The two species problem of New Atheism

The dove's Tarzan impression went down a treat at parties.

One claims to be friendly. There’s an asshole around somewhere. A number are accused of being militant. There is a multitude who are silent out of either fear or choice. A whole bunch like to distinguish themselves from the old variety. They can be polemical, loud, reasonable, bigoted, intellectual, philosophical, pragmatic…in fact, the only trait they all share is a lack of belief in a supernatural, personal creator of the universe.

And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

Every week a blogger somewhere will point out how dangerous New Atheism is for Old Atheism. This will quickly be followed by another blogger using accommodationist as a pejorative, listing how their criticisms against fellow atheists is simply not cricket, and how they coddle those nasty Bible bashers. Each article will proceed to spawn a fetid tail of comments that gradually decay into barely coherent sentences that might be illogical if they weren’t initially illegible.

And so the conversation goes. On. And on. And on.

To what end does this occur? There’s a question worthy of a sociological PhD. What initially seems to be quite obvious quickly becomes something of a mystery.

On the surface, this maelstrom appears to ultimately be about science. Religion is antagonistic to science, you see, so to make science better, you need to do something about the religion problem. Atheism – the absence of a belief in supernatural personalities who govern nature – is the pill to cure the ill. Simple.

Science is about specific terms. About precision. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence and criticisms of beliefs and methodology. It’s a brutal ecosystem of predators where only the fittest ideas survive. Yet when one looks at the New Atheist discussion, science is the last thing that you’ll find.

So while it might well be under the guise of defending science literacy, there is the unmistakable smell of bigotry tainting much of the discussion. People aren’t just mistaken, they’re stupid or evil. Hyperbole is common place, where all religion is always bad. While individual opinions vary, a culture persists which has turned the discussion into a bloody, muddy battlefield of traded insults, fabricated facts and barely contained hostility.

Criticism is a dirty word. Evidence is dismissed for spurious reasoning, assumptions, wishful thinking and faithful claims. Definitions are vague and quickly dissolve into strawman and ‘no true Scottsman’ fallacies. In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?

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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You miss the point that for many, atheist activism is not merely about science communication, it is a civil rights issue. As such, the conflict between the concilliatory and the demanding is natural and expected. And as with previous civil rights movements (race, gender, sexual orientation) it was always the demanding party that forced the issue and paved the way for the message of the concilliatory to be heard.

    Does that hurt science communication? Doubtful; it seems that people are more interested in talking about science communication than actually, you know, explaining the science. FWIW, I spent 3 days live-tweeting the Fukushima disaster, fielding questions on nuclear technology & accident progression. I’ve walked the walk. Reflection on the infighting has some value but at this point it feels like unproductive navel-gazing. Maybe that’s my bias as an engineer; study the problem until a solution is clear, then act.

    So given what you’ve found, what is the next action you should take?

  2. And what have the tools of science told you about dismantling privilege? What the “New Atheists” (who really don’t generally claim that label for themselves) are saying is largely not about communication but about politics and power. There are several links off Greg’s post to my blog that explore that theme. May I suggest you read them instead of rehashing the idea that this is just an issue of communication?

  3. @Bob: Well, it depends on who you ask. That’s part of the issue – there is no single species of atheism. It’s about civil rights until it becomes about science literacy, and then it’s science literacy until it’s a matter of civil rights. As I said, there’s a sociology PhD in this for anybody who would go to lengths to tease out the underlying currents.

    While it might not be science communication itself, there are definitely themes of concern over science literacy driving the matter. I don’t think you can tell me that the atheist dispute between the likes of PZ and Jerry Coyne and the NCSE has nothing to do with the public communication of science, for example.

    Point is, where there are many opinions on what works, what doesn’t, how it works, what’s worked before etc., there is little research or evidence supporting these views. Even here you’ve made connections with other forms of civil rights activism as if atheism is identical and presumed to state how they’ve worked. While my current studies are more in line with medical anthropology, I have discussed this matter with a political science colleague who has a different opinion to you (but who also expressed she’d never really looked into it). Not to say you’re wrong, but it does demonstrate that there are a lot of conflicting opinions, lots of nodding heads, lots of anger, but little by way of calm, measured research.

    To be fair, this is not an issue only with atheist groups. Science communication groups, like that in Australia, also suffer from putting little thought into goals and evaluation before embarking on outreach programs. That is changing as the culture changes to accept the importance of it, however. The difference there is that atheist outreach groups, as you say, are a lot more complicated. There are many goals, many values and different definitions of what their doing. Hence the scattershot approach – without taking into account these variations – risks failure simply due to contrasting actions.

  4. @Stephanie: Ah, so it is a strict collective now? My mistake – those who do call themselves ‘New Atheists’ must not be the real ‘New Atheists’ then.

    I have no doubt that some of those called New Atheists don’t like the term. There are accommodationists who think such a title is incredibly misleading. Others have taken it on with a shrug. That’s part of my point – the whole two-party system has clouded the issue, assuming strawman characteristics of the other, sticking the terms to anybody who seems to disagree with them and ignoring the diversity within.

    Some are concerned with politics and power and civil rights. For many it’s science. And in a large number of cases, it’s not a strict dichotomy. However, at every step, communication is involved. If you’re engaged in reaching out to some part of the community, you’re communicating wit them. You’re choosing your words, your medium, your tone. You’re wanting a change in behaviour to occur. All of that is communication.

    I have read your blog. I’m not sure what it has to do with anything, really. The fact you assume because I disagree with the greater meaning of your personal anecdotes I must not have read them speaks volumes, in fact. That, and if you’re condescending enough and I proceed to then be inspired to read your blog I’ll change my mind.

    The values of science – which you’ll find many, many atheists championing in line with their support of an atheist (or secular, depending on who’s talking) society – also dictate that your personal experiences are limited, biased and flawed, and it takes a rigorous way of thinking, of open criticism, of humility in belief, to turn mere opinions into models that can be used to make good decisions. Instead, personal anecdotes and biased experiences seem enough for you to be satisfied you’re on a winner.

  5. Of course my personal experiences are limited, biased, and flawed. So, frankly, is the science you cite on this topic. It’s a very large topic that has, to date, been covered in some generally small, WEIRD studies that don’t actually approach real-world complexity. That isn’t a reason to throw them out, but it is a reason to be wary of the idea that they’re universally applicable.

    Nor do any of the people I’ve seen telling atheists that they’re doing their communicating “rong” appear to disagree with this. After all, if they did feel that there was a universal right way to communicate when they wanted to persuade, surely they’d employ it with those atheists instead of spreading the snark thick on the ground like this, yes? Or to cut through the snark, what exactly did you hope to accomplish by this post?

    Also, I suggest you pay somewhat closer attention to what those confrontational atheists have to say specifically on the subject of communicating science. Many of them do it for a living, and they do talk about it. It provides rather a strong contrast to how they talk about political communication. In fact, it’s downright prosaic, except for the part where they’re infectiously enthusiastic about their topic.

    And are you sure you’ve read my posts that Greg linked to? They’re really not about communication, much less how I think anyone should be doing it. Or maybe that’s why you don’t see what they’ve got to do with anything.

  6. The problem with accommodationist views is that they smack of special pleading.

    If I say that people that promote the myth that vaccinations are harmful are stupid, nasty, and so forth, nobody bats an eyelid. I can call conspiracy theorists misguided idiots until the cows come home.

    Religion is no different; there is no more reason to believe in a giant sky daddy than there is in ghosts, alien abductions, the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot. New atheists only ruffle feathers because there are so many more theists than there are homoeopaths.

  7. Nobody has said anything about universal applicability. It’s not an all or none scenario. However, they do help indicate where communication is more or less effective. Disregarding research on how people respond to communication for your own personal experience because ‘both are biased’ can be applied to nearly any form of thinking. Creationists use that one all the time – such equivocation is dishonest and lazy, serving only to continue to support your own views rather than challenge them.

    So, your next point is moot. There is no single right way for all situations – that’s a straw man of your invention. There are certainly poor choices of methods which are defended out of a desire to express rage and frustration. In those cases, where it is argued that an approach might compromise other goals, or that there are reasons to consider them ineffective, the justifications are more emotional than rational.

    You ask what I hope to accomplish? Culture change. Encouraging atheists to see that if they want to defend their choices, those values they appreciate so much in science don’t suddenly disappear and allow them to have robust opinions based on gut feelings and wishful thinking.

    You say your posts aren’t about communication? Really? So in this one where you’ve put up a quote on how atheists shouldn’t be asked to ‘be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush’. None of that is about communication?

    Sorry, I don’t buy it. Yes, I’ve read your blog. Telling me you’re not engaging in a discussion on how to communicate and change behaviour through communication is either bad word play or simply being disingenuous.

    Lastly, I do realise that many are science communicators. And they do an excellent job of it. Why should that put them beyond criticism? Why does that allow them to defend their ‘political’ communication so poorly, dismissing criticism by stating merely that it is ridiculous? If they’re so adamant they’re doing a good job in such cases, then something more solid than just their special pleading would be nice.

  8. GAZZA, I’m not sure about where to start with this.

    As I suggested in the post, there’s no single unit of ‘accommodationists’. Even if there was, you’d then need to show that their defining attitude to religion correlates to that of other beliefs, at least in the majority of cases. Again, this is a spurious claim which is based on a gut feeling more than something solid.

    Personally, I feel the same about CAM as I do religious claims. I’d rather see actual changes in our community, and I have seen more evidence for an approach that is designed to get people on side than those that are designed to offend, upset, threaten or intimidate people into complying. I don’t see how name calling or dummy spitting furthers my cause in the slightest, other than making me feel better.

    I might be a sample size of one, but you can surprise me with something substantial behind your claim.

  9. No, Mike, it’s not about communication. It’s about what is politically and socially acceptable speech from various groups. If religious people are allowed to reinforce their views by throwing them into a discussion on a topic and atheists aren’t, that’s a social justice issue.

    And you can drop the “disregarding research” line. Either you are suggesting the research has universal applicability and can take back the crack about straw men, or there is nothing wrong with augmenting scarce, limited research with personal experience of a complex social topic, particularly when the person doing it is a seasoned educator and communicator. Should we be collecting more information about what works? Absolutely, but we have to keep going in the meantime.

    Also in that meantime, we are dealing with political situations of political bias and privilege that those studies rarely, if ever, address. There is plenty of research to show that these have an effect on how communication is received. That must, and does, affect the communication strategies required by the groups without privilege.

    As for what you’re trying to accomplish: You want to persuade the outspoken atheists to change. Why are you not following your own directives when you communicate with them? Why is snark a good tool when you use it but not when they do? Why are you not recognizing and validating these real political concerns and shaping your messages to accommodate them?

  10. Then we have two distinct ideas about what constitutes ‘communication’. Given you go on to say it’s about what is acceptable speech from various groups, including atheists, I would count that as a discussion on communication. I’d honestly like to know what you define communication as if this isn’t covered by the term.

    I’ve seen little ‘augmentation’ to be honest, or a reasoned analysis of how personal experience works or doesn’t work in connection with research. The only responses I’ve seen have been emotional ones that provide blanket dismissals. Perhaps I’ve missed something. I’ve seen few articulated goals, no clear indicators on what is hoped to achieve by specific campaigns or efforts. A lot of angry blog posts ranting about how unfair it is that religion exerts such an influence over politics, science, education etc., sure. There’s money spent on billboards…to no known effect (or expressed desire to know the effect). But when it’s discussed and criticised, there’s special pleading and generalised dismissals of anything that might shed light on the topic.

    So perhaps you do ‘have to keep going’. But what’s being done in the meantime to ensure repeat efforts aren’t at best ineffective and at worst counter productive? Anything? If anybody asks for evidence beyond blind assertions or offers criticisms, they’re called accommodationists and virtually accused of treason.

    If there is plenty of research on how the political science communication (which I’m not disagreeing – I’m confident there is), why isn’t this being employed? Why not throw them in as a rebuttal to those nasty people criticising the atheist’s hard work? I’ve seen no attempts to ‘augment’ choices with research, to ask experts etc.

    I came to this point not arbitrarily, but because I asked for rationalising of reasons behind the use of aggressive language amongst atheists. What I got looked more like emotional justifications, evasions, bigotry and hostility than a well thought out plan with those scientific values helping to hone future endeavours.

    As for hitting my target audience, you might have a point. I can’t claim perfection in communication, and never have. I do try, and am happy to take criticisms that are leveled objectively and reasonably. While I don’t think my ‘snarky’ tone compares with others, I can see how it might seem hypocritical when I respond to condescension and mockery with irritation.

    Thing is, if it hasn’t helped you to see a case or change your mind, why would it work elsewhere?

  11. Tell you what. How about you pick a definition of communication (in your post and most of your comments, it means “getting your point across” because that’s what the research you’ve presented covers) and stick with it. Then we can discuss who is and isn’t talking about communication under that definition. As humans, there’s very little that we do that doesn’t involve communication in some way, but that doesn’t mean every discussion of human behavior is a discussion of communication strategies.

    I think you lost a word or two talking about political science communication, but I’ll answer the point I think you were making. There is lots of cognitive research about how different groups are perceived when presenting the same message. There is almost none on what strategies those groups can employ to level the playing field. Much more of the information available involves the historical strategies employed by other groups involved in their own civil rights fights. To the extent those fights have been analyzed, the call for a multiplicity of voices and strategies is supported (see in particular analyses of the roles of MLK and Malcolm X in the U.S. civil rights fights of the 60s and analyses of the role of ACT UP in the 80s AIDS movement). There has historically been a role–although that role is not necessarily a directly persuasive–for confrontational tactics in social change politics, and it is not ignoring science to say so, because science doesn’t have much to say on the topic.

    Yes, more information on outcomes would be an excellent idea. However, nobody is going to get there using the tactics I’ve seen here and elsewhere. “You’re working on something. Can I work with you and collect information so you know what effect it had?” is going to work a whole lot better than “Why are you doing that? You don’t even know what effect it’s going to have. And you didn’t measure it either!” You don’t even have to trust me on this. Your science says the first one is the better strategy. It just isn’t one I’ve seen in practice.

    This is an important topic, right? You feel some difference is to be made if you persuade people on the topic, right? It isn’t even an issue of hypocrisy (except to the extent it gives someone who wants one a reason not to listen to you) to not follow your own advice on how to communicate about it. It’s simply a matter of whether you feel these tactics are actually useful. If they are, use them. If they’re not, don’t ask anyone else to justify not using them in all situations. And in either case, stop knocking people down for not listening to you when you know you’re not communicating in peak form. It’s really that simple.

    Also, I’m probably not the person you want to ask about what has changed my mind:

  12. You’ve pointed out it’s clear by what I mean by the term ‘communication’. I don’t think it’s a difficult or ambiguous term. I again can’t see how the blog posts Greg referred to aren’t comments on ‘getting your point across’, discussing acceptability of tone, what works etc.

    Yes, it is a lot about what people do. And no, not all human behaviour is about communication. But discussing strategies on how to change the behaviour of a community through choice of words and tone is indeed about communication strategies.

    I’m lost on your explanation of how there is cognitive research on various activist activities, but then go on to say science has little to say on it. I’m willing to accept that analyses of various strategies in historical civil rights activism have demonstrated a role for diverse voices that shows the usefulness of confrontation, mockery etc.. While they’re alluded to, however, I’ve not seen such supporting examples, at least ones that don’t risk committing a correlation fallacy. Of course, it’s not my field, so I could simply not be looking in the right places.

    In any case, at no point have I ever said there can be absolutely no place for aggressive, confrontational behaviour. I’ve conceded it theoretically might be useful, in specific instances, especially given the polarisation it creates could be great at consolidating social groups under shared values. For a diverse, dispersed demographic such as atheists, this provides a sense of unity and strength which could be beneficial. I just don’t see how this benefit could avoid creating further problems in outreach…but, hey, my not seeing it doesn’t make it impossible.

    My point is that using it should be justifiable with more than empty assertions, assumptions and gut feelings. It seems – whether rightly or wrongly – that a lot of atheists go in guns blazing out of an emotional hatred for religion and then justify their coarse actions with ad hoc, spurious reasoning. They have no idea of their goals, what they want to achieve or whether it will be successful, so long as they can let people know they’re angry. Given many such atheists are also keen science communicators, I find it odd that such values aren’t translated across to their own passionate beliefs.

    Should I devote time and resources to studying atheist communication? Given I’m doing my masters in medical anthropology part time to study science communication and CAM, while working full time in science education, writing freelance, and being a dad, I’m pressed for time. Although, to be honest, I have little investment in the topic. What does strike me as curious is that those who do have significant interest in the field devote more time and energy blustering about how unfair it is that somebody dares to criticise what they’re doing than they do expressing interest in finding evidence to show that what they’re doing really is effective.

  13. Tribal, do you have any specific examples of confrontational New Atheists or accommodationists besides (non-linked) PZ and Coyne vs NCSE?

    I follow a lot of atheist blogs, and it helps to know what is what. There’s a plurality of voices as both you and Stephanie have pointed out.

  14. […] a bit of backstory, the sequence of relevant blog posts can be found at Greg Laden’s Blog, my own response, and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘Almost Diamonds’ blog. There are two issues here – […]

  15. Hm, where to start…

    To be honest, I’m not exactly the most involved person in atheism. I comment less from the sidelines, and more from over the fence in science communication. Stephanie has pointed out how different sci-com is by way of being less political, which I’m willing to discuss further, should there be some directed reading and well sourced information.

    Those who are most often labeled as accommodationists would be the likes of Josh Rosenau and Chris Mooney. The typical ‘angry atheists’ are more like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. Yet as I suggested, seeing the discussion as a duality of opinions is to miss the sheer diversity of ideas, views and goals. Even amongst these individuals there are shared views on when confrontational tactics could easily be effective in achieving certain goals.

    What needs to be criticised is not generalised, universal approaches, but the manner in which concepts, methods and goals are discussed. Some approaches will often carrying multiple consequences which affect different goals – for example, if you’re more interested in epistemology (as I am), and changing how people critically think about beliefs, ridicule is pretty useless. If you have a subpopulation who are encouraged by mockery to oppose the behaviours of another subpopulation, then it might change the interplay of power in certain contexts.

    This richness demands greater discussions, more evidence and a desire to objectively analyse efforts in order to see if methods work as intended. Instead there are purely made-up assertions, a hostility towards any criticism (or view of it being detrimental) and a drive to outcast any dissenting voices.

  16. Thanks for the response, Tribal.

    A hallmark of these two (as we agree, overly simplistic terms no doubt) of accommodationist and confrontational New Atheists seems to be whether or not they name the source of their criticism. I think this bears some looking at.

    In many of the accommodationist posts about communicating atheism, we see similar complaints as Phil Plait made in his infamous “Don’t be a Dick” speech – it is aimed imprecisely at a group of atheists that are never named. I contrast that to PZ Myers’s “Crackergate” series of posts, and he’s naming the student and school, and people opposing his actions, that were the start and continuation of the whole thing.

    This seems to me to hold true across most blogs. Is naming names what inspires people to see PZ and Coyne and Benson and Blackford as rude? Are haughty prounouncements about how the New Atheists are doing it wrong from Rosenau and Mooney and Ruse more acceptable because of general complaint? (There are no doubt, exceptions to these rules and Rosenau is someone who does take up complaints with specific people.)

    There’s a plurality of voices, and I prefer reading the atheists who are willing to stand up and say exactly what they’re criticizing instead of those deriving general principles of rudeness and hand-wringing and waving them vaguely at another group.

  17. You do make an excellent point. I’m not sure what I would have done in Plaitt’s shoes, to be honest. On one hand, generalised hand waving allows people to dismiss or embrace caricatures rather than actual individuals. On the other, it does run the risk of devolving into pedantics over whether how somebody behaved was truly ‘dickish’, whether it was justified, whether they’re being picked on etc. It’s also difficult changing culture one individual at a time – calling out PZ for being a dick, for example, might create greater factionalism than making it a vague sweep.

    For my money, I don’t think precision is what is counted as rude, but the tone of the context. Stating somebody did X, Y and Z, and criticising the consequences is fair play in my view. Calling that same somebody an idiot, presuming their behaviour is the result of lack of intelligence or some nefarious goal and generally acting in a way that attempts to deride them out of an apparent desire for retribution is (IMO) not fair play, but ‘acting like a dick’. Deliberately offending an individual with no apparent reason other than out of a wish to see them feel the offence is, again, IMO, what marks an action as dickish rather than productive.

    Of course, knowing intentions would take some sweet mind reading skills I don’t have. I can easily be corrected in my own assumptions, therefore, by reasonable discussion.

    I have no problem with speaking one’s mind, nor being clear in the target of criticism. There is a view that says since criticism is in itself undesired, communicating it in a derisive tone is either warranted or insubstantial. That’s where we part ways, I’m afraid.

  18. “…apparent desire for retribution…”

    Wow, do you have an example for this?

    Part of my issue and where I disagree with much of what you are saying stems from your own lack of examples. I come from an art historical background. Discussing the aesthetics and meaning of paintings without mentioning which ones -except for saying “Surrealism”, for example – can be confusing to the reader.

  19. @Glendon: How else would you define a desire to offend as anything other than a desire for retribution? If I find your actions distasteful or offensive and deride you as a result, isn’t that an act of retribution?

    Perhaps not. But given I’ve seen numerous responses to questions on aggressive language in communication that justify its use by claiming ‘they started it’ or ‘they deserve it’, I find it hard to see how else to interpret it.

    I can understand the desire for specific instances. Yet if you’ve never seen an example in a blog post or comment of somebody justifying their aggressive responses in such a fashion, such as the comments in Pharyngula supporting the right to advertise an email address for others to attack, then I’d question just how many blogs you’ve really read. Supporting the aggressive approach with claims that the target deserves it in some way is fairly common.

  20. What the heck are you talking about?

    Is that:

    A. A legitimate way to express criticism

    B. A nasty way to express criticism

    C. A forbidden way to express criticism

    D. A simple question

    E. A personal insult

    F. A recipe for serving toasted chocolate-covered bats

    G. Code for ‘I have to go to the bathroom’

    To wit: “Diverse approaches are indeed necessary…no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems…No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.”

    So? You don’t REALLY mean to hint at anything hideous in the ‘community’ by labeling up a neatly clear and precise dichotomy composed of contending parties you identify as “Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist”, do you? Or perhaps you just wish to share the superior perspective you enjoy from your lofty above-the-messy-fray perch and inform everyone that individuals are permitted to choose their own ways and means, as diversity and individual taste may determine…or…wait…what the heck were you talking about again?

    Lots o’ spiel, I’ll give you that much. With all due clarity and precision, that’s for sure.

  21. There’s only two reasons I can think of that somebody would take the time to bother responding such a ‘query’ – either you’re genuinely interested in what I have to say, or having read PZ’s article figured you had a minute to spare to highlight what you figured was ridiculous in a mocking tone.

    If you’re really wanting me to rephrase, then I’ll gladly do so. If you’re just interested in being a dick, well, post approved. Hope you enjoyed yourself. 🙂

  22. I can understand the desire for specific instances. Yet if you’ve never seen an example in a blog post or comment of somebody justifying their aggressive responses in such a fashion, such as the comments in Pharyngula supporting the right to advertise an email address for others to attack, then I’d question just how many blogs you’ve really read. Supporting the aggressive approach with claims that the target deserves it in some way is fairly common.


    “…such as the comment section at Pharnygula.”

    You’re in very good company using the pharyngula comment section as a well-spring of inspiration for your very own general indictment of all that’s wrong with modern atheism today.

    For instance, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, when unwittingly and eagerly participating in outrageous fabrications, are repeat offenders.

    For years the level of discourse from accommodationists comes in two flavors: cryptic generalities and, if pressed, pointing to the Pharyngula comment section.

    Now if you believe there is no more to New Atheism than the Horde then I doubt anyone is interested in listening to what you have to say.

    Really, in the age of the printing press and now the internet, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to quote a well-known New Atheist voice such as Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, Benson, Coyne, Blackford, or even Myers.

  23. You have a point, gillt, however there is a fairly simple reason (I believe) as to why such communities are cited.

    It is a slippery field to discuss. If it’s an individual comment that’s referred to, it can be dismissed as a one off, an outlier, or a contextual statement that demands reading beyond the single example. I’ve experienced that a couple of times and in all honesty there isn’t much to say to it, given it’s more or less true. It’s hard to point at single instances as problems as they’re single instances and have little impact as isolated samples.

    Insinuating it’s an endemic cultural problem requires an example of a concentrated culture where such tolerance for unsupported claims or ostracising tactics can occur; such as a comments blog. Personally, I can’t comment much on Mooney, as I’m not a great fan of his writing.

    The Pharyngula community is probably commonly used as a reference point because it is a rather colourful example of a culture that includes frequent examples of hateful language and aggression towards statements that are critical of their efforts or beliefs.

    My point is simple – there are indeed many examples of people who claim to be aggressive out of a sense of retribution or moral justice. The Pharyngula community is not an isolated example of where to find them, but if somebody asked where they could find fish, I’d sooner point to the ocean than the local mall.

  24. My point is that the pharnygula comment section is often the only, the sole, community–not communities–cited in NA criticism, both explicitly and implicitly. I think that’s a problem for the accommodationist/diplomatic (I haven’t read Greta’s distinction) position.

    There are self-identified new atheists populating Benson’s and Coyne’s place as well as And then there are the owners of those blogs, all prolific writers. It seems apparent the difference has everything to do with the inhibition of anonymous commenting coupled to blog house rules and not a hallmark of New Atheism. If the trend is as self-evident as you say, they it shouldn’t be too hard for someone to chart it. Jeremy Stangroom attempted cataloging New Atheist incivility a while back but appears to have lost motivation.

    The Pharyngula community is not an isolated example of where to find them

    But of course it is because it’s the only thing you have bothered to cite. More importantly, you haven not explained why the pharyngula community is representative of the New Atheist community. Where is the level of pharnygula comment section incivility at atheist conventions or in New Atheist books or public debates, on discussion panels, radio programs, youtube videos, letters to editors, magazine articles, etc.?

  25. First of all, the citation I provided was on where to find an example of a particular behaviour. Being more evident in Pharyngula, I used it as an example. I’ve seen other various examples of NA behaviour cited at Coyne’s blog, the old RD forums, JREF…however I can’t claim enough of a sample on citations to agree or disagree with your claim of ‘often’. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the fact that there appears to be fewer dissenting voices arguing for non-confrontational actions at Pharyngula, making it easier to identify more extreme examples of the behaviour being discussed.

    Part of the problem I’m finding – and I admit myself to being guilty of it even in the article above (which is not overly recent, and I have noticed it more recently) – is that New Atheism is coming to be defined by the more extreme confrontational activist position as much as referring to atheist activism in general. Much as the New Atheism discourse is coming to be equated more frequently with anti-theist sentiments.

    The more I think about it, the more I actually agree (to a point) that PZ is right, and the article above missed the mark, as much as the intention was there. Categorising New Atheism with so many straw man definitions, group-think, hyperboles and generalisations is a mug’s game.

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