Fellow Molly-winner Scott Hatfield (who sounds like a really nice guy, judging from the textual evidence available) suggested I save a comment I posted at Pharyngula. Now, I know I improve drastically upon revision, but the text reproduced below will not be modified very much (mostly external hyperlinks added and stuff like that).
I was provoked by the following comment from a bloke named Russell:
I have encountered Objectivists and Marxists who seem to me fundamentalist in their adherence to the writings they take as foundational, in much the same manner as fundamentalist Christians. But neither Dawkins nor Harris strike me as ideological in that sense, and it seems as odd to me to describe an Objectivist as a fundamentalist atheist as it would to describe a Calvinist Christian as a fundamentalist determinist. Atheism and determinism are merely doctrines of Objectivism and Calvinism, respectively, and it is the ideology as a whole that the adherent takes in a fundamentalist fashion.
Were I less enamored of the sound of my own words, I would have stopped with a simple “thank you”. However, you little know me if you hypothesize of such a stoppage ever occurring. The proposal I made (which popped into my head while I was walking to the office this morning) is reproduced below the fold.
Following Godwin’s sterling example, I would like to propose a Law. I use that word only half in jest, for this will be a Law in both the legal and the scientific senses of that word. First, it is an empirical statement:
1. In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.
Following this statement comes the second half, which is a judgment:
2. The person who makes this comparison will be considered to have lost the argument.
I’m not trying to make “fundamentalist” a taboo word. The point is that it’s not logical to stick that word upon somebody when “strident”, “vocal” or “inflexible” are actually the qualities for which you think they need criticism.
Is “Nazi” an appropriate description of all people who express authoritarian views, who want to see the world march in lockstep? No, because that word refers to a specific (loathsome) historical movement and its modern descendants. If you want to call somebody a Nazi, you have to back it up. Never forget, laws were made for people, not the other way round: if you have an argument and evidence on your side, sensible folk will let you “Godwin the thread”. The ethic behind Godwin’s Law is to make a memetically infectious mechanism to ensure that arguments are well-founded, and the same goes for the Dawkinsian analogue I propose.
People writing articles for glossy magazines like to look at these post-God Delusion kerfluffles and say, “The atheists are divided into just as many denominations as the Protestants!” In a spectacularly unfunny two-part episode, South Park made a similar jest. (“Spectacularly unfunny”? I’m the blogger; I get to make these judgments.) It’s just so satisfying to make that kind of jab. Like picking a scab, it’s simple and inviting, though tending to create messy consequences. Anybody can do it: religious folk can blast the “New Atheists” for intolerance, while the “appeaser atheists” can hold themselves high while saying, “We’re better people than that.” It’s almost as if Us-vs.-Them dichotomies must be built at all costs. Is self-righteous indignation really that addictive? Or, perhaps, are we throwing out words simply because the inclination to do so is a meme — an idea with attitude! — which has lodged into our thinking the way a virus penetrates a cell? I might have no more reason to call a person “fundamentalist” than I would to call them “deaf as a post”; both are simply convenient phrases I have close at hand.
How do you defeat a meme of exceptional infectiousness? Clearly, with another meme of the same Cogito-hazard rating!
If the act of labeling a man a Nazi is a parasitic thought-unit, we had better provide some kind of herd immunity, which requires distributing memetic information throughout a significant fraction of the population. Hence, Godwin’s Law!
[UPDATE (18 July 2007): Yes, Godwin was thinking in terms of memes and counter-memes.]
To me, the most interesting part of this issue is that the claims made by various “denominations” â€” New Atheists, New Humanists, the People’s Front of Humanism, the Humanist Popular People’s Front and so forth â€” are in principle empirically testable. What’s more, this matters to us: in one form or another, we all acknowledge the virtue in real-world data.
“What on earth is Blake talking about now?”
OK, put it this way: Dawkins has given examples of evidence which could convince him that a god exists (or at least that there exist tremendously powerful forces as yet unknown to science). Carl Sagan has made similar statements, though more in the context, “This is the evidence which could well have existed, but for some reason doesn’t.” Why, as he asks in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is God so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?
Surely, if Atheist Pope Richard I is willing to make such statements, he is also willing to consider evidence that his chosen tactic for effecting change is ineffective! Not morally unjustified, mind you — leveling that judgment leads only to fog and confusion. The critical point is that one could, by psychological and anthropological methods, judge the effects which Dawkins’ book and lecture-circuit career have on different segments of the populace. This is a question not for philosophy, but for science.
Furthermore, if we phrase the problem as a scientific question, then we can bring our scientific maturity to the issue. We can take a deep breath and pull out the Baloney Detection Kit. We can even hold mutually contradictory ideas simultaneously in mind as alternate working hypotheses. Really. This is part of the training scientists get during their youthful travels in the mysterious Orient. (As Peter Shor said earlier today, “Interpretations of quantum mechanics, unlike Gods, are not jealous, and thus it is safe to believe in more than one at the same time.”)
What empirical evidence we have on this matter today is probably contaminated by all sorts of selection bias. It is suggestive, though certainly not conclusive, that The God Delusion has sold so astonishingly well — but that’s only a data point, not a theory of human behavior. We cannot with any fidelity judge whether a tactic is good or bad until we have a reliable way of estimating what its effects will be. It’s tough, but that’s the way the world works. Certainly, the Atheism Is The New Black crowd should have little trouble accepting this state of affairs, given that a predetermined moral order to the Universe is just as unsupported by the evidence as a personal, interventionist Creator.
We’re supposed to be the Reality-Based Community. Let’s act like it. . . .
UPDATE (17 July 2007): Welcome, fellow Pharyngulans. Do you know what these are?