“Best Schools” Interview


A new interview of mine just went online. But you’ve got to hear the long boring story first. (Unless you don’t give a shit, then just go on to read the interview: The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview).

Recently a new “top fifty atheists in the world” list hit the web (similar to a previous list of the “top 25 most influential atheists” from a similar, online-education-marketing website). I was on both lists. The earlier one I disregarded outright as I had never heard of the website promoting it and I had no idea what worth it had. The second one I wasn’t much more keen on, for much the same reason, except that whoever composed it clearly was better informed about the atheist movement. They included more women and minorities and foreigners (though many have complained still too few), but more importantly, some well-known figures to us whom outsiders tend to ignore (like Greydon Square or Greta Christina). The list doesn’t always make consistent sense, and there are people on it I’m sure who should not be, but it was interesting to me for apparently having been compiled by someone who has been paying attention.

Curiosity was apparently more widely aroused this time and several atheist inquirers (who commented on Jerry Coyne’s blog on this) concluded some things that I think were a bit hasty:

1. That the new list, posted at TheBestSchools.org (a marketing website steering prospective students to online colleges), was generated by “James Barham, wacky ID advocate.” I don’t know about wacky, but he is not a Christian, nor an ID-advocate per se; he acknowledged to me that the website he is writing for leans that way (likewise, the Institute for the Study of Nature he is a fellow of claims to be theism-leaning but not exclusively), but he is on sworn record as affirming he lost his faith in Christianity long ago and is now a naturalist; he is presently a doctoral student in philosophy at Notre Dame (or possibly has his Ph.D. by now, as claimed on TheBestSchools “about” page last I checked), with an M.A. from Harvard, so he’s no crank, and his writings seem to be advocating for the adoption of emergent teleology within naturalism, and not ID as such. He only voices some common cause with the ID movement (he favors teaching the controversy on natural selection as cause, but not on evolution as fact). I suppose he could be trojan horsing, but I’m not a telepath. More likely he’s an interesting outlier in the debate, and thus not someone you can peg as easily as Dembski or Ham. At any rate, as I see it, he’s just wrong, not wacky.

2. That “according to WHOIS, The Best Schools is owned by a young philosophy professor at the Univ of Kentucky named Wayne Downs.” That’s in essence true (at least as of today); I also verified his identity at the U. Kentucky website, but it currently lists him as a graduate student teaching assistant and his own cv confirms he is a doctoral student, not a professor. He has a B.A. in pastoral ministries and an M.Div. from Baylor, so definitely a conservative religious foundation, but he also has an M.A. in philosophy from Texas A&M and is getting a Ph.D. at U. Kentucky (or already has one, if the UK website and his cv are out of date), so he is not a crank either. He did co-author a book on the Christian history of creationism with Dembski, but it’s just an anthology of patristics. He is currently (according to his own cv) “Research Assistant to Dr. William A. Dembski” at the “Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,” but it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from that (I myself could easily employ a Christian research assistant if he was good enough). Downs might be an Evangelical or a conservative, but TheBestSchools seems like it’s just built to earn him some advertising money (which I don’t frown on, since we do that here at FtB).

3. That “The article was only written for ‘Link Baiting’ purposes, meaning that the owner of the website just wants to get a higher google ranking by getting more links to his site.” Isn’t that what everyone does? It’s called marketing. Calling it “link baiting” is just pointlessly derogatory. Clearly Downs wants to draw people to his website so he can earn ad revenue through his college marketing tools, and he does this by employing bloggers to develop posts that people want to read, so they will go there, and then possibly explore his promotional links and click through the ads that he has his website set up to deliver. Um, that’s basically a description of FtB. Yes, we exist primarily to deliver content, and take ad revenue as a bonus. But I doubt Downs takes his site’s content any less seriously–which is why so much of it is slanted toward his interests. In fact most major blog sites exist to make money “and” deliver content. Like, say, The Huffington Post. Or The New York Times, which arguably only really exists to make money through ad placement. Even its print version exists solely for that purpose. It thus puts articles in it that people want to read in order to get those people to look at the ads folded in with them. That’s not “link baiting.” It’s enterprise. So I don’t hold it against anyone who wants to create content of interest to atheists to market products to atheists. Even if they are Christians. As long as its honest, professional, and interesting. In other words, the same standards I’d expect of The Huffington Post or The New York Times. Or FtB for that matter.

4. That “it’s a scam site. It scams rational thinkers into assuming the site is legitimate for its seriousness, and then plonks in other articles, hoping that those articles will be treated with the same sense of seriousness.” That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why would anyone think “rational thinkers” would be fooled? Are we seriously imagining that Downs is trying to convert atheists to Christianity by luring them in with interesting blogs about atheism, hoping atheists will then wander around and read interviews and news items about religious conservatives and suddenly experience an epiphany of Jesus? I’ve met some idiots for Christ who might think that would work, but none of them have graduate degrees from major universities…or really even legitimate college degrees at all. In fact Barham told me they were keen on creating more diversity at the site so it wouldn’t be all one-sided. Some atheists see that as a dirty trick. I see it as inclusive marketing. It’s kind of funny to see someone attacked for aiming to generate more diversity at their site, and then attacked for being all one-sided and not allowing more diversity at their site. Honestly, what would you rather? A site that was all aimed at conservative evangelical Christians, or a site that represented multiple views? Trying to draw in a broader demographic is not a “scam.” It’s just good business. In fact, it’s rather American.

5. That “almost all of [the bios] have some snide remark at the end” with “cynicism and mockery.” I don’t quite see that. I see a conservative POV. Otherwise I didn’t notice anything that was dishonest or untrue. Granted, I didn’t fact check it all, but the list fairly links to all our actual PR sites and books and works and thus is not trying to misrepresent us. Indeed, if anything they are promoting us. If I were to run the differential math on this, as a result of their being this open about plugging people into our world, odds are this site is now going to deconvert more Christians than it will convert atheists to Christianity. For example, the only “odd” thing about the bio Barham gave me (I am assuming he was the sole author) is that it mentions my advocacy for the theory that Jesus never really existed–but that’s hardly a secret. Yes, perhaps a (possibly) conservative Barham included that item because he thought it was wacky. But he didn’t mock me for it nor was he snide about it. He just stated the fact of it. Likewise, for Greta Christina he tacks on at the end that “she also publishes pornographic fiction.” Well, yes. She does. That’s not cynicism or mockery. It’s just the way conservatives honestly see us. Indeed, this author could have been snide or mocking about these details. What I find remarkable is that he wasn’t. This looks like honest, indeed respectful reporting to me. Conservative-minded, sure. But so what?

6. That the site advocates “for the benefits of an online education (you know, where students need not actually learn stuff)” and “their Degree Finder widget doesn’t include biology, physics, chemistry etc. No point in needlessly troubling those creationist minds.” Though both facts are true (the site does advocate for various kinds of online education, and its widget doesn’t have biology, physics, or chemistry in it), the inference being made from these facts is not logical. ID advocate Michael Behe is a biochemist. And I can’t fathom why creationists would be afraid of physics or chemistry. The widget also lacks other majors that can’t possibly have anything to do with imagined creationist phobias (are they morbidly afraid of anthropology, oceanography and astronomy?). Rather, when you look at what the widget does include, it’s obviously slanted toward career-ready degrees. Hence, no physics, but “engineering” and “engineering management,” degrees that can hardly be pursued without studying physics. Likewise, no biology, but tons of health science degrees, from “gerontology” to “radiology” and “nursing,” none of which can be pursued without studying biology. This also fits the site’s focus on online degree granting institutions, like the University of Phoenix, which specialize in career-ready degrees and not general sciences. The site is clearly geared toward people who need an affordable way to get a better job (“career success” as the site itself says). An ambiguous degree in biology is not going to appeal.

However, there are valid criticisms to make of the site.

It’s certainly a little conservative and Christian slanted (although perhaps not so much as critics have made it seem, but it definitely is coming from that corner of the ring; just peruse some of the articles to get an idea). But it’s not like conservatives don’t get to have their own websites. And if you think about it, “top” lists of atheists generated by conservatives should be more telling, as such lists catalog the people they regard as their greatest threat. More of an issue perhaps is the fact that TheBestSchools.org isn’t really promoting “the best schools” per se but the best cheap schools (or, shall we say, “affordable” schools) and is primarily promoting schools who would appear to be paid advertisers, and that these are predominately D-list schools, usually online schools. It looks like you will never be directed to apply to any mainstream state university through the site’s widget, although such schools do get promoted in some of the site’s articles (e.g. its article on the “top ten most affordable law schools” has some good recommendations and does not appear biased towards the site’s advertisers). So they aren’t engaging in dishonest reporting. This is therefore not a “scam” site. Its widget is a bit dodgy, but no more so than GoogleAds would be. It’s clearly just promoting for-profit online education.

For example, using its “Degree Finder” widget you’ll get recommended such places as DeVry University (a for-profit company which has numerous physical campuses and an online education program, but does have a reputation for being something like the McDonald’s of college education) or Liberty University (a full on, totally bonkers, “yes, they teach young earth creationism in biology class” Evangelical school) or University of Phoenix (a primarily online for-profit college that’s kind of like the Denny’s of college education…you know, a step up from McDonald’s). UOP has gotten into trouble lately over its somewhat shady slant towards profits over quality (see the NYT article and a Harvard Extension blog thereon, and UOP’s official reply, and the analysis of what is passed off as an independent blogger…writing for an e-school site in Poland for some reason…but what one might suspect is a hired PR puppet of UOP). What about Liberty U? I don’t think the occasional presence of LU here is a pro-Christian plant. More likely it’s just one of those for-profit schools that’s also advertising through the same widget. Because LU is pushing a big online program now.

So, that’s all the back story. After posting their “top fifty atheists” blog to draw traffic (again, no evil in that) Barham asked me personally if I’d do an interview for the site. I could say anything I wanted (within common decency). Nothing would be edited out. He also approached many others on the list. As for myself, I said sure, since by then I knew it was a Christian site, but I’d done questionnaires for Christian sites before (including one inspired by the “top 25 atheists” list generated similarly to this one, at a site using exactly the same widget–the WHOIS for that site seems locked up by denial-of-service attacks so I can’t discover who owns it). I have no problem with that, as long as they are honest about how they represent what I say, and don’t ask stupid questions. Barham’s questionnaire was well-written and his questions thoughtful and interesting. And true to his word, he published my full reply, even improving its punctuation and correcting typos. The end result is something definitely of interest to Christians, atheists, and prospective college students alike. Now you can read for yourself The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview. It talks about my background and life story, why I am skeptical of a historical Jesus, why I’m a naturalist and how I deal with certain questions about that, my debate with W.L. Craig, the future of atheism as a movement, and what advice I’d give to prospective college students.

I see this as a mutually beneficial arrangement. He gets traffic and diversifies his target demographic for his product marketing, and I get to promote my work, and my views on philosophy and education, and on atheism as a movement in general. Just try to imagine this happening in an Islamic country and you’ll think twice about being overly cynical about such a transaction.

Comments

  1. Bob Crane says

    Can you please go back to yr old blog? The constant pop-up ads here are so annoying. And the site is slow. Thanks

  2. Brad says

    I enjoyed the interview! Good overview and discussion of your life and work.

    It was good to see links to some of your past writing as well, as someone who is reading you for the first time since your move to FreethoughtBlogs.

    Perhaps on slow-news days you can post a “From the Archives” post with a summary and a link to prior key posts/articles from your old blog or other sources?

    • says

      Brad, thanks. I included a “best of” list of links from my old blog’s archives in my Inaugural Post here. You might want to check that out. Those typically link to yet others, and so on. Good way to start exploring, starting with what I hope is the best.

  3. Tony says

    Richard, I haven’t been able to read the entire interview yet, but I just stopped at the point where your philosophical views on the world begins. Perhaps you agree with Mr Barham’s definition of atheist, but that really stood out to me:

    An atheist is not merely someone who has doubts about the existence of God, or who doesn’t know what to think about the subject. Rather, an atheist positively asserts that God does not exist.

    -Do you agree with this definitin of atheist? Perhaps I’m unclear on the definition (and certainly many people define it differently, which I find silly, IMO). I thought atheism was “a lack of belief in a higher power(s)”. I didn’t think atheism included anything with regard to knowing or not knowing, doubts about god’s existence, or uncertain thoughts.

    Other than that, I enjoyed much of what I read prior to that section and will finish reading the rest later tonight.

    • says

      Tony: [an atheist positively asserts that God does not exist] I thought atheism was “a lack of belief in a higher power(s)”.

      Those two statements are semantically identical.

      For every proposition P that you know about, you have assigned some probability of it being true (you can’t not; your brain does it automatically, even if you don’t attend to doing it consciously). If you do not believe P is true, then you are assigning it a probability below 50%. In fact, usually when you say “I lack belief in P” you don’t mean, e.g. “I believe there is a 40% chance P is true” or even 20%; you typically mean less than 10% (1 in 10 chance P is true). That’s simply exactly the same thing as denying P is true. Because when you say “I know P is false” you are basically again saying “there is less than a 10% chance P is true.” The one sentence literally translates into the other sentence. They are the same. Thus “lack of belief” and “denial” are identical and it is a semantic fallacy to distinguish them.

      The grey area arrives when you assign P a probability between 10% and 50%. Let’s say you think there is a 40% probability some god exists. Are you denying god exists? Sort of. You’re still saying probably he doesn’t (60% chance in fact), and that’s technically still a denial. But that’s not usually what we mean by denial, because of the following: does a 40% chance mean, rather, that you merely lack belief or certainty that some god exists? That might be a better way of putting it. After all, a 40% chance is still pretty good; good enough to operate on the assumption it’s true, even if you aren’t sure. After all, if there was a 40% chance it was going to rain, you’d carry an umbrella, right? But now this isn’t what an atheist is. Atheists aren’t carrying umbrellas (e.g. praying generically; picking a religion and sticking to its principles “just in case”; etc.). Thus atheists are never in the grey area. They aren’t hedging bets. If they were, they wouldn’t be atheists. They’d be something else. Thus an atheist is always someone who is certain the probability that any god exists is less than 10%. Which is definitely the definition of denial. Thus all atheists deny a god exists. QED.

      (On where agnostics who insist they aren’t atheists would fall in this spectrum, that depends on whether they are “carrying the umbrella” or not, and if not, they’re atheists [probably because they’re agnostics]: see my old blog on this issue: Atheist or Agnostic?)

  4. Julien Rousseau says

    Richard, while I agree with your view on Atheist/Agnostic I think what Tony is referring to is that many theists define agnosticism as neutral (don’t know if there is a god) and atheism as equivalent to 0% chance that there is a god so they would see a 10% chance as reason to think someone is an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    They generally do that (in my experience) so that they can straw man our position by saying that it takes as much faith to be an atheist (= believing in a 0% probability for god) as to be a theist.

    An example is William Lane Craig in his debate with Christopher Hitchens as evidenced by this video taking the salient portions of their debate (the uploader subscribes to the Craig definition of atheism):

    • says

      Julien Rousseau: I don’t think that’s what Tony was referring to; but yes, the “atheism requires absolute denial” straw man attack is one I’ve seen before (although I’m shocked to hear Craig would resort to it).

      Epistemologically “absolute certainty” is an impossibility, even for God (as even Plantinga has admitted in one of his rare moments of lucidity), and therefore it’s just silly to require it of anyone, atheist or theist. There is always some nonzero probability, however small, that you are wrong about anything (with the sole exception of raw uninterpreted immediate experience). Thus anyone who thinks that that eliminates all knowledge or belief can’t even be a theist, much less an atheist. Either way, it’s just an absurd standard of certainty in assigning belief, which in practice no one lives by, nor should they.

  5. Tony says

    Richard:

    Thus an atheist is always someone who is certain the probability that any god exists is less than 10%. Which is definitely the definition of denial. Thus all atheists deny a god exists. QED.

    -The first sentence definitely applies to me. I like the scale Richard Dawkins came up with, and I tend to think I’m at 6/6.5 out of 7. I don’t believe God exists, and I’m about 99.5% certain he does not exist.
    I guess I can’t quite wrap my head around non-belief = certain knowledge.

  6. Tony says

    Julien:

    Richard, while I agree with your view on Atheist/Agnostic I think what Tony is referring to is that many theists define agnosticism as neutral (don’t know if there is a god) and atheism as equivalent to 0% chance that there is a god so they would see a 10% chance as reason to think someone is an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    -More or less, yes.

  7. Julien Rousseau says

    Epistemologically “absolute certainty” is an impossibility, even for God (as even Plantinga has admitted in one of his rare moments of lucidity)

    I agree and I am actually surprised that a theist acknowledges that.

    This is why if somebody claims that the god they believe in is omniscient then I can say that I am 100% certain that that god does not exist given that just like we could be a brain in a vat who are being fed stimuli simulating the world so could god be a god in a vat being fed stimuli that simulates him being a god and even if their god existed and was indeed the ultimate reality he still couldn’t know that it was so as he could still be a god in the vat and not know it.

    This means that no god can be omniscient and thus if somebody claims they believe in an omniscient god I can positively disbelieve in it (isn’t that what WLC call a knock-down argument? ;-)).

    Of course, this means that I think there is a higher probability of the greek pantheon being true than the probability of the christian god as conceived by most christian* being true.

    * I say “as conceived by most christians” in case there are any christians that do not believe god to be omniscient.

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