Rationally Speaking is expanding again! After having recently added Julia Galef, we are proud to announce the continuation of our tradition (based on a whopping two data points!) of featuring young and bright critical thinkers (except for yours truly, who is young only at heart).
We are pleased to welcome Michael De Dora Jr. as a regular contributor to Rationally Speaking (he will also have his "Michael's Picks" of course). Michael is executive director at the New York City branch of the thinktank Center for Inquiry (CFI), serving as a public voice for science, reason, and secular values.
Now get this: before joining CFI, Michael was a news writer and editor at FOXNews.com (as well as the City University of New York)! But don't blame him for the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
Michael spent his undergraduate years at SUNY-Albany, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Communication. He is now completing a political science master’s degree at CUNY-Brooklyn College.
Michael's contributions to RS will span the full gamut, probably concentrating on political and moral philosophy, which are particularly close to his interests, as well as broader issues of concern to the skeptical community.
I wish I could subscribe to comments without having to write a comment myself. Oh Blogger...ReplyDelete
All that, and easy on the eyes too!ReplyDelete
I think this may be a very poor choice, Massimo. I'll wait to see some of Michael de Dora's posts before I make a final judgment, but I was not impressed by the quality of thought displayed in his recent article making the same old tiresome, ill-considered, evidence-free, rhetorically slanted, poorly reasoned arguments against outspoken atheism and atheists. That is to say, I am no more impressed with de Dora than Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne are.ReplyDelete
You and I have had our disagreements on the politics of atheism, but I've always found your arguments fair and reasonable, even when I disagree with them: De Dora's arguments, not so much.
Looks like De Dora is in the Chris Mooney camp of atheists.ReplyDelete
Ah, the Chris Mooney camp of atheists. Still waiting for my registration packet.ReplyDelete
I won't be posting about atheism very much here, so don't worry. I'm sure Massimo's said what needs to be said about the New Atheists already, anyway.
Well I will be expecting some posts on spilling the beans about Fox News then. I would like to know what his role was, how stories were selected, what he did, and what penance he plans to perform to avoid going to hell! ;)ReplyDelete
(Just kidding about the last part!)
Well, people can and do successfully partition their minds and can make good contributions in one sphere while being woefully misguided in others. So, at least De Dora deserves the benefit of the doubt. I do admit that my Bayesian prior on either his ability to play devil's advocate or his intellectual honesty (not sure which) is a bit low after reading his anti-NA screed on CFI.ReplyDelete
On one hand, atheists are a hated minority, even the "friendly" kind. We are considered immoral pariahs by shockingly large proportions of people, and we cannot expect to be elected to public office except in a few small jurisdictions in the U.S. unless we lie and claim to be religious. And every year, literally millions of sermons are preached that are liberally sprinkled with the most contemptible rhetoric demonizing us, sometimes even bordering on incitement of violence. And a subset of the religious book industry communicates the same ideas to a vast audience far outnumbering atheists.
And in light of this relentless assault Michael has the gall to highlight the view of NAs as "divisive"? Even if it were true that NA has a tendency toward angry and uncompassionate attack (it isn't), so what? This is a sweeping indictment against uncompromising activism of any sort, including huge swaths of the Civil Rights Movement or the Pro Choice Movement, the Labor Movement, etc. Frankly, it was a waste of a platform to condemn activism, EVEN IF NAs displayed a "tendency" towards angry attack.
Which of course is not true. Let's grant De Dora that Hitchens, Myers, and even Dawkins are "angry" (I disagree about Dawkins at least, but allow me to be charitable). What about the others? It is a stretch to call Harris, Dennett, Stenger, Grayling, Maher, Stephen Fry, etc. angry. And the NA "movement" is also represented by people like Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk whose edited volume "50 Voices of Disbelief" is an incredibly varied and frequently positive meditation on how lives without god are lived. So, atheists, despite being a minority in the U.S. have a huge diversity of viewpoints and styles, ranging from angry and divisive to downright accommodating. And even among the NA subset of atheists, as I illustrate above, there is quite a diversity of temperament, and the "angry" class is by no means dominant. Unless of course you want to define NA as "divisive and angry" in which case too much of the CFI article was an exercise in question begging.
Which brings me back to the benefit of the doubt. I agree with that "ideology/dogmatism" is the more general problem. However, I would say that all organized religion is a non-empty proper subset of "ideology/dogmatism", and is probably the single largest plurality of that set. So while, I think De Dora shares some common ground with me (which of course means he's obviously right! j/k). However, it seems entirely untrue (bordering on negligence) to assert that NAs in general think all problems are religious in nature. That's preposterous. Clearly, many NAs are critical of ideologies, dogmatism, etc. Even if there are one-trick-ponies among the NAs, so what? They aren't dominant. And their focus on religion is no more dismissive of other problems than MLK Jr's focus on Civil Rights was dismissive of labor problems or vice versa. Just because MLK Jr put the majority of his energy into and will be known for his activism in bringing rights to non-white Americans doesn't mean he didn't write and comment extensively on many other issues. The same holds even for the "angry anti-religious" atheists.
(Don' know why, but my character count for the whole comment was well under 4,096. Oh well. Here's the conclusion of my last comment.)ReplyDelete
De Dora's arguments are very understandable in a social context though. He's expressing standard taboo aversion. It is taboo to criticize religion directly. And when he sees that taboo being violated, he reflexively directs his disapproval at the "offenders". If one wonders why he doesn't apply the same criticism to analogous forms of "angry divisive rhetoric" coming from churches, the answer is simple: it isn't taboo.
We prefer to be called "affirmative Atheists," if you don't mind.ReplyDelete
Your piece on affirmative atheism was really pretty bad, even worse than Chris Mooney, oddly.
I find it rather peculiar that this thread is turning into yet another discussion of the merits or lack thereof of the so-called New Atheism (which doesn't really present anything new, not even the tone of intransigence). Oh well, welcome Michael, you and I are going to have an increasingly hard time on, wait, our blog!ReplyDelete
"I find it rather peculiar..."ReplyDelete
Oh come now... You announce a new co-blogger on a widely read rationalist blog with a currently divided constituency and his most recent high-profile contribution to the blogosphere is an extended anti-NA whine. Your definition of "peculiar" seems more similar "entirely predictable".
I'd also be curious and interested to hear about Michael's time with FoxNews.ReplyDelete
Re: Dora's take on atheism and politics.... There shouldn't be a surprise there on anyone's part, really. As we've learned from the health care debate; there is a difference between whats popular and what is politically feasible.
Actually, I might make a post about my time at FOX News at some point, in some way. I've never written about it before, as surprising as that may be.ReplyDelete
What does "affirmative atheist" mean?ReplyDelete
What does "affirmative atheist" mean? I think I can answer that, but not in two words.ReplyDelete
The "New Atheist" label was slapped on by the media and by commenters who actively dislike outspoken atheists, and one of the goals of the label seems to be to dismiss those so labeled as merely trendy - thereby eliding the truth that they are part of a long intellectual tradition and all that is "new" about them is the attention they're getting. Thus, it's perfectly reasonable to reject that label in favor of another, self-chosen label.
Some have proposed or simply used straightforward descriptive labels like "forthright atheism," "outspoken atheism," or "activist atheism." Philosopher John Wilkins, who is not himself an atheist (he's a self-described agnostic) but who recognizes that there has been a lot of ugly and inaccurate labeling of atheists ("militant," "fundamentalist," etc.), recently recommended Affirmative Atheism as a good label. And I think "affirmative" is a good descriptive term for a group of people who are trying to make the world a better place by *arguing for* a reason- and evidence-based approach to life and learning: That aim does, of course, also require *arguing against* anti-rational, evidence-denying approaches to life (i.e. faith), but does not simply reduce to or solely consist in "arguing against" anything.
That last bit, not coincidentally, is exactly the unjust and unsupported mischaracterization of the modern public atheist movement that YOU promulgated in the article I cited above. Of course, that is the sort of mischaracterization that lots of people in the media promulgate - unsurprisingly, because there are so many people in the media (and outside of it) who unquestioningly defend and advance the "hands-off, no criticism allowed EVER" status that religious ideas have enjoyed for far too long even in the so-called First World. But I would have hoped that someone who works for the Center for Inquiry would demonstrate a little more critical thinking on this subject than, say, Madeleine Bunting of The Guardian. (And yes, that was a rude comparison. So? Stop writing like her and I won't make it again.)
"And I think 'affirmative' is a good descriptive term for a group of people who are trying to make the world a better place by *arguing for* a reason- and evidence-based approach to life and learning: That aim does, of course, also require *arguing against* anti-rational, evidence-denying approaches to life (i.e. faith), but does not simply reduce to or solely consist in 'arguing against' anything."
But atheism is not about reason and evidence. You can't just snap your fingers and have atheism mean something different overnight. And why try to fix atheism when there are better, more comprehensive words out there, like freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc?
"Let's grant De Dora that Hitchens, Myers, and even Dawkins are 'angry' (I disagree about Dawkins at least, but allow me to be charitable). What about the others? It is a stretch to call Harris, Dennett, Stenger, Grayling, Maher, Stephen Fry, etc. angry. And the NA 'movement' is also represented by people like Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk whose edited volume '50 Voices of Disbelief' is an incredibly varied and frequently positive meditation on how lives without god are lived."
But my piece focused on the leaders of the atheist movement, being Dawkins, Myers, and maybe Hitchens (according to book sales and other public attention). And, by the way, Maher is a perfect example of why atheism is so limited. The guy's views on science and medicine are nowhere near reasonable (not to mention his rhetoric isn't so great either).
To those who disagree with me re: atheism, at the very least, let me get to posting essays before you judge me outright. I'm not charging people are doing this, but to wholly dismiss a person based on their views on one issue would be narrow-minded.
Maher is simply frustrating to watch at times and leaves me shaking my head in disappointment when considering the possibility that he could be seen by some as a representative for liberal politics, never mind atheism.ReplyDelete
"But my piece focused on the leaders"ReplyDelete
Cherry picked leaders. The so-called "four horsemen" include at least Sam Harris and Dan Dennett who are anything but rude. So, you're characterizing a movement based on its leaders and using a characterization about only 2/4 so-called "leaders". And as I said, I disagree with the characterization of Dawkins, so it is arguable that you're generalizing from Hitchens alone, unless you expand what a leader is.
And if you want to expand it to a broader range of "leaders" for every Myers you add, I'll raise you a Blackford or a Grayling or a Stenger.
So, no, you weren't focused on the leaders. You were cherry picking.
And regarding Maher, who cares if he's a nut? Your piece wasn't talking about whether any of these folks is actually right or even rational. And my specific beef with your essay was when it focused on NA tone. Maher's film Religilous may have been condescending in some senses, but it certainly wasn't "angry [and] uncompassionate". The portrayals of some of the people in that film were very soft. Sure, they may have come off as buffoons unfairly, but they came off as funny and human buffoons. You might argue that that in itself is a rhetorically questionable tack for atheists to take, but it doesn't fit so neatly into the thesis you put forward. I'm merely pointing out a contradiction to your thesis. That contradiction need not be charitable to so-called NAs to call your characterization into question.
But to be fair, I look forward to your posts here. You are motivated and interactive. While I tend to enjoy 90% (give or take) of Massimo's posts, he's typically "too busy" to defend himself in the comments when someone puts forward a dissent I share (I typically lurk). Even if (or especially if!) I disagree with you 50% of the time, I have hope that you'll add a lot more value to an already interesting blog by actually interacting with your detractors more than has been customary* in the past.
* To Massimo. No, I don't deny that you comment frequently and often interestingly and your interaction in the comments does add value. But on issues of particular interest to me, I would appreciate more interaction from an intelligent interlocutor. Moar please. Maybe you don't have time for but, but perhaps Michael does.
So where is this infamous piece on NA by Michael?ReplyDelete
See thinkmonkey's post near the top (posted at March 24, 2010 6:10 PM) Just follow the link
I didn't arbitrarily pick Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers. They collectively got the most social attention AND also were sharp in their rhetoric AND wanted people to value atheism in some important sense. Harris and Dennett do not fit those qualifications.
Concerning Maher. Lighten up people, don't expect so much intellectual quality from comedians. I love his New Rules! I thought his Religulous really sucked as intellectual critique of religion and entertainment. And I don't care what he has to say about science and medicine unless its funny.ReplyDelete
And yes please, give us some inside perspective on Fox News, that would be quite interesting.
Welcome aboard Michael. I stand with JJ and others like him here, probably, but appreciate what you are bringing, and the blog in general.ReplyDelete
My first thought was to agree with you on Dawkins and I do, mainly. I read the "God Delusion," (the first time I read a mainstream atheist work a few months ago) and from that work alone I found nothing against "new atheism," if that is what that work represents, to be disdainful of. Searching around however, I found at naturalsim.org (http://www.naturalism.org/Against_contempt.htm) Tom Clark's take on the matter of new atheism where he quotes from Dawkin's call for "naked contempt":
(Dawkins): "But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt."
Dawkins's quote here clearly shows that he accepts a brash and perhaps disrespectful attack of religion from a strategic point to win fence sitters. I still haven't followed him enough to know how he has carried that out or whether it has been or will be successful. But as Michael has portrayed "new atheists," at least from recognition of a strategy, it seems Dawkins self professes here to be of that ilk.
Anyways, I was wondering why you do not specifically consider Dawkins to be in that camp?
"Lighten up people, don't expect so much intellectual quality from comedians."ReplyDelete
Sorry, Sheldon, but that is such a cop-out (and an ignorant opinion). Considering people such as George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais, to just name a few, give me a break; Maher is awful and simply being a comedian among such peers gives him no security to criticism - in fact, considering such people, he should be ashamed of himself.
"But atheism is not about reason and evidence. You can't just snap your fingers and have atheism mean something different overnight. And why try to fix atheism when there are better, more comprehensive words out there, like freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc?"ReplyDelete
Mr. de Dora, you appear to be attempting to assert the truth of a substantive claim by definition, and in what I find to be a transparent and frankly offensive manner. Of course the word "atheism" has a straightforward minimalist definition - lack of belief in a deity. But the subject under discussion was "affirmative atheism/atheist" as a label for a social and political movement and the people involved in that movement, and in fact it was under discussion as a replacement for the label "New Atheism/Atheist." That movement and the people who are prominent in it cannot be characterized as having nothing positive to say about reason and evidence simply because the dictionary definition of "atheism" is a negative claim (the non-existence of any deity); you can only legitimately characterize them on the basis of what they actually do say, which is not in fact wholly negative – not by a long shot. The published atheists under discussion here are all positive champions of science and reason and evidence, pretty much every day in every way in all that they write.
I can't think of a way to parse "atheism is not about reason and evidence" which isn't straightforwardly false, except in the very narrow sense that the dictionary definition of 'atheism' need not include reason and evidence. Surely it would be ludicrous to deny that the root cause of many if not most self-described atheists' atheism - including our blog host's - is reason and evidence, i.e. critical thinking. Massimo wasn't raised to be an atheist, nor was I, nor was Richard Dawkins, nor PZ Myers, ad nauseum... Since all these people arrived at atheism rather than starting there - and since they have all cited reason and evidence as the basis for their atheism at considerable length and repetition - clearly reason and evidence have quite a lot to do atheism. The mere fact that the dictionary definition of the word "atheism" does not necessarily include evidence and reason has no bearing whatsoever on the role reason and evidence have in actual atheism as argued and lived, and as it is advanced in the recent popular books under discussion here.
Again, I must point out that your poorly supported assertions about the fundamentally and wholly negative character of the writings of the so-called New Atheists are exactly what pissed me (and many other people) off about the CFI blog post I cited in my first comment above. Now, with this insistence that "atheism is not about reason and evidence" and the claim that the very term "atheism" is something that must be "fixed" (and I'll get to your supposedly better words later), you not only appear to be advancing the same general claim, you seem to be pretending that the claim must be true simply because the word "atheism" has a dictionary definition that hinges on negation or absence of belief in a deity. I honestly find it hard to believe the reasoning of the director of a CFI office could be so shallow, but I don't have much to go on but your comments here and that one blog post - which have not exactly impressed me.
You highlight the reason why I think Dawkins is arguable. To be perfectly honest, discourse in every aspect of our culture allows irrational arguments to be used, either mixed witht the rational ones or simply a la carte. If you doubt this, just turn on the teevee to a political show or read a book or movie review.
What I see Dawkins as doing is presenting quite a few rational arguments (the quality of the arguments is an entirely different issue I won't address here) and sprinkling them with zingers that are intended to garner attention, but aren't necessarily rational. And gather attention they do. As do those movie reviews, the political speeches, etc. (Read an AV Club movie review for example.)
So, in this sense, Dawkins "lowers" himself to the level of culture at large. Insofar as we should always be unfailiningly on message and that message should be rational, Dawkins fails. But then again, so does everyone else. The reason I tentatively side with Dawkins is because whenever he gets this catigation for being "angry" and an "attacker", it highlights the double standard that religion enjoys. You can criticize anything else, and you're given a fair bit of latitude. But criticize religion, and you are immediately shamed.
Anyway, Myers clearly is more aggressive, and since he plays the role of the "no holds barred" attacker of religion, I can live with the criticism he gets. Since his subject is religion, he gets disproportionately attacked in return, but at least people are pretty universal in their understanding that all such blunt instruments must be able to take if they can dish it out.
May a thousand atheists bloom, I say. The current debates that contemporary atheism takes up are completely mainstream in every way except one: they don't view criticism of religion as taboo. We should stop treating as if it is somehow extreme.
I didn't necessarily claim that Maher, being a comedian, should be immune from criticism. I am simply saying I hold Maher and any other comedian to a different standard. I too shake my head at some of his statements and interviews with serious people on serious subjects. (his interview with Chomsky was a joke, for example). But he still makes me laugh. That's an ignorant opinion?
I am sure we could find a bunch to criticize about Carlin and Stewart etc. if they started spouting serious opinions.
And, by the way, Maher is a perfect example of why atheism is so limited. The guy's views on science and medicine are nowhere near reasonable (not to mention his rhetoric isn't so great either).
No, he isn't. He's an example of why atheism is not sufficient, but then no one claims it is. You seem to be fundamentally confused about that.
Your rhetoric is 'not so great' either - not least because you don't seem to be fully in control of it. You give an impression of strong hostility to atheists, which you apparently don't intend. It's really rather odd that you (apparently) can't see why your sweeping and inaccurate claims about atheists are irritating many people.
I will follow your articles with an exceptional interest because my passion is moral philosophy (and critical thinking).
BTW if you have strong speaking skills I might just ask you for one of my conferences. Some day ;-)
I for one am extremely pleased to see Michael join this blog. I find his fresh ideas and thoughtful analysis genuine, intelligent and agenda free.ReplyDelete
Welcome... I look forward to reading your contributions!
I am simply saying I hold Maher and any other comedian to a different standard.ReplyDelete
If a person is on TV and has a show that is focusing on current issues while inviting guests related to those issues to participate in a discussion... what other standard could there be given such a format? Intellectual qualities aren't exclusive to comedians.
I too shake my head at some of his statements and interviews with serious people on serious subjects. (his interview with Chomsky was a joke, for example).
Agreed. But why should I think 'oh, well, he's just a comedian' to overlook otherwise bad know-how on a subject (or lack of seriousness on a topic). If someone like Maher is going to sit there on the one hand and act like an authority one it comes to things like the food industry and environmentalism, than why should he get a pass when it comes to other subjects?
I am sure we could find a bunch to criticize about Carlin and Stewart etc. if they started spouting serious opinions.
Sure. But in my opinion, if you replace Maher with Stewart, you've just set the stage to deliver more substance to your audience.
"Intellectual qualities aren't exclusive to comedians."ReplyDelete
Correction: Intellectual qualities aren't exclusive to everyone but comedians.