Why I don't like the term "Gnu Atheist"

You will say that a group has the right to call themselves whatever they want, and you will be right. I just wish they hadn't chosen that term. It extends this group's screwing up cultural battles that don't need to be fought into yet another realm I care deeply about, and as with the first, it can only make things harder and more complicated.

Who are the "gnu atheists"? Well, first, a word of warning. If you try to define them, they show up and accuse you of choosing a definition for purposes of setting up a straw man. However, most of those in the movement formerly known as "New Atheism" seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word "reason" as a synonym for "application of scientific reasoning", thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren't in a science or engineering department, but they tend either not to realize that they're doing it, or to downplay that.)

Beyond that, a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed "reason", citing the names of logical fallacies the way fundamentalists cite scripture. They will assert that they know the Truth and that therefore it's perfectly justified for them to say frankly insulting things, and then say that others shouldn't be offended by the Truth. They seem to think that non-fundamentalist theists are prevaricators who "pick and choose" from their religion, and thus are somehow misrepresenting their own religious beliefs. I generally think that this is because they'd prefer to argue against fundamentalists, for it's extremely easy to show how fundamentalists are at odds with science. But, it's very disheartening to see somebody who wants people to accept science then criticizing a theist for not being a fundamentalist. It is the behavior of this subset that leads me to the conclusion that "fundamentalist atheist" is the best term for this sort of atheist. Most atheists, thankfully, are not like this, but there is the subset that argues that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by reasonable people who accept science— much as fundamentalist Christians argue that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by people who are good and "saved".

What is the first cultural battle that these "gnu atheists" make more difficult? Well, obviously, the whole religion/science debate. Given that a substantial fraction of the USA is religious and values their religion, it should be pretty bloody obvious that if self-styled defenders of science are out there saying that science is incompatible with religion, it is only going to put up more barriers against the bulk of the population accepting science. Of course, sometimes obvious things are wrong— quantum mechanics is full of examples. And the new atheists are fond of pointing this out, arguing that there is no evidence that what they're doing is harmful. Of course, there's also no evidence that what they're doing is helpful... but they don't seem to think that a lack of evidence coupled with what is obvious disrespect and very plausibe harm is enough for them to question their behavior. What's more, when you do present evidence, they will often dismiss it as anecdotal, or not clear statistical evidence, or not enough evidence, in a manner that frankly reminds me of this comment on Phil Plait's blog by a creationist who insists that without complete timeline of all mutations in evolution, one shouldn't accept evolution. (Aside: despite having the same first name, I did not write that comment!)

These "gnu atheists" will attack defenders of science such as the Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshbaum, or Josh Rosenau, for pointing out the obvious harm that their tactics could do to our shared cause. They will argue that the National Center for Science Education shouldn't be saying that science and religion are compatible, because if they're really about "science" they shouldn't be saying anything about religion at all. This last tactic is particularly annoying, because of course they themselves will not hesitate to go out and say that science is incompatible with religion. After all, the way that they've defined things, they're just telling the truth, and anybody who claims to defend science and says that religion might be OK is venturing into off-limits territory. They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious— on the basis that it is incompatible with their philosophy, and therefore non-atheist scientists have something wrong with them (they're "compartmentalizing", or "intellectually dishonest", or some such).

So. We've got a cause that a lot of us care deeply about— mainstream acceptance of science, scientific reasoning, and the scientific method. We have those out there— fundamentalists of various religions, most obviously— who want to reject much of science, and who have a distressingly powerful voice in public political discourse. And, we've got a broad population who are religious and care about their religion, but who are capable of accepting science. Then, we have a subset of those arguing for science who also argue that accepting science means having to reject religion... which of course provides direct support for the fundamentalists who argue that scientists are cultural warriors trying to take away everybody's religion. That's not true, but the fact that some scientists are out there saying that makes it much harder for people like the NCSE to argue that the scientific establishment really doesn't want to destroy religion.

In other words, I'm annoyed at the "gnu atheists" in the first place; not just because many are so blinded by their love for their own philosophy that they can't see that it isn't necessarily objective truth, and not just because many are frankly rude and insulting while thinking there must be something wrong with me if I find them rude and insulting. I'm annoyed at them also because they're getting in the way of a cause I care about, mainstream acceptance of good science and scientific reasoning. There are a lot of religious people out there who have no problem with evolution or the Big Bang, and there are a lot more who wouldn't have any problem with it if they really learned about it and learned how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science. Those people are people we should reach out to. Telling them that religion is idiotic, or intellectually dishonest, and that the real people who accept science must all be atheists, isn't going to help.

What's the second issue? Open source and free software. "Huh?" you may say? To be honest, I don't know the etymology of the recently-arisen term "gnu atheism", but I'd wager that it's taking the term "new atheism" (which caused all sorts of boring pedantic and semantic arguments) and riffing it together with Gnu of the Gnu project. The Gnu project is one of the original projects that pushed the notion of open source and free software, long before the term "open source" was coined. Much of that movement today would not exist without what the Gnu project had done. A lot of the core software you use on your Linux system was written under their auspices. But, more importantly, the Gnu project gave people like me, people who have a strong ethical attachment to the notion of free software, a central place to rally around. And, crucially, they provided the Gnu Public Licence, or GPL, one of the most important and most widely used free-software licenses.

Of course, there are some in the business world who see free software as a threat. So, there have been, and will continue to be, disinformation campaigns that try to link free and open source software to other dubious and/or Unamerican things, such as communism, computer crime/hackers, rampant disrespect for copyrights, etc. It's a complete misrepresentation to say that there is a conflict between "the interests of business" and free software, but that is a narrative that's out there floating about. What's more, those who tend to care about "the interests of business" are likely to be, at least in the USA, on the "right" side of the political spectrum in the common but flawed one-dimensional model of political opinion. Those who are religious and worried, or potentially worried, that the scary scientific mainstream is trying to destroy religion are also more likely to be on the right side of the spectrum.

Put it together. You have this movement out there, the subset of atheists whose stated goal is to destroy religion and who assert that complete and intellectual consistent acceptance of science requires a rejection of religion. That is a movement that people who aren't already atheists are likely to view with suspicion. Now, they've taken a name that seems to link them to something that is completely separate, open source and free software. It bugs me already for aesthetic that these guys have hijacked the term "Gnu". But it can't help but create a link in some folks' minds between this crazy hippy dubious philosophy about sharing software you've written to attacks on religion. In sort, free software may now be perceived as having something to do with yet another cultural assault that, frankly, has nothing whatsoever to do with free software. "GNU public licence? Isn't that related to those scientists who want to destroy all religion?" Sigh.

Life is hard enough for those of us who want the world to accept science, and for those of us who want the world to at least be compatible with free software. It only gets harder when some act in a way that is basically the caricature of what our opponents already claim we are.

104 responses so far

  • Jacques says:

    What about those communist assholes hijacking the term in the first place? "Gnu public license? When did wildebeest start driving cars?" Sigh.

    Obviously they didn't choose the term (like "gay", they reclaimed it), and obviously they are animal, not unix, lovers. So obvious this is, that I can't tell if you're trying to do irony. Let's just say you failed.

  • rknop says:

    Obviously? Is it really obvious that they chose the name to match an animal, without consideration that there's this other cultural phenomenon known to nerd-type people who have also named themselves after the same animal, and without reference to that? That's not obvious at all.

    It may be they haven't deliberately chosen to riff on the whole gnu/free software thing, but that's out there in culture. It's not entirely plausible that the naming happened completely independent of that cultural context.

  • Jim says:

    Rob, I don't know the etymology either. However, I suspect that it had much more to do with the phonetic similarity between "new" and "gnu" and less to do with the Gnu Project. I don't follow trends in atheism closely, but I could easily see a group thinking that the term "New Atheists" implied something that they didn't want to imply (e.g. a lack of linkage to classical philosophy or something like that). In that case, an almost-homonymous term such as "Gnu Atheists" would provide continuity while removing whatever the offending implication was.

  • rknop says:

    If this is the genesis of the term in the context of new atheism, then in fact it is tied into the whole free software business.

    Reading down into the comments, Hamilton Jacobi (the guy to whom the image has a h/t) says "As a Gnu Emacs user, that’s actually what gave me the idea (although technically that kind of Gnu is pronounced differently)."

  • rknop says:

    ...and the extent to which the "Gnu Atheism" facebook group means anything, it seems that Hamilton Jacobi *is* the origin: look here.

    ...not that I generally consider facebook to be an authoritative source, though....

  • Jim says:

    Rob, it gave him the idea, but that doesn't mean he was trying to tie in philosophically. If you look at the link from Aratina Cage, she says that she prefers the Gnu term because there's nothing "new" about atheism. Reading the several comments Jacobi made on that blog post, his mention that he used Emacs was the only reference to anything software-related.

    The Facebook pages's Info tab makes it clear that the homonym was the key point, especially in the second paragraph with the use of the pun "a gnu term was needed."

  • rknop says:

    In any event, it *does* remind people of the GNU project, and that's what makes me grouchy.

  • mw says:

    This sounds like one of those diatribes I keep hearing about how homosexuals hijacked "that lovely old word *gay*". (They overlook how fruit, fag, faggot, nancy, queen and a hundred other terms got overlaid as well.)

    "They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious. "

    That's like saying medicine and homeopathy are compatible because huge numbers of pharmacies sell homeopathic remedies.

  • Sunil says:

    Why is citing logical fallacies is a bad thing? Do you think one shouldn't be *too* logical, shouldn't examine arguments *too* closely?

    > "[...] how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science."

    Why don't you explain how you do it then. You must believe that Jesus was immaculately conceived, and that he rose from the dead, and that he's going to show up on earth yet again. If that's what you believe, how is it compatible with science? I'll answer that - it's not. The only way to do is to compartmentalize, to not hold such beliefs up to scientific scrutiny. I hear a lot of attempts to explain this away by people like Francis Collins - none of it is convincing, even to a non-scientist like me.

    • swh says:

      While agreeing with your general thrust I guess it's reasonable to point out that the doctrine of the immaculate conception refers to the conception of Mary (who someone decided had to be born without original sin - in order to be the mother of a god) and not to the conception of Jesus - which was magic.

      And for the record I can't square magic with reality - but then I don't try to.

  • dersk says:

    @Jacques, by definition, GNU is Not Unix. That's what it stands for.

    The fact that many scientists are also religious doesn't show that the two domains are compatible; it shows that people can host two contradictory ideas in their head. I think the closest you can say is that you personally find each mode of thought useful in different cases.

    And Rob, I suspect the number of people who would be familiar with both terms is almost vanishingly small. And hey, can't you just turn it around (assuming you're some form of Protestant) by saying that the creative commons / open source philosophy can actually be read as a Christian philosophy (do unto others, etc.)?

  • rknop says:

    That’s like saying medicine and homeopathy are compatible because huge numbers of pharmacies sell homeopathic remedies.

    This analogy isn't apt, and here's the reason. We know why pharmacies well homeopathic remedies: because people buy them. Pharmacies, ultimately, are in the business of making money from selling pharmaceuticals that people will buy. They're not in the business of figuring out the truth about pharmaceuticals. This behavior is no more contradictory than the behavior of bookstores that sell books that contradict each other, because again the point is not putting together knowledge, but selling commodities.

    The fact that working scientists are also religious means that those people have been able to make peace with ideas that you think are necessarily contradictory. This is empirical evidence that it can be done, even if your own personal philosophy prevents you from seeing how.

    Sunil: being a Christian in the modern day and age doesn't necessarily mean that you accept immaculate conception or bodily resurrection, and it certainly doesn't mean accepting bodily return. (Yeah, there are lots who do, there are Christians who believe that the "Left Behind" series is some sort of truth. But there are also lots who don't.) But, in any event, there's a difference between science and philosophical materialism. Philosophical materialism rules out the possibility of a miracle, ever. Science, strictly speaking, can only set upper limits on how often they happen. (I.e., if they happen at all, they must be very rare, for otherwise the whole business of science wouldn't be working-- or, those things we once called "miracles" are now explained through naturalistic processes.)


    Why don’t you explain how you do it then.

    the answer is:

    I hear a lot of attempts to explain this away by people like Francis Collins – none of it is convincing, even to a non-scientist like me.

    You are starting from basic philosophical assumptions that prevent you from accepting any philosophical argument about the compatibility. This doesn't mean I haven't made them, and won't make them again, but you won't be convinced. However, empirical evidence that things work, even if you don't understand the mechanism, is nominally consistent with your philosophy. That's why I cite the fact that lots of real Christians fully accept modern science, even though you don't understand how they do it. That ought to mean something to you....

    Re: logical fallacies, examining logic is great. What I too often see, though, is not people who do that, but people who bring out the names of logical fallacies and assert that others they disagree with are guilty of them. It's not true examination of logic, but pulling out the name of a logical fallacy as if it were some sort of trump card. (Or, for that matter, as if it were some line of unquestionable scripture.)


    And Rob, I suspect the number of people who would be familiar with both terms is almost vanishingly small

    I doubt it's vanishingly small, but that debate will probably get into a semantic discussion about what "vanishingly small" means. However, it's not the people who are familiar with both terms that I'm worried about. It's people who come to learn about both terms, and come to learn about them in a context that will predispose them to be negative about the GPL (or about atheism for that matter-- the "gnu atheists" are hurting the image of atheists just as fundamentalists hurt the image of Christians).

    • mw says:

      "That’s why I cite the fact that lots of real Christians fully accept modern science, even though you don’t understand how they do it. That ought to mean something to you…. "

      What do you mean by a real Christian? Is it the same thing that the Pope would say is a real Christian? Is it someone who believes in everything in the Bible?

      • rknop says:

        A real Christian is somebody who is Christian, and who exists.

        • mw says:

          I suppose that is a real answer by your terms.

          • rknop says:

            It is exactly what I was talking about in the context of the quote you cited. If you're not satisfied with what I meant, I'm sorry. I'm not here to get sucked into a debate about who "true" Christians are. In the quote you cited, I was just saying that there are lots of actual people who are Christian and who accept evolution-- that's all.

        • Your Name's not Bruce? says:

          But there thousands of Christian sects, many of deny any but there own is ''truly Christian''. I dare say there are plenty who would deny you the right to call yourself one. In the good old days when rligious authorities held more secular power, you would have been murdered as a heretic. The same goes for the atheists who are commenting here. There are still many foo many places on earth where clerics still hold this power.

    • McWaffle says:

      I think that the idea that somehow that Christians will turn away from GPL because of a mistaken association with "Gnu" atheism to be absolutely absurd. Equally as absurd as thinking they'll wind up hating the animal or the "Gnu Song". I really can't imagine a more inane criticism.

  • PZ Myers says:

    Yeah, but Rob, face it. The existence of outspoken atheists who criticize the supernatural nonsense being peddled as 'compatible' with science makes you grouchy. If it wasn't our amazingly obvious use of a homophone to substitute for a term we dislike, there'd be some other petty issue you'd be kvetching over.

    So what term would you rather this obnoxious sub-species of the genus Atheist use?

    I am also amused that you're feeling so possessive about the word "gnu" and want to control how other people use it. Can we start calling you a Microsoft Christian?

    • rknop says:

      You can call me whatever you want. Just as you can call yourself whatever I want (as I noted at the very beginning of my post.)

      This is my blog, and sometimes I post things I think on it. (No surprise, eh?) Every time I'd seen the name "gnu atheist", it caused a twinge of irritation. I eventually decided to rant on a bit as to why.

      The existence of outspoken atheists who criticize the supernatural nonsense being peddled as ‘compatible’ with science makes you grouchy.

      Yes, this is absolutely true. Because you're wrong, because some of you (you in particular being one of the most egregious examples) are extremely rude and insulting, and because you're hampering a cause that I care about. All of which I said above.

      • Mike Haubrich says:

        And how do you know that you are not hampering a cause you care deeply about?

        The issue as I see it as a non-scientist, but a Christian who became an atheist, is that if the NCSE and the National Academy of Science, and the AAAS say "Religion is compatible with science because there are excellent scientists who are religious," then are also setting up a situation in which people will lose respect for their organization when they realize that religion is not compatible with science because of the way they work.

        I always wonder if those of you who consider Gnu Atheists rude do so because of the message rather than the delivery, because it is attacking a privilege enjoyed by religion for centuries as the authorative determinant for society's understanding of nature and reality; and now that determinant is being whittled away with each new discovery of the relationship between phenomena.

        "Gnu" is a joking reference, pointing out that the term New Atheist is meaningless in the context of atheism. It's just that atheism is no longer shunted aside as it had been for so many years.

        And as a final point, I have enjoyed reading this blog since it was on ScienceBlogs, even though I find you to be obstinately obtuse on this issue.

  • rknop says:

    And hey, can’t you just turn it around (assuming you’re some form of Protestant) by saying that the creative commons / open source philosophy can actually be read as a Christian philosophy (do unto others, etc.)?


    (In fact, if you read what Jesus really said, he was way more of a liberal hippy socialist commie etc. than anything associated with open source.)

    My point isn't that the philosophy of open source is at all tied into the philosophy of atheism. They're orthogonal, really; you don't have to have any particular religious predisposition (well, for the most part) in order to be an open source fan. What I'm worried about is the perception that will come from a false association due to naming.

    Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets, yet when students learn the name it does cause confusion.

  • Insightful Ape says:

    Boy, is this boring.
    "Fundamentalist atheist"? Have you ever met anyone claiming "the god delusion" or any other book is infallible?
    And do you know why the word "fundamentalist", originally describing those believing in the "fundamentals" ( most importantly the infallibility of the bible), has come to mean "radical", to the extent that some are parroting the "fundamentalist atheist" phrase? Because god is no moderate and the scripture is full of acts of violence from cover to cover.
    Which is why we would all be better off in a secularized world.

  • rknop says:

    I think the closest you can say is that you personally find each mode of thought useful in different cases.

    Yes. Why is this not compatible? If by compatible you mean "both modes of thought must be absolutely applicable in all cases", then, I suppose, no, they're not compatible.

    General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory aren't compatible. You can find places where trying to use both theories at the same time give nonsensical answers. However, that doesn't mean that you must reject one and decide not to accept it at all in order to be intellectually honest. Nor does it mean that you're guilty of any kind of hypocrisy by accepting both.

  • swh says:

    Rob "We know why pharmacies well homeopathic remedies: because people buy them. Pharmacies, ultimately, are in the business of making money from selling pharmaceuticals that people will buy." (I guess your typo adds a moment of humor to a water product - I read right over it the first time)

    We also know why churches sell religion - they are in the business (and that's exactly what it is) of selling ideas that people will buy. Like the effectiveness of the homeopathic remedies the veracity of those ideas is immaterial.

  • Don of Ohio says:

    Wow. What a mass of irrelevancies and inaccurate characterizations. If you bothered to actually read and understand what the "new" atheist have to say you would see you are completely wrong. The is the big problem with Christians; they just make things up as they go along, create straw men to attack, quote mine and cherry pick (even from their own bible). Anyway, I guess research is not really your strong point. I give you a big fail on this blog post.

  • rknop says:

    Don - thank you for a perfect "Exhibit A" about the threadcrapping and rapidfire gratuitous citing of the names of logical fallacies that I was talking about. I might almost think you intended this as an ironic joke if I hadn't seen exactly the same thing so often already.

    Swh - the difference is that pharmacies are explicity and admittedly in the business of selling drugs, and most people would agree with that (including people who continue to patronize pharmacies.). However, It is only the cynical enemies of religion that would characterizd all churches the way you have.

    • Don of Ohio says:

      That is the kind of retort one expects from 13 year olds. "Oh yeah! See how you are?!" Give me a break.

  • truthspeaker says:

    So you accept all of science - including the science that says it's impossible for a human to die and then rise again on the third day?

  • swh says:

    Sounds like I hit a nerve there

    • rknop says:

      ...in other words, if I don't ignore you, the very act of my responding to something you say is evidence that what you say is well-founded?


      • swh says:

        No, you'd have to come up with some evidence to support your position - or that of some other church/religion.

        As far as I can see churches generate a whole lot of revenue (ever seen Vatican City, looked at the wealth of evangelical mega churches and the - at least in the US - untaxed income of their pastors, even the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't seem to be short of a nice collection of ceremonial robes. This is clearly a very successful money making scheme on a massive scale. So that part of my statement would seem objectively true. (I never said, by the way, that none of that money is ever put to good use - some clearly is - but that's very much organization by organization).

        The product being sold is the promise of salvation (at least in the christian world). Can you come up with some evidence that this is being delivered? If not what else am I to suppose than that it's a huge scam? As Harry Kroto noted - "the only mistake Bernie Madoff made was to promise returns in this life"

        • rknop says:

          There is no product being sold. Sometimes, yes; tele-evangilists are frequently scammers selling that sort of thing.

          The message you get is very different depending on the church you go to. People go to church looking for enlightenment, inspiriation, faith, community, and a variety of other things. The church, ultimately, is the people, the membership of that church. Ideas are not products, they are not things you can package and sell like drugs are. Trying to draw a 1:1 correlation between them is going to lead you down the path of false analogies, as you have done so here. Exactly the same error in correlation is part of why open source software and the "free culture" movement in general has so much trouble. Many people argue that ideas and commodities are the same thing, hence meaningless statements such as "intellectual property is property".

          Additionally, most churches are very much not wealthy places. Ministers tend to be very poorly paid-- physics professors sometimes like to complain about how poorly they are paid compared to others with an equivalent number of years of education, but they're rolling in it compared to the majority of ministers.

          • Miles says:

            I assume most Christians think of salvation as a real thing, not an idea, as a deed to your own plot of lake front property in heaven if you will. Pardon my ignorance of your personal beliefs, but if you think salvation isn't real is it because you doubt the existence of an afterlife too?

            Ministers get plenty of tax breaks. Why don't you add to PZ's traffic and find out just how much? :)

            I particularly like the last comment:

            Compare the Church with a gypsy curse: Your valuables have been cursed, bring them in and for a small fee I'll un-curse them.

            The Church, of course, practises it on a grand scale: "Your family jewels have been cursed by Adam's sin; respect, obey, let us make laws for you, and tithe and for your lifelong loyalty and cash donations, we'll say the magic words that allow you to have sex and lift the curse of original sin."

            Should con men be given tax breaks and housing allowances and respect to better facilitate the fleecing of scam victims?

            Pity the well respected leeches.

  • Your Name's not Bruce? says:

    Science has pretty clear standards by which different hypotheses can be compared and confirmed, allowing someone to state why one is accepted and one not. By what standards does one decide between competing religious ''hypotheses''? Jewish, Muslim and Christian scientist should be able to agree on hypotheses describing phenomena in the world, but to what data set do they appeal when trying to determine exactly who Jesus was? When someone talks about a ''religious scientist'' the science part of this phrase can be taken to mean someone who follows a particular methodology to determine the facts of the world. The religious part of the phrase, I would argue, does not encapsulate any one body of knowledge, belief or methodology and while they might well be able to come to an agreement, or at least a way of constraining the limits of whatever disagreement might remain when wearing their lab coats, I see no way for religious scientists to decide between competing claims made while they are wearing their religious hats. And we won't even start to look at the unresolved conflicts of view that are to be found within each of these faiths. All of these varied religious views are not even compatible with each other, how can they be compatible with science? They can't all be right; they could, however, all be wrong. How did you decide which religious beliefs are correct and which are not?

  • Eric MacDonald says:

    This is almost agonisingly wrong, and I wonder what could have led you to say what you say? It is true, of course, that if you look anywhere on the web you will find comments that are rude, obtuse, vulgar and simply wrong. So, if you want to find atheists who express themselves in the way that you consider characteristic, you'll find them. But, sadly, even when you respond to Jerry Coyne's comment on this post, you still don't get the point. You have to provide evidence. Simple enough, one might have thought, but you don't do it. You don't even explain in what way Jerry's post is not helpful. It's still just vague generalities. You must really do better thant his.

    For example, since your post is largely concerned with the etymology of "Gnu" in the context of "Gnu Atheism", you really should have said something to the effect of: "Okay, now I get it. Explained in that way, my point is perhaps redundant." But you don't, thus raising all the questions about your ability to deal with things in a reasonably critical way.

    For example, you say on Jerry's blog, that the author -- Jerry Coyne -- is precisely what you have in mind. But in what way is Jerry being "aggressive and insulting and generally not useful to the conservation (sic)." There's nothing nearly as aggressive in Jerry's post compared to this one of yours. So, what's your point? Is it just that you don't like religion being panned? Well, hey, maybe atheists don't like atheism being panned either. But whichever way you look at it, this post is aggressive and rude, and, what is more, doesn't provide any evidence for the things that it claims are normal stridency and rudeness by atheists. Take a look at the blogs you do mention. Mooney and Rosenau are definitely in the in your face, rude camp, just like you are. I simply don't understand what kind of point you want to make. If it's just as you say, that atheists are dicks, well, for Christ's sake, look in the mirror, will you?

  • rknop says:

    So I guess the term "mushbrained" isn't insulting? And as for not useful to the conservation-- his position is that religion needs to be defeated, not that we need to reach out to the religious and make them realize that they don't have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science. He attacks "accomodationists" for doing the latter. That is not helpful; attacking those who are fighting the good fight for acceptance of science is not helpful. That's what I'm talking about.

    Also, to be clear: I'm not panning atheism. I have nothing against atheists, and indeed if you pick an average atheist and an average Christian out of the population of the United States, I'm likely to have more common ground with the atheist than I am with the Christian. I'm not saying that atheists are dicks. I am, however, complaining about people who are dicks about their atheism.

    The fact that there is so much debate about the tactics of the "gnu atheists" should make it pretty clear that a lot of people find some of the tactics employed by some of that group aggressive and rude. Demanding that the evidence be listed in every blog post before you'll accept that it's out there makes no more sense than demanding all of the evidence for evolution every time you complain about a creationist-- and, yet, you see creationists doing exactly that.

    • mw says:

      " they don’t have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science"

      For many with religious beliefs it is precisely the supernatural elements which are most important and which define their response to moral questions. I've even seen quite "learned" theologians make the case that it's the belief in divine judgement which is the pulse for their response to human behaviour.

    • Rieux says:

      So I guess the term “mushbrained” isn’t insulting?

      To your argument, sure. (Later he calls that argument "mushbrainery.") But if you're that concerned, perhaps you could try posting arguments that aren't mushbrained?

      Shall we count the number of insulting adjectives you apply to your opponents themselves in this post?

      Back in the free marketplace of ideas in which you are so resentful to be placed, insulting arguments is not morally objectionable.

      And as for not useful to the conservation– his position is that religion needs to be defeated, not that we need to reach out to the religious and make them realize that they don’t have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science.

      So by "not useful to the conservation" [did you notice Eric's (sic)?] you actually mean that Gnus dare to have different aims than you do. They're not "helpful" because they don't share your idiosyncratic interest in preserving "the most important parts of [religious believers'] beliefs."

      I considered calling that "begging the question," but we all know how angry it makes you when your logical fallacies are named, so I won't.

      attacking those who are fighting the good fight for acceptance of science is not helpful.

      "The good fight," huh? So you've decided to simply take it as a given that accommodationists' fight, as compared to other ways to promote science, is in fact a "good" one.

      Showing that your opponents are barbarians isn't exactly difficult when you pretend that your own controversial ideas are self-evidently entirely praiseworthy and unassailable.

      Also, to be clear: I’m not panning atheism.

      Oh, heavens, no. You've made it quite clear that some of your best friends are Negroes, and you only despise the uppity ones who don't know their place.

      If atheists would just recognize that they are required to be deferential to their betters and never, ever breathe an unkind word about your prized religious ideas—which is to say, if atheists would just shut up entirely about atheism—you wouldn't have the slightest problem with us. That's quite clear.

      Demanding that the evidence be listed in every blog post....

      When you make specific allegations of wrongdoing (e.g., "[t]hey do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish"), that would seem to be warranted, yes. Otherwise there is much reason to suspect that you've made the very ordinary privileged-person mistake of deciding that any dismissal of your inflated sense of entitlement is a personal attack on you.

      The fact that there is so much debate about the tactics of the “gnu atheists” should make it pretty clear that a lot of people find some of the tactics employed by some of that group aggressive and rude.

      They certainly do. Members of despised minorities who refuse to accept the silence and deference expected of them by an ignorant and privileged majority are frequently seen as "aggressive and rude" by that majority; that's how privilege works. But the fact that much of society hates and demands the silence of atheists does not make that demand just, and it does not justify your collusion with it.

      Bigoted majorities are never going to be happy about minorities openly defying majority privilege. As a result, justice frequently requires doing things that the self-satisfied find "aggressive and rude," because it ignores your expectations of deference.

      Too bad. We think religious ideas are bad ideas. Much as you'd like to prevent anyone from challenging, criticizing, or mocking those ideas, we're going to keep doing it—not least because this is a free marketplace of ideas, and yours aren't exempt just because millions of believers like yourself demand it.

      We're here; we can explain why you're wrong (and intend to keep doing so); perhaps you should get used to it.

      • rknop says:

        Oh, give it a break. You're not going to allow me to say I have no problem with atheism without saying I'm the same as "some of my best friends are negroes"?

        You need to wake up and realize that not all atheists are antitheists. I suspect that many atheists would be just annoyed at you presuming to speak for them as I am at fundamentalist Christians who presume to speak for all Christians.

        Re: not helping, it's not that the gnus have different aims. It's not that I think they need to worry about preserving compatible parts of religion. When I say they're not helping, it's because their tactics are going to drive people AWAY from the acceptance of science. That's what I mean by not helping.

        • Rieux says:

          You’re not going to allow me to say I have no problem with atheism without saying I’m the same as “some of my best friends are negroes”?

          I don't recall deciding to "allow" you to do anything at all, especially on your own blog.

          It's just that your savage attacks on any atheist who dares to speak a discouraging word about your ideas reveal the fundamental disingenuousness of your claim to be fabulous friends with atheists. The difference between the atheists you like and the ones you don't is that the former let you get away with demanding overwhelming privilege; they shrink from saying anything that might call your hothouse-flower religious ideas into question. They accept their utter subservience to you and the overwhelmingly powerful majority you belong to. The rest of us are willing to call you on your nonsense, and boy, do you ever not like that; we refuse to live by rules you have written for your own selfish benefit, and that just can't be abided.

          So the parallel between you and the white bigots who swear up and down that they think Negroes are just swell (except for the uppity ones who boycott bus systems, demand Civil Rights Acts, and generally don't respect whites' expectations of unquestioned hegemony) is noteworthy.

          You need to wake up and realize that not all atheists are antitheists....

          Oh, do I, now? I guess I think it would be swell if you could back up that assertion with actual evidence from what I've written... but of course you've made your disdain for having to show evidence for things you assert (to say nothing of believe...) rather clear.

          Failing that, then: you're wrong. I am perfectly well aware that not all atheists are antitheists (a word that denotes several things, the one you imply not clearly among them... but never mind). Plenty of atheists are apatheists, and simply don't give a flying fork about any of this. Several others are quite happy to lick your boots, accept the deferential silence you demand of them, and help you try to impose religious privilege on their nonbelieving brethren. Shockingly enough, the Uncle Tom is not a novel phenomenon in the history of conflicts between privileged majorities and despised minorities.

          I suspect that many atheists would be just annoyed at you presuming to speak for them....

          Only if they read as lazily as you just did. I'm "presuming to speak for" some of the people who aren't afraid to tell you that you're wrong, and whom you bitterly attack for daring to do so. Being an atheist (or antitheist, however defined) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in that group.

          When I say they’re not helping, it’s because their tactics are going to drive people AWAY from the acceptance of science.

          So you and yours keep saying. So you and yours keep failing to demonstrate.

          I realize that you're swell with believing things without, or in direct denial of, evidence—but for those of us who find evidence somewhat more crucial, do you think you'll ever bother to explain what besides religious privilege (and perhaps faith) leads you to believe the above?

          it’s not that the gnus have different aims. It’s not that I think they need to worry about preserving compatible parts of religion.

          Well, then you've moved the goalposts. I was in fact responding to this line of yours from your previous comment:

          And as for not useful to the conservation (sic) – [Coyne's] position is that religion needs to be defeated, not that we need to reach out to the religious and make them realize that they don’t have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science.

          You said nothing there about "driving people AWAY from science." You merely contrasted (1) "religion needs to be defeated" with (2) "we need to reach out to the religious and make them realize that they don’t have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science." Clearly you despise proposition (1), and the privilege you enjoy means you get to pretend that it's simply beyond-the-pale disgusting—but you haven't actually addressed it. Then, (2) simply presumes (again, this is your silly privilege talking) that convincing people "that they don’t have to abandon the most important parts of their beliefs in order to accept science" is a self-evidently laudable thing.

          You did attack Coyne as "not helpful" on the specific grounds that his aims and yours are different. Run away from that position all you'd like, but it's the one you took up.

          Coyne (who speaks for many of us in this respect) has explained it to you nice and clearly, throwing your "not helpful" disingenuousness into sharp relief:

          The problem is that people like Knop are getting in the way of a cause that we care about: the inimical effects of religion. I deplore the effects of creationists on diluting biology education in America. But I deplore far more the effects of religion in making the world a worse place to live. A kid in Alabama who doesn’t hear about human evolution is small potatoes next to a Muslim woman who gets her genitals mutilated, an African who gets AIDS because his priest wouldn’t let him use condoms, or an Afghan girl who, seeking an education, gets her face permanently mutilated with acid. Some day people like Knop will realize that The Gnus Have Two Causes (that sounds like the title of a children’s book). Or rather, we have just one cause—the promotion of rationality—that has two facets. One is promoting science; the other is pushing back irrationality, whose most prominent incarnation is religion.

          Clearly you disagree with that cause and with approaches based on it, but you've yet to take the slightest step toward explaining anything that's actually wrong with either.

          • rknop says:

            Holy cow, I think we've just hit some sort of corollary to Godwin's Law.

          • Rieux says:

            Holy cow, I think we’ve just hit some sort of corollary to Godwin’s Law.

            How droll. Now, then, do you have any material response to what I've said?

            The fact that you are uncomfortable with facing the ways in which your treatment of minorities parallels the actions of more infamous varieties of bigot fails to absolve you.

        • Todd says:

          Hi Rob: Thanks first for continuing to engage in what can be seen as a heated debate. Other critics of so-called New Atheist tactics haven't been as open to dialogue (I'm thinking here in particular of Chris Mooney and Phil Plait). So, I want to express my appreciation for your willingness to dialogue.

          Second, I wanted to highlight what Rieux said about the reaction of privileged positions to minorities demanding respect. Rieux wrote that they are "frequently seen as 'aggressive and rude' by [the] majority," which is true (as seen in the historical and on-going struggle for civil rights for people of color, women's rights and rights for GLBT citizens).

          Not all atheists have science promotion as their priority; some are more concerned with defending atheists against prejudiced views. That project includes both outspoken atheists who are perceived as rude and other atheists who take a more accomodationist stance. As to which approach is most effective, I think both have their role to play, but I also think rights for minorities would not be where they are today without the actions of those who were deemed rude (Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail is a good case study in this regard--note: I mean in terms of how social movements against prejudice are tarred as belligerent and rude; I'm not saying the prejudice faced by atheists is equivalent to that faced by other, more visible minorities).

          • rknop says:

            Re: the whole demanding respect thing, I'm not talking about atheists demanding respect. Saying "religion is delusion" and "all the religious are idiots" is not a request for respect. Those are the sorts of things I'm objecting to. There is a difference between "you must respect us" and "you must respect us because anybody who disagrees with us is not worthy of respect".

            Also, consider the context. Within the science blogosphere, at least amongst those who are willing to comment, militant atheists are far from a small minority. Indeed, they may be the majority; it's hard to tell. Certainly their presence is made strongly felt all over the science blogosphere. I know that this doesn't reflect society generally, but it certainly does make the science blogosphere a hostile place for somebody who's not an atheist, or for somebody who even wants to accept non-atheists.

          • rknop says:

            Let me also add that it's very, very difficult to stay open to dialog -- and I probably won't for long, because this whole conversation just makes me tired and annoyed -- when a vast quantity of the "dialog" you are faced with is assertions that you're an idiot, that you can't write, that you are a pompous ass with a persecution complex, that you're out of touch from reality, that you don't have any reason or logic, etc. Really, most people don't like just standing there and being constantly insulted. Yet, that's what happens to either me, or to atheists like Phil and Chris, when they try to go into a discussion like that. Just look at this thread, or the parallel thread over on Coyne's blog. If you believe what's written about me-- including by people anonymously claming to be astronomers who have met me-- you'd conclude that I was a very stupid, sad, out-of-touch person with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

            Why would I even want to continue in the conversation? "You started it", people will say, "so man up and stop being so whiny about it." Well, sure, but it does get quite tiresome. This is assuredly a big part of the reason why so few people are willing to engage in a dialog with the new atheists. At least in the blogosphere, the new atheists have a subset of them who will make any thread about the compatibility of science and religion into a very, very ugly place.

          • Rieux says:

            I’m not saying the prejudice faced by atheists is equivalent to that faced by other, more visible minorities.

            ...And let me add that no one is saying that, that it is entirely unnecessary to assert or imply that atheists have suffered injustice and abuse anywhere near the degree that African-Americans, or GLBTs, or women have, in order for the experiences of disempowered minorities to be relevant to discussions like this one.

            For example, the Gnu/accommodationist conflict frequently involves arguments about tactics, such as the accommodationist notion that rhetorically aggressive approaches are doomed to ineffectiveness (and overwhelmed by negative side-effects); "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar," etc.

            In that context, it is extremely relevant to point out that the entire history of despised minorities asserting themselves in the face of powerful majorities contradicts the notion that rhetorically aggressive tactics don't and can't work. (That history also contains numerous varieties of "accommodationist" hectoring that only served to slow down the pace of social justice.)

            It is not a premise or an implication of this argument that the consequences of atheophobic bigotry are the same as, or as bad as, the consequences of other kinds of bigotry. The comparison merely concerns the effects of various kinds of tactics, and pathetic "You're comparing yourself to the Civil Rights movement?" whining only serves to allow one to blind oneself to the evidence that is all over American (and indeed world) history.

            The same goes for the context in which I raised the comparison above. Knop cited "[t]he fact that there is so much debate about the tactics of the 'gnu atheists'" and "that a lot of people find some of the tactics employed by some of that group aggressive and rude" as somehow relevant to his notion that Gnus are Doing It Rong.

            ...And numerous examples of prior justice movements demonstrate that Knop's inference is unwarranted: it is utterly predictable that privileged majorities find fault with members of despised minorities who outspokenly question the majorities' privilege. Such data fall vastly short of showing that anything is actually wrong with the minority members' outspokenness; to the contrary, in historical context, such outspokenness has very frequently turned out to be the most principled action taken.

            Once again, this argument—the explanation why Knop's assertion was thoughtless and irrelevant—requires no presumption or implication that atheists "have it just as bad" as Martin Luther King did; it merely shows that the fact Knop cited as evidence of a Gnu mistake—that is, allegedly widespread unhappiness with Gnu advocacy—is not actually reliable evidence of that at all. Another explanation for that unhappiness that's at least as persuasive as Knop's is that the unhappy folks are in fact unhappy because the unjust hegemony they enjoy has been openly and rightly challenged. The existence of anti-Gnu whining is a given, but there is every reason to believe that it is not Gnu Atheists but the whiners who are in the wrong. And the history of justice movements provides several case studies suggesting just that.

          • Rieux says:


            I’m not talking about atheists demanding respect.

            Yes, you are; you're just too buried in religious privilege to be able to see that respect is precisely what you refuse to give to non-deferential atheists—or, more directly, to the basic notions of the free marketplace of ideas that we are operating in. Within that marketplace, atheists actually have every right to declare that your ideas are bad and wrong (or that, say, your argument here is "a mushbrained attack") without your going into histrionics at what an evil and unconscionable assault on you personally that that is.

            In short, it isn't. You are clearly well accustomed to a social discourse in which your religious notions are entirely protected from the normal traffic of the free marketplace, where anyone saying an unkind word about the religious beliefs you hold is immediately branded an antisocial lout. Religion has spent millennia convincing (or indoctrinating) people that any open criticism of its ideas is a brutal attack on its believers, the fallacy and disingenuousness of that move notwithstanding. It's been a successful little piece of political maneuvering.

            One result of that manifestation of privilege is that you're not accustomed to people arguing that the things you believe about God and Christ are fallacious and false. Your majority has always been able to silence and punish anyone who said anything like that.

            But, as you've noticed, our current context is different. On the internet there are plenty of atheists who see no reason to observe the rules you and yours have written to protect your religious beliefs from challenge. We don't buy it, and we don't much care when you complain that you're not getting the abject deference that you've come to expect growing up as a privileged believer in a society drunk with religion.

            a vast quantity of the “dialog” you are faced with is assertions that you’re an idiot

            It simply breaks my heart that a member of a demographic that has had an utter stranglehold on political and social power for centuries has to listen to a little bit of energetic (horrors!) dissent from members of one of the most despised and disempowered minorities in our society. It must be so hard to be an overwhelmingly favored hegemon. Nasty assertions about you? No, no, surely open atheists have never felt what it's like to have anything like that happen to us....

            “You started it”, people will say, “so man up and stop being so whiny about it.”

            No, the cliche that came to my mind involved heat and a kitchen. Unlike much of American life, the science blogosphere is one in which religion is not generally protected from critical inquiry, challenge, dissent, and mockery. That's actually as it should be; your beliefs (and arguments, "mushbrained" or not) don't deserve to be exempt just because you demand it.

            If it's so uncomfortable for you to exist in a marketplace that's free for even skeptical criticism of religious ideas, you may need to retreat to a place in which your demand that skeptics observe silent deference to you gets more respect—such as nearly the entire rest of the world.

          • Rieux says:

            One other thing, re this from Todd:

            Other critics of so-called New Atheist tactics haven’t been as open to dialogue (I’m thinking here in particular of Chris Mooney and Phil Plait). So, I want to express my appreciation for your willingness to dialogue.

            I concur. I don't think much of Knop's perspective, but he hasn't been banning or (totally) ignoring. Worthy of note.

  • It seems you're one of those guys who promote "Science* Some Restrictions Apply"; you're advocating otherwise good critical thinking and skepticism to anything except religion. Things don't work that way.

    If you're a fully rational individual you cannot be selective and left religion out of the equation. As a Christian, you at least need to allow the supernatural and irrational story of Jesus and that bit is the most serious problem if you want to argue with gnus.

    It's right to point out that maybe some of us are too harsh in our critics, but weeping on this fact says nothing about the core of the argument.

  • Ken Pidcock says:

    These “gnu atheists” will attack defenders of science such as the Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshbaum, or Josh Rosenau, for pointing out the obvious harm that their tactics could do to our shared cause.

    Among adults, challenge is not attack, and contending that there is is not pointing out the obvious Good faith must be enforced.

  • Dave W. says:

    "They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious. "

    The word "compatible" implies that the two things work together. I can own a mongoose and a cobra at the same time, but that doesn't make them compatible (I'd probably have to keep them compartmentalized). The fact that many people can maintain two notions in their heads simultaneously doesn't imply compatibility between those ideas, and so the empirical evidence you point to doesn't support the hypothesis you want it to support.

    Note that this isn't a rejection of the evidence, it's a rejection of the argument you've built on that evidence. I agree that lots of scientists are religious. I don't agree that that means that science and religion are compatible, unless one defines "compatible" to mean nothing more than that two things are capable of existing in the same environment at the same time, in which case, thanks to dual-boot BIOSes, Windows would have to be considered "compatible" with GNU. And mongoose would be compatible with cobras; X-Box compatible with Sega Genesis, etc.

    Your own example, General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory, is a perfect illustration of how two INcompatible ideas can be accepted by a single person, and a direct disproof of the hypothesis that the mere existence of religious scientists is evidence that science and religion are compatible. If your evidence were, indeed, support for that idea, then we would be forced to conclude that GR and QFT are compatible (which you say isn't true) merely because some people accept both as useful (although, as you note, in different realms).

    You can't have it both ways. You can assert either that people are capable of holding incompatible ideas in their heads at the same time, or that the co-existence of ideas indicates compatibility. In this thread, you've done both, even though they contradict each other.

    "In any event, it *does* remind people of the GNU project, and that’s what makes me grouchy."

    How many "people" would that be, approximately? A rough OOM estimate would be acceptable. I can only count two (you and Jacobi), but since it's obvious that neither of you are confused by the terms, I hardly see how it's a matter for grouchiness.

    • rknop says:

      There is nuance. What is it you really mean by "compatible"? When a gnu atheist says that religion and science are not compatible, what they mean to say (as evidenced by the arguments that they give) is that somebody who fully accepts science cannot also accept religion without having something wrong with them. Without being guilty of some sort of hypocrisy or compartmentalization.

      Now, nobody thinks that physicists are hypocrites for accepting both Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity. So, clearly, this is a different kind of "incompatible" from the "incompatible" that gnu atheists are talking about when they talk about religion and science in general.

      Science and religion are two different modes of thought. Yes, some take their religion as a reason to deny scientific truths, and some take a science-based philosophy as a reason to deny that the religious can't be "all there" intellectually. However, there are many of us who are able to apply both modes of thought and use both modes of thought in different situations, recognizing that yes, sometimes, they are going to come into conflict, and that may require modifing and updating how you think. Science is ultimately a methdology; philosophical materialism itself is inconsistent with religion, as philosophical materialism includes the assertion that religion is all wrong. But science is not philosophical materialism. The scientific mode of thought can inform religion, and it's possible that the religious mode of thought may inspire scientists, but the scientific mode of constructing knowledge generally doesn't do a lot for religion, and as we've seen the religious mode of thought, when applied directly to science, usually does nothing but cause trouble. So, in that sense they are "incompatible". But they are not "incompatible" in the sense that somebody must be intellectually damaged or dishonest in order to use both modes of thought.

      • Dave W. says:

        Good job. Science and religion are incompatible "modes of thought." Trying to engage them both at the same time "usually does nothing but cause trouble."

        But you're wrong about what the Gnu Atheists say. I've never known any of them to imply "intellectual damage" or "dishonesty" in the term "incompatible." Clearly, there do exist people who are intellectually damaged or dishonest about their arguments about the compatibility of science and religion (like Chris Mooney), but that doesn't imply that all such arguments are damaged or dishonest. I'd say that most people who declare science and religion to be compatible are simply wrong, either on the facts or about what "compatible" means. Being wrong doesn't imply either damage or dishonesty, does it?

        The Gnu Atheist statement that science and religion are incompatible is a response to the accomodationist claim that they are compatible, nothing more. Some Gnu Atheists, yes, go further and say that one cannot "fully accept" science and accept religion at all, but one cannot "fully accept" science and get any enjoyment out of The Lord of the Rings, either. Nobody "fully accepts" science or rationality unless one is Mr. Spock. No real people can get that far. So if you want to attack that argument, then attack it. Don't try to defend against it by defining "compatible" in some bizarre way or by flatly asserting "nuance."

        By the way, there's nothing "broken" about compartmentalization. Gnu Atheists do it all the time. The word is descriptive of the ubiquitous mental mechanism in play, not pejorative of the person using that mechanism. You'd do better to not personalize the argument to such an extent.

        And yes, there are lots of different modes of thought. That doesn't make religion desirable. This Gnu Atheist thinks the world would be better off without modes of thought which demand irrationality, and that's what most mainstream and fundamentalist religions do. Really, there's no getting away from irrationality entirely, but our societies would be better off with less of it, and much better off without institutions which prescribe it. Faith is not a virtue, even if the faithful do good things.

        • rknop says:

          Clearly, there do exist people who are intellectually damaged or dishonest about their arguments about the compatibility of science and religion (like Chris Mooney)

          Exhibit A.

          • Gerald says:

            Shouldn't it be "Exhibit B."? You've already got an Exhibit A above at 3:38pm.


          • rjw says:

            I know it was probably unintentional, but this reply was pretty funny - because the series of blog posts that gained Chris Mooney his current notoriety was titled "Exhibit A"!

            Although, this does lead on to another problem - the implication that expressing robust disapproval of a particular persons character is in itself problematic, regardless of the reasoning behind that disapproval. One would have thought knowledge of the situation was required in order to condemn a particular reading of it. I can't in all honesty recommend that you do look into this particular situation if you value your time, but I would caution against throwing in and defending certain behaviours before knowing the details...

          • rknop says:

            rjw -- I am aware of the sock puppet episode that managed to suck in Chris & Sheril. They got fooled. When they found out what had happened, they posted what had happened, and admitted that they'd been fooled. This does not make either one of them intellectually damaged or dishonest.

            I read their blog regularly. The only reason I can see why you'd think they're broken intellectually is because they don't unconditionally accept the incompatibility of religion and science.

          • rjw says:

            No, I honestly have a different opinion than you without condemning the makeup of your brain. Is it ok for people to disagree with Christians about the veracity of Christianity in your view? Or is that a step too far, and tantamount to accusing the Christian of brain damage?

            I viewed that episode as a pretty classic case of intellectual dishonesty - presenting something in a way that was known to be false in order to advance an agenda - and plain bad journalism. The one sided blog censorship (esp of Ophelia Benson) didn't enamour me of Mooneys character, either.

            I was merely attempting to rescue you from the embarrassment of defending the indefensible. Good samaritan-like, I suppose.

          • Dave W. says:

            rknop wrote:

            "Exhibit A."

            Ah, okay. You're not interested in a discussion. Got it.

  • Neil Rickert says:

    I take the term "gnu atheist" as an indication that they don't take themselves too seriously. And I suggest that you shouldn't either.

    I'm a big user of gnu-project software. I don't see that the term "gnu atheism" is any kind of threat to that software.

    Take two aspirin, but don't call me in the morning.

  • To be honest, I don’t know the etymology of the recently-arisen term “gnu atheism”, but I’d wager that it’s taking the term “new atheism” (which caused all sorts of boring pedantic and semantic arguments) and riffing it together with Gnu of the Gnu project.

    Well if you don't know, maybe it would have been sensible to find out first. The origin is a comment by Hamilton Jacobi on my website, and the point was simply to mock the pejorative term "New Atheists." The gnu in question was the animal, not the software, but of course the pun was made immediately.

    • rknop says:

      Please read the first few comments on this post. I did eventually figure out that it was Hamilton Jacobi... and what's more, you're wrong. He says he was given the idea by GNU Emacs.

      In any event, my point isn't the origin of the term, it's the impact of the term, and the fact that the connection between the two disparate things annoys at least me. That exists independent of the origin.

      • My point is that you could have found out the origin instead of just guessing at it.

      • Hamilton Jacobi says:

        Rob, I had in mind both the animal and the software. Yes, I use Emacs and Unix and other stuff from the GNU project, but my inspiration was mainly Leslie Lamport's book on LaTeX, in which most of his examples are silly lighthearted pieces of fluff about gnus and gnats. That struck me as the right tone to take in response to all of the pompous bombast out there about "New Atheism" (which you have just taken to new heights).

        I am flattered that you take me to be some sort of evil right-wing overlord who is gunning to take down the GNU project by smearing it with connotations of atheism, but (1) that wasn't my intent, (2) I am very far from right-wing, and (3) I think the GNU project is robust enough to handle the fallout from a few atheists giggling over the silliness of people who think the word "new" is a devastating blow.

        • rknop says:

          Um... where exactly did you get the impression that I thought you (or anybody using the term "gnu atheist" to describe themselves) was some sort of right-wing free-software hater? I do say that the linkage of those two terms will feed preconceptions of those biased to dislike either atheism or open source software. But I didn't say that I thought you chose the term deliberately to attack open source software!

          • Hamilton Jacobi says:

            OK, perhaps I was a bit liberal with the hyperbole there. But I still don't think your concern is well founded. It seems that you are grasping at straws in order to bash something that you dislike for other reasons.

          • rknop says:

            My concern may well not be well-founded. I was motivated to make this post because I feel a twinge of annoyance every time I see the term "gnu atheist". Most of the time I see that term it's in the context of debates like this one-- folks like Rosenau, or Moony, questioning their tactics. Because I also (clearly) don't like those tactics, but am such a fan of free software, it just made me sad to see the term used that way. Hence, my posting about it.

            But, yes, the real thing I don't like here is the tactics, and it's for other reasons. That was in this post as well.

  • Bau Ur says:

    I was a high school biology and chemistry teacher. As long as theistic religion stayed on its turf, I stayed on mine.

    I have never attempted a revision of the Bible to suit my scientific beliefs. But for over 20 years Christian fundamentalists have successfully intimidated the major high school biology text publishers, with the result that evolution is sequestered into just one or two carefully worded, painfully restrained chapters. Evolution is what makes biology a vivid, unified picture rather than just a spatter of hundreds of terms and structures and functions. Evolution should pervade the entire book. (Imagine editing the Bible so that references to God are limited to Psalms and Corinthians.)

    The suppression of the teaching of evolution is an offense, an assault, a deprivation, an impoverishment of the education of nearly every young person in America.

    Fundamentalists, who don't even have the right to speak for Christians generally, yet assume they do, because mainstream Christians are generally too polite and spineless to tell them to stick a sock in it, want me to "teach the controversy". That is, they want me to teach that evolution is "just one theory" to which creationism is an alternative, granting Creationism the status of a fair opponent in my classroom.

    If they had just left me the hell alone I would have taught that science explores things that all observers can agree upon, and we pool observations and inferences to build conclusions with the best explanatory and predictive power about the observable world.

    I would have insisted that things which are not observable and demonstrable are not the domain of science and science does not address them. I would not , as a biology teacher , evaluate any tenant of religion, just as I would not bring the poetry of Wallace Stevens into chemistry class and evaluate it by the standards of a lab report.

    (Am I the vicious enemy of poetry? Nope. I teach poetry too. In English class. As literature.)

    I would have respected the turf of religion. But the pious hysterics of America have worked very hard to erase the border. If I honestly teach the controversy between creationism and science, creationism is going to lose. It will be ugly. The fundamentalists should not have forced me into that fight, because I am armed, trained, and it's my arena. And I am really really annoyed at them being in it.

    I have reached the conclusion that this approach is inevitable throughout the culture as it has become inevitable in some school districts. Because the currents of anti-rationalism are so strong, and so invasive, collegial separation of realms is not possible. Apparently the only way for reason and skepticism to even be heard (let alone respected) is to accept that the fight is on, and to actually fight it.

    I am sorry if mainline Christians feel offended or mischaracterized. I am sorrier that they did so little to stop their own fraternal loose cannons for an entire generation.

    • rknop says:

      Apparently the only way for reason and skepticism to even be heard (let alone respected) is to accept that the fight is on, and to actually fight it.


      The thing is, the fight is against creationism, and against antiscience in general. It's not against religion in general. Yet, if you insist on casting the fight as being against religion in general, you're alienating lots of allies and lots of potential allies.

      The clergy letter project is a project explicitly designed to promote evolution, and it's run by clergy. Yet, they come under attack from the gnu atheists. These are people fighting for exactly the same thing that you say that you're fighting for in your comment. How can you come to the conclusion that you've been forced into treating them as the enemy? The two of you have a common enemy. Please open your eyes, and don't let the fundamentalists color your view of all of the religious any more than I let the "gnu atheists" color my view of all atheists.

    • rknop says:

      …and while you’re blaming the mainline Christians for not stopping the fundies, let’s continue to apply that argument.

      As an American, you need to be viciously attacked by all and sundry because you didn’t do enough to stop the Bush administration from getting elected and wreaking your havoc on the world.

      Does that feel fair?

      More to the point, does it make tactical sense to portray sympathetic allies among Americans as “just part of the enemy” because, after all, they’re Americans, and America has done bad things?

      • Michael Fugate says:

        All of this time I was convinced the Clergy Letter Project was Christian apologetics; once you accept the evidence for evolution, it is much harder to stay in the flock. How can you keep them down on the farm once they have seen the big city? Yet you tell me it is all about promoting science while believing in a nonmaterial world.

        I am curious how this hypothesized nonmaterial world interacts with and intervenes in the material world. How does something nonmaterial stimulate neurons in the brain to spell out "go to Nineveh" or make one see a burning bush? How does something nonmaterial remove a tumor? You are a scientist, you have surely thought about how this must work. You can't just say it's a mystery, can you?

  • They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason.

    That's wrong. We use the word "reason" to include "consistent with scientific reasoning," but certainly not as a synonym for it.

    • rknop says:

      ...but that's not what most people, including most intellectuals, mean when they say reason. There are nonscientific questions and nonscientific modes of thought. When analyzing poetry, you can use critical thinking and reasoning without coming close to the scientific method.

  • PZ Myers says:

    Analogy fail. I protested, I voted, I volunteered for democratic campaigns. I tried, & my sympathies were public.

    Here where I live, we're gettin a visit from Answers in Genesis this month, with a representative doing two days of creationist seminars, half of them aimed at kids. I'm opposing it. I'll attend & write criticisms. Our local freethinkers will organize and rebut the lies.

    Where are the moderate Christians? Silent. Not one squeak. It's as if there's some kind of professional courtesy involved, with no public criticism of a competing sect. Or perhaps it's more like collusion.

    I'll be more impressed with your accommodationism when I see more Xtians taking a public stand. Why don't you get to work on that?

    • rknop says:

      Maybe if you weren't so busy tearing down the clergy letter project and the notion of "evolution Sunday", you'd notice that RIGHT THERE are the moderate Christians speaking out against it.

      You might also find that if you didn't create organizations to fight creationsts that were explicitly hostile to all non-atheists, that moderate religious types would join it. You can find Christians who join skeptical organizations, even in spite of the fact that those organizations tend to be rather hostile to them. (Of course, given your notoriety, anything that you're associated directly with at this point is going to be at least seen as much more hostile than those skeptical organizations.)

      It's really great that you can drive away potential allies, and then accuse them of doing nothing after you've driven them away. Makes for great support for your claim that your bigotry is a necessary part of fighting antiscience.

      I also suspect you don't know everything that's going on. Morris, MN is a tiny town; no surprise that you don't find everything there. If you go to bigger places, you DO find christains speaking out against creationism. I used to write letters to the editor myself back when I lived in Tennessee. I do speak out against that kind of thing on my blog. And, oh, yeah, there's the clergy letter project. But you'd rather accuse them all of somehow being collaborators rather than admitting that they're also trying to fight against creationism.

      • McWaffle says:

        I would think that there are many, many more moderate Christians in Morris than their are gnu atheists. Were both groups equally opposed to creationism, one would think the number of moderate Christian dissenters at the AiG event would be greater than the number of atheist dissenters. This is not the case.

        Perhaps this is an issue of top-down and bottom-up movements: while there's no doubt that the "4 horsement" and others have served as leaders, it appears to me that there exist more local activist atheist groups campaigning against Creationism than there are Christian groups, despite the Clergy letter project and your own letters.

      • PZ Myers says:

        Man, I don't know my own strength. I snidely flex my muscles, and the Christian majority in my town runs away, finding the possibility of antagonizing me far more intimidating than the fact that creationists are lying to their children.

        Funny how that always works. Christians passively allowing nonsense to thrive is somehow conveniently always my fault.

  • MikeM says:

    Don't want to disappoint you but really an Atheist and a Christian are exactly the same. There is no argument here other than you wanting to have an argument.

  • brooksphd says:

    Good post Rob. I've often felt alienated by the more strident athiest camp partly because (despite appearances) I don't dig on antagonism. It's a sill yway to make your point and it seems to me (very unempirically) that if you mock someone of faith for their beliefs, they will retreat further. Well, there goes your reasoned debate and possiblity of 'converting' someone*. Also, "some of my best friends are religious". I feel that if I am to be a New/Gnu athiest I need to spend all my time yabbering about how their beliefs are misguided and that they have some mental problem.

    Well, I don't do that. I'm not so up on the Chris Mooney side of things; kind of new to the whole 'philosphy'. I know I need to understand myself better and I thank you for sharing your viewpoint.

    Enjoy the trolls and thread-bombers and remember, not all of us are fiundamentalist in our approach.

    (*This doesn't necessarily apply to fundamentalists/creationists etc. who cannot be approached with reason anyway)

  • Hammill says:

    Thanks, Rob, for the post. Unlike some of your opinions on the gnus, I can agree with much of the substance coming out of the gnu atheist community but cringe mostly at its delivery. At times the rhetoric and invective makes me embarrassed to even be associated with them, however tangentially, as a nonbeliever.

    That's not to say that I see no good coming out of the gnu atheist community. Regardless of tactics, they are resulting in more atheists speaking their minds, and I even find myself agreeing with several of their positions from time to time, as I have in recent discussions with some "gnu" commenters elsewhere. They are not all fire-breathing behemoths, and for the most part they seem honest, nice, normal people. However, like you I think they still often toe a dangerous line between simply having firm convictions and, perhaps unintentionally, coming off as being driven by an intense hatred of religious people, and that type of thing can backfire. Perhaps the latter is more of a trend of anonymous commenters that follow gnu bloggers and not the gnu bloggers themselves.

    In spite of the above, IMO the incivility does extend to gnu bloggers at times, too. I was involved in a discussion over at Rosenau's blog recently, for example, where a gnu blogger responded with an anonymous cartoon attacking Rosenau's writing ability and providing vague references to prostitution, including a suggestion that Rosenau might need a "bitch slap." That kind of thing speaks for itself, and I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deny or at minimum ignore such clear incivility when that type of evidence exists permanently inscribed in the annals of cyberspace. It's just impossible to sugarcoat something like that, even if it was very, very poorly placed 'humor.'

    When I say there are things gnus do that make me cringe, that's what I'm talking about. I expect those kind of antics, frankly, more out of a creationist or fundamentalist blog. Incivility like that doesn't occur in every gnu blog post or book, but then again I'm unaware that anyone has ever made the claim that it has (and if they have made that claim, I would argue sternly against it). The danger of this type of thing outside the obvious moral/ethical objections is simply that it serves to fan the flames of the anonymous commentariat that may be willing to cross more rhetorical lines, and cross them farther, than you already have. And when it comes not from just some blogger off the street but from someone prominently tied to the academy and scientific enterprise, then it has the risk of reflecting unintentionally on those institutions. Then one has to go into damage control, as has happened in the comments on Coyne's response to this post. Drive-by commenters are showing up personifying your characterization of gnus almost to the letter, and other gnus that don't fit that mold are having to clean up the mess while trying to simultaneously having to maintain the dissonant position that it's ridiculous to claim that the mess even exists. It puts one in a very, well, messy place, no? Even if one isn't the monster, at some point the only honorable thing to do is to take responsibility for creating (or at least inadvertently taking in, sheltering, and feeding) the monster, and then distance themselves from it. IMO the gnus could improve a bit on that final point.

    • At times the rhetoric and invective makes me embarrassed to even be associated with them, however tangentially, as a nonbeliever.

      What can that possibly mean? How can you be associated with them? You're anonymous, remember? You appeared ex nihilo only about three weeks ago, claiming to have just read up on the gnu atheist wars and been shocked/scandalized/whatevered. Who even knows you are "a nonbeliever"?

      You're astonishingly interested in the gnu atheist wars for someone who only just found out about them, so I suspect the stuff about just reading up on them is a fairy tale. But I certainly have no clue who else you are, and I imagine few people have any more idea, so I think your worries about being "associated" with anything are superfluous. Also a bit self-important.

    • And there's another thing - that comment you link to in the last paragraph - that came from some random name who never came back. Some Stranger who rode into town and rode straight out again. How very convenient for you - a grossly stupid aggressive comment by an apparent gnu. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

      We've seen this kind of thing before.

      Will you be shyly confiding in "Rob" about your experiences at conservation conferences soon?

      Who are you?

    • Ken Pidcock says:

      However, like you I think they still often toe a dangerous line between simply having firm convictions and, perhaps unintentionally, coming off as being driven by an intense hatred of religious people, and that type of thing can backfire.

      So is your point that people should take more responsibility for the misperceptions of other people?

    • Deepak Shetty says:

      At times the rhetoric and invective makes me embarrassed to even be associated with them, however tangentially, as a nonbeliever.

      By your standards, I wonder what a christian/muslim should feel?. Given that the worst the gnu's can be accused of is rhetoric and invective and a few profanities.

  • Greg Myers says:

    Odd that it is OK to allow people to express any idea except the idea that religion and science are incompatible. One of the hallmarks of the conservative backlash of the past few decades has been the rejection of an accommodation between science and religion. The difficulty, as it turns out, is not that a humble science should not meddle in things outside it's purview, but that religion (all religion) claims a privileged place in human knowledge that it does not warrant. When the Bishop of Phoenix speaks up on ethics, claiming that he knows that a woman must die so a doomed fetus is not aborted, from what kind of knowledge is he speaking? Why should his position be privileged?

    Sure, many scientist are religious. Some scientists also believe in homeopathy, astrology and are global warming and holocaust deniers. Humans are credulous, and we all believe things that are wrong. This is why we invented science - to generate models that were more useful that the ones based on revelation and metaphysical speculation. It is not in its role as a branch of the humanities that religion is criticized.. Religion, alongside philosophy, literature, and fine arts can help us understand who we are, and may give expression to common desires, hopes and fears - contribute, in short, to a liberal democratic culture. However, to the degree that religion is based on narrow, illiberal cultural beliefs, religion may also be a force for division, hatred and prejudice. When religion claims to have privileged information about the true nature of reality - one that is not open to experiment, verification, or modification based on evidence, it is quite right to challenge it.

    Why is it necessary to vilify folks who reject the tactics of accommodation? Isn't it odd that the very tactics the OP decries when used by atheists against accommodationists seem to be perfectly fine when applied to Gnu Atheists? I see the same frustration from Gnu Atheists over how they are treated - smeared, accused, attacked - condemned if they respond in kind (which does not happen nearly as much as the comments on this post suggest). Yes, the debate is robust. Yes, sometimes representatives from all sides cross over the line to incivility. None of that invalidates the basic premise at hand.

    I do believe that, at a fundamental level, the claim that revelation and metaphysical speculation can form the basis of any reliable knowledge about our world has been disproven many times. This alone should be enough to, at the very least, recognize that rejecting accomodationism is a reasonable stand, and should be recognized as such. Even if accommodationism is a purely pragmatic tactic, the wisdom of that tactic can (and should be) a valid subject of (even vigorous) debate .

    • Why should his position be privileged?

      Apostolic succession.

      • Your Name's not Bruce? says:

        I'm still curious about what methodology religious scientists use to adjudicate differences they might have in the religious views they hold. Would you dismiss out of hand the views of those who happened to be devotees of Thor, Isis, Athena or Quetzalcoatlus? What about those who follow Krishna or Shiva? Do you discriminate between followers of defunct religions and those that still have adherents? If so, why? My understanding is that atheism holds all religions as suspect and that those that still have followers are no more deserving of unearned respect and deference than those faiths which are now bereft of believers. The number of members a religion can command has no bearing on the truth claims of that faith. And it is how one chooses between religious claims that I am waiting to hear.

        Many believers are quite confident that there god is a ''he''. How could they possibly know this? Why would god need genitalia? I suppose there is the whole impregnation of Mary thing, but that's something that Jews and Muslims would reject. Fairly basic stuff but vitally important for believers. How does one decide who's right? How did you decide which answer is correct? I would really like to know.

  • julian says:

    I see I've been beaten to the punch more then once but yeah, what exactly does the fact people can practice science while remaining actively religious mean?many noteworthy scientists end up backing some entirely nonsensical theory but I trust that doesn't add any weight to an empty claim. Yes you can be a Christian and a Scientist. But can you in all honesty be a christian scientist?

  • SinSeeker says:

    “a word of warning. If you try to define them [gnu atheists], they show up and accuse you of choosing a definition for purposes of setting up a straw man.”

    You should hang around the Amazon Christianity or Religion discussion boards (available to anyone who has bought anything from Amazon) and try and engage christians in debate. The most common comment I get when attempting to discuss some aspect of christian dogma (apart from “you’re going to hell”) is “that’s not what I believe.”

    Trying to get some christians to declare what they believe is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Even when I use the Nicene Creed as a basic statement of christian beliefs, I am sometimes accused of misrepresenting “for purposes of setting up a straw man.”

    (BTW, some of the most vicious “debates” on the boards are between groups all claiming to be a True Christian™.)

  • Egbert says:

    You have a right to be grouchy and rant on your blog, and call a group of people rude and insulting etc.

    And gnus have a right to criticise religion and tell religious people they're wrong.

    Atheists have a right to call Christians rude, insulting, appalling, idiotic and immoral.

    But it would be wrong to mislabel a group of people as fundamentalist simply because you don't like them or find them rude or insulting. It would be wrong to call for them not to practice their freedom of speech or freedom to criticise.

    Presumably your hypersensitivity is related to the criticism of your sacred beliefs, otherwise deemed blasphemous in any other era. Well that's just tough, be prepared for your beliefs to be criticised like any other opinion.

  • rknop says:

    I have to say that I'm impressed. I had thought that the loud subset of gnu atheists that I was complaining about in the first place were already coming across as irritatingly self righteous as was possible. However, now that some of you seem to have adopted the victim's mantle of an oppressed minority, thereby justifying any behavior at all (and making somebody who calls you out on that behavior just one more oppressor), you've become even more smarmily self-righteous.

    All of which would not matter to me if it weren't for the fact that (a) you tarnish the image online of those who argue for good science education, and (b) you form, effectively, an ugly mob that shows up on the threads of any science type who dares talk about religion without rejecting it. And, yeah, I know that *this* post would garner hostility, as I wrote it as a combative post. But one can't write anything without you folks threadcrapping. Which, in the context of the science blogosphere, makes your claim to be the oppressed minority particularly galling.

    • Ken Pidcock says:

      I'd be happy to see your claims of threadcrapping assessed by an objective observer. Salman Rushdie:

      At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

  • Deepak Shetty says:

    They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason.

    Any definition of reason you want, applied to religion, will lead to trouble for the religious person.

    Care to try?
    For e.g.
    Does prayer work ? (In the sense that the prayer is answered by some supernatural entity not that the person do the praying feels comfort). Apply reason to this question and what do you come up with? Contrast this with the religious beliefs of the majority. Are the majority unreasonable?
    "Which religion is true?" (not which is less harmful or less violent) .
    "Does God exist?"
    Note that (most) religion gives you emphatic answers for these (Yes!, Mine!, Yes!)
    Does your reason give you the same answers? If so you'll need to demonstrate.

  • rknop says:

    Posted at the top of this thread, echoed here in case people are only following the bottom of the comments:

    One hour warning: the time has come for me to get on with my life. I’m going to close comments on this post at 10PM pacific time tonight (Friday). If you have any last things you want to say, say them. I’m giving this warning so you can’t accuse me of “having the last word and then closing the thread”. However, the conversation is more or less as I predicted it would be in the post in the first place, and it’s not doing anybody any good to have it go on further. You can easily find a couple of other blogs where people are talking about how stupid, pretensious, and full of a persecution complex I am; if for whatever perverse reason it brings you satisfication to continue that, you can do so there. However, I need to step out of the conservation as, believe it or not, I’ve got other things to do in lfie. if I am to do that without ignoring my blog altogether, I need to close of comments on this thread.

    Also, I will be mercilessly moderating any off topic comments on OTHER posts that attempt to take the conversation from this post there. If you really have something you want me to see about this topic, please email it to me.

  • Michael Fugate says:

    "All of which would not matter to me if it weren’t for the fact that (a) you tarnish the image online of those who argue for good science education, and (b) you form, effectively, an ugly mob that shows up on the threads of any science type who dares talk about religion without rejecting it."

    Names please. Whose image has been tarnished by the the nasty atheists? And what do you mean by "good" science education?

  • [...] Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions, we learn: Who are the “gnu atheists”? Well, first, a word of warning. If you try to [...]