidence and find that it doesn’t exist —thereby leading him away from religion. 

But the more important point is that such research says nothing at all about how a confrontational approach would shift the balance between believers and non-believers, which is the real question and one on which the New Atheists can and do provide such evidence.  I would like to hear from someone who actually supports Mooney’s position on this issue.

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Posted: 16 May 2011 04:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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I have a few questions for Chris, or perhaps for folks who agree with him (if he’s not planning on answering questions here, which seems like the case).

First, a little setup:  Imagine a person who is extremely religious and anti-science (say, a biblical literalist), and a scientifically-literate atheist like Chris wants to move this person towards a scientific worldview.  For the sake of something simple and quantifiable, let’s say we want this person to vaguely accept evolution, to the point that they wouldn’t vote for a creationist school board member over an non-creationist (all other things being equal).

Chris would say that directly “confronting” (loaded word, I know) this person would be a bad idea.  So, no telling them they’re wrong, no giving them facts that contradict their beliefs, no logical arguments, etc.  So, what to do?  The only specific thing Chris suggested was (not a direct quote) “showing them someone who’s close to their beliefs but is okay with evolution,” so that it’s less jarring.  So, I guess, the advice is to send in Francis Collins or Ken Miller, and demonstrate that it’s okay to be religious and Christian?

Now, for my questions:

(1)  Does anyone seriously think that will work well?  Won’t they reject Miller as a papist and Collins as a bad christian, and go home?  If they want scientists, they have creation “scientists”, after all.

(2)  Analogously, isn’t this effectively taking a theological stance?  This is where the criticism of the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE arises from the big-bad New Atheists.  Chris is clearly calling one type of religious person “better” than another, yet nebulously arguing the merits of religion as a whole (something he does all the damn time, by the way) and claiming science/reason can’t address religion.

(3)  Isn’t this insidious, and perhaps dishonest and unethical?  Look at this from the perspective of my hypothetical person.  Here is this atheist who wants me to give up a religious belief, and to do so he’s sending in people from a religion he likes better, hoping that I’ll change my beliefs.

(4)  Along the same lines, isn’t this spectacularly arrogant and condescending?  The part of the interview when Ron asked “well, should we close CFI,” and Chris eventually responded “no, it works for people like you and me” is straight-up obnoxious and offensive to religious people, no?  In case you don’t remember, the [it] there comprised things like science, reason, rationality, and logic.  Back to the hypothetical situation, isn’t the course of action Chris would (presumably) recommend basically saying “you rubes aren’t smart enough to handle the truth, so hopefully you’re gullible enough that my buddies can convince you to believe their slightly-less-wrong fairy tale instead of the one you believe now”?


Totally separate, and probably not worth getting into, I would also ask Chris (5) why he doesn’t follow any of the advice he’s offering here when it comes to the climate change issue?  Of the blogs I read regularly (not many, admittedly) he is by far the most “strident” and least “accommodating” w.r.t. climate change denialism.  And, hopefully everyone here knows a libertarian/objectivist or two, and thus won’t try to make the argument that climate change doesn’t challenge a core belief the way evolution challenges some religions.  Furthermore, it’s not just a religion thing, since he’s also been “accommodating” to anti-vaxxers, though we have a tiny sample size.

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