Day job not going so good right now, a little under the weather and dog-tired yesterday, I accidentally deliberately slept in this morning. But, I finished my C J Werleman notes on the tube, stepped out into the sunshine, grabbed a great breakfast at a little cafe I’d not previously noticed between the tube and the office, was pleased to pick up in Waterstones a copy of Salman Rushdie’s latest released just today in the UK. It’s 9:15 and we’re set up for the day.

So I decided my original title for this post should be relegated to the subtitle behind the more positive opening:

Extending the Hand of Friendship – how new atheism poisons everything“.

I already posted and added to my pre-review notes (in the previous post) since my reviews are generally for my benefit in extracting what I’ve learned into my own research agenda, But C J Werleman’s “The New Atheist Threat” deserves a standalone review:

CJ – I already feel I can call him that – is an Aussie now resident in US who spent a decade in Indonesia, including being in Bali when the nightclub was bombed. An erstwhile New Atheist in reaction to that experience, published several books well received in that community and a speaker at American Atheist and similar events.

Though we clearly have had different day jobs and life trajectories, I too have benefitted from living and working around the world, west and east, but we’ve arrived at much the same place intellectually on the topic of new atheism. In fact I was there before new atheism existed – which isn’t to brag I’m leading the field – but to emphasise that despite the closeness of the end points, we have significantly different takes on root causes. I was already “trying to keep science and atheism honest” because of the damage simplistic, reductive, anti-theistic and scientistic dogma was doing to science and the place of scientific knowledge in culture generally. He sees New Atheism as dangerously bigoted as any fundamentalism and a dangerous contributor to the downfall of east-west political action and world peace itself. And I agree. Though it’s not where I started, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that “dogmatic rationalism” (an oxymoron hopefully, so really naive dogma masquerading as rationality) is the problem underlying all levels of discourse, decision-making and governance in all contexts.

Werleman states his case against the New Atheists bluntly, assertively and passionately. ie He’s not subtle, and most of his argument is in copious quotes from others, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Karen Armstrong for example. He’s nothing if not well connected and he speaks from a unique position with (for me) a new US perspective on the ills of New Atheism. Of the “four horsemen” Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins cop the most flak, but Dennett, Krauss, Maher, Boghossian, Hirsi-Ali and a host of other less cerebral celebrity New Atheists get the treatment. He nails Harris at every opportunity, though in my experience, when Harris is not spouting anti-theistic anti-religious New Atheism in a political context, I find him more subtle philosophically. Thankfully (my hero) Dennett escapes Werleman’s venom in the wider political context – Dan really is a philosopher and a very good one. Anyway, Werleman’s is a very entertaining read.

In describing the cultish “echo chamber” effect of New Atheism as a movement, I think Werleman is bang on. The sloganising, the rehearsed attack and defense arguments, the reductionism, the simplistication, the plain naive and under-informed-&-over-reaching positions are all real, and can’t improve whilst it’s a militant campaign fought through social media, sound bites and popular books targetted at the choir. Some proper listening and learning required.

Ironically, given the charges of reductionism and poorly argued sloganising Werleman lays on the New Atheists, his own delivery is as I say bold, binary and assertive, though wise-crackingly witty with it. That rhetoric I can live with; the points are well made. Where I do part company with Werleman is his conspiracy theory take on the cause (and danger) of the New Atheist movement as cover for neo-con ambitions. To be clear, he’s not saying New Atheists are an active part of such a conspiracy, you know, that conspiracy of US / Western imperialist, military-industrial-complex hegemony, setting up anti-theist / anti-Muslim “pretexts” for economically and geo-politically attractive internal and international “security” activities. He is saying, rightly, that New Atheism’s sloganising plays into it in highly dangerous ways. Painting “the other” as evil or deranged – to paraphrase a Harris quote he repeats mercilessly. Myself, I don’t hold with the underlying conspiracy theory reasoning, even though he provides a fascinating litany of facts amidst his strong opinions. As I say, I see the underlying “conspiracy” as a much deeper and wider meme of “dogmatic rationality” we’re all suffering from, where our leaders and decision-makers are just more “we” with the same spectrum of human virtues and faults, with higher stakes under greater pressure.

In terms of cataloguing evidence, none is more striking than his penultimate chapter on New Atheism as a propaganda tool for Islamic extremism and how extremist rage is cultivated. Worth the read for that alone; a lot of the content being the author’s personally collected direct evidence, as well as assembled from the public record, on actual motivations of individual extremists in the context of groups of humanity tarred with the same brush. Fascinating, important and indeed, very moving.

So good to see that Werleman’s conclusions ultimately focus on achieving true dialogue – achieving proper understanding to be used in better decision-making (in terms of my own epistemological context) – which includes caring for the people in the dialogue. The story of Mubin Shaikh is salutory. But as he says:

I know what you’re thinking. No, I’m not suggesting we should hug an ISIS fighter, or send flowers to the Al Zawahari. They must be defeated. But the way to defeat them is not via machismo and feel-good hyper-nationalism, but rather it is to starve their recruitment pipeline. You starve their pipeline by dealing with the resentments on which terrorist groups thrive: humiliation, alienation and discrimination.

… is the idea of defeating terrorism … one Marvin Gaye song at a time, really that silly?

As I’ve mused many a time before, what is so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Peace to you too CJ. The New Atheist Threat is a much needed contribution to the meme pool.


[Post Note: Tweeted a few references to this Harvard conversation – and since obtained their book, reviewed here by Sarah Brown – but credit to Harris for appearing to have listened and learned in his recent dialogue with Maajid Nawaz @QulliamF. Harris appeared subdued, chastened even?]

[Updated here : 10th Sept.]

Reading a very interesting book, The New Atheist Threat by C J Werleman; someone I’d not even heard of until a couple of days ago. An Aussie now resident in US who spent a decade in Indonesia, including being in Bali when the nightclub was bombed. An erstwhile New Atheist in reaction to that experience, published several books well received in that community and a speaker at American Atheist and similar events.

However, like myself and many other rationalist, secular, humanist atheists, he now sees the extremist anti-theist, anti-Muslim – reductively scientistic – agenda of New Atheism as at best flawed and at worst as dangerously bigoted as any other fundamentalism. In my case I was already seeking alternatives to the overly scientistic environment before 9/11, 7/7, Bali et al turned it into the anti-theistic, “militant” atheist, New Atheism vs Religion wars we’ve come to know and love.

[As a book, it’s not subtle, particularly well-argued, well-edited or even proof-read it would seem. Feels rushed to publication and I know nothing of the publisher; Dangerous Little Books. No index and only approximate referencing in end notes, though sources explicitly acknowledged.]

The case is stated assertively and passionately, and relies on copious quotations from others – Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Karen Armstrong for example in support, as well as his “four horsemen” targets. Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins cop the most flak, but Dennett, Krauss, Maher, Boghossian, Hirsi-Ali and a host of other less cerebral celebrity New Atheists get the treatment. An entertaining read.

Along with plain ignorance and bigotry, binary polarisation, conspiracy-theory, lack of nuanced subtlety and quality of argument are all part of his charge against the New Atheists. Ironic or what? – Alanis Morisette (*) That said, and I’m only half-way through, it’s so assertively stated that it almost feels like case-closed. What’s to argue? Hardly a word to disagree with so far, in my case. Stuff that needed saying and great to get a US perspective on the need to counter the extremes of New Athesim, so already recommended, for all its flaws.

I can see the look on many a face. He he. I’ll report back when I’ve reached his conclusions.

[Continuing, but still not quite finished.]

In terms of the cultish “echo chamber” effect of New Atheism as a movement, I think he’s bang on, and he speaks from a particularly well qualified and well-connected perspective. The sloganising, the rehearsed attack and defense arguments, the reductionism, the simplistication, the plain naive and under-informed positions are all real, and can’t improve whilst it’s a militant war fought through social media, sound bites and popular books targetted at the choir. Some listening and learning required.

Very much the tide I’m personally fighting against. Keeping them honest.

Where I do part company with Werleman is his conspiracy theory take on the cause (and danger) of the New Atheist movement as cover for neo-con ambitions. We all take responsibility for our actions, and for the recent histories of our states, but Werleman casts this as the conspiracy of US / Western imperialist, military-industrial-complex hegemony. Ironically, as I’ve said already, he is perhaps also being somewhat binary, reductionist and simplistic as those he accuses. A conspiracy to oppose the conveniently mis-perceived Islamic conspiracy.

My position remains that both are misguided. The real underlying fault is in our model of rationality.

(*) The twitter traffic is entertaining, to say the least. The arguments will run, but it’s a great contribution.

[Update after completion.]

I decided to write a more publicly targetted overall review (pulling in extracts from the above with later thoughts).

Below, all I’ve added are some example editorial errors – as example feedback, not itself a criticism of the work. Part of my strategy is to understand where writers were coming from when I’m reading them, and the typos gave me the impression of a rush – urgency – to publish.



Arthur Koestler’s (1959) “The Sleepwalkers proved to be an excellent read to the end.

A slightly odd epilogue on the evolution of intelligence and knowledge; odd because it majors on the paradoxical thought that human mental brain power is too great for our current state of biological evolution. We have brains much bigger than we know what to do with. But the topic and its evolutionary analysis is right – knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is a matter of memetic evolution – fully swayed by all human values, motives, politics and games, both individually and tribally.

The objectively-rational, empirical elements are a part of the whole process, and whilst science might claim primacy in what is ultimately seen as scientific “fact”, the wider bases of belief remain hugely important. Not just important to the processes of deriving the knowledge, obviously, but also in how “final” any accepted knowledge appears to be. Contingency must be more that lip-service. Suspending intelligible connections between knowledge accepted at the mathematically, theoretically, even experimentally consistent levels, and the everyday realities of human life, are a recipe for future disintegration. I think it was David Deutsch pointed out that few scientists really behave as if the world were more than Newtonian. And, for the same reason, simply giving exclusivity in real life to “evidence-based” decisions and logical processes, merely stores up the the discrepancies and delays release of their stored tension. As Dick Taverne wrote at length, we should never ignore available evidence but neither should we aim for a life based only on empirical evidence.

Storing up (convenient) differences between accepted theory and everyday behaviour can be maintained over hundreds and thousands of years – as the stories of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton illustrate. And it’s not because contemporaries “didn’t know better” at every stage. The knowing was always filtered through necessary political games, neurotic fantasies, mis-steps, pure whim and …. luck. Science may be able to “imagine” – even wishfully think as their objective – a “rational” world without values, motives, ambitions and neuroses, but it’s not one that exists, ever. A dystopian fiction. Not one we’d even want to exist. Not one we’d value.

Anyway, apart from the narrative histories of our legendary scientists – man, Galileo was a complete tart beyond his terrestrial mechanics, a massive waste of humanity – it’s a story that continues today. Far from being history it remains a problem of our time, one we are doomed to repeat.

Julian Baggini writing only yesterday in The Grauniad, reviewing Tim Lewens’s  “The Meaning of Science” on why science must not lose sight of, as indeed some scientists entirely dismiss, the philosophy of science, or philosophy in general. Values exist, develop and must be managed distinct from science itself – there is no holy grail where all values tend towards becoming derived from science or otherwise evidence-based empiricism. Stalling agreement on this, suspending the discrepancy,  is another time-bomb we could do without. The naive democratic ideal that all such human governance needs is transparent access to information and evidence-based, arithmetic logic (eg popular voting) is simply part of the explosive charge.

“When Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead in 2011,
it was only the fame of the coroner that made it news.”

Just this last week, Hawking pronouncing on what the world needs to know about black holes (the opposite to what he preached previously) …. is only news because of his fame, as many of the other scientists involved or excluded in the field wished to point out. Black holes are the stuff of science fiction – and sexy graphics that sell media – and a very small tribe of specialists with specific agendas. They are a million miles from human experience. They are NOT science which forms any part of the body of human knowledge (yet). Pure memetics.

What does scientific literacy really mean?

Even sleepwalkers occasionally bump into something interesting and true.

Arthur Koestler was never a stranger to deliberate controversy in any field, but “The Sleepwalkers – A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe.” is another recommended read. Not in the least contentious to my agenda.

[Afterthoughts to follow-up. The gulf between mathematics and reality puts me in mind of Unger & Smolin’s thesis, that we ought to back off on the apparent supremacy of maths in scientific reality. From Koestler we learn that 12th century cardinals and popes (and the Jesuits) understood this well. Also one reference / quote from Lancelot L Whyte remined me of Don Boscovich’s mathematics – comprehensive but far from elegant or simple in accepted senses. And “Saving the Appearances” at every turn – I learned the significance of Owen Barfield’s title.]

By a strange coincidence, after the facebook exchanges yesterday, on the anti-Copernican indications of the Cosmic Microwave Background being mysteriously air-brushed from the record (*1), I find myself reading Arthur Koestler’s “The Sleepwalkers“. Coincidence because I just happened to pick it up randomly off the ex-library second-hand book cart at Conway Hall last night. I’d heard of Koestler obviously, but didn’t know the book or much about his work.

[Great read so far, by the way, but more later.]

Imagine my surprise:

“That the progress of science as a clean rational advance, [has in fact been] … more bewildering than the evolution of political thought. The history of cosmic theories may, without exaggeration, be called a history of collective obsessions and schizophrenias … a sleepwalker’s performance.”

“I shall not be sorry if [this] inquiry helps counteract the legend that the scientist is a more level-headed and dispassionate type, and should therefore be given a leading part in world affairs (*2), or that he is able to provide a rational substitute for ethical insights derived from other sources.”

“[Aristarchus’ (3rd C BCE)] correct [heliocentric] hypothesis was rejected in favour of a monstrous system … an affront to human intelligence, which reigned for 1500 years … one of the most astonishing examples of the devious, nay crooked, ways of the progress of science.

Way to go!


[(*1) The post was about anti-science campaigns in Wikipedia editing, against which “pro-science” campaigns were also cited. To be clear these counter indications should not suggest that the solar system is earth-centred (Doh!), what they should suggest, from our earthbound viewpoint, is that our cosmic model must therefore be flawed. The problem is the political attachment to mythology of Copernicus & Gallileo and a dogmatic aversion to all things anthropic, is seriously clouding the judgement and interpretation of those who would claim to be scientific. (As Brandon Carter predicted, and Rick Ryals has championed). The point being science is as dogmatic a political campaign as any other.]

[(*2) This was written in 1959 – in the post Hiroshima & Nagasaki cold-war climate.]

[Post Note : Ha, and as Sabine tweets – to avoid having to erase counter-indications, you know what, just don’t even mention them in the first place?]

[Post Note : Oh, and also today “Krauss, smarter than Einstein” apparently. You couldn’t make it up.]

[Post Note : Also need to join up that “scientist as the level-headed & dispassionate type” above with the piece by Karen O’Donnell on “emotional” women in science.]

[Post Note : Physics of perspective, or is that perception.]

[Post Note : Is science rotten or just hard?]

[Post Note : And of course it was the Koestler bequest that funded the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh Uni. Two associated speakers at the 2015 BHA Conference this year. Interestingly Koestler was controversial for many reasons, but his biography of Kepler that became The Sleepwalkers doesn’t appear to have been controversial at the time. Controversy in scientific connections arose from views on evolution and the paranormal (from Wikipedia):

In his 1971 book The Case of the Midwife Toad he defended the biologist Paul Kammerer, who claimed to find experimental support for Lamarckian inheritance. According to Koestler, Kammerer’s experiments on the midwife toad may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer at the University of Vienna. In the book he came to the conclusion that a kind of modified ‘Mini-Lamarckism’ may occur as an explanation for some limited and rare evolutionary phenomena.

Koestler had criticised neo-Darwinism in a number of his books but he was not anti-evolution. Biology professor Harry Gershenowitz described Koestler as a “popularizer” of science despite his views not being accepted by the “orthodox academic community.” According to an article in the Skeptical Inquirer Koestler was an “advocate of Lamarckian evolution – and a critic of Darwinian natural selection as well as a believer in psychic phenomena.”

Mysticism and a fascination with the paranormal imbued much of his later work. Koestler was known for endorsing a number of paranormal subjects such as extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and telepathy. His book The Roots of Coincidence (1974) claims the answer to such paranormal phenomena may be found in theoretical physics. The book mentions yet another line of unconventional research by Paul Kammerer, the theory of coincidence or synchronicity. He also presents critically the related writings of Carl Jung. More controversial were Koestler’s levitation and telepathy studies and experiments.

Interesting. He shows interest in alternative explanations, but becomes branded as anti. His idea that some traits are inherited by Lamarckian mechanisms is no longer contentious. His debunking of Copernicus (the topic of the Kepler book here) seems to be widely shared.]

Tremendously powerful piece from Katrin Bennhold in the NYT. (Hat tip to tweet from Samira Shackle.) Already tweeted a few comments – but a must read, with messages worth taking seriously, however misguided the full reasoning.

“In this world counterculture is conservative, religion is punk rock, headscarves are liberation and beards are sexy.”

“They spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for virtue and meaning”

“Counterculture is conservative” is an interesting message in itself. Being anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment is such established de-rigeur culture (fashion) – amongst the baying mobs on social media – that the value of a little authoritative conservatism is lost to all but a small few. Coincidentally the point and comment earlier today on this science-related Facebook post from Sabine.


The Winnower's photo.
The Winnower – We need to improve our culture.
This is too real.…/goals-of-science-vs-goals-of-scient…/
  • Only disagreement (proposed modification) :
    Challenge authority. Make friends
    Cite authority. Make different friends.
    (ie the difference is all to do with friends’ attitude to authority,
    sadly, nothing to do with how relevant to understanding the content.)
    Like · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs


‘We need to improve how to be “good” in our culture.’

All women, notice. Vive la difference.


[Post Note : This from BBC / Frank Gardner.]

[Post Note : And the opposite case.]

Alom Shaha @alomshaha tweeted – Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote “Le Scientifique n’est pas une personne qui donne les bonnes réponses, mais celui qui pose les bonnes questions.”

Nicolas Fanget @nfanget tweeted translation as “Scientists aren’t people who give the right answers, but ask the right questions.”

Reminded me of Einstein / Nietzsche / MacGilchrist / MacIntyre – We are worshiping the slave / servant / emissary (objective rationality) but have forgotten the master, (the gift of intuitive knowledge). Science is about the rational process of testing and checking (asking questions about) what we know, but not primarily what we know.

Linking coincidentally – but nicely – to the dots joined-up the immediate preceding post.

This post primarily about Al MacIntyre (and its comment thread) have been important several times, in joining up to both philosophy of consciousness and neuroscience topics. A re-read to day, thanks to a recorded hit means I notice some additional dots to join up. The philosophical collections on consciousness in the previous post but one, and of course the rationality as servant to the intuitive put me in mind of McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary, and a lot more.