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Why the New Atheist Noise Machine Fails

In provoking the emotions of fear and anger among non-believers, the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign motivates many atheists to be ever more vocal in attacking and complaining about religion. Yet does this PR campaign reach beyond the base, convincing Americans to give up their collective “delusions”? Or does it simply create further polarization in an already deeply divided America?

As the social psychologist Carol Tavris notes in a recent Point of Inquiryinterview, if anything, social science research suggests that the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign only serves to further balkanize America. Tavris, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, is past author of the The Mismeasure of Woman and several of the leading textbooks in psychology.

She appeared on the show to talk about her new book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, co-authored with Eliot Aronson. In the book, the two social scientists elaborate on the theory of cognitive dissonance and its application to everyday life.

When asked about the New Atheist movement, Tavris’ expert opinion is consistent with the analysis I have offered here at Framing Science and in the articles on framing at Science and at the Washington Post.

Everything we know from social science research on attitude formation and beliefs predicts that the communication strategy of the New Atheist noise machine will only further alienate moderately religious Americans, the very same publics who might otherwise agree with secularists on many social issues.

The Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign provides emotional sustenance and talking points for many atheists, but when it comes to selling the public on either non-belief or science, the campaign is likely to boomerang in disastrous ways. Below the fold I provide a rough transcription of the key parts of the interview with Tavris, beginning at minute 28 of the podcast. I encourage you to listen to the full interview.


Let’s talk about religious and paranormal beliefs. Let’s talk about their connection with cognitive dissonance or dissonance theory… These days it seems like atheism is all the rage with these big time bestselling books by scientists and public intellectuals writing against religious beliefs. Do you think that the fact that religious people, increasingly–I mean there are sections of the religious, groups of the religious,–who don’t demand proof for their beliefs. Do you think this is a way of elevating their cognitive dissonance, the same could be asked about those who believe strongly in the paranormal, UFOS, faith healing, Bigfoot, ghosts etc, they are kind of just believing because they believe.


Yes well look, the more important a particular belief is to us, the more strongly we will ignore or reject evidence suggesting that we are wrong. So what are the most central beliefs that people hold? Their religious beliefs, their political beliefs. Certainly many scientists have held beliefs deeply that have taken a few hundred years to overturn, it’s not that scientists always think scientifically either.

But religion is the big one of course, because religion is central to many people’s feeling of what gives them meaning and purpose in life. When you have a belief that is that central to your needs, you are going to defend it at all costs…people of all religions. Now, to me as a social scientist, what’s interesting is how people reduce the dissonance between my religion says this, but now how do I deal with that.

So, evolution is a good example. Most religious people believe in evolution, and feel no discrepancy, no dissonance between Darwin and their religious beliefs. And of course other fundamentalist Christians do. So you have to start with what the religious belief is, and then what is the disconfirming kind of information that comes along.

For Jews for example, consider the massive dissonance that would be evoked by: “We believe in God, a God that is looking after the chosen people, and the Holocaust. How do we explain the Holocaust? How could God have permitted, ah, such a devastating act of Genocide?”…

…That’s massive dissonance.


Yeah, given the all loving nature of the creator, how could he have let that happen to the chosen people how could he have justified that?…


Exactly, exactly, what’s interesting, students of self justification, of dissonance, would say, how would you predict people would react to that, would they become less religious or more religious?


Well you don’t hear stories of rampant atheism in the death camps…but you do hear stories of some people’s faith being strengthened.


Exactly right, it’s the counter intuitive not obvious reaction, and that’s the power of dissonance. So strong is the need to believe in God, that when a terrible thing happens, what most people will do, is not lose their faith in God, but reduce the dissonance by saying, something, as I heard in one Temple: “God is responsible for the good in the world, human beings are responsible for the evil”…

So there are many ways of coming to accept these horrible tragic things and maintaining their belief in God….any thing that happens that doesn’t seem to be consonant with God is reinterpreted to make it consonant…


Both you and Eliot Aronson are scientists, you’re both social scientists, and you mentioned a few questions ago, earlier that it’s part of the nature of science to change your beliefs, to surround yourself with people who keep you honest….but most people out there, don’t share that scientific spirit. So do you think pointing out to people that just how wrong their beliefs are…do you think pointing out to them that they’re wrong will help them overcome their self deceptions or make them become more entrenched?

I am thinking of these best-selling books such as Richard Dawkins, I guess I am asking does really forceful, compelling arguments really get through to people who believe nonsense.


Well DJ, as someone who has read our book and who understands cognitive dissonance, you would know exactly what the prediction is. Well this is one of the things I think is so important for scientists to understand, how cognitive dissonance works.

When they go around saying “Oh look how foolish it is to believe such and such a thing.” What they are doing is putting people into a state of dissonance. “I am a smart capable, wise, kind person and you are telling me I believe something that is stupid and wrong, to the hell with you!”

To understand dissonance is to understand how to persuade other people, because you can’t do it by making them feel stupid that they hold such and such belief.

I think it is really important for skeptics and scientists to avoid that tone that we know what is right and you don’t. “We are smart because we are scientists and you are not…”

Not only is the tone off putting to somebody you want to persuade, but you won’t be persuasive, it makes the other person defensive and even more likely to protect their own views.

It’s important in an argument whether it is about creationism or about…the importance of good medical research versus alternative medicine, to understand what the purpose of the belief is to a person, why they want to hold it so tenaciously, what it means to them, before you can go along and tell them that the evidence doesn’t support their point of view.

For example, I was talking to an attorney who works on civil liberties cases and religious issues, he said when the issue is framed between science and religion, when you ask the general population in a way that forces them to choose between science and religion, they will choose religion…

…but if you say, that is if you make the evolutionary argument, not one in which you have to choose between believing in evolution and believing in God, but you say instead this is an issue that divides religious people, some religious people believe in evolution and some reject it, what are the reasons for accepting or rejecting it within a religious framework. See, then you aren’t making religious people feel like they have to reject science.


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