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Jun 26 2009

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Scarlet letterWhenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn’t an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:

“I wish atheists wouldn’t talk so much about atheism.”

The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. “The new atheists are so evangelical.” “This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant.” “You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you’re criticizing.”

But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we’re right about it, shows that we’re … well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it’s important to talk about atheism … and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism? To find out why I think it’s not only valid, but important, for atheists to explain our beliefs and critique religion — and why I don’t think that’s intolerant or close- minded — read the rest of the piece. (And if you want to post comments here as well as, or instead of, on AlterNet, I’ll understand. Boy, howdy, will I ever.) Enjoy!

38 comments

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  1. 1
    Richard

    I agree with your points, and I might add one.
    We’re not just atheists. We’re united by more than our common dis-belief.
    Our movement is also a pro-rationality movement. We also think that the real universe is a fascinating place. And we believe that each person is deserving of dignity.
    It just happens that religion is the best-funded and most-influential opposition to these things. So it gets the most attention.
    And we also oppose other superstitions or irrationality or even simple discrimination when we come across it.
    So, as you say, it’s not just that we’re atheists. It’s that we’re people who want to make the world better.

  2. 2
    Rob

    I don’t complain about atheists talking about it, I find the debates interesting. But if you ask me for scientific evidence to support the existence of God or multiple gods, you might make me feel like I have a blind person asking me to prove to them that colors exist.
    The striking similarity between the Spanish Inquisition and the Chinese Cultural Revolution shows you don’t need religion to have the results of fundamentalism on a grand scale. But a religion that doesn’t accept anything outside of the Bible and a belief system that masquerades as skepticism, without accepting anything outside of the limited scope of science, keep getting us the same results in other ways. They can both limit our potential by cutting us off from different portions of reality. For example, children can often remember things about previous lifetimes or demonstrate ESP ability until they are taught not to believe in them and the abilities that are ridiculed or not accepted by their culture get atrophied.

  3. 3
    Dena

    Love your courage and honesty. Peace.

  4. 4
    Mark

    You seriously misrepresent the nature of the comments made. “I wish atheists wouldn’t talk so much about atheism” is absolutely not the same thing as saying “You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you’re criticizing.” It is irresponsible of you to say that those are basically both the same thing. They are not. I believe that it is okay for atheists to try to convince others, but I also believe that a lot of atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers. You can have one without the other.

  5. 5
    Robin Z

    Rob @ June 26, 2009, 06:55 PM:
    You might want to read “How do you prove photography to a blind man?” on Skeptico. Demonstrating the existence of color is only slightly harder – anyone who knows their physics could come up with something, maybe involving diffraction gratings or prisms.

  6. 6
    Serenegoose

    So, whilst I basically agree with the post, I think that there’s a minor group who asks why we always talk about atheism that got ignored. The people who ask christians why they won’t shut up about Jesus, the people who ask theoretical physicists why they won’t shut up about string theory, the same people who will ask political activists why they keep talking about *insert political belief of choice here*.
    Sometimes it’s not targetted just against atheists or even against things that go against established orthodoxy. it’s just expressed against people who will only talk about one thing. I just think it’s important to recognise the difference between the people who are saying ‘shut up’ to silence us, and the people who will just say ‘shut up’ to anything they’ve heard a thousand times before.

  7. 7
    DSimon

    Serenegoose, it’s certainly not the case that Greta, or any other atheist blogger I can think of, talks only about atheism. However, they do often talk about it on atheist blogs and in atheist communities. I don’t understand why that would be anything unexpected.
    To go to a discussion forum that’s about atheism and say “Stop talking about atheism so much, broaden out a little, you guys never chat about anything else!” is silly.
    Plus, this is the Internet, ya know? There’s always something else to read or another community involve yourself in. Why would it ever be a good idea to say “Shut up” to someone being boring on the Internet on any topic? It’s less effort and causes less aggravation to simply surf elsewhere.

  8. 8
    Rebelest

    Mark, Greta didn’t say what you said she said!
    There’s nothing she can do about your ability to misunderstand and misconstrue.
    I’m pleased that you “believe that it is okay for atheists to try to convince others” but maybe you could give us examples of what you mean when you claim that “a lot of atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers.”
    Your comment is a very ironic example of exactly what she wrote the article about. You whine about false equivalency where there is none and then reformulate the “Why don’t you just shut up about atheism” sentiment that is embodied in the three quotes of her second paragraph into “I also believe that a lot of atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers.” Great job at fully and completely missing the whole point of the article. You falsely accuse, willingly fail to understand and then do exactly the thing that the article is meant to address!
    Do you believe that atheists are wrongfully dogmatic about the absence of supernatural phenomena in the real world? When over the course of billions of years of history, no supernatural events have ever taken place, am I wrong to conclude that is because there are no supernatural events?
    See, that’s the problem. All that you and the billions of others like you ever do is make unsupported accusations about some kind of horrible dogmatism that you can’t bother to elucidate upon. It just leaves us wondering WTF are you talking about?

  9. 9
    Robin Z

    Not to pile on, but does anyone else notice the similarity between “You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you’re criticizing” – a claim Mark distances himself from – and “[A] lot of atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers” – which Mark asserts?

  10. 10
    Mark

    Rebelest, you are a disrespectful person. I’m not going to address anything that you say without an apology. Robin Z, I certainly do not believe that every last atheist is as closed minded as the religious believers that they hate, just a lot of them. (maybe most) I also want to make the point that I am noticing an irritating trend among skeptic types on message boards where they try to put words into my mouth. I do not appreciate it.

  11. 11
    Serenegoose

    Dsimon: I’m not disagreeing with you, but there are a surprising amount of people who -will- post things like that in atheist focused discussion groups, or the people who don’t join them will ponder ‘why they’re even necessary, don’t you have more important things to discuss?’
    It’s silly, sure. I’m just saying that it happens. People want to intrude on other peoples discussion and try and urinate in the cornflakes. As you say – this is the internet. :)

  12. 12
    Ebonmuse

    I’d like to highlight two adjacent sentences from Mark’s comment:
    “Rebelest, you are a disrespectful person. I’m not going to address anything that you say without an apology.”
    “Robin Z, I certainly do not believe that every last atheist is as closed minded as the religious believers that they hate, just a lot of them. (maybe most)”
    For a person who gets all huffy and upset when he feels he’s not being treated with sufficient respect, it’s pretty rich for you to say in the very next sentence that “most” atheists are closed-minded and just like religious believers.

  13. 13
    Mark

    I think that we have to distinguish between strong, stern language and disrespectfulness, Ebonmuse. If you can think of a nicer way for me to say that many (if not most) atheists are closed-minded, then say so and I’ll say it that way in the future. Accusing someone of “whin[ing]” and “willingly fail[ing] to understand” (is that even possible?) is not necessary and is mean-spirited.

  14. 14
    Greta Christina

    Mark:
    First, people misunderstanding you isn’t the same thing as people putting words in your mouth.
    Second: If you’re going to assert that many, maybe even most, atheists are as closed minded as the religious believers that they hate… brief tangent here. I know very few atheists who “hate” religious believers. Anger is not the same as hatred, and being angry about beliefs and actions is not the same as hating people.
    But back to my main point. Which is this: If you’re going to argue that many, maybe even most, atheists are closed minded, you’re going to have to back that up with something more than just assertion. It is very, very common for atheists to get accused of being close- minded simply for having opinions, thinking we’re right about them, and arguing firmly in defense of them.
    That, in fact, was the entire point of this piece. To have an opinion — even a strongly- held opinion — is not the same as being close- minded. As I wrote in that piece: Being close-minded doesn’t mean thinking you’re right; it means refusing to reconsider your position, even when the evidence suggests that you’re wrong. The atheists I know and have read on the Internet are generally willing to consider evidence and arguments for religion. We just don’t find them persuasive.

  15. 15
    Mark

    That’s all fair enough. As I said, I have no problem with atheists trying to convince others that atheists are correct. I also agree that it is wrong for others to accuse atheists of being closed-minded just for expressing their opinions. I just had a problem with you conflating the two statements that I mentioned, as they are not the same. I do believe that a lot of atheists are closed-minded, and some examples are here:
    http://everythingelseatheism.blogspot.com/2009/06/they-still-do-parapsychology-research.html#comments
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/02/maybe_wed_get_better_answers_i.php
    Note how the Everything Else Atheist admits in her comments section that she never read any of the research about psi but still is so strongly opposed to it. Also, PZ Myers does not know or care about what crisis apparitions are, even though there could, at least theoretically, be evidence of an afterlife in those apparitions. (You could technically even be an atheist who believes in an afterlife…like I sort of consider myself) So yeah, I will also agree that I would need something more substantive to show that many atheists are closed-minded. I just can’t list all the examples that I have on your comments section.

  16. 16
    UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/28/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  17. 17
    Robin Z

    Okay, I see part of the problem, and wiploc’s “The Parable of the Pawnbroker” addresses it.
    See, Mark, we’re not averse to interpreting new evidence and changing our minds. Why, only a couple years ago, I was convinced that hypnosis was all a bunch of malarkey – but these days, I am decidedly agnostic on the point, simply due to the number of newspaper reports of scientific evidence. (If I did research, I might be more than agnostic.) But when it comes to supernatural phenomena, there are so many flat-out garbage arguments out there that we can’t deal with them all – if we did, we’d never do anything else.

  18. 18
    Rebelest

    Mark, you’re an Internet coward, who uses whiny accusations of disrespect, so that you don’t have to address your own cognitive dissonance (“You could technically even be an atheist who believes in an afterlife…like I sort of consider myself”). You sort of consider yourself an atheist who believes in an afterlife? I won’t apologize to you, instead I’ll highlight your irrationality. FYI, being an atheist, is just one conclusion that people who value empirical evidence come to when they use their empiricist values to evaluate truth claims. Another conclusion that we come to is that there is not one iota of evidence for an afterlife (anyone who thinks that the tales of people under anesthesia or near death experiences are evidence is not using empiricism).
    In your first post on this thread you said that Greta “seriously misrepresented the nature of the comments made” and that she was irresponsible. By your own standards of internet propriety you’re a “disrespectful person.” Are you the pot or the kettle?

  19. 19
    Rob

    I see a strong tendency in human nature to notice what needs to be noticed and overlook what needs to be overlooked to preserve the old, familiar belief system and preconceived notions about what reality consists of. No one is immune to it. It was discussed effectively in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?
    Rebelest, you just posted a couple of examples of it, like “over the course of billions of years of history, no supernatural events have ever taken place”. What would be the best response from those of us who have been experiencing supernatural events on a regular basis, like encounters with ghosts, successful remote viewing projects, etc? It’s easy to prove anything that we set out to prove by deciding beforehand what kinds of evidence will be acceptable. For example, when you say “there is not one iota of evidence for an afterlife (anyone who thinks that the tales of people under anesthesia or near death experiences are evidence is not using empiricism)” what if there is convincing evidence, but not the kind that falls within the bounds of empiricism? What about people who remember things from past incarnations that are then confirmed by historical records? You can then proceed to suspect that they must have been previously exposed to those historical records, if that is what it takes to support the preconceived notions.

  20. 20
    George

    I think that the word “atheist” should be abandoned. You can no more prove that there is no god than you can prove that there is. A rational person can only be “agnostic.”
    It may be possible that there is some force or entity in the universe that can operate outside the laws of nature and therefore be considered devine. That being said, it is my belief that if that entity exists, it will have absolutely nothing to do with anything dreamed up by camel drivers and sheep herders in the middle east, navel contemplaters in India, tree huggers and animalists in Europe and North America, and all the other misguided souls who have tried to make sense of the world or maintain a power structure by making up stories. Looking at history right up to this very minute should be enough to convince anyone that organized religion, when one considers all the positives and negatives, is on balance an evil that we agnostics should oppose with every weapon we have in the arsenal of reason.

  21. 21
    Indigo

    I think that the word “atheist” should be abandoned. You can no more prove that there is no god than you can prove that there is.
    And yet, there is no one running around telling theists, “Stop calling yourself theists. That doesn’t make sense. Don’t do it.”
    Whether you consider it rational or not, the definition of an atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of one or more gods, and it’s an accurate description for the people who apply it to themselves. I consider my position just as rational as anyone who says they don’t believe in leprechauns or unicorns or for that matter, who doesn’t believe in the deities of faiths other than their own.

  22. 22
    Greta Christina

    I think that the word “atheist” should be abandoned. You can no more prove that there is no god than you can prove that there is. A rational person can only be “agnostic.”

    You’re assuming that everyone else defines the word “atheist” the way you’re defining it: namely, someone who thinks that God’s existence has been disproven with 100% certainty. In the hundreds, probably thousands, of atheists I’ve known and read, I’ve run across about three who thought that. Most of us define it as something along the lines of “someone who is certain enough that there is no god or gods.” I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in Zeus or the Tooth Fairy — it can’t be proven with 100% certainty that they don’t exist, but there’s no reason so think that they do, and I’m going to assume that they don’t unless I see some compelling evidence that they do. Which is, IMO, a completely rational position.

  23. 23
    Eclectic

    For heaven’s sake, I can’t prove much more than “I think, therefore I am” with 100 percent certainty. I certainly can’t prove that I was (I existed) before last thursday.
    What I have decided is that an interventionist god, one whose actions affect my life and the world I live in, is sufficiently unlikely that I am, barring extraordinary new evidence, considering the matter closed.
    That’s the transition from “agnostic” to “atheist”, if you want to put them on the same scale. I used to wonder, now I’ve decided to file it along with alien abductions and homeopathy as a crackpot idea that it’s not worth worrying about.
    That’s not to say that I won’t consider new evidence; just that I’ve stopped actively looking. With all things in life, you eventually have to give up on a bad idea and move on.

  24. 24
    Mark

    To Robin Z, I’ll certainly agree that there are a lot of bad arguments about religion, but there are also a lot of bad arguments for and against almost anything. I don’t agree with your analogy about the gold chain because you are juxtaposing a single person with a belief. I believe that you are on more solid ground when you are suspicious about the claims of a single person when that single person has lied a million times in the past. I do not believe that you are on solid ground to reject an entire belief system simply because you have never heard any good arguments from proponents of that belief system. I believe that the better attitude to have in a situation like that is to remain open-minded. It would not be right to say that I’m sure that video games are garbage just because I have never played any good video games. There are a bazillion types of games out there. (This is purely hypothetical, by the way – I have played good video games before) I believe that the only time that strong disbelief is warranted is when there is good reasoning that shows that the belief is not true, or at least probably not true. (And even then a little open-mindedness is still called for, as we can never know anything with absolute certainty…as far as I know) Now, I can certainly understand not wanting to go through all of the arguments for and against a certain subject. If you are not interested in subject A, then that’s fine, but I think that in that case it is best to have an open mind about it. I think that we should all, in a sense, give up our right to have a strong positive or negative opinion about something unless we become experts on the subject. Lacking that, I think that we should just defer to the experts.

  25. 25
    Agnostic-ish

    I don’t care if atheists feel like discussing their reasons for disbelieving, in fact, I welcome discussions on so important a topic (the meaning of life) — I just wish fewer of them felt so damned comfortable ridiculing anyone with any sense of spirituality. On many boards focusing on completely unrelated topics (like pop-culture, politics, etc.) I’ve found atheists who mock and deride anyone who hasn’t decided that life must always be held to the objective standards of a scientific experiment. Life is subjective and if I choose to call myself an agnostic with vague animistic leanings, keep an open mind about ghosts and the like, they shouldn’t feel a duty to mock. Too often, both fundamentalists and atheists feel they need not be polite or respectful, because they KNOW they’re right.
    I’m also sick of atheists using attacks based solely on the most intolerant and dogmatic forms of religious beliefs to deride any beliefs. There is more than the binary (atheist vs. evangelical) option.

  26. 26
    Robin Z

    First off: you can be open-minded and still hold a strong opinion, Mark.
    More specifically, though, you’re not taking into account the filtering effect of the popular discourse. However many bogus arguments people come up with, we should expect the ones that get circulated as the best to be a cut above those. There are a lot of rubbish videogames out there, but if you’re looking at the pool of games that have widespread critical and popular support, you’re going to find some of the best.
    And yet, we never see an argument that can compare to, say, the arguments for the existence of the Higgs boson. Why not?

  27. 27
    Mark

    You’re right. I’m not “taking into account the filtering effect of the popular discourse.” It does not always work. Sadly, the best arguments do not always float to the top. We should not necessarily “expect the ones that get circulated as the best to be a cut above” the rest of the arguments. A lot of times it is the case that most of the people arguing do not know what the best arguments are. (too complicated, not interested, etc.) Other times people only use the arguments that they think can convince the most people, regardless of whether or not they are the most well-reasoned. Other times unconscious bias creeps into large segments of the populace and makes it seem as if certain arguments are better than they really are. Sometimes even smart people who should know better fall victim to this problem. Somebody like Stephen Braude is an expert in parapsychology. He has been arguing for a while that, contrary to what most parapsychologists believe and what would seem to make the most sense, the non-experimental evidence for psi is actually better than the experimental evidence. If he’s right, then these parapsychologists are falling victim to unconscious bias against non-experimental evidence, and not putting forth the best evidence because of it. There are a lot of psychological and sociological factors that determine what arguments are used the most often. Unfortunately, the best arguments from a reasoned standpoint are not always the ones that are used the most often. This is a big part of the reason why I think that it is important to have as few strong opinions as possible, unless I am an expert in the field in which I have the strong opinion. And not even always then…
    By the way, I agree that you can have a strong opinion and still be open-minded. Even so, I still think that it can be a little dangerous, though…

  28. 28
    Greta Christina

    Mark: You seem to be confusing being open- minded with not coming to any conclusions about anything… even provisional conclusions. And that’s a completely impossible way to live one’s life. If I’m on the tenth floor of the building, I need a way of deciding whether it makes more sense to take the elevator or to jump out of the window and let the fairies carry my down. I need a way to sort out plausible hypotheses from implausible ones.
    (See this piece, Religion and the Difference Between Possible and Plausible, or, Why You Shouldn’t Jump Out of Windows, for a further discussion of this topic.)
    As I have said, and others have said, many times now: Being open- minded doesn’t mean not coming to any conclusions. It means being willing to reconsider your conclusions when presented with good evidence that they’re mistaken. Which I, and most of the atheists I know, are willing to do. We just haven’t seen that evidence yet. You can reject an idea, and then later accept it when you see better evidence or arguments for it.
    I mean: If I can’t reject a belief system simply because I’ve never heard any good arguments from proponents of it… then how on Earth am I supposed to decide which belief systems to accept and which to reject? Am I supposed to consider all belief systems as equally plausible, simply because I can’t reject them with 100% certainty? Should I take a belief that the earth is flat seriously, even though every single argument I’ve ever seen for a flat earth has been laughably bad, on the off- chance that somebody, somewhere, might have a good argument that I haven’t heard?
    I’m trying hard not to sound snarky. But “I do not believe that you are on solid ground to reject an entire belief system simply because you have never heard any good arguments from proponents of that belief system” is quite possibly one of the most flatly absurd arguments for religious belief that I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot of bad, bad arguments for religious belief. It actually kind of shocks me that you can’t seem to recognize what a terrible argument it is.

  29. 29
    Greta Christina

    Agnostic-ish: I suggest you take a look at an earlier piece, Is It Okay to Mock Religion? The gist: Mockery and satire is one of the most useful, time- honored forms of social criticism we have. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out: Our society blithely accepts a fairly harsh level of mockery about, say, political ideas, or popular culture… and yet cringes when religious ideas get treated the same way. I have yet to see a good argument for why that’s fair or right.
    As to your other argument: Criticizing extreme religion isn’t the same thing as assuming that all religion is extreme. And in fact, I, and most of the other atheists I know, do criticize more moderate religion as well as its extreme forms. We may not do it as often or as passionately, since it doesn’t bug us as much… but we do it. (And when we do, we generally get criticized for being mean to nice moderate believers who could be our allies. We can’t win either way.)

  30. 30
    Kit Whitfield

    If someone is seriously angered because they occasionally see the word “atheist” in a headline, or have to change the channel if Richard Dawkins is on, then I have to wonder if what’s upsetting them is not the evangelical intolerance of atheist activists, but the very idea of atheism itself.
    There’s an interesting argument about this on Slacktivist, the blog of Fred Clark. He’s an Evangelical Christian and also a passionate liberal who hates what the fanatics have been doing to his religion, and this post – http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2009/04/the-burkhalogic-of-nom.html – addresses that idea. To quote:
    The word I’m stretching for here, Stanley Hauerwas would say, is “constantinianism” — the inversion and perversion of Christianity that occurred when a religion of slaves and women and the poor became a religion of emperors and empires. Constantinian faith requires and assumes the establishment of an official, privileged religion. It comes to believe, in the language of the First Amendment, that its own free exercise depends on such an establishment — that its free exercise is incompatible with the free exercise of any other religion (or of no religion at all)…
    The script for this ad purportedly has no grievance with others living however they want to live — but only insofar as their freedom doesn’t impinge upon
    our right to live in a world where we never have to see them, or to acknowledge their existence. That “takes away” our freedom to live as privileged hegemons. And since we can no longer distinguish between our faith itself and the privileged status of that faith, we perceive this as religious persecution — as an injustice against us.

  31. 31
    Mark

    Greta Christina, what you did was a great example of putting words in my mouth:
    “I do not believe that you are on solid ground to reject an entire belief system simply because you have never heard any good arguments from proponents of that belief system” is quite possibly one of the most flatly absurd arguments for religious belief that I’ve seen.
    Never mind that I was not arguing for religious belief. I was arguing for open-mindedness. I do think that such an argument is a good argument for open-mindedness. I also never said that no one should ever reach provisional conclusions. Actually, I think that all conclusions should be provisional. What I was arguing against was strong belief one way or another. I was also saying that we should, at least as a general rule of thumb, try to avoid strong belief as much as possible. I never said that you could not lean one way or another. I’ve dealt with this before and I grow tired of skeptic types misrepresenting what I say. Whether through carelessness or something more sinister this type of thing happens too much. This is part of what makes people on the other side not want to engage with skeptics.

  32. 32
    Robin Z

    Mark: Actually, I think that all conclusions should be provisional.
    In the sense that conclusions may always be challenged, so do most of us. That doesn’t keep them from being strong – I’m strongly confident that my name is Robin, but if one day everyone was calling me Kendall, all my IDs and credit cards said “Kendall”, my email addresses had “kendall” in them instead of “robin”, my online profiles listed my name as “Kendall”, etc., etc., etc., I would strongly consider that I was mistaken.
    As for the argument that the filtering effect of the public discourse has failed: why would you believe that? It’s not even required that all the best arguments float to the top – just one or two – to completely refute wiploc’s Parable of the Pawnbroker. And when it comes to reality, there are always multiple ways to test an hypothesis – just look at all the different places my name shows up!
    If the only way a thing can be true involves extraordinarily improbable circumstances – and the idea that nobody, not even paid professionals, can identify the best in their field is extraordinarily improbable – than it’s going to take extraordinary evidence to make considering that thing worthwhile. Such evidence is not forthcoming. Period.

  33. 33
    Tim Teagle

    The “Why do Atheists have to talk about atheism” question is not even a question. It’s a tactic.
    It is meant to intimidate and shame the atheist into silence. It is dishonest. And those who ask the “question” are dishonest.
    It also carries an undertone of violence. As in “some people – not me, of course – will take greater offense and act irrationally or violently.” The implication being that the atheist has called down violence on his own head and is therefore to blame.
    In other words, “keep your mouth shut and we won’t have a problem.”

  34. 34
    Greta Christina

    First of all, Mark: Misunderstanding someone is not the same as misrepresenting them or putting words in their mouth. (And it’s hardly the exclusive purview of skeptics.) If you’re going to assume ill-intent every time someone misinterprets what you say on the Internet, you’re going to have a hard time. (To clarify: Are you now saying that you’re not arguing in defense of religious belief? Because that’s been the entire context of this conversation.)
    Now to the actual content of what seems to be your point:

    What I was arguing against was strong belief one way or another. I was also saying that we should, at least as a general rule of thumb, try to avoid strong belief as much as possible

    I’m sorry, but this is an impossible way to live, and I strongly suspect that you yourself do not live this way. We make strong assumptions and have strong beliefs all the time. I, for instance, strongly believe that gravity is going to continue to work the way it always has. That if I drink two Manhattans, I’ll get tipsy. That the Greek myths about the gods do not accurately describe reality. That my wife loves me. That regular vigorous exercise is good for my health. That I can’t put my hand through a concrete wall. That if I stop showing up for work, I’ll eventually get fired. That if I jump out of a window, fairies will not appear to carry me gently to the ground.
    I can’t prove any of these things with absolute 100% certainty. But I strongly believe these things because all of the available evidence points to them being true… and because all of the arguments for them being false are incredibly bad.
    And I believe that there almost certainly is no God for exactly the same reasons. There’s no good evidence for God’s existence, and every single one of the approximately 535,798 arguments I’ve seen for God’s existence have ranged from untenable to laughably awful.
    It is completely rational to strongly believe something that is supported by an overwhelming body of evidence. It’s even rational to be skeptical of evidence that appears at first to contradict that belief. (As a science teacher once said: “If one of my students did an experiment showing that lead had the same density as cotton, my first reaction would not be to alert the science journals. My first reaction would be to make sure they’d turned their scale on.”)
    None of that conflicts with being open- minded. Being open- minded simply means that, if a sizable body of good, solid, carefully- gathered, double- checked evidence begins to be collected showing that my belief is wrong, then I’m willing to reconsider that belief. And that’s true of almost every atheist I know. Unlike many religious believers, we don’t say, “No matter what happens, no matter what evidence I see or what arguments I hear, I will always have my faith in the non-existence of God.” All we’re saying is, “Show me the money.”

  35. 35
    Mark

    Yeah, I know that skeptic types are not the only ones that try to put words in other people’s mouths, I just see it happen more with them than with other people. As I said, I do not know if it is carelessness or something worse, but misrepresentation is misrepresentation. I agree that a mistake is better than lying, but mistakes can be almost as bad if the mistake is because of carelessness. I was responding to what Robin Z was saying, and I was doing so by arguing in favor of open-mindedness. You, Greta, then said that I was arguing, not in favor of open-mindedness, but in favor of religious belief. This is a misrepresentation. If it is because of a misunderstanding, fine – I understand. My problem is that I see this a lot from skeptic types – more than from other people. I get tired of having to post to correct other people on my opinions. It’s almost as if skeptics are trying to pigeonhole their opponents into a corner that those opponents don’t belong in. I’m not interested in continuing this conversation if you can’t at least admit that you were wrong about my argument, and that you could have known that if you read my post more carefully.

  36. 36
    Greta Christina

    Mark, I am completely uninterested in pursuing a “who said what when” meta-argument. I find them tedious… and I find that people generally pursue them when they’ve lost the actual content of the actual argument. I have neither the time nor the inclination to go through every one of your comments here and copy- and- paste all of the places where you defend — or appear to defend — the validity of religious belief. (And I’m not interested in pointing out all the places where you misinterpret what I have said or what other people have said.)
    If that means you’re not going to continue this conversation, then best of luck to you in your future endeavors.

  37. 37
    Mark

    Fair enough, Greta. I do feel a need to thank you for at least being reasonably respectful to me. Most of the hardcore skeptics I write to on forums like this are very mean and vituperative, but you were a lot better. (I wish I could say that about all of the people posting here…) Thank you.

  38. 38
    Nance Confer

    Well done, Greta!
    Nance — visiting from Lynn’s blog — http://boremetotears.com/

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