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Apr 29 2011

True Equivalence

J. J. Ramsey, in a comment on a recent post, suggests that accommodationists aren’t being extra harsh and burdensome to confrontational atheists because the accommodationists treat fundamentalists poorly too. Specifically, he responds to a comment by Jason:

I suspect what Stephanie actually meant was that accomodationists don’t take the same pains in treating “New Atheists” with the same kid gloves they treat religious folks.

With:

But “accommodationists” don’t even uniformly treat the religious with “kid gloves,” as you put it. Toward the creationists, fundamentalists, and other denialists, they are quite willing to be aggressive. The NCSE has, for example, even mocked Expelled.

I’d really just like to put my head down now and say, “We’ve had that discussion. Get over it.” But hey, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Once more, with feeling.

This is what we call “false equivalence.” The fact that two positions within an argument are the most polarized you, personally, have seen doesn’t make them the same thing. Nor does it make the point somewhere between them a moderate position. This is particularly true when one “side” is distinctly in the minority, with the majority in control of most of the channels available for distributing messages. Even more true when the minority is heavily stigmatized.

That false equivalence is the only reason to compare “New Atheist” communications to fundamentalist positions. Confronting religion head on is no more “mean,” “distorting,” or “prejudicial” toward the religious than mainstream religious messaging is toward atheists. Need examples?

New Atheist: Religion is a delusion.
Mainstream: None so blind as those who will not see.
Fundamentalist: Satan resides in your heart.

New Atheist: Religious experiences and belief are the products of cognitive processes. They do not constitute evidence of god(s). Denying that denies science.
Mainstream: I believe in God because I have had these religious experiences. Denying that denies me.
Fundamentalist: Doubt is a personal failure to be fought against.

New Atheist: Religion requires assumption of facts not in evidence and/or contradicting our knowledge of reality.
Mainstream: Atheism requires assuming that what is tangible is the sum of what there is.
Fundamentalist: Denying your god is evil.

New Atheist: Raising a child to believe in sin and hell is a form of child abuse.
Mainstream: It would be cruel to deny your child the experience of God’s love.
Fundamentalist: You risk damning your children to eternal torment by allowing non-religious influences into their lives.

New Atheist: Religion provides a source of authority that is used to hurt others. It is also used to define an outgroup, who are “fair game” for persecution.
Mainstream: Religion provides the source of morality that keeps others from harm. It also provides a sense of brotherhood.
Fundamentalist: Our authority is God’s authority. Those who would threaten that authority must be dealt with or excluded in God’s name.

New Atheist: We must not allow any religion to use the political sphere to promote itself.
Mainstream: We must not allow other religions or atheists to use the political sphere to promote themselves.
Fundamentalist: We must root out all other influences in the political sphere.

And the one most important to the accommodationist promotion of science.

New Atheist: Science undermines the idea of religious myths as a rational interpretation of the world.
Mainstream: We recognize that science reveals the metaphorical nature of our texts but hold that faith is paramount.
Fundamentalist: Science is wrong because our texts tell us so.

People who buy into and pass on this notion that somehow “New Atheism” is equivalent to fundamentalism are perpetuating a narrative that privileges liberal religious thought as the non-extreme, non-confrontational position. They’re placing a burden on atheists to be more conciliatory toward religion than mainstream religion is toward atheism, simply by not recognizing that this is where the equivalence lies.

“New Atheists” are no more judgmental, dismissive, or offensive than the adherents of mainstream religions. They’re certainly not louder on a collective basis, and I doubt that they are on an individual basis either. The only reason that isn’t obvious is that the mainstream anti-atheism narrative is a constant background to life in our society. But really, it doesn’t take much work to stop and look at the evidence. It takes even less to find the true equivalence.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    J. J. Ramsey

    It would be nice if you quoted me instead of making a straw man what I had said.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    I think it's a fair characterization of your stance, but the quotes are there now so everyone can compare.

  3. 3
    J. J. Ramsey

    It's actually a completely false characterization of my stance. Jason had mischaracterized so-called accommodationists as generally treating the religious with "kid gloves," and I pointed out that this was a half-truth. To suggest that pointing this out is somehow an implied comparison (let alone an equivalence) between New Atheists and fundamentalists is a stretch.This is not to say that I don't think that New Atheists and religious fundamentalists don't have some things in common, such as demonizing opponents or sloppy thinking. However, if I wanted to discuss that, I'd show examples of atheists behaving poorly (which I did way back when, FWIW).

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    All right, let's do it your way for the sake of argument. Please point to a prominent "New Atheist" who has said something very mean to someone other than a prominent religious person about their beliefs. Do include a link, kindly.And no fair pointing at anyone who criticizes religion in general. That's not criticizing the person, that's criticizing their beliefs.I suspect you'll be able to come up with a ready example, and I suspect I'll be able to come up with a ready example of an accomodationist telling someone they crossed a line by making fun of a belief rather than a specific person.When we've gone tit for tat for a bit, I might be able to show you in the context of this conversation where we're coming from in this, and where I feel you've got us, the movement, and the whole argument wrong.

  5. 5
    Stephanie Zvan

    J. J., your argument was that it isn't appropriate to say that accommodationists are putting burdens on atheists that they don't put on others, including both themselves and the religious people whose opinions they are trying to shift. You pointed out that accommodationists do treat some religious people the same way, namely "creationists, fundamentalists, and other denialists." Are you saying that these groups are not equivalent for the purposes of how accommodationists should treat them? For that matter, would you like to find me some accommodationists or mainstream religious folk who have not engaged in sloppy thinking or demonized their opponents in discussions over religion? The question at hand is why it's appropriate to lump confrontational atheists as a group and treat them the way they're treated by those calling for them behave differently. Remember that what you're saying is being read in that context.

  6. 6
    J. J. Ramsey

    "J. J., your argument was that it isn't appropriate to say that accommodationists are putting burdens on atheists that they don't put on others"What?! You are reading way too much out of a three-sentence paragraph about how accommodationists don't necessarily treat the religious with kid gloves.And really, this talk about putting accommodationists putting burdens on atheists doesn't make a lick of sense, at least if we're talking about the atheists who are already acting as activists. They've already put the burden on themselves to better the lot of other atheists. The only question is how that's done.I don't see how it is burdening to atheist activists to insist that they not portray other activists as "Uncle Toms" or "appeasers" for making common cause with the moderate religious on certain issues. I don't see how it is burdening to atheist activists to insist that they not define "neutrality" for the NCSE/BCSE as not telling the religious that they don't have to give up all their religious beliefs to accept evolution. I certainly don't see how it is burdening to atheist activists to insist that they not imply that religious believers are stupid or crazy.Indeed, discussing "confrontational" atheists is misleading because the problem is not merely that they are confrontational.

  7. 7
    Stephanie Zvan

    "Okay. I "demand" that atheists' depictions of their opponents actually be correct." –J. J. RamseyJ. J., you're done here, at least until you can provide the "New Atheists" the same thing you demand of them. Until then, you're pointless. Figure out how to describe their objections accurately or go away.And seriously, I addressed the leadership question yesterday: http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2011/04/taking-it-downhill.html

  8. 8
    Glendon Mellow

    I agree with Polly-O!

  9. 9
    Jason Thibeault

    So not a meme. I call forced meme, Glendon.Not that it's a bad one… sock puppets suck.http://thebuddhaisnotserious.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/polly.jpg

  10. 10
    J. J. Ramsey

    "Figure out how to describe their objections accurately or go away."Before you presume that I have mischaracterized the New Atheists, I suggest that you read Orac's old post, "The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists, revisited one (hopefully) last time." You should at least see where I'm coming from on the "appeaser" stuff, and why I'm pretty sour about the New Atheists in general.Obviously, I'm no longer welcome here, so I'll "go away" now, just as you asked.

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    J. J., if you are going to group a bunch of people under one name in order to sneer at them, you'd really better be able to talk about the whole group you put under that name. If you're going to make it one of your complaints that they misrepresent the people they talk about, you'd better be able to represent them very accurately. You are either not willing or not able to do either, yet you've spent thousands of words, spread across the internet, on spreading your inaccurate and hypocritical complaints. You're doing it here, too, in your "not welcome" comment. I specified precisely the behavior that wasn't welcome. The only way that translates to you not being welcome is if you find it impossible to be honest and act in the way you demand others act. In that case, yes, I think it's probably best if you are cut off from this discussion wherever it occurs. You need a new obsession and a new hobby.

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