Epstein’s F-Bomb, Part 2

After yesterday’s posting, I wrote to Brian Flemming to call it to his attention and ask for his thoughts. With his permission, here is his reply:

One thing about your approach: It concentrates on the “harsh words” aspect, which is no big deal. And Epstein is trying hard to focus only on that aspect.

I’d rather force him to confront the fact that he is promoting what he knows is a FALSE characterization.

Harsh words can be defensible. False words can never be.

There is no way to maintain a civil dialogue with someone who knowingly and willingly introduces false ideas into the conversation, just to force you to defend yourself against those false charges.

In fact, if that person has no intention of ending such a dishonest tactic, it would be foolish to keep talking to him. (However, if his words were harsh but true, or even harsh but defensible, those would be far less serious situations. But neither is the case here, by Epstein’s own admission.)

In my opinion, “false” is the key concept here, not “harsh.”

Brian, your point is well-taken.

At first I thought that Epstein could be given a pass for using a term like “fundamentalism” as a purely harsh word without having to also take it as false, since it was not at all clear to me that “fundamentalism” has any logically-consistent definition when applied to atheists. If so, then his use of the word could simply be called “not even wrong—” and could therefore be judged as a purely rhetorical device intended to create emotion.

But in examining the context of his statements more closely, he appears to be fairly clear on what he actually means by his use of the word. The AP article gives context to the term just after it introduces it: (emphasis mine)

Epstein calls them ”atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

So here, dogmatism and intolerance seem to be the gist. And when he “clarified” his position in his blog, he appeared to be using the term in much the same way:

Richard [Dawkins] wrote to me in response to my clarification about the use of the word “Fundamentalism,” (in short, I used it, but in scare quotes, and no I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists)

By “actual fundamentalists” I take it he means something akin to the dictionary definition, “strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology.” This is essentially a reprise of “dogmatism.”

So to determine the truth value of his statements, we need set aside the scary term “fundamentalist” and decide whether the “New Atheists” are dogmatic and intolerant.

• “Dogmatism” entails holding to beliefs in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. I see no evidence for this among the “New Atheists.” I myself have written about the sort of evidence I would need to become a theist, but I never see theists writing about what sort of evidence it would take for them to become atheists. I conclude that atheists are, in general, less dogmatic than theists.

• “Intolerance” entails the unwillingness to allow the existence of contrary beliefs. Again, I see no evidence that the “New Atheists” wish to exterminate theists. If anything, they hope that atheism/Humanism will eventually become dominant solely on their own merits— given a level intellectual playing field and perhaps several additional generations of debate and advancement of science and culture. At the same time, they allow that this may never happen.

I can’t escape the conclusion that, assuming Epstein intended his use of “fundamentalist” to have any meaning at all, it is indeed false when applied to people such as you, Dawkins, Harris, myself, and the overwhelming majority of outspoken atheists I am aware of.

So, I also call upon Epstein to apologize— not only for his hypocrisy in using tactics he decries (for which I have already criticized him) but also for his prominent, damaging, and most importantly false characterizations of the outspoken members of the atheist/humanist community.

Finally, may I suggest a civil alternative to the f-bomb? The phrase “evangelical atheist” has been used as a term of self-description by Harris and others, and I find the term “evangelical” appropriate and positive in its sense of “zealous in advocating something.” Whether it is possible to be overzealous in certain cases is a completely acceptable debate for our community to have— it’s just not quite as headline-grabbing.

UPDATE: Friendly Atheist points out that Richard Dawkins expressed his own feelings about being called “fundamentalist” back in 2004!

I don’t particularly mind being a bogeyman – I do mind being a fundamentalist. I think a fundamentalist is somebody who believes something unshakeably, and isn’t going to change their mind. Somebody who believes something because it’s written in their holy book. And even if all the evidence in the world points in the other direction, because it’s in the holy book they’re not going to change. I absolutely repudiate any suggestion that I am that. I would, like any other scientist, willingly change my mind if the evidence led me to do so. So I care about what’s true, I care about evidence, I care about evidence as the reason for knowing what is true. It is true that I come across rather passionate sometimes – and that’s because I am passionate about the truth. Passion is very different from fundamentalism.

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15 thoughts on “Epstein’s F-Bomb, Part 2

  1. [Warning: Clastito, AKA Alexandar Vargas, is a well-known troll. I entertained him for a little while. You can skip this exchange unless you are up for his inane rantings and my futile attempts at reasoning with him. — Robert]

    I don’t think there is any way people like Dawkins will change their “morality of reason” or condemn the more unscrupulous techniques of his lackeys.
    There’s nothing as bad as someone who is absolutely certain he must be right, on too many a different subject, including those he has not taken into much depth. All you need is to be uppity enough for this skewing of the intellect that is not unlike dogmatism (and thus, fundamentalism).
    I don’t care if dawkins is calm, kind and pretty please with sugar on top, or plays it via insolence and mockery . It’s his philosophy that sucks. Like a stinkin amateur.

    There is something profoundly non-evolutionary about proclaiming bare reason, as if the cognitive properties of this particular ape lineage were to fit like a shoe with the universe. Pure reason is more of a theological argument, something more akin to the properties of a god. What is reason then? You may want to discuss that before you proclaim it. You may want to know what did Kant say , or José Ortega y Gasset.

    With Dawkins, it’s just a matter of showing him evidence of god, and he would change his mind. But what kind of evidence is he thinking about? If he does not say what, he is quite plainly talking out of his ass. Material evidence for some kind of giant and powerful extraterrestrial that created us?

    If there is something I hate about creationists, it is that they say they have the scientific evidence for the existence of god. I am NOT about to validate that twisted logic by saying that there is scientific evidence for the existence of god.
    No one will ever find evidence that god does or doesn’t exist. Period. The dealings of the supernatural are not within the domain of science, and Dawkins should not engage in talking as if they were. It’s not a matter of “show me the evidence and I’ll believe whatever”, Mr Dawkins. You must specify what do you consider valid evidence, and what are you going to do with your previous evidence as well.
    This is why I can be a more solid atheist than these types. And god is off my list for good: no one will ever scientifically prove the existence of a supernatural entity. I choose not to believe in god. It’s a free choice, not a must “by evidence”. People must be allowed to make that choice for themselves

  2. Clastito,

    So… you’re an atheist who doesn’t care about evidence. You believe being an atheist is just a quasi-fideistic choice for you… sort of like what outfit you put on in the morning?

    I guess I’ll be seeing you defending Christianity or some UFO cult tomorrow. Good luck with that.

  3. Lumping me with the ufos? You’ve got balls, haha
    The truth is, I am very likely to woop your ass on most evolutionary topics.
    But yes, it is a personal choice.Either that or accept that god is a scientific topic. no sir. This is why I disagree with te degradation of the concepts of evidence and reason that are implied by Mr Dawkin’s philosophy.
    The “message of the universe” is not “there is god” or “there is no god” therefere as a scientist, i don’t have an opinion.God is supernatural. I can’t prove he does not exist, so I don’t say “you can’t believe in god, that’s bad”
    All I can say is that I, pèrsonally, U do not believe in god from my own choice, and you can make your own choice

  4. Clastito,

    I was simply going to ban you for trolling (you do have a reputation), but I’m going to try to make my position very clear in a small space, and we’ll see how you like my reasoning. I’ll also decide whether you’re worth my time.

    1) I do not personally claim that science proves that no god of any description exists. You will not find that claim anywhere among my writings.

    2) However, I do claim that logic and/or science can prove that gods of some definitions do not exist. For example, if you assert that you believe in a god that can do a logically self-contradictory thing, I will have no trouble denying the existence of that god.

    3) On the other hand, if you define “god” so broadly or so specifically that it obviously exists, such as saying “God is all that is,” or “God is my cat over there,” then I will agree that “god”, by that definition, exists. But I won’t worship it.

    4) God, as defined by the world’s major religions, is either highly improbable based on the available evidence, or logically impossible based on the assertions made about it by believers.

    5) Therefore, I have no problem asserting my lack of a belief in God, i.e., atheism. I also have no problem using logic and the existing state of scientific knowledge to back up my claim.

    6) I agree with Dawkins, Stenger, et al that religion makes testable, i.e., scientific claims. Such claims (such as the efficacy of prayer) should be tested, and not dismissed out of hand.

    7) I can imagine a confluence of evidence so compelling that I would ineluctably become a believer in some kind of “god.” This is purely analogous to the mountain of evidence that has already led me away from being a believer in the first place. Even though I do not think it probable I will ever see that kind of evidence, I do not consider it any kind of concession that I remain open to it, and not being open to new evidence is something I fault many believers for.

  5. you mean dawkins does not argue about atheism as if it were some mere case of l”ack of scientifci evidence”? That is false. I may be a troll but I am not a PHONY. And again, what evidence would that be, please?
    You dawkobots are hopeless.
    Chao pescao

  6. There you go. You completely think you can back up your atheism with logic and scientific evidence. NO!!
    I’d very much like you to be more explicit about the nature of the “compelling” evidence whose accumulation you conceive as capable of making you believe in god. And please keep it at the general religion level; not the judeo-christian religion level (like finding the arc, etc)

    I mostly don’t agree with your argument. I think religion would not be religion if it does not at points directly challenge reason, logic and observation. So if you discard religions as false on these attributes, you would end up discarding all religion. Your “acceptable” religions are a façade for rationalism, a mockery of a religion, constrained by reason and lacking true faith and mysticism

  7. Clastito,

    I already linked to my explanation of the level of evidence I would require. Did you follow the link? The level of evidence I describe is already cast in terms of general conditions.

    Logic and science cannot refute all religion, and I have never said that it can.

    Indeed I do use logic and scientific evidence to back up my atheism. Perhaps you have something additional I can use?

    You seem to have an idealistic notion of religion as a separate “magisteria” from science. But, religion as it is practiced today is often in legitimate conflict with reason and the findings of science, because religious believers routinely make scientifically or logically testable assertions. They also assert that their beliefs have grave consequences for the lives of others, and they act on the implications of those assertions. Such behavior removes religion from the purely mystical, abstract realm in which you seem to think it belongs. If they did not do these things, then there would be no quarrel coming from the likes of me.

    Finally, you say “I mostly don’t agree with your argument.” In the interest of mutual understanding, with what parts of my explanation do you agree?

  8. you’re going to have to do bettter than that tedious link. All I see are abot 10 postuates that seem theologically oriented argumentation, not “simply evidence”.

    [Ranting deleted by moderator]

  9. Clastito,

    I’m not even going to read past the first two sentences of your comment. My link pointed directly to item 9 of that article, “Airtight Belief Systems.” If you can’t be troubled to read even that one section, I won’t be troubled to read your tedious paragraph.

    Bye bye.

  10. my response was natural. next time bother to say “check point 9″. If not, it IS a tedious link insofar as to what I am expecting from you: direct specification of waht would be your evidence