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Michael Bachelard's Story on the New Atheism - a reponse - Comments

MattHunX's Avatar Comment 1 by MattHunX

Distortion error.
Enough said.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 14:20:00 UTC | #430704

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 2 by Steve Zara

I'm so glad that Russell is getting visibility here. He writes such useful essays and articles.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 14:35:00 UTC | #430710

Logicel's Avatar Comment 3 by Logicel

Way to go, Russell. You handled most of the loose odds and ends that the original article generated. And handled it brilliantly.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 15:06:00 UTC | #430715

black wolf's Avatar Comment 4 by black wolf

Rated excellent. I think this article will have to be written a few (dozen?) more times before certain practically comatose canards stop getting squeezed.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 15:50:00 UTC | #430726

Border Collie's Avatar Comment 5 by Border Collie

Great article ...

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 16:38:00 UTC | #430734

God fearing Atheist's Avatar Comment 6 by God fearing Atheist

Heaven help the herds of grazing animals when the big cats proliferate.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 17:54:00 UTC | #430757

ennui's Avatar Comment 7 by ennui

Excellent as usual, RB.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 18:02:00 UTC | #430758

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 8 by SaintStephen

Russell Blackford:

Superbly written, as usual. A topic that seems particularly relevant here on is encapsulated by this comment from Dr. Blackford's eloquent blog:

In all, it is Rundle's comments about the implausibility of science that are beside the point. Yes, science is implausible to untutored human common sense.
Now, I would like to contrast this well-penned statement, written by a man with Ph.D's in English literature and Philosophy, with this rather crude alternative:
Rundle is a fucking IDIOT for saying that because science is "mysterious and improbable" to uneducated dimwits, it is therefore identical to religion.
So what, exactly, is the difference between Blackford's sentences and my hypothetical evil doppleganger?

I assert there is virtually none, at least in terms of their essential meanings, and more importantly, in their ability to inspire strong emotion in the brains of those who read them. A Ph.D dissertation could be written on this subject alone, but some quick (facile?) points can be made.

Some will immediately center their arguments around the degree of emotion behind, or inspired by these different verbal constructs, or their relevance to hot-button issues like racism, or sexism. Blackford's statement is the more pedantic one, perhaps, and thus far less of a direct provocation than its more uncouth cousin immediately below. But doesn't this assertion itself require a Ph.D in the psychology of mind-reading? How does one assess another person's tolerance or immunity to being "DISSED", in other words, without making some rather drastic assumptions about the way that person's mind works, and the critical memes it might contain? Isn't the proverb "You say to-may-toe, I say to-mah-toe" perfectly applicable here?

By the way, this is not a criticism of the brilliant (sensitively pugnacious?) Russell Blackford in the slightest way, just in case you've misunderstood my crude vernacular above. What I'm asking is, how does couching obvious, forthright, and yes, emotion-laden disagreement, in scholarly language, excuse the language from being interpreted as STRIDENT, and even RUDE? And if it IS interpreted that way, by anybody, does that imply that it IS, in fact, on its face, "rude"?

Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or is beauty in the eye of a majority of beholders? In the eye of a vocal, aggressive group of beholders? In a rather brief and coarsely stated case, this is why I personally believe there should be no limits whatsoever on the use of language. I'm most certainly NOT saying people should be automatically protected from the consquences of their chosen words. No, free speech comes with inherent responsibilities. Freedom of speech, however, is a very simple concept, and this is primarily why it should be the law of all lands: everyone, from doctors to dumbfucks, can lucidly understand its precepts.

The only alternative is an ugly, metastasizing, cancerous, malignant LIST of taboo words and phrases, published in thirty different tongues, which in the due course of time would very likely grow to resemble The Holy Bible itself.

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 21:28:00 UTC | #430793

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 9 by Steve Zara

There is an interesting column by David Mitchell in today's Observer:

It supports Russell's theme of freedom of speech and expression. It backs the view that we have to support it for everyone, even those whose views we find repulsive.

Mitchell is, of course, the Mitchell of Mitchell and Web, who did the hilarious video spoof of Homeopathy that was on the net a few months ago (and may have been here too, I forget).

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 21:48:00 UTC | #430796

Ubiquitous Che's Avatar Comment 10 by Ubiquitous Che


You make me wish I'd studied rhetoric more when I took my elective philosophy papers at uni.

My reading is that the logos of the first and second comments are identical. But they share a very different pathos and ethos. Because of this, it is inevitable that one or the other will be more or less persuasive, depending on the audience, context and purpose of the speaker.

If everyone responded well to logos alone - well, then I like to think there wouldn't be religion in the first place, so we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Irritatingly, ethos and pathos continue to be powerful persuasive forces in modern public speaking/writing - particularly powerful when applied to a religious audience.

So it's important to select the most persuasive ethos (scholarly) and pathos (dispassionate) for the given context (professional writer's blog), audience (religious readers with an interest in the topic of 'new' atheism), and purpose (presumably, to educate that audience about atheism).

Note: There also seems to be an element where the text is addressing atheists as well, but my reading is that this is both a pretext and an afterthought to the greater goal of educating religious readers about atheism.

That said, with a different context, audience, and purpose the passionately aggressive (pathos) and informal, causal tone (ethos) of the second posting may be the more persuasive options.

It all depends, really.

I wish I'd studied this area more... At the time it bored me to tears, but I'm finding it more interesting now that I've been analyzing theistic/atheistic arguments on a regular basis.

[Edited some grammar and fine tuned a few sentences]

Sun, 10 Jan 2010 23:27:00 UTC | #430808

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 11 by SaintStephen

9. Comment #449667 by Ubiquitous Che on January 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Extremely well said, and thank-you for responding (and thanks for that earlier link, Steve Z).

I'm a strange hybrid, having attended Stanford as an undergraduate, and then spent the majority of my life among uneducated dimwits. (Just kidding, of course). So I may have a different perspective than a lot of people on But you put your finger on it exactly -- it is the audience that matters most. I fervently hope (not pray) that a massive throng of less educated people will eventually flock to atheism, and to Richard's website, and I have trouble believing that this future tidal wave of support will be the result of what you so aptly identified as logos. (I will, however, personally adopt your terminology (damn memes) from now on.)

It's beyond humorous, in other words, from my vantage point, to assume that a crowd of semi-religious, screaming American football fans would be persuaded to root for their favorite team in the following manner:

"Please, folks! That bone-crushing tackle by the rookie cornerback Smith was identical, in terms of its logos, to the graceful and well-cushioned imposition upon further progress down the field made by the experienced veteran safety Jones. Certainly, their respective ethos and pathos were quite different, and this is the salient point to be made."


Sun, 10 Jan 2010 23:59:00 UTC | #430818

chuckg's Avatar Comment 12 by chuckg

Good one, Russell! I resemble the reference to "atheist cats". As a matter of fact, I like it enough to even consider wearing it on a tee-shirt. Russell, you better copyright it or something, before I try to start selling them here on Any of you cats interested?

edit opps not new:


Results 1 - 10 of about 1,570,000 for atheist cat (0.31 seconds)

Here's one:

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 00:05:00 UTC | #430819

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 13 by BanJoIvie

Excellent points from Russell! He's on a roll lately!

I'm intrigued by a point raised in the comments section following this article on Russell's blog, and since it is directly related to Richard, I wanted to raise it here.

"J. J. Ramsey" contends that Russell's point about the word "fundamentalist" (being an equivocation unfairly flung at new atheists) should be equally applied to the word "delusion" as used by Richard.

Russell argues (very effectively, and correctly I think) that the phrase atheist "fundamentalist" takes advantage of two different senses of the word to belittle and marginalize the "new atheists." (One, tame sense of the word is literally true of "new atheism", but harmless, even admirable - the other sense is perjorative, but inapplicable.) The corrolary, if I understand J. J. Ramsey's point, would be that Richard unfairly uses 'delusion' in the literally true sense of 'deluded' but unfairly takes advantage of the more perjorative connotation present in the term (more like 'delusional') to tar the faithful with implications of clinical insanity.

I'm not sure how I feel about this argument. Since I agree with so much of what Richard says and writes, my instinct is to defend against this accusation of "hitting below the belt". Yet I agree with the accusation when Russell levels it at David Nicholls. I have to admit that the two usages, while not identical, have similarities.

I'm wary of confirmation bias, so I thought it might be an interesting point for discussion. Any thoughts?

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 01:08:00 UTC | #430826

Ubiquitous Che's Avatar Comment 14 by Ubiquitous Che


Actually, that's a damn good point.

My instinct is to argue that the use of 'God Delusion' as the title of a book is a justified provocation to the faithful even if it is technically incorrect, whereas the frequent use of the term 'atheist fundamentalist' as seriously, thoughtfully and routinely presented in arguments by the faithful isn't justified.

This satisfies me instinctively - but intellectually, I'll admit its a little weak. So my confirmation bias flag is still buzzing.

Hmm... Perhaps I should have waited for someone else to comment. I'm also interested to see the answer.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 01:48:00 UTC | #430831

Mark Jones's Avatar Comment 15 by Mark Jones

Comment #449686 by BanJoIvie

The odd thing here is that JJ Ramsey appears to be arguing that there is a valid comparison between 'fundamentalist' and 'delusion', whilst arguing that 'fundamentalist' is fine to describe Grayling but 'delusion' is not fine to describe the faithful.

Is he correct that Dawkins use of 'delusion' is as provocative as 'fundamentalist'? Possibly. Is one description *fair* and the other not? Certainly the wider definition of delusion is fair, whereas I don't see *any* definition of fundamentalist that is fair as applied to an *atheist* because of his atheism. So on that point I would disagree with his comparison. Re-defining 'fundamentalist' is part of Russell's original objection to its use ("Of course, the effect of using the word in these ways is to destroy its usefulness"), and JJ ironically obliges with his own re-definition.

Such arcana are the bread and butter of the accommodationists, and just serve to distract from the main issue. If it helped, one could accept the fundamentalist tag for the new atheists if they then accepted that calling the faithful delusional is also not a problem. But the mark of a good faitheist is to object to sleights against the faithful whilst happily sleighting non-believers, so I guess, by definition, they wouldn't agree :-). They would like to continue with the *fundamentalist* tag for new atheists but deny that the faithful are *delusional*, whilst arguing that the use of the terms can be compared. Go figure.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 02:43:00 UTC | #430841

Russell Blackford's Avatar Comment 16 by Russell Blackford

For those who are worried about JJ Ramsey's point, I've made a couple of longish comments in reply to them. JJ has a bit of an obsession with this issue of whether it was legitimate to use the word "delusion". This is by no means the first time he's raised it in the blogosphere.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 04:13:00 UTC | #430843

Quine's Avatar Comment 17 by Quine

I don't have a problem with the use of "delusion." Most religions consider other religions to be delusional. It is possible that somewhere there is a religion, or could be a religion, that is true and not delusional, but so far there is no evidence for that. So, we know that at least nearly all, if not all, religions are delusional. Some are so inconsistent with observed reality, that we are quite sure those are delusional, so there have to be some that deserve the descriptor. Therefore, Richard has at least many cases of delusion to write about. Some people will jump up and claim that the supernatural belief under attack as delusional is "not mine," but again, that does not save the conventional Sunday school ones presented from scripture.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 05:50:00 UTC | #430852

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 18 by SaintStephen

From Russell Blackford's latest blog comment:

He's trying to provoke thought rather than anger, even though it might also provoke some of the latter.
I don't like it [the word "delusion"] when it's just used to provoke believers for the sake of provoking them, or as a kind of coded way to act tough in front of peers.
There was an interesting comment made in a different thread regarding the idea of a "Tipping Point" that could possibly be attained when the truth of the New Atheist arguments has finally convinced enough people to abandon their religious security blankets. Being trained as a mechanical engineer, and fairly new to atheism myself, I hadn't ever heard the phrase "Tipping Point" used in any context other than the stability of structures. Now, I realize it has been the invisible foundation of (just about) everything I've posted since joining

It seems almost intuitive to me, as an impressionable, pop-culture-conscious, middle-class American, that there will come a day in the not-so-distant future, when atheist ranks will swell rapidly in numbers, not because the faithful have cracked open and absorbed The God Delusion or 50 Voices of Disbelief en masse, but merely because of the "inertia" or "momentum" of the charge being led by the Four Horsemen, and others like Russell Blackford, in the media. For obvious reasons we hesitate to use the analogy with influenza, but I for one strongly believe the disease of atheism to be a quite virulent bug, chock full of rapidly acquired, mutating memes, and it will only require a few "loudly and courageously" infected people in every local "neighborhood" to fan the flames of what will become a true epidemic - or an epidemic of truth, more aptly put; because atheism IS the truth (god dammit).

Moreover, to shift gears somewhat awkwardly into a mathematical Georg Cantor analogy, atheism is a larger infinity than either racism, sexism, or gay/lesbian awareness, and furthermore these valid and important movements will be greatly facilitated -- and hopefully accelerated -- by the evolution of pervasive atheism in America, and in the world at large. So if free speech is truly free, meaning it doesn't qualify as evil or even Machiavellian, then my opinion would be to "let loose the rhetorical hounds" immediately, and do as Good Professor Richard advised, which was to essentially "stop being so damn nice."

Which brings me, albeit in a hairpin curve, swiftly back to Dr. Blackford's quotes above. Why not "provoke" anger? What better way to get the average Joe on the street talking about atheism? Despicable, pugnacious, head Fox Bill O'Reilly has mastered this type of rhetoric to enviable success… why wouldn't his "technique" be just as effective for spreading the memes of atheism; particularly since, unlike Billow, we have TRUTH and REASON on our side? Of course it will work. Sour medicine indeed, but if Richard's memetic theory is at all sound, then provocative attacks are simply part and parcel of a full armory of atheist weaponry.

And before I began blabbering, my original questions regarding Russell's comments centered around how to best convince "the bourgeoise" to be atheists, if we adopt the pseudo-patronizing (and possibly arrogant) assumption that many Americans are simply not equipped mentally to even spell-check Dr. Blackford's spectacularly literate essay, or similar efforts by Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. What if the people we're trying to convince with ethos and logos "just don't get it?" (My parents would probably fall into this category, for instance.) Do we point them all to Julia Sweeney or Billy Connolly DVDs?

This post could go on forever with questions exploring atheist strategy, but I will end it now by asserting that, if and when the "Tipping Point" draws near, there will be literally millions of high-school educated, most likely rebellious, air-headed and macho, former Promise Keepers, or perhaps even former participants in the You dimwit… there probably isn't a God, so get off your high horse and enjoy your life."

I know I relish every chance I get. If provocation, including provocation to anger, works in this fashion, then it should be a big wrench in the atheist toolbox.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 07:02:00 UTC | #430858

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 19 by Bonzai

Great article, Russell.

I have no clue what JJ Ramsey was going on about.

I have never understood the word 'delusion' in the context of religion in the 'narrow sense' to mean clinically insane or something to that effect. But even in the 'broad sense' it is hardly a compliment.There is no need to equivocate.

I should add that in the broad sense, 'delusions' is an accurate description of religious beliefs from an atheistic perspective. This is just stating a fact as we see it as atheists. It is not rhetoric calculated to provoke, even though it certainly has that effect. But then religious people are easily 'provoked' anyway.

I think that should be obvious.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 07:42:00 UTC | #430861

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 20 by Jos Gibbons

Thanks for Mitchell's article Steve. You're right, the homeopathy sketch was posted here.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 08:19:00 UTC | #430864

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 21 by bendigeidfran

Comment #449728 by SaintStephen

The tipping point is the critical mass?

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 08:46:00 UTC | #430867

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 22 by SaintStephen

That was my assumption, yes. Maybe we need a less "catastrophic" terminology. Structures falling over and nuclear bombs exploding probably aren't good analogies for atheism.


(Just popped in one last time... heading off to bed.)

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 10:10:00 UTC | #430873

dankuck's Avatar Comment 23 by dankuck

I can see the problem with the narrow and wide definitions of fundamentalism which are roughly,

narrow: Someone who believes in spite of evidence

wide: Someone who believes strongly

But I don't see a similar redefinition with the meaning of delusion. It always means "a belief held without evidence". Granted there are negative connotations, but there's no redefinition.

It's just the more provocative way to say "faith".

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 15:36:00 UTC | #430954

Sonic's Avatar Comment 24 by Sonic

SaintStephen, I read the two blockquotes in your post #449646 to mean two different things. As an exercise, I can try rewriting Russell Blackford’s quote without the verb to be. Some people call this ”E-Prime” to mean English without the verb to be. I’ll try this:

E-Prime: Rundle’s comments about the implausibility of science miss the point. Yes, untutored human common sense finds many scientific ideas nonintuitive or counterintuitive.
I think that still means what Blackford meant, and it also highlights what Blackford was doing. He was helping us, as a philosopher, by pointing to a roadmap and showing us where Rundle took a wrong turn.

But your doppelganger says Rundle is an idiot (and I italicized the verb is to point out this is what E-Prime advocates call speaking in “deity mode”). Blackford did not say that, or mean that. I think this is a fair synopsis of how you changed the meaning:
Blackford: Rundle missed a point (and Blackford wants us to see the point on a map).
Doppelganger: Rundle is an idiot (and you want people to feel angry about something).

Your anger and profanity have done you a disservice. First, you don’t see that you changed Blackford’s meaning, because your anger and profanity have obscured your own thinking. Blackford was not being pedantic, he was saying something completely different than you. Second, in your arguments here advocating anger and profanity, your post #449646 is a good example to show how anger and profanity fail. There may be a time and place for anger and profanity, but your confusion in your post #449646 counts as evidence against them, not for them.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 16:46:00 UTC | #430973

Quine's Avatar Comment 25 by Quine

Comment #449850 by Sonic:

He was helping us, as a philosopher, by pointing to a roadmap and showing us where Rundle took a wrong turn.
Good observation, Sonic.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 17:14:00 UTC | #430984

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 26 by SaintStephen

26. Comment #449850 by Sonic on January 11, 2010 at 4:46 pm

But your doppelganger says Rundle is an idiot (and I italicized the verb is to point out this is what E-Prime advocates call speaking in “deity mode”). Blackford did not say that, or mean that. I think this is a fair synopsis of how you changed the meaning...
I almost certainly agree.
Your anger and profanity have done you a disservice. First, you don’t see that you changed Blackford’s meaning, because your anger and profanity have obscured your own thinking.
No, I didn't change Russell's logos, I AMPLIFIED it by purposely adding a pejorative term. Sentences are not mathematical summations, after all. Here's a quick example:
The grass is not purple.
The grass is not purple, you pinhead.
The meanings of these two sentences is identical, except that one contains an intentional provocation, ala Bill O'Reilly. And if I were Billow, I would cry about my "disservice" to Christian Right America all the way to the bank, and to the voting booths.
Blackford was not being pedantic, he was saying something completely different than you. Second, in your arguments here advocating anger and profanity, your post #449646 is a good example to show how anger and profanity fail.
These sentences are moot and don't add any new information to your argument.
There may be a time and place for anger and profanity, but your confusion in your post #449646 counts as evidence against them, not for them.
More redundant boilerplate. I don't see how purposely amplifying Blackford's statement counts as evidence against the use of anger and profanity. Your entire case can be encapsulated thusly: "You provocatively amplified his meaning, therefore you failed in provocatively amplifying his meaning. Sorry, but I believe your argument is the one that fails.

However, since you were so generous and included the delicious caveat about proper "time and place" for profanity, please PLEASE feel free to provide an example, or three. I am quite interested in hearing more about that!

(Giggling emoticon here. Same logos as a real emoticon, but different pathos.)

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 18:21:00 UTC | #430997

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 27 by SaintStephen

Yes, but wetness drys rapidly in the atheist sunshine, and smells are efficiently removed by the bubble baths of science, and energy lost is quickly regained by the intellectual nourishment of reason.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 18:55:00 UTC | #431004

Eric Blair's Avatar Comment 28 by Eric Blair

As usual, Russell's piece is clear and well-argued.

However, I see the so-called New Atheists linked more solidly by rationalism (which clearly sets them apart from previous "anti-bourgeois" politico-literary atheists) and a commitment to scientific methodology, than by individualism and commitment to liberty.

The fact that many NAs are also highly individualistic and committed to liberty (and liberal democratic values in particular) is secondary and perhaps a coincidence.

(I think it's generally a good thing, though.)

Still, the fact many NAs approach religion with the perspective and tools of science does limit their ability to understand, and their interest in understanding, anything that isn't in some sense measureable - whether it be art, music, interpersonal relations and communication, and of course religion as a socio-psycho phenomenon.

Science promises (eventually) black-and-white answers, and evidence to back up the ultimate "killer argument" that some NAs expect will one day will simply wash away religion from human minds.

I'm not so sure it will happen that way, or at all.


Mon, 11 Jan 2010 23:27:00 UTC | #431135

Rikitiki13's Avatar Comment 29 by Rikitiki13

re: "The problem with a pissing contest is that everyone ends up wet smelly and drained."

True, and also true what SaintStephan said.

But the difference (I think) is: Atheists don't kill people over pissing contests.

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 23:54:00 UTC | #431143

Rob Schneider's Avatar Comment 30 by Rob Schneider


You so clearly stated my position regarding the value and purpose of an atheist constituency that I nearly thought I'd channeled it to you. :-)

Beautiful conclusion to a VERY well argued piece. We atheists DO have common ground, joiners or not. We have a vested interest in fighting for free speech and secular/neutral government that neither favors or enables any faith in carrying out its (the government's) civil duties.

Blasphemy is contrary to democracy, and ultimately to freedom, and I'm willing to stand and fight with anyone who agrees.

Tue, 12 Jan 2010 04:38:00 UTC | #431172