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Charlie Jane Anders Should Read More Atheists November 27, 2012

Posted by wfenza in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Charlie Jane Anders, a writer for one of my favorite nerd blogs, io9, wrote a post today called Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction. The post, to be as charitable as I can, is total crap. Anders starts out by saying

You can’t be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can’t just profess that they don’t believe in God — they have to taunt religious people for believing in “fairy tales.” Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science… and yet, they won’t recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.

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The first problem here is that Anders is attacking an attitude without citing any examples, just saying “you know what I mean.” This is an almost guaranteed straw man, as it relies on the detractor’s characterization of the offending behavior with no room for interpretation.

The next problem, just with this paragraph alone, is that Anders characterizes equating religious belief with belief in fairy tales and/or the Tooth Fairy is “smug.” The problem is that religious belief is no more reasonable or supported by evidence as is belief in those other “ridiculous” things. In some ways, it makes more sense to believe in the Tooth Fairy, as parents often specifically set out to provide evidence for its existence. Anders just throws this out there like it’s obvious, instead of providing an argument or any reasons why religious believers shouldn’t be mocked for their ridiculous beliefs.

Third is the classic agnostic fallacy – we “simply have no data, one way or the other.” Wrong. We have a ton of data disproving a ton of religious beliefs. The only way you get to “we have no data” is by reference to a vague, squishy idea of “a higher power” which doesn’t necessarily do much of anything. Any time you get more specific than that, chances are there is some evidence against your belief. But that also ignores a central idea behind all reasonable thought – belief without evidence is unjustified. If we have no data for or against a proposition, the reasonable thing to do is to disbelieve it. The strength of a belief should be proportional to the strength of the evidence. If there is no evidence, there should be no belief, and anyone who has a belief is being unreasonable. Anders continues

A lot of the best science fiction includes a sense of wonder at the hugeness of the cosmos — and the flipside of that is a sense of our own smallness. And the humility that goes along with that. If you want to feel a real sense of quasi-religious awe, don’t think of the world as being 6,000 years old — think of its actual age, measured in billions of years, and the huge timescales of the universe before and after our world. And think of the vastness of the cosmos, whose mysteries we’ve only just begun to glimpse in the past century.

What now? Anders sounds like most of the often-called “smug” atheists I know of in this paragraph. Is Anders trying to suggest that atheists lack a sense of wonder at the universe? I’d say that Anders ought to take a look at The Magic of Reality before making unsourced assertions like that. Anders’ next point:

There’s a common plot in science fiction — particularly media SF — where someone is “seeing things” or having experiences that can’t be easily verified or quantified using technology. Like a sense of “deja vu,” or hearing voices, or seeing the missing-presumed-dead Captain Kirk floating around. And a huge problem in these stories is that nobody can really know what another person is experiencing, or whether it has any validity or is just a hallucination. Thus it is with religious experiences — other people can speak about their profound experiences of the divine, which seem immensely real to them, but may sound like a crazy delusion to the rest of us.

Is Anders seriously suggesting here that “smug” atheists aren’t aware of stories in which people seem crazy, but are later vindicated? Of course we’re aware of those stories. The reason we don’t immediately draw parallels to the people we know who seems crazy is that THESE ARE WORKS OF FICTION! Seriously, how dense do you have to be not to understand that? One of the common criticisms that “smug” atheists level at believers is that they can’t tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Anders seems to be proving that point. Anders closes with this:

Still, it’s great to be atheist — and I strongly support arguing publicly and loudly in favor of atheism as a point of view. Just, you know, don’t be smug about it. You don’t actually know any more than the rest of us, and the universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp, and the only thing that would be surprising is if we stop being constantly surprised. If you don’t believe me, just read some science fiction.

This is the paragraph that inspired the title of this post, in that it seems to me that Anders just doesn’t know any atheists. Almost all of the atheists that I know agree wholeheartedly that the universe is a strange, bewildering, and ultimately unknowable place. Our frustration is with religious believers who claim to know things that they cannot possibly know, based on holy books or intuition. It’s the atheists who are insisting that the universe is a giant mystery, and the believers who claim that they have it all figured out. Atheism is nothing more that the belief that the idea of “god” is unsupported by the available evidence. Anders should actually speak to a few atheists before painting them with such a broad brush.

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Comments»

1. Jessica Burde - November 27, 2012

I agree the guy sounds like an idiot, and most of the atheists I know in person are great people who see a ton of wonder in the world. But you know what? As a religious person, I have to agree with them that the smugness and mockery of atheists online gets old. No, I don’t have references (I wasn’t planning on discussing this topic today, and I don’t exactly favorite or bookmark tweets and websites that call me an idiot on a regular basis.)

I know my beliefs are unsupported by evidence and irrational. I choose to believe anyway. You think whatever you like about that decision. But you know what? When need to say “instead of providing an argument or any reasons why religious believers shouldn’t be mocked for their ridiculous beliefs.” What I hear is that you think it is okay to mock my ‘ridiculous beliefs’. And no, it is not okay to mock someone who beliefs something different that you, it is not okay to treat someone else with disrespect for no reason other than you think they are foolish to believe in something. It’s no more right for atheists to mock believers than it is for believers to attack atheists with stupid “You’re going to hell!” and “Jesus can save you!” BS.

As Jew I get it from both of the major ‘sides’ in this debate (in the US anyway) – the proselytizing Christians and the mocking atheists. And I’m sick as fuck of all of them.

2. wfenza - November 27, 2012

What I hear is that you think it is okay to mock my ‘ridiculous beliefs’

I do think that’s OK. If you don’t want to be ridiculed, say less ridiculous things. Your decision to believe something that is almost certainly untrue is a foolish one, and your belief deserves all of the mockery, derision, disrespect, and smugness that it gets.

3. myatheistlife - November 27, 2012

@Jessica Burde, I’m guessing that you don’t like being mocked, for your beliefs anyway. Can we just go with what you wear then? Oh wait, that’s not fair either. Maybe we can settle on what you write? You have the right to be offended, but not the right to be not offended. If you don’t like being mocked, stop doing stupid things. Stop and think long and hard before pressing the ‘post comment’ button would be a good idea if you want to reduce the mockery of your position. Then again, I’m not in charge of your life. You decide what’s right for you… just don’t be surprised if the rest of the world disagrees with you about it. LOL

4. oh yeah - November 27, 2012

get a job

5. Andrew - November 28, 2012

Jessica I don’t necessarily agree one should be mocked for what they believe but did you read what you posted? You choose to believe in something that you can in know way prove is real. How is that different than a crazy person believing that the devil talks to them and tells them to commit murder? It’s not different at all. You are literally crazy if you willingly believe in something with nothing to base it on.

6. Amanda - November 28, 2012

I think it’s the difference between what a person is “allowed” or “entitled” to do (which, of course, includes mocking whoever he or she finds ridiculous) and what actions are the most useful/productive/[insert the value judgement of your choice here]. The risk of mocking people whose beliefs strike you are stupid or indefensible, of course, is that you will alienate those people, since given the choice to “believe something I can respect, or accept that I’m going to mock you,” people often choose none of the above and hit the road. My sense is that individuals who value rationalism and evidence probably don’t count that as much of a loss. It’s not as clear to me what the goal is in mocking irrational beliefs, but whatever – no one is asking me to do it.

Jessica, I empathize with your frustration. I think, though, that part of valuing tolerance (a really hard part!) is accepting that some people don’t value it. They think being correct or rational is more important. If all these people are doing is producing derisive blog posts or smug tweets, well, it may be a waste of energy to try and convince them to change their viewpoint.

7. Jessica Burde - November 28, 2012

No one can prove love is real. From a rational, hard science view point, there is no such thing. From a rational, hard science view point there is no difference between passion and anger. From a rational, hard science view point, there is no point to taking cold medication (it is, on average, about as effective as a placebo). Yes, I believe things that fly in the face of scientific evidence. So, I am willing to bet, do most atheists, because scientific evidence flies in the face of subjective experience (like the fact that you know you love your mother, even though science says there ain’t so such thing), and it’s damn hard to not believe in your own subjective experience. I’m just honest about it.

@myatheistlife – I don’t like being mocked, period. I don’t like seeing other people mocked, period. No, I don’t think t appropriate to mock people for the way they dress, or what they write or anything else. I believe in treating people with respect and decency. Apparently you don’t.

@Amanda – thank you, you are right. I have for a while valued wfrenza’s contributions to discussions on polyamory and tried to ignore the mockery, but it’s looking like I just need to step away. Probably stupid to post any response, but I felt a need to thank you, and if I was doing that, I was going to respond to some other things too.

8. Funtimes - November 28, 2012

@Jessica Burde

What does this even mean? Love is a word that describes an emotion. Are emotions not real? Don’t be silly. To say that there is no such thing is ridiculous.

As for the science bit: love, anger, passion, hate, are all a combination of brain chemicals generated by pituitary and hypothalamus glands and can be defined easily. They are most definitely scientifically distinct.

And in regards to the mocking of peoples beliefs, I’d say that we’re almost obligated to do so. I leave you with a Thomas Jefferson quote:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

9. shaunphilly - November 28, 2012

@Jessica Burde

I have restrained responding to this thus far, but your last comment was not only factually incorrect, but was ridiculous. Funtimes covered most of it.

I have dealt with the issue of respect and mockery before, and will simply point you to them:

1) http://polyskeptic.com/2011/03/13/respect-ideas-people-and-rights-a-message-for-accommodationists-and-ecumenical-theologians/

2) http://polyskeptic.com/2012/06/14/ideas-and-beliefs-do-not-deserve-respect/

There are other posts I have written on the topic, but that’s sufficient for our purposes. If you disagree, give reasons, not mere preference. You may not prefer to be made fun of, mocked, etc for belief which are unjustified or irrational, but to demand that others live by your preference requires reasoning.

Your preferences do not a universal maxim make.

10. wfenza - November 28, 2012

Most of what I would say is covered above. I’d just like to highlight that I believe that while people are universally deserving of a minimum amount of respect and decency, ideas are not. There is a difference between saying “your belief is worthless” and “you are worthless.”

That said, I am often guilty of conflating the two, though I try to be vigilant about it. Please know that I intended only to disrespect your beliefs, not you as a person. This includes your religious beliefs and your somewhat bizarre beliefs about what “hard science” has to say about emotions and over-the-counter medication.

You are almost certainly correct, however, that most everyone has irrational beliefs. For instance, I think that 5 Hour Energy actually improves my energy level, based purely on subjective experience. I’ve been told several times that all data shows that it has no effect whatsoever. I continue to believe it because (mostly due to laziness and not particularly caring much) I haven’t actually looked it up to see what studies have been done.

The difference here is that I know I should be mocked for this. If I proclaim a ridiculous belief, I expect to be ridiculed. I don’t blame the person pointing out how irrational and indefensible my belief is; I blame myself for being too lazy and apathetic to actually gather the relevant data.

I stand by me previous advice – “If you don’t want to be ridiculed, say less ridiculous things.”

11. Why a Smug Writer for io9 Has No Idea What She’s Talking About - November 28, 2012

[...] Wes Fenza at Polyskeptic has a much more thorough takedown of Anders’ entire piece and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but his closing is worth repeating here: [...]

12. Reginald Selkirk - November 28, 2012

Jessica Burde: it is not okay to treat someone else with disrespect for no reason other than you think they are foolish to believe in something.”

On the other hand, isn’t it condescending to spare someone from criticism because you don’t think they can handle it?

13. Robert - November 28, 2012

@Jessica Burde: There’s a telling moment in your first reply. How did you go from: “What I hear is that you think it is okay to mock my ‘ridiculous beliefs’.” Which I agree is ok and evidently others do as well, to: “it is not okay to mock someone”?

Mocking a belief is not the same as mocking a person. Mocking beliefs is ok, mocking people is not. You go on to reinforce that equivalence in the next few lines but those are not at all equivalent and that is a big part of the issue.

Generally speaking, it’s ok to say “your belief is stupid” or “you believe in something stupid”. It’s not ok to say “you’re stupid”. And the moment someone takes the first two as equivalent to the last is the moment discussion stops. Not any point sooner than that.

14. RBH - November 28, 2012

In some of the comments above there’s a whole lot of slippage between mocking bizarre beliefs for which there is not a shred of evidence, and mocking those who hold those beliefs. For example, Jessica wrote “What I hear is that you think it is okay to mock my ‘ridiculous beliefs’. And no, it is not okay to mock someone who beliefs something different that you, …”. Note the switch from the first sentence to the second.

wfenza has it exactly right: “I’d just like to highlight that I believe that while people are universally deserving of a minimum amount of respect and decency, ideas are not. There is a difference between saying “your belief is worthless” and “you are worthless.”” Just so.

The problem with that in practice is that many people seem to regard their beliefs as somehow part of themselves, and so mockery of the beliefs is interpreted as mockery of the person. That’s what Jessica is doing, it appears. Too bad, is all one can say. And wfenza’s “minimum amount of respect” for the person is modifiable in light of the person’s behavior. Defend irrational and evidence-free beliefs by using straw men and logical fallacies and that respect sinks.

15. RBH - November 28, 2012

And I see Robert had the same thought at about the same time. Ah, well. GMTA, hm? :)

16. Amanda - November 29, 2012

Jess, thanks for your response, both to me and the part about love, proof, etc. interestingly, for me, Jameson (the Marxist critic, nt the liquor) was helpful in distinguishing between material reality and th various interpretations (“objective” or otherwise) of the world. He’s probably rolling over in his grave (no, I do not actually believe that dead postmodern critics are all around us, chagrined at our co-opting of their work…)

Wes, I enjoyed your response as well. I do wonder if the confusion between mocking a person and mocking their beliefs stems in part from statements like, “if you do not want to be ridiculed, say less ridiculous things.” If you’re wanting to make that distinction between a person and what they believe, it seems you should change the object of a sentence like that.

That said, I feel like this post, and the majority of your writing, does focus on the beliefs or ideas you are targeting rather than those who hold them, and I appreciate that very much.

17. Amanda - November 29, 2012

Mmmm….. Where I said “object”, I think I meant “object of ridicule (in a sentence like that)” … I guess “you” is both subject and (implied) object in that sentence (in the second half). Confusing. “If you do not want your beliefs to be ridiculed” has the added bonus of being easier to diagram.

18. eiole@suomi24.fi - November 29, 2012

You can easily show what love is.. Everyone classifies it their own way, but we can take it away from you. Then you say, “I Don’t feel love anymore”. Same thing with hate or any other feeling, we can change it to some other.

That is evidence honey.. from different feelings and their change to another. How come so many people want to love and get some, even if they don’t know anything about it? Like is it a good or a bad feeling?

19. Link Love (08/12/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope - December 8, 2012

[...] “Third is the classic agnostic fallacy – we “simply have no data, one way or the other.” Wrong. We have a ton of data disproving a ton of religious beliefs. The only way you get to “we have no data” is by reference to a vague, squishy idea of “a higher power” which doesn’t necessarily do much of anything. Any time you get more specific than that, chances are there is some evidence against your belief. But that also ignores a central idea behind all reasonable thought – belief without evidence is unjustified. If we have no data for or against a proposition, the reasonable thing to do is to disbelieve it. The strength of a belief should be proportional to the strength of the evidence. If there is no evidence, there should be no belief, and anyone who has a belief is being unreasonable.” Charlie Jane Anders Should Read More Atheists – Atheist, Polyamorous, Sceptics [...]

20. Poly isn’t Necessarily Egalitarian, but Egalitarian is Necessarily Open « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - February 15, 2013

[...] commits one of my cardinal sins of argument. It’s the same one that got Charlie Jane Anders in so much trouble with the atheist community. Namely – he’s arguing against a point that nobody is [...]


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