Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Matthew Nisbet lies about Paul Kurtz

long nose pinocchio

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Funny thing happened to me yesterday. Two days ago night I downloaded two episodes of the Point of Inquiry podcast, including a recent interview with Paul Kurtz. I listened to it as I walked between classes. A lot of it is focused on the idea of promoting positive humanistic values over merely attacking religion, which seems to me perfectly reasonable, as long as it isn't coupled with the absurd accusation that today's celebrity religion critics haven't done this at all (if you think this, you really need to re-read their books more carefully, or perhaps read them a first time).

Almost immediately after finishing listening to the podcast, in between classes, I sat down to check my Bloglines and found a post by "framing" king Matthew Nisbet, commenting on the podcast and claiming Kurtz as one of his own--i.e., as the anti-Richard Dawkins. Without admitting the validity of naked appeals to authority, I must say this would be something of a coup for Nisbet. As the founder of a bundle of important skeptical organizations, including Promethus Books and the Council for the Scientific Organization of Claims of the Paranormal, Kurtz has arguably done more for skepticism of religion in the late 20th century than anyone else, living or dead. Nisbet's presentation struck me as a little misleading, though, given that he conveniently ignores the fact that Kurtz explicitly affirmed Dawkins' view that religion is a delusion. Worse, when I read the comments, I discovered Nisbet told at least one truly indefensible lie:
Moreover, like Shermer, Wilson, and Kurtz, I strongly believe that when Dawkins et al. attack moderately religious Americans it alienates our natural allies and is a major self-inflicted wound.
Kurtz has never said, and probably never will say, that the work of these religion critics is "a major self-inflicted wound." The truth is that Kurtz has dismissed the notion that they are "too outspoken".

I have this to say to Nisbet: grow a spine you miserable worm. If you're going to say the things you've said about Dawkins, have the courage to be consistent and take the next logical step of denouncing Paul Kurtz and everything he works for. Indeed, you should be denouncing Kurtz even more strongly than you denounce Dawkins. Dawkins may have put out one book dedicated to attacking religion, but most of his public work has been about explaining science to the general public, but Kurtz's number one goal has always been the promotion of a philosophy that explicitly rejects God, and he founded a publishing house for this purpose which has published more anti-religious books than Dawkins will ever write. This should be more than enough for you, since you aren't just picking a bone with Dawkins use of the word "delusion" (which Kurtz agrees with in any case) but have also insisted "The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his [Dawkins] advocacy of evolution and his atheism." Why aren't you saying the same thing about Kurtz? Your hypocrisy disgusts me.

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Matthew C. Nisbet said...

Let me restate for you the context of my argument and quote directly from the transcript at my blog...

If you believe atheists and secular humanists need to work with moderately religious people around common goals and shared values, and if another atheist comes along and alienates those people, it's a self inflicted wound.

Note DJ's question and Kurtz's answer below:

KURTZ: Of course, you know, America is a great liberal pluralistic democracy and we have common ground not only with liberal religionists but even conservative people who believe in human freedom. So we need to make, if you will, coalitions, we need to work together with others to make this a greater democracy. We need a kind of unity, if possible, about the basic framework of this country.

GROTHE: And I take it if some of these people decrying God belief, as true as you think they are, you are saying that they limit coalitions. That they turn off people who might be able to work with us around certain issues of concern?

KURTZ: I think that is true, so we have to put another step forward.

Ulyanov said...

I love the smell of atheists bashing each other in the morning!


Craig said...

Matthew, why is it the responsibility of atheists to avoid alienating religionists, but not vice versa? And why does building coalitions with people with whom we have some agreements entail silencing ourselves on those issues where we differ? I know of no other coalition that is formed in such a way. The whole point of a coalition is that two groups don't totally agree.

Hallq said...

More from the interview:

[3:52] Paul Kurtz: Well, I, look, I think they’ve had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they published in Free Inquiry. So they’ve had positive impact [unintelligible] they’re criticizing religion.

[4:24] DJ Grothe: Isn’t it a dream come true that so many people are finally talking about atheism when they haven’t been for the last 30 years?

Kurtz: Yes.

DJ Grothe: That they’re wrestling with these questions? Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, others have brought these questions into the spotlight.

Kurtz: Yes, that’s very important, we’ve been trying to do that for years, and now some of the major publishers have published books on that. And that contributes to the dialogue…

[19:03] DJ Grothe: What do you say about the critics who say that the liberal religious are part of the problem, that they give room for the fundamentalists to grow that by not speaking out against the worst aspects of each of each their faiths, and I’m talking primarily the monotheisms right now, that they actually make it harder for reason and science to prevail against the cults of unreason in society.

Kurtz: I realize that many people have said that. And, I mean, Hitchens says that religion poisons everything. Well, some religions have poisoned many things. And Harris says that we need to attack the liberal religionists at the same time. And I think that many of the religionists overlooked these problems, but nonetheless, I think there are well meaning, honest, morally concerned people in the churches, and I think that they want to enter into the modern scientific world. So the scientific criticism of the extremes of religion need to be attacked, yes. [Note: This is verbatim, but Kurtz fumbled with his words here a little bit. I'm pretty sure he meant to say that scientific criticism of the extremes of religion needs to happen, and that the extremes need to be attacked]

DJ Grothe: So that should be the bullseye, the extremist religionists, not just religion in general. Look, I really believe that God, belief in God, is a delusion, is there anything wrong with Richard Dawkins, eminent scientist that he is, actually saying that if he really believes it.

Kurtz: No, I...

DJ Grothe: If he has a good argument for it.

Kurtz: I agree that it’s a delusion, and I think Dawkins is to be applauded for that.

Against these parts of the interview, Nisbet's quote is pretty obviously out of context. The things Kurtz nodded along with (not said, just nodded along with) about "limiting coalitions" and "turning off people" was pretty mild language, and doesn't contradict the much broader statements he made that Dawkins has had a "positive impact," did something "we've been trying to do... for years," and "is to be applauded for" calling religion a "delusion." Combine that with the Free Inquiry lead editorial I already linked to, and miscellaneous glowing comments Kurtz has made about Dawkins and Harris (at this summer's CFI conference, for example) and it becomes clear that Kurtz is no Nisbetite.

So Matt, why don't you go ahead and make a post denouncing Kurtz now, m'kay?

J. J. Ramsey said...

I remember that when Ed Brayton accused PZ Myers of lying about his position about Dawkins and that online petition, I defended Myers on the grounds that if he were lying rather than not thinking straight, he wouldn't have cited as evidence for his position something that actually disconfirmed his stance.

I'd say a similar thing about Nisbet. If he really wanted to deceive, he wouldn't have left the evidence against him so handy. Rather, he is being an example of the very problems Carol Tavris talked about in a previous POI interview that he had cited earlier, especially reading things selectively and paying more attention to the confirming rather than the disconfirming evidence.

Anonymous said...

"Note: This is verbatim, but Kurtz fumbled with his words here a little bit. I'm pretty sure he meant to say that scientific criticism of the extremes of religion needs to happen, and that the extremes need to be attacked" you're changing his words to what you're "pretty sure he meant" so that it confirms your argument?

I'd rather take what he said for what it is rather than what you want to alter it to say.

Hallq said...

Anon: I didn't "alter" it. I presented a verbatim transcript with a note on interpretation. The position in the verbatim transcript is so extreme that it's highly unlikely that Kurtz actually holds it. If anything, my presentation is misleading because the audible verbal fumbling isn't indicated in the transcript itself, when I could have implied it with punctuation: "So the scientific criticism of... The extremes of religion need to be attacked, yes."

Jim Lippard said...

Matt Nisbet was CSICOP's Public Relations Director from 1997 to 1999, so he surely knows Kurtz fairly well.

(And Matt, are you any relation to Lee Nisbet, philosopher at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY, who has been closely involved with CSICOP since it started, including serving as executive director?)