This post grew out of a very long discussion with the New York Less Wrong meetup group.  The question was, should a group dedicated to rationality be explicitly atheist?  Or should it make an effort to be respectful to theists in order to make them feel welcome and spread rationality farther?  We argued for a long time.  The pro-atheism camp said that, given that religion is so overwhelmingly wrong on the merits, we shouldn't allow it any special pleading -- it's just as wrong as any other wrong belief, and we'd lose our value as a rationalist group if we began to put status above truth.  The anti-atheism group said that, while that may be true, it's going to doom us to be a group exclusively for eccentric nerds, and we need to develop broad appeal, even if that's hard and requires us to leave our comfort zone.

Things got abstract very fast; my take was that we need to get back to practicalities.  Different attitudes to religion have different effects on different types of people; we need to optimize for desired effects and accept what tradeoffs we must.  We can't appeal equally to everyone.  So I came up with a sort of typology.

The Four New Members


Annie is religious, and she's not particularly rational.  She's not great at following the thread of an argument; she can't really reason quantitatively; she shoots herself in the foot in her daily life (maybe she runs up a lot of debt because she can't keep track of her spending; maybe she has a pattern of bad relationships; etc.)  Going to church is really the least of her worries.  Annie is unlikely to come to us through the meetup group or LessWrong, but maybe she's one of our friends or family members, or maybe she read HP:MOR. 

We don't want to tell Annie to give up religion.  In fact, it might be best not to say anything bad about religion at all in front of her; because she's probably prone to the halo effect, if we sound anti-religious, she'll assume everything else we have to say is stupid. Instead, we probably want to focus on helping her, very gently, to make her own life better by being aware of things like hyperbolic discounting, the planning fallacy, happy death spirals, etc. Dealing with Annie sounds like very hard work.  Because she just doesn't think in propositional arguments, you can't change her mind about things with a chain of propositions and a "QED."  We would need heavy-duty psychology to help her.


Barbara is religious, but she's pretty rational. She's logical-minded and good at getting things done; religion just occupies a special compartment that she never touches.  When it comes to her areas of expertise, she's just as competent, or more, as us rationalists.  And there's no way in hell you're going to talk her into atheism -- she knows she's smart and competent, so she can be incredibly stubborn about the things she's precommitted to not changing her mind about.  She's the prototypical scientist who'll still never take the subway on Saturday (because she strictly observes Shabbat.) She may be a very sharp thinker about other things, and she may be in the geek/technophile/futurist cluster; she might be a LessWrong reader or someone who comes to meetups or lectures, or one of us might know her personally.
We don't want to argue religion with Barbara either.  She's not interested.  She might get fed up with us, and she's talented enough that she could be a valuable asset to keep around.  On the other hand, because she's cooler-headed than Annie, she can probably handle knowing that we're currently a majority-atheist group.  She's probably met a lot of atheists and has no problem with them.  She might even be okay with hearing offhand negative comments about religion; she won't agree, but it's not necessarily a big deal to her.  Barbara pretty much speaks our language, so we don't have to "trick" her into rationality, we can talk to her normally, with arguments and probability estimates and whatnot.  But she might still be turned off by some of the guru-disciple language in the Sequences -- when she has something to learn, we still have to be careful not to sound like we're condescending to her.  She pretty much thinks she already is rational, so it's a bit tricky to communicate to her that sometimes she still isn't.

Caroline is a seeker.  She's religious, but doubting; her beliefs are falling apart on her, and she wants some reassurance that she can find a way out of her dilemma.  Maybe she doesn't really believe in God but she's afraid that makes her a bad person, or afraid of losing her community.  Caroline may be a strong rationalist or a weak one, but she has the "failure to compartmentalize" that makes her carry ideas, sooner or later, to their necessary conclusions, and realize "Whoa, that idea means I'd actually have to change my life right now!"
I think we want to help Caroline.  Her doubts, if nothing else, show that she has the potential to be more rational.  If she's as smart as Barbara and she's got the failure to compartmentalize, she could turn out to be formidable. If she's indicated directly that she's currently leaving religion, or thinking about it, we should be friendly and supportive and recommend atheist resources. (My picks: Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, Robert Ingersoll's Why I Am An Agnostic, the "Into Clear Air" page, and the LessWrong sequence about "How to Actually Change Your Mind," especially Belief in Belief.)  A lot of new atheists are lonely and want reassurance that they have company. Their faces just light up when they meet "another one."  Caroline deserves that support. Whether she's an advanced rationalist in general or a newbie, we need to pay some attention to psychology with her -- we need to show her that atheists can be positive and caring and make her feel good about her decision.
Donna is already an atheist, and she's an outspoken one.  Maybe she's already been active in self-defined atheist or skeptic clubs or activities. Maybe she even acquired an interest in rationality through the atheist/skeptic community.  Donna would actually be turned off by a sensitive attitude towards religion; the way she sees it, we should no more "respect" religious beliefs than we should respect belief in the tooth fairy, and she doesn't want to belong to any club that asks her to pretend "respect" for a ludicrous idea. She wants to be around like-minded people; she wants a place to let her hair down and not have to pretend she has any patience with the Imaginary Sky Friend.
If we simply don't bring up religion at meetings/lectures/etc, Donna will probably be fine.  But if we try to shut her up, she won't be happy.  She'll think of it as censorship.  We could lose her by being too carefully polite about religion and insisting that she follow suit.  If Donna is otherwise an asset to the group, it could be a shame to drive her away. A Donna can drive away an Annie, and can sometimes irritate a Barbara, though.  This is where there's a potential for conflict.  I think more current rationalists started off as Donnas than as any other type, so that's weak evidence that we shouldn't have too many group norms that rub Donnas the wrong way.  But it doesn't seem wise to be a Donna-only club and indulge in random feel-good religion-bashing -- that's bad for atheists' rationality too.
A rationalist organization's stance to religion (or even an individual rationalist's) should depend on what kinds of people we encounter, and which ones we value attracting the most.  Smart, competent, clear-thinking people are worth attracting for their own sake.  Criticizing religion openly will drive off Annies, and, occasionally, Barbaras; accommodating religion explicitly will drive off Donnas.  It really depends who you have in your area.  (People who live in predominantly secular countries just won't meet as many Barbaras.)  If you have the opportunity to tailor your approach individually, that's ideal -- introduce people to rationality in the format that works best for them.


124 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:03 PM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

My suggested resolution is as follows:

1) "Don't ask and for God's sake don't tell." This is a group where people come to speak freely about rationality. If you don't talk about your beliefs about God, no one will press you on it or demand that you affirm anything.

2) However, part of our zeitgeist is that it's okay to question beliefs, or even try your hardest to destroy beliefs you think are false, because that which can be destroyed by the truth should be. There are no exceptions for anything, and if you say anything indicating that you think religious beliefs should be exempt, people are not going to nod along, instead they are going to start talking about "The rule that you have to look at a city in order to draw an accurate map of it has no exceptions".

3) Criticism of religion is not taboo - it goes against both the ideals of rationality we believe in, and the atmosphere of freedom that draws us to the group, to have that sort of taboo for that reason. So, to put it bluntly, you will overhear other people comparing belief in God to the Tooth Fairy, and if you contradict them they will contradict you back, and if you say that everyone has a right to th... (read more)

I upvoted for a simple reason -- I think these are (more or less) the de-facto rules of the IRC channel #lesswrong. If someone comes in and starts saying how theists are all stupid, we explain calmly that you don't need to signal atheism to belong, and that "arguments are not soldiers." However, when the issue of religion comes up naturally, it is expected that it will be argued honestly, and if at all possible, politely.

I attract more of my share of it, I guess, because I am a (semi-)regular synagogue-goer, and I am perfectly fine with being challenged, and answering any questions. It's one of the many things I do that are not in-line with the rough LW consensus (I'm also significantly more pro-regulation than the rough consensus), and I'm fine with it.

Upvoted, but one quibble: The point of that sort of argument, in my view, is not to propose a satisfactory solution, but to demonstrate why the question isn't meaningful. When a person asks a question like "What caused the universe?", ey is assuming that the universe needs a cause. However, causality is a property of events within a time-ordered system, and the universe is such a system, rather than being within the system. Time and space are unified, so considering them separately (which is what the question does) is erroneous. This is similar for questions like "why is there something rather than nothing?". Implicit in the question is the possibility that there could have been nothing, and that's wholly unsupported by observation; even the vacuum is full of virtual particles. We may think that we can imagine that possibility, but that doesn't make it viable. That kind of question is never going to have a satisfactory answer, because the underlying premise is faulty. I agree that it's important to point out how "God" isn't a good answer to those questions, but I think it's more important to point out the flawed thinking which leads to asking the questions in the first place.
You are interpreting "why is there something rather than nothing?" as "Given the observed laws of physics, why is there something rather than nothing?", when what is being asked is "Why are the laws of physics these laws which you say makes the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' meaningless instead of some other laws that result in there being nothing?"
The suggestion that the laws of physics could have been different is just a hypothesis, and that class of hypotheses usually involves some form of a multiverse scenario in which all the possibilities are realized in different universes. The idea that there is one universe, and something caused it to have these laws instead of laws which lead to nothingness, is a terribly contrived dilemma. From an empirical point of view, we observe the laws of physics, and speculation about other laws is unjustified. From a philosophical point of view, it makes much more sense to think that we observe whatever universe in which we can exist.
If I ask you why the laws of chemistry are what they are you can avoid answering by talking about how we observed the laws of chemistry and speculating about other laws of chemistry would be unjustified. But that is not nearly as satisfying as producing an actual answer, by applying quantum mechanics to collections of electrons, protons, and nuetrons, and deriving chemistry from lower level physics. In the same way, you are avoiding answering the "why is there something rather than nothing?", not actually answering it. And while I don't know how to answer that question, and see no reason why you should be expected to know how either, it is better to honestly avoid answering it with "I don't know".
I don't see that as the same kind of question. The laws of chemistry are a higher-level approximation of quantum mechanics. Maybe the laws of quantum mechanics are a higher-level approximation of something else, too. Talking about that is different than talking about alternative versions of the laws. I'm not avoiding answering the question; I'm rejecting the premise of the question. I don't think there is an answer, any more than there's an answer to the question "What is the smell of the color green?". We can construct the question linguistically and imagine scenarios in which it's valid, but that doesn't mean it applies to reality.
No. Quantum mechanics explains why we have the observed laws of chemistry and not alternative laws of chemistry. The issue of alternatives is a distraction. Remove it and the question of why we have the laws of physics we observe still remains.
Yes, I agree. The question of how things work is what's important.
I agree with this comment except for the last part: I happen to think pointing out how "God" is a bad answer is actually more important. Nonetheless, the other lesson -- that the laws of physics do not necessarily have to carve up reality the way your brain wants to -- is also important, and I think Eliezer exaggerates when he says [] that your answer is "every bit as terrible as the religious one". As Sean Carroll puts it [] :
9Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Disagree with Sean Carroll. The property that Judea Pearl defines in "Causality" is a central part of the character of physical law. And even if what Sean Carroll said was true, there'd still be a big important problem to be resolved somehow. It's okay to have big outstanding problems. You don't have to say "God" and you don't have to sweep them under the rug either.
I'd have to strongly disagree with that. It's certainly why we're interested in physical law, and how we test our understanding of physical law. But the central character of physical law admits no interventions when describing things at the lowest level.
I may be hopelessly naive here, but can't you explain the perception of "causality" by thermodynamics? Two uncorrelated thingies touching each other are likely to become correlated, thus giving the appearance that they have "influenced" each other.
That probably has more short-term importance for exposing theistic irrationality, but in the long-term, I think overcoming flawed thinking is more important for making progress.
The question "Why does something exist instead of nothing?" is different from "What caused the Universe?". The former question is not asking about causation in time. Suppose that your interlocutor grants that some event didn't need a cause, so that the Big Bang didn't violate causality. Well, the occurrence of no event also doesn't seem to need a cause. That is, causality would still have not been violated had nothing happened. So, it still seems reasonable to ask why something happened rather than nothing. Although not a complete and satisfactory solution, my favorite answer is this one [].
Yes, that's true; I tried to distinguish them in my reply, because the point about time and causality doesn't really apply to the something vs. nothing question. "Everything not forbidden is compulsory." – Murray Gell-Mann (from T.H. White)
Suppose we grant this claim as an axiom. Then, from the fact that X happened, we may deduce that X was compulsory. But that doesn't tell us why X was compulsory. It doesn't provide us with an argument showing how the happening of X was a compulsory (or even probable) consequence of self-evident premises. Gell-Mann's axiom doesn't tell us why X had to happen, or even just why X happened — never mind the "had to". So it doesn't answer the question "Why does something exist instead of nothing?".
As I posted below [], I'm not planning on continuing this specific discussion. However, if you're interested in continuing to discuss the general topic, I recommend heading over to this discussion topic [] that I just started, which addresses some of the same issues in what I feel is a clearer way.
What's forbidden about there simply being... nothing? :)
No, the point is that there's nothing forbidden about there being something.
What I meant was, if there's neither anything forbidden about there simply being... nothing, and there being something, what leads to the "something" winning out over the nothing? ie, even given "everything not forbidden is compulsory", there still seems to be stuff unexplained.
The still-confusing part of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" isn't "Why is there stuff within this universe rather than no stuff within it?", it's "Why are there these particular laws of physics in the first place?". That may yet (probably will) turn out to be confused/meaningless, but nobody has satisfactorily shown how it's meaningless. I still very strongly suspect that Tegmark is on the right track, but the measure-of-experience problem currently prevents it from counting as a satisfactory dissolution of the problem.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
For the reasons given by McAllister and Weissman, I think your answer is every bit as terrible as the religious one. I'm sure we're asking the wrong question but if we knew the right question we'd be done. And meanwhile, there's a very real problem and trying to sweep it under the rug like this is every bit as bad as claiming that "God did it" cleans it up.
I'm not trying to sweep the problem under the rug. I just don't want it to get tangled in a web of false dilemmas based on poor premises. Those kinds of questions are narrow in scope, and dwelling on them might prevent us from seeing the right questions. I don't think the average person who asks this sort of question is seriously interested in solving the problem; ey already has a solution in mind, and the question is constructed to imply it.
I dunno. I think many people are at least interested/curious about the whole "why is there something instead of nothing?" and related "why these laws/equations and not others?" issues. I know I am. There's a genuine gap in our (or at least my) understanding. Obviously goddidit is not at all an answer, but that fact doesn't mean that there's nothing at all that needs to be answered (even if that answer turns out to amount to a precise way of untangling the confusion that led to the question.) I think some people may settle for bad answers, but...

I've been in situations where I'm the only atheist in an explicitly all-theist group, or the only male in an all-female group. I imagine it's not unlike being the only minority in an all-white group. It's slightly uncomfortable, you're constantly aware that you are the exception, and sometimes the conversation turns to things you have no knowledge of or interest in, and you just wait through that period, maybe pick up some things on how the "other half" thinks.

I don't see why a rationalist group has to be any different. A group can be explicitly atheist and still welcome theist members without sacrificing any integrity by kowtowing to their pet irrationality. Atheists need groups where they can be the majority for once as well. Let the theist feel slightly uncomfortable if they have to, we can still welcome them and enjoy their company.

Honestly, the whole "should we make accommodations for the religious" feels like the servile attitude ingrained into a subgroup by an entire lifetime of being taught that they are worth less than the ruling majority. The atheist population needs some sort of Pride movement already. I have a hard time imagining a gay group agonizin... (read more)

Gay groups in fact agonize over this all the time, or at least did twenty years ago, and the same divisions between what are sometimes called "nukers" and "appeasers" come up again and again and again.

I suspect the same is true of feminist groups, or at least was at one time.

I suspect it's a universal pattern among activist groups, along with the use of words with high emotional indexes ("nuke," "appease," "servile," "ruling," "bend over backwards," "corrupt," "groveling," etc.) when talking about it.

Yeah, it's a very common pattern. It reminds me: I'm twelve, reading Signs [] on the couch. Me: "Mom, why's it called 'Feminisms at a Millenium'? Isn't it supposed to be 'feminism'?" Mom: "Sweetie, feminists argue a lot. They don't all agree on what feminism is." Me: "Humph. They're being dumb."
(chuckle) In my youth, the joke was "The only thing two Jews can agree on is what a third should donate to the Temple." (Which is, admittedly, one of those things you can only get away with saying about your own tribe.)
SHAZAM! [] Am I good or what?
I've just read The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. Hoo boy, you really need people standing up and uncompromisingly just not taking this shit any more. Even if there are others being somewhat more accommodating.

Frankly, I think you're skirting around the real issue: what precisely is the "rationality outreach" supposed to accomplish?

If the goal is to have a community where all false and biased beliefs will be criticized without any exception at all, including those that are held sacred by the present respectable opinion, then it's inevitable that you'll cause lots of outrage and end up with opinions on some issues that will sound crackpot or extremist to the respectable mainstream, and will also cause dissension in any realistic group of people. On the other hand, if the choice of issues for criticism will be limited by some cost-benefit calculation, then this calculation depends on the exact goals of the group. Specifically, you should attack those false beliefs that interfere with your goals in practice, and only them. For example, a team of physicists cannot tolerate a member who has crazy ideas about physics, but they shouldn't have a problem with a member who has crazy ideas about economics (like Albert Einsten, for example).

So, the question is: what exactly is supposed to be the benefit of making your group explicitly atheist, and does it justify the cost of turning off ... (read more)

The broad goal, I believe, is raising the sanity waterline in the general public. The narrow goal, as far as I can tell, is developing a solid local community of strong rationalists, and then to do things with our strengths. (Potentially: invent and test systematic methods for making people and the world more awesome, which may include science, starting businesses, making art, and generally creating things that demonstrate the effectiveness of rationality.) For the narrow goal, we want to appeal to people who will be unusually good assets. (But not necessarily the usual suspects.) For the broad goal, it would be nice to have pitches for rationality that might nudge anyone, regardless of background, in the right direction.

In that case, I'd propose that if Annie is an adult she’s essentially unreachable. No matter how much effort you expend trying to coach her on basic rational skills she isn’t going to get it, because as a general rule adult humans simply don’t change their basic approach to life that radically. You’d have to replace her entire social milieu with a circle of rationalist associates to have any chance of getting through to her, and even then she’d probably just adopt the surface appearance of rationality as a sort of social-acceptance ritual.

So as a practical matter Barbara, Caroline and Donna are the people who might actually join, contribute to and benifit from a rationalist group, and the question becomes how to balance your appeal to all three instead of restricting yourself to Donnas.

Then the question from your post should be asked in the context of the goals you outline. Regarding the "sanity waterline," I don't believe this concept presents a useful and accurate model [] of people's beliefs, not even as a rough first approximation. In my opinion, any action based on such a model must be fundamentally misguided one way or another. Regarding the goal of developing a local community, you've listed a whole bunch of goals, and to answer your initial question, we must begin by asking two other questions. First, is there actually a common body of insight, presumably close to what is called "rationality" on LW, that would be of practical help in all of these endeavors, and what would it consist of? Second, if such a body of insight exists and a group of people is trying to reach, share, and apply it, how much of a hindrance is it if they must avoid criticizing religion in the process? Unless we have clear and well-argued answers to these questions, I don't think any productive discussion of the original issue is possible. Looking at people's comments in this thread, it seems to me that their views on the first of the two preliminary questions are muddled by wishful thinking, in the sense that they are too quick to assume that such a body of insight exists and that they have a good idea of what it is.

Regarding the "sanity waterline," I don't believe this concept presents a useful and accurate model of people's beliefs, not even as a rough first approximation. In my opinion, any action based on such a model must be fundamentally misguided one way or another.

You have argued against a misunderstanding of the sanity waterline concept. The idea is sound that people who have and systematically apply a set of skills will not make make mistakes of a certain class. The sanity waterline concept is not simply an ordering of the irrationality of wrong beliefs, but an association of skills with the mistakes they prevent. It does not claim that not making a mistake places someone higher on the waterline so they will not make more irrational mistakes, rather it explicitly calls out the distinction between getting something right because your rationality skills force you to get it right, and other means such as joining the social group that happens to be right.

You are right. My thinking was indeed imprecise here. If we assume that there exists a set of skills such that each skill, if practiced consistently, prevents one from having a specific set of irrational beliefs, then we can impose a partial order on sets of beliefs by observing which set of skills is implied to be absent by each set of beliefs. This partial order can be seen as a ranking of irrationality of different sets of beliefs, and the set of skills shared by a group of people places a lower bound with respect to the partial order, which can then be metaphorically called a "waterline." Of course, the crucial assumption here is that it is possible for humans to acquire a set of reasoning skills so thoroughly and reliably that they will actually apply them to all issues, no matter what. I don't think this is possible, and with this in mind, I still don't think the "waterline" concept is useful. If anything, it's dangerous because people may fall into the trap of thinking that they are above a certain waterline, whereas in reality, there are issues where due to all kinds of biases even the very basic skills are failing them.
This is the more general problem of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing (when you think it's a lot). I find it useful to remind myself of the many ways in which, despite my considerable intelligence, I am extremely stupid. My girlfriend is also helpful in this.
(smile) Yes, this. Among the great blessings of my life are the many people in it who can remind me of my stupidity.
Fallacy of gray. Even if there are no actual magical superrationalists, clearly some people are better skilled than others, and a group of people would behave differently depending on this level.
The question is whether it is possible in practice for individuals or groups to exist who really apply some set of skills with enough consistency that "sanity waterline" becomes a good enough approximation of reality for them. If individuals and groups differ greatly, as they obviously do, it may still be that nobody is good enough that their basic skills would be highly (even if imperfectly) reliable when it comes to the most seductive biases. Even if this assumption is not true, it does not represent the fallacy of grey, no more than, say, claiming that nobody can run 100m in less than 9.5s means equating athletes with couch potatoes. (The latter claim may be falsified if someone actually manages to run that fast, but even if false, it's not a fallacy of grey, since it merely asserts an upper bound for achievement, not that there aren't people far closer to it than others.) Now, I do believe that there are plenty of topics where even the most rational individuals are in serious danger of having their most basic epistemological skills distorted by biases, and therefore, it's never a good idea to draw any "sanity waterlines." You may disagree with this view, but not on the grounds that it constitutes fallacy of grey.
You clearly don't understand the concept in the way it was intended [], and instead criticize a different idea.
I allow for that possibility, but I don't see where my understanding goes wrong (given the correction I made after JGWeissman's criticism that I conceded). So without further clarification on your part, I have to rest my case at this point.
Keep in mind that this concept was introduced in the context of teaching others. The practical advice is to teach skills that will enable people to give up their false beliefs rather than directly arguing against the false beliefs, both because emotional attachment makes a direct attack more difficult, and because the particular false beliefs you observe are indicators of a larger problem. This does not require the most extreme case that the person will universally apply the skill in all situations no matter what, though the more reliably the person uses the skill, the better it works. If using a set of skill 90% of the time makes a upperbound of 10% probability of making any instance from a class of mistakes, that is not as good as using the skill all the time and never making that kind of mistake, but it is still useful. Again, this is a technique for teaching. Don't use it as an excuse to trust yourself [].

Forgive me if this point has been hashed out elsewhere before, but I find the interchangeable use of “theism” and “religion” to be jarring every time I see it, and unhelpful in terms of what the community seems to want to accomplish.

Although Protestant religiosity does usually seem to boil down to a question of faith, it seems to be not-at-all uncommon among Jews and Catholics (possibly Muslims and non-Western religions as well; I have less experience with that) for religious practice to be cultural, and not based on any great conviction about God, particularly an anthropomorphic interventionist God. Perhaps there is a rationalist argument to be made that those cultural practices have negative utility, but it is an entirely separate argument from “believing in God is irrational.”

I observe a lot of Jewish religious traditions in spite of being a deist-leaning agnostic. Those practices that I choose to keep, I keep because I see something meaningful and useful in them. Others that I see as harmful or ridiculous I don't observe. I am pretty clearly religious, though not exactly a Barbara, but arguments that undermine theism wouldn't cause me to alter my current practices because “God told me so” isn't the reason underlying them. This distinction seems to be elided pretty frequently on Lesswrong.

I was reading "theist" as a word to be the opposite of "atheist". "Theist" isn't a word I encounter much at all.
Good point. I wrote all this with "belief in God" as my working definition of religion. Religious observance is completely different, and I'm sure a lot of us retain religious observances. (Though I'd be surprised if non-theists prayed -- that seems hard to do.) Personally, I think giving people a hard time about religious observances, while it's inevitable, can't be justified as "helping" or "promoting rationality." I see it more as light bullying.

I'm not sure what people mean by "respect" here. If anyone asks me my views on religion, I'll happily tell them I see no need of that hypothesis, that it explains nothing and mystifies everything, and so on, and I'll do that whatever I know their own beliefs to be. They ask, they get, and I'm not going to tiptoe around the matter for fear that they can't handle hearing it. OTOH, I'm not going to express myself to anyone by gleeful mocking of the tooth fairy, ritual cannibalism in the Catholic Mass, or camel-herders with underage wives, not even in company for which those would be applause lights. Neither am I going to proselytise atheism to everyone I see wearing a religious symbol.

Neither treating someone like a fragile bloom that will wither at a touch, nor ranting and mockery, constitute what I would describe as "respect". People get respect; beliefs aren't the sort of thing that respect applies to.

I've had some Catholics getting seriously upset and calling me a bigot for posting a link to a news story about long-running Vatican coverups of paedophile priests to my Facebook. There's a pseudo-logical chain of argument attached to this assertion, which as far as I can make out is that the Catholics in question - this was multiple Catholics who didn't know each other - are helpless in the face of their immortal souls' access to Heaven basically being controlled by these people; so I am therefore causing them gratuitous pain when they are pained enough already. I find it difficult to deal with the claim that posting a link to a horrible news story - the factuality of which is entirely accepted by the offended parties - constitutes unacceptable bigotry. Obviously, this is them blaming me for pointing out serious conflicts that are already present in their own thoughts and feelings. It still strikes me as offensively stupid to an extent I have no intention of putting up with if in any way avoidable. (I suppose it didn't help when I pointed out that their continued donations of money, and even their continued attendance, grants these people power, and that I do consider that choosing to continue to do so makes them avoidably morally culpable. OTOH, by that stage I didn't care.)


I find it difficult to deal with the claim that posting a link to a horrible news story - the factuality of which is entirely accepted - constitutes unacceptable bigotry.

Obviously, this is them blaming me for pointing out serious conflicts that are already present in their own thoughts and feelings. It still strikes me as offensively stupid to an extent I have no intention of putting up with if in any way avoidable.

I haven't seen the concrete details of the debate you describe and I'm not claiming that what I'm about to write applies to this case, but generally speaking, conclusions like those of your Facebook correspondents are not always unjustified. (I mean the feeling of hostility they perceived, not the rationalization you ascribe to them.) When someone points out the faults of some particular party and expresses outrage, even if all the stated facts are true, there are still two additional important issues.

First, placing a strong focus on someone's faults is likely to be interpreted as an expression of deeper hostility, and statistically speaking, this interpretation is often correct. To take an extreme example, imagine if someone wrote a book titled The Cri... (read more)

Your post is short of suggested alternate courses of action. You have also taken a specific situation and generalised it in ways that were not in fact being described in the post you are responding to. To get back to specifics: You see one of the many recent news stories about decades-long coverups of paedophile priests on the part of the Vatican. You are outraged. Do you (a) post a link to it (b) post it with an opinion (c) don't post it? Why?
David_Gerard: I did say that my points don't necessarily apply in your case, since I'm not familiar with all the details of it, and that I've taken it as motivation to make a more general point relevant to the topic at hand. Now, regarding the specifics, one should always be suspicious of outrage, both of other people and one's own. It signals with very high probability that some sort of bias has been triggered. (I'm now talking about outrage about matters of public discourse, not things where one is personally involved.) If anything, there's a whole lot going on in the world that you could reasonably be outraged over, but you can show active concern only about a very small subset of these events. In the overwhelming majority of cases -- and, given the lack of information, I am not judging now whether that was the case in your specific example -- people's choice of what they get outraged over is determined by their preexisting hostility towards particular individuals, groups, and institutions. Therefore, in regular human interaction, interpreting outrage towards one's favored institution as a signal of hostility -- and conversely, interpreting shared outrage as a signal of ideological agreement and common cause -- is a statistically accurate heuristic. Even if someone gets actively outraged over what could be reasonably considered the very worst phenomenon currently being reported and discussed in the media, that still means that one might be relaying the biases of the media to which one is exposed. (This isn't relevant if you believe that your favored media outlets are unbiased in what stories of outrage they choose to report with the highest prominence, and that they never bias their coverage towards greater or lesser outrage depending on the topic. But this seems to me clearly false; even the facts are usually reported selectively, let alone the commentary and the more subtly expressed attitudes.) Finally, you say that in your discussion you made judgment
I'm not so sure about that. Let's compare the rate of sexual abuse by priests with that by social workers [] and/or school teachers. Religious blogger Vox Day [] after writes: (Note if you found Vox's post offensive, explain why you have any more right to be offended then the Catholics you describe in your article.)
Vox Day's post appears to be an example of the moral equivalence fallacy [] - saying "but we're not as bad as X!" as a form of counterattack in debate. "The "not as bad as" argument is a form of the moral equivalence fallacy. It's popular with people who know perfectly well they're doing something wrong. Being fully aware of this problem, they feel compelled to attempt to justify it, and they do so by pointing to other, usually worse, actions." Edit: Peter Lambert-Cole points out [] that Vox Day is not Catholic - I misremembered that he was. (Indeed, Mr Beale's views on Catholics are more than a little idiosyncratic [].) Sorry about that.
The "not as bad as argument" is a fallacy, but it's one of those fallacies that seems to have a grain of truth: That being, if you're going to point out a group flaw, you should definitely be pointing out that flaw if it's more prominent in another group as well. In this case, if you're pointing out pedophilia from priests, you should be pointing out social worker abuses as well.
No, although the institution is eminently deserving. This is not the opposite of the first one.
You are correct; that was my mistake. I'm uncertain how to word what I meant with that last line, so I will remove it.

Pointing out social worker abuses would be a direct comparison to the situation in the Catholic Church if the relevant federal government department, all the way up to the relevant cabinet-level position, was running a coverup of said abuses, including shuffling offenders to different districts rather than turning them into the authorities, and had been doing so over the course of decades. I am not aware that this is in fact the case, but if it is then references would be most welcomed.

Of course, Vox is not a Catholic so there is no "we" in his argument. Moreover, this post is one in a series responding to New Atheists and others who explicitly argue that religious institutions, people and motivations are worse than the secular alternatives. He doesn't introduce the comparison between religious and secular as a counterattack. He is responding to people who have already made that moral comparison and is showing that the calculus doesn't work out as they claimed.
Comment corrected, thank you!
While not vouching for the validity of the the specific points he is making, I see him attempting to make a moral argument with a valid form. Briefly: absence of correlation is evidence for absence of causation, and absence of causation is evidence for absence of moral blame. What you see as a "we're not as bad as X" argument, can be seen as an observation of lack of positive correlation. Suppose that a woman observes that while women commit a certain fraction of assaults, men, about equally numerous, commit a larger fraction of assaults (this is hypothetical - for all I know women do commit a larger fraction of assaults). You could interpret that as the woman making a "we're not as bad as men" argument. But another interpretation is that there is a negative correlation between being a woman and committing assault. This is evidence for the claim that being a woman does not cause a person to commit assault. (In contrast, being angry probably does correlate positively with committing assault, which would be evidence for the claim that being angry can cause a person to commit assault.) So that covers the point that absence of correlation is evidence for absence of causation. As for the point that absence of causation is evidence for absence of moral blame, I trust that I don't need to explain it.
Very good points. The very selectivity has implications, as I think everyone recognises in cases where a group they identify with (or even are neutral to) is the one whose flaws are being highlighted.
That's my attitude. It's a convenient one to have.
For my part, the attitude you describe (supposing nothing very different from the examples you give is being smuggled in through the "and so on") is perfectly consistent with what I mean by "respect."

The pro-atheism camp said that, given that religion is so overwhelmingly wrong on the merits, we shouldn't allow it any special pleading -- it's just as wrong as any other wrong belief, and we'd lose our value as a rationalist group if we began to put status above truth.

In an important way, religions do not exist at all. Which two people agree on all aspects of metaphysics? Which people's beliefs of what it is permissible to believe form an exclusive network? (I.e. most believers believe slightly more or less liberal beliefs are valid, but only a bit.)... (read more)

Considering religion's status as the primary and most obvious example of irrationality in the world I think pandering to it undermines the entire purpose of a group dedicated to promoting rationality.

I suspect this would find little dispute, and I completely agree, but "pandering" is a word containing an emotional load [] of "bad thing to do" so may inadvertently lead us away from being effective at increasing rationality (the original purpose). And the dispute turns to what behaviour constitutes "pandering", the measure of which is subjective and thus more trouble. "Appeasement" suffers similar problems. Note that these words are problematic due to their emotional load even if we think they're an accurate description of what's happening, and even if we think that noting this explicitly is important.

I challenge the initial framing of there being a choice to be made between "explicitly atheist" and "respectful to theists." One can, in fact, choose to be both at once.

But, yes, I would agree that not everyone makes that choice.

This isn't unique to atheists, incidentally... many explicitly theist communities choose not to be respectful to other theists, in much the same way.

In any event, I would agree that if there are people around who consider respecting their fellow group members an actively bad thing if those group members aren't thinking correctly enough, then at some point I've got to make a choice about what I value more.

Again, I like your characters but I think you're missing one. The person who thinks that belief in [a] God is the result of rational and reasonable thought.

That's what Barbara says, but only if you press her. Mostly she just doesn't talk about it.

If she spontaneously announces this to the group and challenges them to a debate, believing that the truth ought to be obvious enough that anyone should be able to see it, I shall endeavor to turn her into Caroline in 15 minutes and Donna a day later.

I shall endeavor to turn her into Caroline in 15 minutes and Donna a day later.

With what probability will you anticipate success?

The most likely outcome is that she will conclude, "I guess I was wrong to think that anyone would be able to see the truth of theism." She will justify this with either "I didn't imagine that atheists would hold on to their delusions so tenaciously" or "Although the rationality of theism is still plain to me, I didn't realize how great the inferential distances could be. It takes more work than I anticipated to spell out all the details to a skeptical audience."

3Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Higher probability than people who've despaired of theists believe is possible, still less than 50%. Keep in mind that we're starting with someone who hasn't sunk too far into belief in self-deception.
Your short time-frame made me wonder whether you might despair of her if you did not see rapid success. Were you unable to change her from Barbara in a day, how much would that change your probability of seeing success in * a week? * a month? * a year?
Then there are those who label what they do as 'rational' regardless of if it is. Surprisingly common.

Most folk tell themselves they are being rational, Miss Granger. They do not thereby rise above the ordinary.

(Not literally true, but true within certain subcommunities.)

Barbara might describe herself this way. We would of course say that she's "refusing to apply rationality" to the religious domain, but that's not necessarily what she would say. A religious person who admits that their belief is irrational is probably already in Caroline territory.
Not in my experience - they seem to maintain non-overlapping magisteria in their heads. You can do all sorts of things with compartmentalisation! This is particularly difficult to alleviate if there's money involved, whether coming to them or going from them. (New Age in a phrase: "dolphins and money, dolphins and money.")
Saying the words does not imply understanding them. Someone who admits to 'irrationality' might not see it as a complete surrender to random unreasonableness, but as something that is 'non-nerdy'. Remember those 'rationality go to hell' posters? They imply the writer is stupid, but that is not how those writing it see them. Likewise I had many a person label them self as rational or too rational. Or tried to explain the false dichotomy of rationality vs. emotions. It is just words after all. And quite often after a heated debate it turns out that everyone has a different definition for the term debated. Not that pointing this out helps [].
I'm not sure what you are talking about here. Can you expand or cite examples?
I did not manage to find them again yet. I saw big road signs with writings such as 'reason go to hell' on pictures of a certain region in the middle of the US. Maybe someone else has them on file.
"Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has" - This is an actual photo [], not the output of a church sign generator, taken by PZ Myers. The quote is, in fact, from Martin Luther:
Keep in mind that there are many ways on the internet to make fake church signs or similar. See e.g. the church sign generator [] so one needs to be careful about that sort of evidence. That said, there are examples that almost resemble this. One is reminded of Pastor Ray Mummert's "We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture" when talking about the Dover trial. But even that's not against rationality itself.
Or in any case necessary. That even if theism isn't the result of rational and reasonable thought, it is arational rather than irrational. Some religious people are aware that rational thought will drive towards atheism (for example []) and will describe faith as a "choice", not unlike a moral preference. Moral preferences are arational; rooted in biology and our social interactions, perhaps like theism where it is practiced.
A common variation on this is to assert that they can essentially elevate a mild probability hypothesis and treat it as a high probability hypothesis. Certainly when I was a theist I sometimes thought that way.

Currently trendy is the Bayesian argument, which frequently starts with asserting that the only acceptable proper and right-thinking prior probability of God is 0.5 AAAAAARGH

(The problem here being the assumption that we start knowing nothing at all rather than that we know really quite a lot - that being the bit in the argument where a negligible probability is turned into a non-negligible one.)

(Sorry, I just had lunch with some relatively sensible theists and I'm still going AAAAAARGH)

I've never heard anyone seriously say that, but I don't doubt that they exist. I'm curious what they have to say about the different beliefs of different theist traditions... that is, is the prior for each of them supposed to be .5?
I need to find a written example. I believe a debate Christopher Hitchens lost against a theist involved him being waylaid by an unexpected Bayesian attack. In any case, I have an anecdotal datum that the word is out there.
That'd imply an interesting cosmology.
Is that because if you treat probabilities of (God or not God) as maximum entropy without prior information you'd get 50/50?
Something like that - I need to find a written example of the Bayesian probability argument for God. The idea is that when you have no idea, and no basis for an idea, you have no reason to have the probability of A greater or lesser than the probability of not-A. Note that a large part of the thrust of Dawkins' The God Delusion is to show the improbability of the God hypothesis (as stated by Dawkins) given what we know already. The assumption that we know nothing about a question, when we actually know quite a lot, is a common way to turn a negligible probability into a non-negligible one, e.g. as I have noted before [] about parapsychology.
(slaps self upside of head) And, of course, there's an entire section [] of The God Delusion dealing with the Bayesian argument, as first popularised by Stephen Unwin in his 2003 book The Probability Of God, who - ta-dah! - started with 0.5.
Lukeprog has posted one in the discussion section a while back.
*two A Bayesian Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus [] A Bayesian Argument for Theistic Fine-Tuning []
Ah, here we are! [] And another! [] Not silly enough to actually use 0.5 as the prior, but then these are the sophisticated versions - or at least lengthy. Another anecdote of the currency of "Bayes, P(God)=0.5": Armondikov at RationalWiki also ranted recently on his FB (else I'd link it) about theists who've discovered the word "Bayes" and start at 0.5.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Rejoinder to them is at [] and [].
The important phenomenon to note here is the word "Bayes" achieving currency amongst the not joined-up of thinking, as an excuse for stupidity. Good thing or bad thing?
Most likely a bad thing, given similar past examples. E.g. I've talked to atheists who won't touch Bostrom/Anthropic Bias [] because they associate "the anthropic principle" with theological fine-tuning arguments. And the general problem of audiences' first impression of Bayes being that it's just another clever way to argue for whatever you want to believe or want others to believe. On the other hand, it would be interesting to have more debates between theists and atheists who are both familiar with Bayes and use it explicitly, if the atheist is good enough at noticing and explaining flawed uses of it, so audiences can become familiar with fallacious uses of it and see that it can be used wisely.
Here's some non-LW links: Richard Swinburne [] , Stephen Unwin [].

I think more precision is needed on what sort of behaviour we're talking about. The question posed is

"should a group dedicated to rationality be explicitly atheist? Or should it make an effort to be respectful to theists in order to make them feel welcome and spread rationality farther?"

First off, I think a group can be explicitly atheist but still respectful to theists. Why not? A meeting of a political party should be able to be respectful to those of opposing parties, even though that's all they're about. And rationality is bigger than atheis... (read more)

There have been nearly identical discussions among the skeptics movement, and are a primary source of a some of the drama within that movement. The typology breakdown here seems pretty similar to those situations. At least among people testing the waters with the skeptical organization one doesn't get much in the way of Annies. The only primary reason I would think that this would be otherwise here is because of HPMR and similar texts which as you observe might appeal to the Annies.

There is a subtype of Donna the 'smug Atheist skeptic' who thinks he knows enough already and spends his day battling superstition.

I know a lot of skeptics like this and I try to share with them EY's post on "undiscriminating skepticism." This post 'saved' me from a similar fate when I found myself going down this path.
The problem is that phrases like that are common amongst pseudoskeptic [] peddlers of woo who think they like the idea of rationalism but get upset when their ox is gored. (e.g. SCEPCOP [], WikiSynergy [].) Or, more simply: "You don't like my ideas, therefore you are the wrong sort of skeptic." So the use of such a phrase is taken as evidence in the direction of that being what's happened. Which is not unreasonable given the assumption that most humans are excessively biased in favour of their own ideas. Or, more simply: "Oh, really. So let's look more closely and see which ox of yours has been gored."
1Paul Crowley12y
You don't get to call someone an undiscriminating skeptic if they're prepared to publically challenge any skeptical tribal belief. The post on undiscriminating skepticism [] is actually pretty specific; characterizing it as "skepticism I don't like" makes it sound like you haven't read it.
I was talking, as I noted explicitly, about the hazards of the use of the phrase or phrases very like it. (That's the bit where I went "The problem is that phrases like that ..." "So the use of such a phrase ...") The people Zachary points at the post are, after all, going to start reading at the title, and not immediately read it in the detail you read Eliezer's post in, or the detail you don't seem to have read my comment in.
Interesting. I'm involved in the skeptical movement, and while I've encountered a few similar to what you describe, my impression is that most skeptics don't fall into that category. Skeptics are generally proud that they update based on evidence. Indeed, the most prominent exceptions help drive this point home. PZ Myers has said repeatedly that nothing would convince him that there's a deity and he's been repeatedly hammered by most of the skeptical movement over this statement.
Good on them! In my experience, whenever I sneak bayesian updating into the conversation, it's well received by skeptics. When I try to introduce Bayes more formally or start supporting anti-mainstream ideas, such as cryonics, AI, etc, there's much more resistance.

Other-optimizing is something that prevents healthy rationalist organizations from forming, since it's a mode by which managers sabotage the managed.

"Other-optimizing" occurs in atheist/theist debates when the atheist (Donna) deploys her one-size-fits-all arguments against religion without even bothering to listen long enough to learn what the theist actually believes and why. It is important to keep in mind (with apologies to LT) that, while all rational atheists are alike, each theist is irrational in her own way.

Another quote that may be r... (read more)

Yeah, I think Michael Shermer's wrong about what went wrong exactly. Chemists have access to the indisputable Truth about the atomic theory of chemistry and it hasn't turned them into a cult.

Perhaps because they didn't try to excommunicate the disbelievers. They simply waited for them to die off.

Perhaps because they didn't try to excommunicate the disbelievers. They simply waited for them to die off.

People really like this idea of old scientists just dying off as a new paradigm comes in. But frequently old people don't have trouble adopting the new paradigms. When Einstein proposed special relativity, it didn't take a generation to get accepted. Similarly, it didn't take very long for the double helix or the triplet code to get accepted by biologists. To be sure, there are exceptions to this trend. One prominent example is Joseph Priestly who despite being responsible for the experiments that discovered oxygen and paved the way for modern chemistry until his dying days continued to defend phlogiston theory. But he's the exception rather than the rule. Others of the same age as Priestly embraced the chemical revolution.

(Incidentally, this is connected to why I don't like the common LW tendency to use phlogiston as an example of a bad hypothesis. In its original forms it worked. Others rejected it precisely because it had been falsified. The vague, convoluted form of phlogiston that is discussed here was the consequence of seeing the theory handed down after already being intertwined with Priestly's convoluted defenses from the last few years of his life.)

The upshot is that scientists very rarely need to wait for the old ones to die off.

My related post on this [].
[-][anonymous]12y 0

I appear to have formatting issues -- I'll fix them as soon as the site will let me.