Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How the Heck Did This Happen?

There are two recent events indicating that change is afoot in America. First, there's the recent poll suggesting that a majority of Americans (54%) could now vote for an atheist candidate who was running for President [Niose: Atheists making political inroads].

Then there's another poll showing that 19% of Americans are now nonreligious ("nones") [“Nones” climb to 19%]. The "nones" are not necessarily atheists or agnostics but it's safe to say that many of them are.

Why are these results significant? They're significant because back in 1958 only 18% of American said they could vote for an atheist and that number didn't change much until the 21st century. Also, the "nones" made up only 6% of the populations in 1990 rising to 15% in 2008.

So, what has happened in the past decade to turn people away from religion and make atheism more respectable?

I can think of two possibilities ...
  • The accommodationist approach that has been dominant for several decades has finally started to bear fruit.
  • The rise of "militant atheists" in the past decade has forced large numbers of Americans into realizing that atheism and non-belief are respectable options.
Which explanation do you think is likely?


[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

51 comments :

  1. both. It's the classic good cop, bad cop routine ;-)

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  2. It would be good news if people were becoming less bigoted but I wouldn't count on it being accurate. Not because of the content but because opinion polling is pseudo-science.

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  3. The likely explanation is... that you are engaging in a logical fallacy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

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    1. Please do us the honor of revealing your explanation.

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    2. Anonymous, you use the term "false dilemma". I do not think it means what you think it means.

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    3. I'm surprised that Larry, who claims to supportive reason and critical thinking, can't see how beginning a paragraph "I can think of two reasons..." and ending it "...which do you think it is?" might miss the false dilemma that he has presented.

      ...Actually, no, I'm not surprised. After all, Larry like to argue that allowing Muslims to practice their religion by wearing the "burka" is equivalent to allowing Aztec human sacrifice, if we are to follow jurisprudence on free excercise and equal protection as laid out in the US Constitution and subsequent case law.

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    4. <a href="http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2012/07/religious-intolerance-united-states-is.html?showComment=1343237109668#c6183015516207825873>Larry on burkas, Aztec human sacrifice, and other religious nasties</a>

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    5. For the record, I was criticizing Michael M's logic, not defending a law against the wearing of burkas. I oppose that law. I do, however, favor laws against human sacrifice even if it offends some religions.

      I'm not surprised that Michael M fails to follow the logic. Reading for comprehension does not seem to be his strong point.

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    6. For the record, I was criticizing Michael M's logic, not defending a law against the wearing of burkas.

      And what you actually said was neither criticism of the argument that laws designed to prevent the religious from freely practicing their religion are by definition bigoted (discriminatory) nor a defense of said laws. Luckily, the statements I made were only about the former.

      I oppose that law.

      But not because it interferes with the free exercise of religion.

      I do, however, favor laws against human sacrifice even if it offends some religions.

      And this is what is problematic about the discourse about religious liberty as framed by the newer and most vocal proponents atheism and what makes me incredulous of the assertion that people have realized through critical thinking that atheism is a viable: it is profoundly ahistorical and has essentially nothing to do with "offense to religion". One has to completely disregard the bulk of US caselaw pertaining to the government's need to present a compelling interest in limiting the rights of a protected class before codifying and executing facially discriminatory laws. The French and Swiss governments did not do so,so it is appropriate to at least question the burqa laws and the minaret laws, while realizing that US legal principles may not apply in France or Switzerland.

      I'm not surprised that Michael M fails to follow the logic. Reading for comprehension does not seem to be his strong point.

      Really, Larry? "I know you are, but what am I" is an expected, but not acceptable, retort from a 3-year-old; it does not substitute for rational discourse, especially from someone who claims to value logic and critical thinking.

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  4. I can only speak for myself, and it was not option number 1.

    The turning point for me was picking up "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and realizing that, holy shit, I wasn't the only one out there that thought that religion was intent on destroying our hard won secular society, although up until that point I would not have put it that way, one of the benefits of an Ontario taxpayer paid Catholic indoctrination being that you are in no way exposed to enlightenment ideas.

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  5. Depends on who you ask. I suspect that Prof. Moran's favorite science writer, Chris Mooney (just kidding), would not give the same answer as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers.

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  6. The article found on RichardDawkins.net uses the word _would_; you use the word _could_. Why? Could implies be allowed to; would implies that 54% of Americans would vote for an atheist candidate for president if there were an atheist candidate running.

    In answer to your question "Which explanation do you think is likely?", the answer is both and neither. The most likely reason that Americans would vote for an atheist is the appalling behaviour of religious organizations and religious people who try to impose their "Christian" will on all Americans.

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    1. The most likely reason that Americans would vote for an atheist is the appalling behaviour of religious organizations ...

      They've been behaving badly for decades. What's changed?

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    2. I am thinking, in particular, of the bad press the Catholic Church has been receiving since Ratzinger became pope. Ratzinger is not the media darling that JPII was. As Bjørn Østman points out, “the rise of blogging” has contributed to exposing Ratzinger and the Catholic Church. Popular atheist/science bloggers have not been reluctant to criticize or even vilify the Catholic Church.

      As you said in an earlier post,("Religious Intolerance: United States Is more Tolerant than Europe") the USA is “a place where religious groups want to restrict women's freedom of choice, infringe on the rights of gays and lesbians . . . rail against euthanasia, and ban the teaching of evolution. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest offenders and makes it clear that it will continue to infringe, restrict and rail against any government that tries to ignore its objections.

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    3. I agree with you. Churches and religion have been openly criticed for decades in other countries. The quiet revolution in Quebec in the 1960s is a good example. Quebec is now a nonreligious society.

      That kind of criticsm was actively discouraged in the USA because everyone presumably has a right to believe whatever they want and you are infringing on their freedoms and rights if you challenge their personal religious beliefs. Even atheists followed this rule—that's accommodationism.

      What's changed in the past decade is that there is now more and more open criticism of religions and religious beliefs, including the existence of god( s). We can thank the gnu atheists for starting that debate in America.

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  7. What is the source of the image/graphic used with this post? Is it copyrighted?

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  8. Apparently the timing of the rise of nones fits better with the advent of outspoken atheists, rather than the earlier accommodationist approach. However, a synergy of the two cannot easily be ruled out. Notably the rise of blogging coincides well with the increase, too.

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    1. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc

      The main reason "accommodationism" doesn't work is that "accommodation" has been defined by its opponents in such away that it can't "work" in the way that they want it to "work".

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  9. It's militant atheism. Revolutions, whether political or in ways of thinking, aren't led by middle-of-the-roaders like the accommodationists, but by people passionately and with conviction.

    But I think even more credit must be given to the abuses of fundamentalism, which have made a laughingstock of theism and have fueled the "new atheism."

    "Moderate" theists have largely been silent about the fundies, and thus have received the same brand of shame as the fundies in the eyes of the young people who are now turning away from religion in droves.

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  10. I can think of two possibilities ...

    The accommodationist approach that has been dominant for several decades has finally started to bear fruit.

    The rise of "militant atheists" in the past decade has forced large numbers of Americans into realizing that atheism and non-belief are respectable options.

    Which explanation do you think is likely?


    Neither. These are both "top down" explanations, which I think give individuals too little credit. I think it is simply a natural progression in individuals' daily lives, whereby there are many, many things taking up people's time (know anyone who isn't retired who's got enough leisure time?), and religion is less and less part of that picture. No one gave instructions or made wonderful persuasive arguments, folks just individually decided for themselves, "No, I don't think I'll go to church this week," and the next week, and the week after that....

    The willingness to vote for an atheist parallels the willingness to countenance gay marriage. More and more people can consider the possibility that they are gay or atheist, or know gay individuals or atheists among their own families and friends. They aren't the scary "other" any longer.

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    1. Jud, I completely agree with you. You saved me the time and effort to write my own response. :)

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  11. How many bills did the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground get put into law?

    Militants are ego driven, not issue driven.

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    1. The question you meant to ask is whether the Black Panthers helped change America during the 1960s. I think they were as important to the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King.

      Similarly, the Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) played an important role in turning opinion against the Vietnam war. Their tactics were extreme but just as necessary for social change as the people who marched quietly in the street.

      This is why the Tea Party is so important. Having extremists on the right shifts public opinion rightward. The left needs extremists as well because their foolish belief in "bipartisanship" (i.e. accommodation) will eventually lead to their extinction.

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    2. The Black Panthers and the Weather Underground were dead ends. They came into being at the same time progress was stalling in the late 60s and early 70s. You can compare that with the progress made during the first half of the 60s. Both groups promoted futile violence. In the case of the Weather Underground, it did more to drive people out of the anti-war movement than anything. You might want to look at the infamous discussions in the Weathermen about whether or not all white babies should be killed, the answer was "yes" - notably none of the notably white Weather Undergrounders killed themselves due to their whiteness - and their enthusiasm for the Manson murders. And there were the actual murders and deaths associated with both groups. You might recall the infamous attempted nail bombing of a dance at a military post, the one that killed several of the would be radicals when they blew up the bomb they were making, and imagine what the impact of that would have been on the anti-war movement in 1970. And, as I asked, where's the law that was changed, the policies that were changed? The W.U. was a self-indulgent bunch of relatively affluent brats whose greatest accomplishment was destroying S.D.S. James Weinstein, who was a witness to that and other such disasters, gives a rather sobering account of the resultant Long Detour that brand of militancy took the left on in his book by that name.

      That experiment was run. Militancy didn't produce the intended results, MLK's style of radicalism produced results.
      Imagine what a government under the cream of the Weather Underground would have been like as they competed with each other to be the most radical in the room and split into depravity and violence prone factions. I'd guess it would be a bit like the Reign of Terror without the intellectual pretense.

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  12. Anonymous took the words right out of my mouth - the answer is "neither", as we've been presented with two options which are both wrong.

    Between 1958 & now there have been huge changes in US culture; back then political and social acceptance was generally limited to your stereotypical "white christian male". It wasn't safe/good to be non-white, non-christian, gay, etc. While that view isn't completely dead, broad-acceptance of other groups is now commonplace - other races, religions, even gays to some extent, are now considered a normal part of America. IMO, the increasing acceptance of atheists and "growth" of the nones has been driven by the same process - one tide floating all boats, so to speak.

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    1. I didn't seriously mean that there were only two possibilities. It was mostly a way of stimulating conversation.

      However, the kind of social change you describe may be the rule in most civilized countries but it doesn't seem to work that way in much of the United States.

      Those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s realize that social change in the USA often involve a great deal of kicking and screaming.

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  13. I like to think it's the Internet, and the more likely that people are to be exposed to atheism as a result of it.

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  14. c) Both

    Personally, I think a lot of it is due to Star Trek.

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  15. What will you discuss when the next opinion poll shows other results?

    I always enjoy the faith that "skeptics" put in opinion polling, the biggest snake oil show around.

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  16. Yes, suddenly and out of nowhere, after decades of zero impact, accomodationism starts having an impact. Nah.

    I think it's the internet more than anything. On the internet anyone, ANYONE has access to information. There's a lot of atheism and rationalism on the internet, and there's a number of good blogs like this one. That's what's having an impact.

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  17. I also think it's the internet more than anything. Even someone who starts by visiting only Christian web sites can hardly avoid learning that Dawkins, Harris etc exist, and then with a click or two can find quotes and a summary of their ideas. I grew up (decades pre-internet) in a church-going family. If I wanted to find out about atheism it meant two bus-rides to a library (with a tiny, well-hidden atheism section) or a bookshop (ditto, plus I couldn't afford to buy many books).

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    1. So we agree that Dawkins, Harris and the other "militant" atheists are part of the explanation, right?

      Where we disagree is whether it's their criticism of religion that had an impact or the existence of the internet. I'm wondering why you aren't also blaming books, newspapers, public speeches, radio, and television?

      Are you suggestihg that religious people in America are actively questionig their beliefs but that they just couln't find any answers until the internet was invented in 1977? Or do you mean since the world wide web came online in 1992?

      I think that's unlikely. I think it's more likely that they can no lnoger bury their heads in the sand and pretend that their beliefs are rational and correct. Because of the gnu atheists, challenges to religion are now commonplace in the media and even some political leaders are mentioning nonbelievers as a distinct class of Americans.

      It's not that theists are better able to question their religion that's stimulated change (i.e. the internet) it's that those questions are being thrust upon them in spite of their previously successful attempts to avoid them.

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  18. There is no evidence that accommodationism works. Jerry Coyne has challenged accommodationists many times on his blog to provide such evidence, but none was provided (to my knowledge).

    There is however a good fit between the recent surge in the "nones" and the information revolution of the past two decades or so. The internet and also the rapid spread of mobile phones have both demolished the fences within which religions keep their adherents isolated, exposing them to the other ideas, and facilitating their spread.

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    1. Let's see if I understand your argument.

      All other industrialized nations have seen a steady increase in atheists and nonbelievers since the end of World War II. In some of these countries in Europe there are more nonbelievers than theists. Much of this change was accompanied by strong criticism of religious beliefs and practices.

      America did not participate in this social revolution.

      Are you saying that's because Americans knew nothing about atheism and other points of view until they got mobile phones and signed on to facebook? Are you saying that in spite of the gnu atheists Americans would have shifted to nonbelief just because they can now read about atheism on their moblie devices and websites?

      Are you being serious?

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    2. "Are you saying that in spite of the gnu atheists Americans would have shifted to nonbelief just because they can now read about atheism on their moblie devices and websites?"

      I'm saying no such thing Dr Moran. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that the gnu atheists do have at least some influence on this rising trend (I class myself as militant atheist, as reflected by my posts in my Arabic blog.

      The only reason why I left this factor out of my answer is that I haven's seen any study linking the two. May be there is such evidence, but I haven't seen it.

      As for the role of the new means of communations, ie internet and mobile phones, I actually do think, they must, have played a very significant role in spreading atheistic ideas, everywhere. Because I can see in front of my eyes, yes on facebook, twitter and mobile devices, how well informed people are in the most conservative and religious societies, Kuwait (where I come from) Egypt and Saudi Arabia, when they talk about and exchange ideas straight from blogs and books by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger and other atheists, and how wide spread the phenomenon is. So I can't see why this would benefit the middle easterners but not Americans.

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    3. Where's the evidence that anti-accommdationism "works"?

      Becoming more adamant about one's position against religion (which more properly termed "anti-theism" rather than "atheism") doesn't logically entail that one's arguments for one's beliefs have become any more persuasive. In fact another plausible explanation for the the rise in "militant atheism" is that militancy has just provided people a reason to re-identify and no-one actually changed their beliefs.

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  19. Looking at the figures from the PEW Center, which the USA story is based on, it doesn't look like much of a change from the 2008 figures. Even among the 18-29 year segment of their sample of atheists is less than half of the "non religious unaffiliated" group. Given the thing you posted about showing that atheists weren't good at keeping those brought up in it, I don't see what the joy on that point is all about. What will that 4% figure be when they're fifty?

    I wonder how many Americans would vote for someone with a record of quotes like one that could be assembled for Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers or Richard Dawkins or even quotes half as snooty, bigoted and insulting to even the 9% polling as being non-affiliated but religious, not to mention the close to 80% who are members of denominations. I also wonder if Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the new atheists had never started their campaign of obnoxiousness what the figures for acceptance would be.

    Or you could take a genuinely skeptical view of it all and ask the first question about these surveys, why would you assume people were telling the truth or that their answers would be the same next week? How can you verify that? It's not science.

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    1. Excellent points. I think that even the term 'militant atheism' is off by a long way. Perhaps it could just be called Snarky Atheism or Snotty Atheism or Disrespectful Atheism?

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    2. @TTC, A counterpoint, but merely an anecdote, so take is as you will.

      I have encountered many people that were fundamentally moved by Sam Harris' question of why some religions seems to produce suicide bombers or terrorist groups, but there are none in Tibet. He argues that the socioeconomic, oppression, etc are similar between what is happening in, say, Palestine and Tibet. So why is it that the Tibetans will not resort to this form of violence?

      So it appears that Harris' approach can work in these cases. Why must you apply a all-or-nothing thinking to these discussion?

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    3. I have encountered many people that were fundamentally moved by Sam Harris' question of why some religions seems to produce suicide bombers or terrorist groups, but there are none in Tibet.

      And that question is based on the false premise that Buddhism doesn't produce terrorists or that there are no terrorists who self-identify as Buddhists, which, in turn has more to do with how Buddhism is perceived in the West than how Buddhism, in all its diversity, is actually practiced through out the world.

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    4. No. It says people in Tibet are not resorting to acts we would call terrorism, given similar oppressive conditions. It most likely has to do with Tibet's entire set of cultural mores.

      There is more to culture than the religion, despite what the religions brain-wash you into believing.

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    5. And then you could just be flat-out dishonest. The fact that Tibetan Buddhists are known for their non-violent methods doesn't change the fact that the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka justify their suicide bombing through their Buddhism; therefore religion is not the distinguishing characteristic between Islamic suicide bombers and the non-violent Tibetan protesters.

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    6. Bringing you back on track for a moment,

      1) I was discussing Sam Harris's approach, which TTC thought was ruining things. I pointed out a counter example. I just said it seems to have worked. I'm sorry that this example has you so hot under the collar.

      2) Culture and religion are actually the same thing. One is just formalized and protected by "gods". There is no difference. How many different flavours of Christians are there?

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  20. I have encountered many people that were fundamentally moved by Sam Harris' question of why some religions seems to produce suicide bombers or terrorist groups, but there are none in Tibet.

    My observation is that people who were fundamentally moved by Sam Harris generally didn't know an awful lot about history and the history of terrorism, which is in no way attributable solely to religious motivation. Quite often the "history" cited by Harrisites is more lore than it is history, quite a bit of it that I've heard and read has been false. One recent, hilarious, example on another blog took a bit of anti-Catholic lore from John Foxe (of all people) that was rendered impossible because the alleged killer died before the guy he's alleged to have had killed.

    I have come to conclude that violence isn't really the issue for most of them but antipathy towards religion and religious people, indiscriminately, sterotypically, quite often unjustifiably.

    Taking his motivating event, 9-11 as an example, it was an act of suicide, which is prohibited by Islam as well as the killing of innocent people, also prohibited by Islam. That Muslims violate the tenets of their religion is to be condemned, but the religion begins by prohibiting those things. Where is suicide bombing prohibited as a definitively immoral act in atheism? That religious people have a poor history of living up to its stated morality is certainly grounds for criticism but at least many of them hold that those violations are real, that the violations have real meaning and should carry real consequences. There is no way that morality could be anything other than an imaginary contractual agreement under materialism.

    Suicide bombing pretty much originated in the anti-religious Tamil Tigers, as an example. You can look at the history of anti-religious anarchism, a history which is notably violent -"propaganda of the act", of nihilism, various "Marxist" and "socialist" cults, many of the sects of fascism.... You can look at the history of anti-religious political movements and see that their use of terror and violence is, if anything, more typical than that of religious political movements, taken, in total. That people practice violence says more about the human species, in general, than it does the subset of religious people.

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  21. cont.
    As has been pointed out before, Harris didn't seem to notice that there was one thing the 9-11 killers had in common with the vast majority of murderers, single and mass, was that they were all men. That is a major flaw in that line of criticism. I'd say that their kind of violence is, usually, felt to be justifiable as a proper attribute of being a male, that violence is a male virtue to most of those who commit murder. Violence is far more certain among men then it is among religious people, at least half of whom are women, who have a far lower likelihood of being perpetrators of violence. If the question is violence, gender is a far more serious issue than religion. The United States suffers many, gradually accumulating, 9-11 events every single year, inflicted by American men, for the most part. Most countries do. American women, especially, have been kept under a state of terror by violent men who are responsible for killing about four women every single day.

    It is just wrong to blame people who refrain from violence as part of the religious practice, as opposed to mere profession, because other people don't follow their professed beliefs. Of course, any religion that condones violence is justifiably condemned, as is any atheistic group or any group of any character that does. I've got no problem with that. And individual people are, ultimately, responsible for their own acts.

    The first country that officially condemned the suicide bombings on 9-11 was Iran. I think most of the officially Islamic countries did as did most of those with an established Christian church. I know Cuba condemned the attacks, I'm not sure about North Korea, China, Vietnam or Laos.

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    1. There is no way that morality could be anything other than an imaginary contractual agreement under materialism.

      What is problematic about that?

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    2. I'd rather not have things like a prohibition on killing for financial gain or just for the hell of it, enslaving people, encouraging pogroms and genocides,... be considered by the majority of the human population to have no more reality than new atheists consider God to have. That's probably the biggest problem of materialism, there is no way to make any level of morality anything but an agreed to illusion, a contractual agreement, under materialism. There is no way, under materialism, to say that the 9-11 killers had broken any kind of absolute law. A large number of Islamic theologians said why, within Islamic law, what they did was immoral and, according to their belief, not only why they shouldn't have done it but would be liable to be punished in an afterlife. There is no basis to make that kind of stand within materialism. It's hard enough to get people to forego depravity when they say what they do is against the law of God, it's even harder when those laws are made nothing more than an artificial, imaginary entity.

      The biggest problem with Christianity is that Christians don't follow the morality that Jesus taught. Christians continually violate his teachings. You can't generally say the same thing of materialists who do awful things, that they violate some kind of material law.

      You could point to some of the more appalling laws in Leviticus and other books of the Bible which is a problem but to scrap the metaphysical bases of law such as those against killing people and hording wealth as people are starving around you doesn't seem to me to be the most sensible solution. Equality, the absolutely essential moral basis of democracy, is, itself, an extension of justice that is found in Jewish law. I'd rather not do without it. None of the moral criticism of religion that the new atheism makes would be valid without it being taken as a given. Trouble is, there's no way to take it as a given under materialism. It has no objective physical manifestation.

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    3. Re: Sam Harris, all I said is that his tactics seem to work. You had said;

      I also wonder if Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the new atheists had never started their campaign of obnoxiousness what the figures for acceptance would be.

      I pointed out an example where it seems to have an impact.

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