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Pigliucci on the “new” atheism

April 15, 2010

Pigliucci realizes something that some of us have been thinking for quite a while now:

[T]his to me represents the latest example of an escalation (downwards in quality) in the tone and substance of the discourse on atheism, and I blame this broadly on the rhetoric of the new atheism (the only “new” aspect of which is precisely the in-your-face approach to “reason”). With few exceptions (mostly, Dennett), what we have seen in recent years is much foaming at the mouth, accompanied by a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of one’s arguments. And now we have seen a new low consisting of childish insults to a fellow atheist and writer who is clearly fighting the same battle as the rest of us.

I am often told by my non-activist friends (pretty much all of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves) that the problem with the new atheism is that it looks a lot like the mirror image of the sort of fundamentalist rage that we all so justly abhor. I always shrugged at this accusation as being overblown and missing the point, after all we — unlike them — are on the side of reason and true human compassion. Now I’m not so sure.

Indeed.

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  1. Marilyn
    April 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I think atheism comes about due to a misconception of who and what God is, and what is expected from Him. Romans ch 1 vs 25 and Hebrews ch 4

  2. April 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I couldn’t disagree more – with Pigliucci or Marilyn.

    I admit to not having read everything the “new” atheists have read, but nothing – nothing – I have read is half as bad as the usual stuff in comments from fundies. Get a grip.

  3. Crudely Wrott
    April 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Perhaps some atheists have recently felt that a great weight has been lifted from them. With the publication of some notorious books and the usefulness of the InnerTubes as an immediate and captivating means of communicating and organizing, it comes as no surprise that some, many young and passionate, are wringing all they can out of a fresh sense of freedom. And entitlement. We are each entitled to speak our minds.

    I find certain expressions of, er, New Atheist enthusiasm to be poorly thought out and full of possible offense to the more gentle heathen. I suppose we’ll have to adjust to it seeing as a comparison of theist and atheist rhetoric shows two nearly congruent sets. People is people.

    In contrast, I have been deeply moved and even changed by the honest and compassionate comments from both groups. People is people.

    This sets up an interesting frisson between world views; Politeness or Probity? I’ll be staying tuned . . . for the entertainment value as well as the insights.

  4. April 16, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I’m pretty tired of the religious folk trying to make it sound like there’s fundie athiests

    and ranting about “new” athiesm sounds a like like calling us “uppity”

  5. Wes
    April 16, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    It’s really too bad that this debate took the nasty direction it did. All the sudden it’s about PZ’s tone, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a minor issue at best. Generally when debates start to focus on “tone” they just degenerate into whining.

    The real problems seem to be lost in the posts I’ve read on this debate. I think De Dora severely misunderstood constitutional law when he claimed that religious claims cannot be contradicted in science classes. This is not how the Lemon Test works, and that’s the primary judicial precedent for issues on what can be taught in schools. De Dora shows that he doesn’t understand the constitutional issues when he says something like this:

    Deen: “Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

    De Dora: Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

    I can really only come up with one word which adequately describes what De Dora is saying: bullshit.

    Denying a religious idea is perfectly constitutional. Teachers do it in classrooms all the time. So long as there is a clear secular purpose for what’s being taught, it’s okay, even if it directly contradicts what some religion teaches. A teacher can’t deny a religious idea for religious purposes–but if relevant facts merely happen to contradict some religious claim, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning them.

    For example, much of what’s taught in psychology classes constitutes a direct denial of what Scientologists claim about psychiatry, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taught.

    There’s nothing wrong with contradicting claims like “The world is only 6,000 years old” or claiming that creationism is a religious myth. These things are a matter of scientific fact and do not violate the constitution.

  6. DLC
    April 16, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Sorry, but while I can agree in principle that it’s better to speak softly and carry a big stick, I’m not going to say that anyone has no right to say what’s on their mind, even — especially — if what they have to say may be offensive or insulting. Maybe this is not the “face” we want on Atheism, but it is real.
    I think this “realness” will be more appealing than any amount of smooth hair-plastered in place evangelism.

  7. J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Wes: “Denying a religious idea is perfectly constitutional. Teachers do it in classrooms all the time. So long as there is a clear secular purpose for what’s being taught, it’s okay, even if it directly contradicts what some religion teaches. A teacher can’t deny a religious idea for religious purposes–but if relevant facts merely happen to contradict some religious claim, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning them.”

    That’s the point that DeDora himself was making! Indeed, he makes this even more clear when he writes, “The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge; but they will rule it unconstitutional if biology teachers or texts specifically criticize religious ideas in the biology classroom.” Yes, the claim that religious ideas can never be contradicted in the classroom is bullshit, but it’s not DeDora’s bullshit.

    What we have here is PZ Myers making a straw man of DeDora and then heaping abuse on it. Is it any wonder that Pigliucci takes exception to this?

  8. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 7:36 am

    That’s the point that DeDora himself was making! Indeed, he makes this even more clear when he writes, “The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge; but they will rule it unconstitutional if biology teachers or texts specifically criticize religious ideas in the biology classroom.” Yes, the claim that religious ideas can never be contradicted in the classroom is bullshit, but it’s not DeDora’s bullshit.

    It is De Dora’s bullshit, and the quote you provided shows that. It is not unconstitutional to say specifically that some religious claim is a myth. De Dora is simply wrong. You can specifically criticize religious ideas in a classroom.

    What matters is not whether or not the idea is religious. What matters is whether or not you have a clear secular purpose for what you’re saying. There is nothing unconstitutional about saying, “The Earth is not only 6,000 years old.” Yes, it is a specific denial of some people’s religious beliefs, but it has a clear secular purpose (i.e. it is a statement of scientific fact).

    De Dora’s mistake is in placing the emphasis on whether or not the idea has a religious origin. But the courts have only ruled on that insofar as purpose is concerned. As long as the purpose is purely secular, whether or not the idea originated with religion is irrelevant. If a biology teacher specifically denies a religious belief for purely secular purposes, that does not violate the constitution. De Dora doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  9. J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Wes, you wrote that “if relevant facts merely happen to contradict some religious claim, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning them,” as if DeDora disagreed with that statement, when DeDora had espoused such a statement himself. You can’t reasonably support the statement that DeDora blanketly “claimed that religious claims cannot be contradicted in science classes.”

    Furthermore, judging from what John Pieret had to say about the Corbett case, if DeDora’s conclusions are a bit off, they aren’t off by much.

  10. April 17, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    My original post was about what Wes feels is a “minor issue” – the rhetoric that Myers uses. I don’t see it as so minor. And comments like the one below (from here) hardly help the rationalist cause:

    YOU are the ones who are not helping, you milquetoast marshmellow fucks. WE are the ones who are not afraid to voice true reason. WE are the ones who enact change. WE choose not to cower behind the fimly puerile facade of concern for feelings. There is no such thing as harmful rhetoric if TRUTH is behind it! Here’s some truth for you from one of your own loathed truth-sayers:

    “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” – Sam Harris

    In light of that truth, invectives are nothing. If you don’t like the truth, get the fuck out of our way. You are nothing.

    I will challenge anyone to show how this doesn’t differ from the rhetoric of a religious fanatic.

  11. J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    “I will challenge anyone to show how this doesn’t differ from the rhetoric of a religious fanatic.”

    A religious fanatic probably wouldn’t use profanity. 🙂

  12. April 17, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Hah! Yes.

  13. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Whoa! Format change! Caught me off guard there for a minute.

    John M. Lynch :
    My original post was about what Wes feels is a “minor issue” – the rhetoric that Myers uses. I don’t see it as so minor. And comments like the one below (from here) hardly help the rationalist cause:

    YOU are the ones who are not helping, you milquetoast marshmellow fucks. WE are the ones who are not afraid to voice true reason. WE are the ones who enact change. WE choose not to cower behind the fimly puerile facade of concern for feelings. There is no such thing as harmful rhetoric if TRUTH is behind it! Here’s some truth for you from one of your own loathed truth-sayers:
    “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” – Sam Harris
    In light of that truth, invectives are nothing. If you don’t like the truth, get the fuck out of our way. You are nothing.

    I will challenge anyone to show how this doesn’t differ from the rhetoric of a religious fanatic.

    That guy’s a troll, John. I can find equally unhinged idiots saying equally ridiculous things against the “new atheists” over at Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog. If I posted a couple quotes from John Kwok or Anthony MacArthur here, you’d think everyone who opposed the “new atheists” was a misogynistic, self-congratulating, ignorant, hate-filled sociopath. The blogosphere is full of idiots, unfortunately. You can always find some ridiculous quotes to paint a whole group with.

    Frankly, my eyes start to roll back in my head whenever the conversation shifts to tone. Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a long, drawn out debate over whether or not someone is using the right tone. I just don’t care. And I find the “You’re being just like the enemy” or “You’re helping the enemy” rhetoric to be just as unnecessary and just as inappropriate as the original bad rhetoric which kicked off the whole needless argument.

    I’m much more interested in the substantial discussion over what the constitution allows, which is why I said that PZ’s tone is a minor point compared to the much more important issue of whether or not De Dora is right about the constitution. Speaking of which…

    Wes, you wrote that “if relevant facts merely happen to contradict some religious claim, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning them,” as if DeDora disagreed with that statement, when DeDora had espoused such a statement himself. You can’t reasonably support the statement that DeDora blanketly “claimed that religious claims cannot be contradicted in science classes.”

    Furthermore, judging from what John Pieret had to say about the Corbett case, if DeDora’s conclusions are a bit off, they aren’t off by much.

    Pieret specifically alludes to the “secular purpose” prong of the Lemon Test in that case. Whether or not the judge correctly applied the Lemon Test is a separate issue, but what’s important is that it is not the mere fact of calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” that was in question–it was whether the teacher had a legitimate secular purpose for saying so that was in question.

    This is the aspect of the issue that De Dora is largely ignoring when he says that it violates the constitution to say “The Earth is not just 6000 years old” in a science class. Even though that statement is a direct denial of a religious belief, it does not violate the establishment clause if there is a legitimate secular purpose for saying it.

    In short, it’s not about the religious nature of the claim. The Lemon Test focuses on the purposes for making the claim., regardless of whether it’s religious or not. This is where De Dora goes wrong:

    Deen: “Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

    De Dora: Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

    He’s applying the wrong standard here. The deciding factor in whether such a statement is constitutional is the intended purpose of making it. If there is a secular reason for a science teacher to deny some specific religious idea (and there are many), then it is not unconstitutional for them to do so.

    Yes, the latter denies a religious belief. No, it is not unconstitutional to do this.

  14. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    If you want to hear someone state what is basically my position on “tone”, watch this interview with Rachel Maddow and John Stuart:

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-april-13-2010/rachel-maddow

    Basically: Use all the heated rhetoric you want. Just don’t threaten to shoot anyone, and don’t encourage other people to shoot anyone, and if you tell a lie, expect to be called out on it.

  15. April 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Wes :

    Frankly, my eyes start to roll back in my head whenever the conversation shifts to tone. Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a long, drawn out debate over whether or not someone is using the right tone. I just don’t care.

    I suggest you should start caring. Tone is important, particularly if one is attempting to convince others to change their position. Reflect, for example, how tone can change the dynamic of discussion seminars I’m sure you are attending. One of the first things I try and teach students is how to disagree without being an asshole about it. PZ is being an asshole and increasingly doesn’t care about tone because he has carved out a persona for himself that feeds into the internet zeitgeist. He will never convince anyone to change their views … but then again, that has never been his goal. In that way, he’s similar to many on the Right today.

    All the discussion of the constitution is a smokescreen – interesting perhaps, but not the point being made by Massimo’s original post and my re-posting.

  16. April 17, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Wes :

    Basically: Use all the heated rhetoric you want. Just don’t threaten to shoot anyone, and don’t encourage other people to shoot anyone, and if you tell a lie, expect to be called out on it.

    Try that “heated rhetoric” off-line someday in real life situations (e.g. school) and see where it gets you. The Internet allows (encourages?) the sort of rhetoric that PZ, Coyne and many others seem to revel in. A number of rationalists (Pigliucci, Carroll etc) are drawing attention to this and for that are called “fatheists” or “appeasers” (terms that have been used about me as well). The rationalist community has no hope of bringing about any change with Myers, Coyne et al as their spokesmen.

  17. J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Wes: “This is the aspect of the issue that De Dora is largely ignoring when he says that it violates the constitution to say ‘The Earth is not just 6000 years old’ in a science class. Even though that statement is a direct denial of a religious belief, it does not violate the establishment clause if there is a legitimate secular purpose for saying it.”

    And DeDora is denying that there is such a legitimate secular reason when he writes, “Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones.” For your argument to make sense, you have to show that there is a legitimate secular purpose in going out of one’s way to pick out a particular religious idea to disparage, such as the claim “The Earth is 6,000 years old.”

    Note, too, that your argument is shifting. First, you alleged that DeDora had flat-out “claimed that religious claims cannot be contradicted in science classes,” which he did not, since he agreed that it is perfectly fine if the material in a science class happens to conflict with various religious beliefs. Now you are arguing that DeDora is underestimating the leeway that teachers have in contradicting religious ideas directly. This is a much more fair argument, but given what Pieret noted about how “subtle attacks are also prohibited” by the Lemon test, I’m not so sure that you are on the right side of it.

  18. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    There’s a time and a place for everything, to be sure. I seriously doubt PZ uses his intemperate rhetoric in the classroom. But the fact that it’s inappropriate in a classroom does not entail that it is inappropriate everywhere.

    (Side note: Coyne coined the term “faitheist” specifically in response to the term “new atheist”. It was a reaction. Perhaps not the best reaction, but a reaction nonetheless. Honestly, I don’t like either label, and I wish both sides would stop using them. Calling someone an “appeaser” isn’t any worse than calling someone a “new atheist”. But, whatever.)

    All this talk of tone is a distraction from much more important issues. Heated rhetoric is a normal part of any public debate, especially in America (as Rachel Maddow points out). There are times and places where it is not only permissible, but should be expected. If PZ were talking that way in the classroom, then yeah, there’d be a problem. Of course, that would be a problem for his school to deal with. But I don’t think his use of strong rhetoric on his own blog is the world-shattering problem that some people make it out to be.

    “PZ is mean” fights break out in the blogs every few months. They never come to anything, because they have no substance. All they accomplish is driving more traffic to his blog. It gets tiresome after a while. Every time a new wave of “PZ is mean” posts wash over the blogs I normally like to read, I die a little inside.

  19. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Sorry, that last post was in response to John, not JJ. I should have used the quote feature.

  20. April 17, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Heated rhetoric is a normal part of any public debate, especially in America (as Rachel Maddow points out).

    I hate to get all “European” about this, but there is damn near zero “public debate” in this country about anything. Instead we see groups shouting over each other. If you want to see political discourse (particularly on television), I suggest you spend some time outside this country.

    No one is saying “PZ is mean” … I am saying that he isn’t a particularly good or effective spokesman for rationalism. Carl Sagan did more for science and rationalism than PZ ever will and “tone” is one reason why.

  21. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    J. J. Ramsey :
    Wes: “This is the aspect of the issue that De Dora is largely ignoring when he says that it violates the constitution to say ‘The Earth is not just 6000 years old’ in a science class. Even though that statement is a direct denial of a religious belief, it does not violate the establishment clause if there is a legitimate secular purpose for saying it.”
    And DeDora is denying that there is such a legitimate secular reason when he writes, “Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones.” For your argument to make sense, you have to show that there is a legitimate secular purpose in going out of one’s way to pick out a particular religious idea to disparage, such as the claim “The Earth is 6,000 years old.”
    Note, too, that your argument is shifting. First, you alleged that DeDora had flat-out “claimed that religious claims cannot be contradicted in science classes,” which he did not, since he agreed that it is perfectly fine if the material in a science class happens to conflict with various religious beliefs. Now you are arguing that DeDora is underestimating the leeway that teachers have in contradicting religious ideas directly. This is a much more fair argument, but given what Pieret noted about how “subtle attacks are also prohibited” by the Lemon test, I’m not so sure that you are on the right side of it.

    No. My objection to De Dora is in that he claimed that the ideas being religious is why it is unconstitutional to deny them. I’m not saying he’s underestimating a teacher’s leeway. I’m saying that he is putting the emphasis in the wrong place, and misunderstanding the Lemon Test. He is wrong to say that it is unconstitutional to say “The Earth is not 6000 years old” in a science class, and his error stems from the fact he has misunderstood the relevant court decisions on this topic.

    It’s only unconstitutional to deny a religious claim in a classroom if you do so for religious reasons. But the teacher of an archeology class, for instance, can deny the claim that Native Americans immigrated from Palestine in 600 BC, even though that’s a pillar of Mormon belief, if her motivations are not religious. When the courts examine these cases, they often look at the relevant context to see whether the purpose was secular or religious (the Dover case, for instance).

    If we actually went along with De Dora, and said that denying that the Earth is 6000 years old is unconstitutional, then we would wreak havoc on the school systems. There are a huge number of religious beliefs out there, many of which are denied over and over in the course of teaching classes on all sorts of topics. If we made this about whether or not the claim is religious, rather than about whether or not the intent behind the claim is religious, teachers would be unable to deny anything in class for fear that it might constitute a denial of someone’s religious beliefs.

    Do you agree with De Dora that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to say “The Earth is not 6000 years old”? You seem to agree with me that it is the intent, not the religious nature of the statement, that matters. But in reading the De Dora piece, I don’t see him saying that. He’s caught up in the religious nature of the statements.

  22. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    John M. Lynch :

    Heated rhetoric is a normal part of any public debate, especially in America (as Rachel Maddow points out).

    I hate to get all “European” about this, but there is damn near zero “public debate” in this country about anything. Instead we see groups shouting over each other. If you want to see political discourse (particularly on television), I suggest you spend some time outside this country.
    No one is saying “PZ is mean” … I am saying that he isn’t a particularly good or effective spokesman for rationalism. Carl Sagan did more for science and rationalism than PZ ever will and “tone” is one reason why.

    I’m a pluralist when it comes to different types of voices for a particular movement. I prefer for there to be a large diversity of voices to appeal to a large diversity of audiences.

    I don’t know of any objective standard by which to compare PZ’s promotion of rationalism to Sagan’s. They have different goals and different audiences. Sagan has been sanctified by the skeptic movement since his death, but I don’t see any reason to hold him up as the paragon of science communication. (Also, it should be noted that my friend Eric Reitan, in his book “Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers”, on page 2, lumps Sagan in with Dawkins and Dennett among the cultured despisers (his label for “new atheists”). Religious moderates don’t necessarily perceive spokesmen for skepticism the way we skeptics do. It’s important to keep that in mind.)

    European’s are often nonplussed by the nature of political debate in America. This goes all the way back to de Tocqueville–so things have been this way for at least 178 years. But the heated rhetoric of American political discourse really only becomes a problem when people start calling for violence.

    I don’t own a television, so I couldn’t say much about that. Honestly, I hate the blowhards on both sides as much as you do, but I don’t see them as a serious problem. Yeah, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann will snipe at each other and call each other names. I prefer John Stuart and Rachel Maddow specifically because they shout and yell less. But, of course, though both of them are advocates of sane, rational discussion, neither of them feels that tone is the real problem.

    I’ve heard these claims about all the damage PZ does to rationalism by his tone repeated many times. But I’ve never seen a shred of evidence to indicate that they are true. Particularly, what evidence is there that he has done any real harm?

  23. Wes
    April 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I mentioned de Tocqueville. It’s worth quoting him at length on the tone of American political discourse. This is from Bk 1, Ch 11 of Democracy in America:

    In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper. It may readily be imagined that neither discipline nor unity of action can be established among so many combatants, and each one consequently fights under his own standard. All the political journals of the United States are, indeed, arrayed on the side of the administration or against it; but they attack and defend it in a thousand different ways. They cannot form those great currents of opinion which sweep away the strongest dikes. This division of the influence of the press produces other consequences scarcely less remarkable. The facility with which newspapers can be established produces a multitude of them; but as the competition prevents any considerable profit, persons of much capacity are rarely led to engage in these undertakings. Such is the number of the public prints that even if they were a source of wealth, writers of ability could not be found to direct them all. The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind. The will of the majority is the most general of laws, and it establishes certain habits to which everyone must then conform; the aggregate of these common habits is what is called the class spirit (esprit de corps) of each profession; thus there is the class spirit of the bar, of the court, etc. The class spirit of the French journalists consists in a violent but frequently an eloquent and lofty manner of discussing the great interests of the state, and the exceptions to this mode of writing are only occasional. The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.

    Nothing can be more deplorable than this abuse of the powers of thought. I shall have occasion to point out hereafter the influence of the newspapers upon the taste and the morality of the American people, but my present subject exclusively concerns the political world. It cannot be denied that the political effects of this extreme license of the press tend indirectly to the maintenance of public order. Individuals who already stand high in the esteem of their fellow citizens are afraid to write in the newspapers, and they are thus deprived of the most powerful instrument that they can use to excite the passions of the multitude to their own advantage.

    The personal opinions of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public. What they seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts, and it is only by altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.

    But although the press is limited to these resources, its influence in America is immense. It causes political life to circulate through all the parts of that vast territory. Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion.

    It rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact. When many organs of the press adopt the same line of conduct, their influence in the long run becomes irresistible, and public opinion, perpetually assailed from the same side, eventually yields to the attack. In the United States each separate journal exercises but little authority; but the power of the periodical press is second only to that of the people.

    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch11.htm

    The advent of the blogosphere has only amplified the aspects of American political discourse that de Tocqueville observed. But I think de Tocqueville is right in saying that the over-the-top nature of American political discourse is a natural consequence of the high level of freedom of speech in this country, and (though it may not appear so superficially) it actually is a net benefit.

  24. J. J. Ramsey
    April 18, 2010 at 4:49 am

    Wes :
    There are a huge number of religious beliefs out there, many of which are denied over and over in the course of teaching classes on all sorts of topics.

    Yes, and DeDora dealt with that by pointing out that it is perfectly acceptable to teach material regardless of whether it happens to conflict a religious claim, so the whole idea that DeDora’s approach “would wreak havoc on the school systems” is specious.

    Do you agree with De Dora that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to say “The Earth is not 6000 years old”?

    If the teacher is going out of his or her way to single out particular religious claim such as the Earth being 6,000 years old, then it’s highly likely that this is being done for religious reasons (or to be more precise, anti-religious reasons), not for a legitimate secular purpose. In practice, then, DeDora is pretty much on the mark. If a teacher is responding to someone else’s religious claim, that’s dicier, but even then DeDora made clear (see comment #69) that it is perfectly acceptable to say in the classroom that the claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old goes against the scientific evidence.

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