September 20, 2011

Gnu Athests are also guilty of "motivated reasoning"

Motivated reasoning, or, as I call it, "pulling a Chris Mooney," after Chris Mooney, who popularized studies of the psychology, is reasoning that is designed to strengthen "in-tribe" support for a certain idea.

Christian Righters have long made a "tarring the lot" claim that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others, like Cambodian mass murderer Pol Pot were all atheists.

Well, Al Stefanelli, who I am taking as a Gnu, shows motivated reasoning isn't restricted to theists. He claims that neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Pol Pot were atheists. I tackle, in response to his posting his column link on Google-Plus (the Examiner page won't allow comments) on how this is just wrong, on Stalin.

The typical Gnu-type atheist claims that because Stalin went to an Orthodox seminary, that means he can't be an atheist. Stefanelli adds the claim that because Stalin "revitalized" the Russian Orthodox Church as part of developing patriotism during The Great Patriotic War (WWII), Stalin couldn't be an atheist. Well, WRONG!

I'll explain why, below the fold, as well as tackling another case of motivated reasoning by a more famous atheist who's gotten other things wrong.

Just because Stalin was raised in an Orthodox household and even went to seminary doesn't make him a Christian, and doesn't mean he wasn't an atheist. I am tired of atheists repeating this old line, because it's sloppy thinking in the extreme. If you follow that logic, than John Loftus isn't an atheist, either, because he was a pastor. God, that's SO fucking stupid. And, the fact that Stalin revitalized the Orthodox church during the "Great Patriotic War" doesn't mean he wasn't an atheist, either.

Reality? By empirical evidence, as leader of the USSR, Stalin was indeed an atheist. The rest of Al's column on Stalin is splitting hairs at best. Sorry, but if an Xn rightist argued like that ...

Pol Pot? All we have is the claim of Sihanouk, not totally disinterested. Sorry. In the court of legal history, we throw that one out.

And, Al conveniently dodges talking about Mao. Probably because he can't even find a sliver of exculpatory evidence there to avoid the conclusion that ... Mao's an atheist.

(On G+, Al says he wasn't "bailing" on Mao, just that the issue as framed didn't include Mao. I've asked him to address Mao as atheist or not and am standing by. Update: I've been "standing by" for four days now; it's clear that Al doesn't want to answer this because Mao is even more clearly an atheist than Stalin.)

Note: Before anybody asks, by metaphysical stance, I'm an atheist, though that's not the word I normally use to describe myself.

Now, on to case No. 2. Atheist, alleged skeptic, and known promoter of libertarianism under the guise of skepticism (not an ad hominem, a reflection on his reasoning credentials) Penn Jillette claims atheism is growing rapidly, even that "the population is going through the roof," and that some surveys show it's as high as 20 percent of the U.S. populace. Well, Mr. Penn, you're probably either reading poorly written surveys, or you're of your own accord conflating "irreligious" and "atheist," and, in all likelihood, given that I've seen other atheists (whether Gnu or not) make similar claims, you're likely doing the second.

Surveys DO show that the number of Americans who self-identify as "irreligious" or "nonreligious" is indeed growing rapidly. But ... that's far and away from being the same group as "atheists" or even as "atheists plus agnostics." For many such people, it simply means they don't go to church and don't align their belief systems with any particular denomination or tradition within Christianity. Also, surveys about the "irreligious" will show that the reasons they have left organized religion may not have a thing to do with metaphysical beliefs.

There's additional complications, reflected in surveys such as the comprehensive ARIS survey of 2008. It uses "nones" which is similar to irreligious elsewhere, but adds that some atheists (by metaphysical stance) choose not to self-identify as "atheist." I've blogged about ARIS and religious findings before and find it generally accurate. In 2008, in the in-depth ARIS survey, just 0.7 percent of Americans explicitly self-identified as "atheist." Even given a lot of social fears, even in talking to pollsters in anonymity, I think that shows the real number is little more than 2 percent and surely is still less than 5 percent. Sorry, Penn, wishful thinking, or should I say ... magical thinking (heh, heh, heh) ... doesn't produce reality.

John Shook of CFI also uncritically touts Penn's claims, while also offering a definition of atheism that sounds a lot like agnosticism.

So, people who claim that "irreligious" or "nones" are the same as "atheists" and, IMO, should know better, are unhelpful at least. Unhelpful for the cause of better reasoning/skepticism, unhelpful for the actual causes of atheism, such as civil liberties, and more.

Motivated reasoning is often sloppy reasoning, and sometimes willfully perverse reasoning, as the two examples above show. If Gnu Atheists' goal of atheist evangelism wants to have a chance of succeeding, not just in "reaching" open-minded "drifter" types, but, in not alienating secular humanists who don't like the word "atheism" a lot any more because Gnu Atheism has become its "face," they're going to have to be better.

And, this "definitional name game" can bounce back, too. If I'm a moderate-to-liberal Christian, wanting to oppose claims of Gnus, I could say, for example, that Unitarians are Christians as part of trying to prove Christian diversity. It's not true, of course, but I could say that.

Addendum: I can't forget an earlier, laughable claim in this same area by a Gnu, namely Sam Harris saying that Buddhism is just psychology. (Non-gnu atheist/existentialist Stephen Batchelor is among others that make the same claim.)

Well, wrong there, too. It's clear that at the time Buddhism started (as best we can tell), that the Hinduism from which it evolved already had metaphysical beliefs in karma and reincarnation, i.e., religious beliefs. Beyond that, in Asia today, the typical Buddhist adherent likely believes in an assortment of deities, spirits, demons, etc., in addition to karma and reincarnation.

Update: Yet another column gets it wrong. Atheism is not growing. Period. That said, looking at the author's Wiki page, which I will not link, he seems disposed to overblown claims. The author doesn't explicitly call himself a "Gnu" there, but it wouldn't surprise me. In the column, he also repeats the Gnu canard that atheism, or "democratic atheism," as he notes (trying to cut Stalin and Mao out of the loop) are morally superior to theism. Since we don't have that long a time frame for democratic atheism, there's not much of the "scientific proof" that he claims, first. He also distorts information from Gallup polls, ignores the part in the Harris polls that undercuts him and more.

For someone who touts science in the same breath with "democratic atheism," he's got a lot of chutzpah.


Sheldon said...

"Reality? By empirical evidence, as leader of the USSR, Stalin was indeed an atheist."

Wait a minute, I agree that it is silly to argue that Stalin was not an atheist. But it is also weak reasoning to argue he was based on his position as leader of the Soviet state. Hypothetically he could have been a secret believer. He probably was an atheist, but still.

Stu said...

Isn't it the case that both Harris and Batchelor are simply claiming that Buddhism can be practiced "naturalistically" without the metaphysics? I don't think that either one of them, or any of the other secular buddhism advocates, suggest that traditional buddhism is not a religious practice.

"The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced."


Gadfly said...

Stu, flip side is, every claim Sam Harris says could be made about Christianity. But, but, but, Gnu Atheists like Sam Harris (or, even worse, P.Z. Myers) hoot down liberal Christians who do make such claims. That's point No. 1.

Point No. 2 is that I don't think all of Buddhism can be practiced naturalistically, any more than all of Christianity can. That's why I time after time note that the Dalai Lama, whom many westerners hold up as a model for wanting to integrate science and Buddhism, has said more than once, if science conflicts with either karma or reincarnation, science goes out the door.

Gadfly said...

Beyond that, Harris arrogantly (and perhaps Batchelor, and not arrogantly) is saying 2,500 years of Buddhism is wrong when he admits Buddhism originated as a religion, but says "all those Buddhists got that wrong." Buddhism evolved from a Hinduism that was already full of metaphysical beliefs, including the two baseline ones of karma and reincarnation, and I've blogged about this elsewhere, too. Even if Siddhartha, assuming he existed, didn't consider himself a deity, he did consider the metaphysical beliefs of Hinduism real.

And again, all of these parallels apply to Jesus and Christianity. So, too, does the fact that if some "liberal Christian" made the "just a psychology" claims, Harris would surely go attack-dog on that person.