Ophelia Benson v. Michael Shermer (v. Jerry Coyne)

Jerry Coyne is disappointed with Michael Shermer for saying:

If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe—10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.
Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God’s works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

According to Coyne, Shermer has become an accommodationist and “faitheist,” to which Shermer responds:

What is the right way to respond to theists and/or theism? That is the question asked at every atheism/humanism conference I’ve attended the past several years. The answer is simple: there is no one “right way.” There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context. Sometimes a head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault á la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Jerry Coyne is the way to go. Sometimes a more conciliatory approach á la Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or your humble servant is best. It all depends on the context and what you are trying to accomplish.

If you insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, then you have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from your project. To what end? So you can stand up tall and proud and proclaim “… but I never gave an inch to those faith heads!”? Well good for you! Just keep on playing “Nearer my Atheism to Thee” while the ship of humanity slips further into the depths of disaster.

This sends Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels into a tizzy:

Accommodationists always talk about what works, what wins more allies, what is least likely to offend the moderates, and similar calculating issues. Critics of accommodationism on the other hand tend to dislike manipulative rhetoric and tactical evasion, and want to try to tell the truth instead of trying to shape a message for fragile listeners.

What we insist is that we shouldn’t be expected to say things that we do not think are true on the flimsy grounds that some observers think that not doing so will ‘alienate the vast majority of the world’s population from your project’ (and what if we don’t have a project apart from telling the truth as we see it?). There is a difference between insisting ‘that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs,’ and refusing to tailor everything we say to suit some vague idea of what will not threaten other people. There is a big, serious, important difference between those two things. It is irritating that accommodationists so often insist on framing the matter the first way. It is irritating and it does not increase our respect for their probity.

And Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has jumped into the argument, siding with Shermer and calling Benson’s response silly:

What I object to is the claim that one must choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint. Truth, like love, is a many-splendored thing. There are a range of ways to express true statements (including true statements about untestable personal beliefs), and it seems fair to inquire which of those modes of expression is most likely to sway one’s audience. I’ve watched this debate for 5 years or so, and in all that time, I’ve not seen anyone make a convincing argument against that basic principle.

If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal? To piss people off? To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them? …. If the goal of New Atheism is more than pissing off anyone who isn’t a New Atheist, it’s time to talk about framing, message discipline, and dropping this attitude that “what works” doesn’t matter.

But as Benson sees it, he’s got it backward:

The “accommodationists” or the framers or whatever you want to call them tell the “new” atheists to choose. They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and “frame” them instead …

Furthermore, to the extent that the goal is to change minds, it really is to change minds by telling the truth as we see it—not by manipulating or shading or shaping or evading or prettying up.

The debate continues …

Category: Debates


12 Responses

  1. Joshua Woo says:


    This discourse parallels Christian’s discourse over apologetic methods, which best defend the faith, in the like of Steven B. Cowan’s 5 Views on Apologetics.

    Both discourses are about how to communicate best and with how much compromise and accommodation are allowed.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Hmm. Jerry Coyne is disappointed. Michael Shermer responds. Josh Rosenau jumps in, and sides, and calls. But I, I am thrown into a tizzy.

    Really? Was I? Does anything you quoted really read as if I had been thrown into a tizzy? Is it just a coincidence that the others are all men and they get to do reasonable things like respond, and only I am thrown into a tizzy?

    It’s a little pathetic, that kind of thing.

  3. Wes says:

    How is Ophelia’s comment any more a “tizzy” than any of the others?

  4. Patrick says:

    saying… responding… jumping into the argument… seeing… and the woman gets sent into a tizzy. The men get to act, and the woman is acted upon. Nice :)

  5. Bruce Gorton says:

    So, the guys are basically talking and the woman is “in a tizzy.”

    Yay faitheist sexism!

  6. Soren says:

    In a tizzy:
    “an excited state of agitation”
    “A state of nervous excitement or confusion; a dither; distressed, upset”

    So what exactly convinces the writer of this blog, that Ophelia Benson was in a state of nervous excitement when she wrote her blog post?

    From the quotes it would seem that Josh Rosenau is quite more upset than Benson. He is the one hinting at fecal matter after all. (Steaming piles of truth), but he only jumps in?

    Well its just casual sexism, we are all used to it by now, so why give a damn.

  7. Gurdur says:

    The vocal sense of victimhood expressed here is underwhelming.

    Had I been the one to write the original post, I would have seen both Coyne and Benson as being in a tizzy, but that is a general view of mine formed by reading many of the blog posts by Benson and Coyne. Nonetheless, it is not induitably sexism unless you can show a pattern or show very clear sexism, which is rather impossible with such a small sample, especially as any alleged sexism is rather vague here, eh?

    Given the usual confused usage of strawmen by Benson (not to mention Coyne), the tizzy description is not out of order. In fact, Coyne comes over as being more in a tizzy in general than Benson, but then that’s how I see it. Also, given the example of the abusive use of the silly little label “fatheist” by Bruce Gorton, I just wonder why some here are so intent on proclaiming rampant sexism and instant victimhood; got no better answers to the actual original argument?

    I do find Benson’s reply very ironic, albeit unintentionally so; when she writes,
    “The “accommodationists” or the framers or whatever you want to call them tell the “new” atheists to choose. They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and “frame” them instead …”,
    she really doesn’t seem to realise that she, Coyne and so on are indulging in telling others who disagree with them how to talk. A case of the pot meeting kettle.

    But then, I tell the truth as I see it. 😉

  8. Why has consciousness raising become such a bad thing? It’s one of those things, this “tizzy” thing, that is used to diminish the contributions of an important writer who has certainly made some very persuasive arguments that there need to be people out there calling patronizing accommodationists on their own steaming piles.

    They are so worried about offending people of gentle sensibilities who won’t believe in evolution if you aren’t sweet to them, that it is more important to dismiss atheists and call them rude names, and tell us we are embarrassing us.

    Listen atheist friends of religion, we have been bad. We know it now, and we promise to stop and we will duck our heads, we band of brothers and sisters of the “New Atheist Noise Machine.” Apparently we deserve less consideration.

    Just remember, our hurt feelings are worse, because we don’t have prayer to sop the wounds. We just have each other.

    More seriously, though, why can’t people see that treading gently is just as patronizing? Why not encourage religious people to challenge their view of the role of God in Evolution and Creation? Telling them it’s “okay” to believe in God and Evolution is not doing them a favor in the long run, because they will eventually discover that you were telling them a white lie. And those cause more damage than you might think.

    We can all be true to our beliefs and still have a civil discussion without calling “uncle” when one group says “Cut it out, I don’t want to think about that aspect of science.”

  9. Wes says:

    So, according to Gurdur, the following is not a tizzy:

    If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal? To piss people off? To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them?

    But this is a tizzy:

    This piece disappointed me, as I’ve long admired Shermer’s writings, and applauded loudly when he went after Bill Maher’s anti-vaccination stance. But lately he’s been assuming the faitheist mantle more and more often (could it be because of Templeton sponsorship?).

    It would be lovely if Shermer would admit that, in the real world, the only kind of religion not at war with science is deism.

    Something tells me that if you want to know how Gurdur differentiates tizzies from non-tizzies, take a look at that parenthetical comment in Coyne’s post.

  10. Gurdur –

    “In fact, Coyne comes over as being more in a tizzy in general than Benson, but then that’s how I see it.”

    Yet Benson is the only one who was described as being in a tizzy. Why would that be, one wonders…

  11. If only more than 14 people would read this.

  12. Wow I’m honestly the first reply to this great article.

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