Skeptics and the Question of Audience: Who Are We Writing To?

So far I have not been able to get the attention of many skeptics, including Richard Dawkins, and PZ Myers. Yes, I have tried, several times. Sure, they are very busy. But I just learned why I probably haven’t, which is what I had suspected. For the record I have purposely not criticized Richard Dawkins or the other New Atheists, either in my book or on this blog. In fact, I recently defended Dawkins and the other New Atheists, including Bill Maher for his movie Religulous, in a talk I did at the Society of Biblical Literature against a few scholars who thought their arguments lacked substance. You can read what I said here. I also defended Dawkins in a long series of email exchanges that took place last year between skeptic James Lazarus and me, which were copied to Jeffrey Lowder, Steve Hays, David Wood and some others. It got heated since I did not back down in my defense of Dawkins.

I appreciate so much what Dawkins has done that he deserves defending, and I do. He helped create a heightened awareness of atheism among us and rallied us together to fight ignorance and superstition with science and reason. There is now a bookshelf in the major national bookstores for atheist books, one of which is mine. Prior to this where would you go in a bookstore to find an atheist book before that? It was difficult.

But the problem why many skeptics cannot get behind my work is because I'm "soft" on Christians. They want me to blast away at them, like they do. The ridiculous needs to be ridiculed, they think. But I don't do that. My goal is not to preach to the choir. Skeptics love it when we blast Christians, just as Christians love it when preachers blast atheists. I know this. In a few cases I do. But mostly I don't; not in my book, nor here on my blog. Although, when speaking to a different audience filled with skeptics I most certainly do this, because I adapt to my audience.

These skeptics acknowledge that our community needs both approaches, mind you, and it does. We need the blasters and we need people like me who are "soft" on Christians. But although they acknowledge we need both approaches they do not endorse my work. I find this myopic, since my work is more effective in changing the minds of believers, or so many people say. The problem is that skeptics who are the blasters won't endorse skeptics who are "soft" on Christians. One person told me (via email):
...this is an example of the problem of conflicting niches: you must please the choir to sell books and get endorsements and attention (and for our ideas then to disseminate and get used by more and more skeptics in the public arena), but you must keep the Christian attention long enough that they will actually read the book (which generally requires going soft on them, as nothing else will please them).
My problem with people like PZ Myers and Dawkins isn't that they aren't right. They are. It's that they need to look beyond what they themselves would prefer to read and ask instead what would convince the believer. When they look beyond their noses and endorse that which will convince the believer, they will probably endorse my work. They acknowledge we need both approaches so why won't they publicly acknowledge my approach? Is their goal to change the religious landscape or not? If it is, they should endorse my work irrespective of whether or not I blast Christians if they think my arguments are good ones.

This then is the main criticism I have of them. They are myopic, something I wouldn't expect from people who claim to defend reason.


Tyro said...

If it is, they should endorse my work irrespective of whether or not I blast Christians if they think my arguments are good ones.

My first reaction is that they may not think your arguments are good, or maybe that they aren't relevant. After all, they came up with and promote the Courtier's Reply when presented with "sophisticated" theologians where you not only treat the theologians respectfully but their arguments as well (not to mention their underlying assumptions). Perhaps they think you deal seriously with subjects that don't deserve serious attention.

But onto the meat of your concerns...

Playing Devil's Advocate for a sec, you have made it clear that you aren't writing for a popular, general audience. I have only read the pre-published chapter you posted on the blog a while back and the reviews but from what I gather it reads more like a philosophy text book than a popular novel like they write. In response to criticism, you've said that you have no intention of writing for a mass market and are addressing yourself to seminary students and theologians. If you've intentionally avoided their market in writing your books, should it be a surprise that they aren't more responsive now that it has been published? Dennet is an academic but like the others he deals briefly with the question of whether any god exists before addressing the sociological and neurological effects of belief, attacking the foundations as it were rather than the details of the structures built upon it which is how you spend most of your time. Again, the two of you are in very different domains.

The other books which garner attention from the Horsemen are books on evolutionary biology, the frontlines of the education/evolution wars and atheism in pop culture, more subjects which you also intentionally avoid. You don't discuss current events, mass media, culture, "human rights" or any of the other things which they may link to in their blogs.

If you want their attention/recognition but don't want to come out blasting then you'll have to make changes to your writing styles. Some things which could work:

* comment on current events, news items, editorials or books

* don't be afraid to repeat yourself. Long time readers know you have a keen mind but perhaps you consider issues settled once you've written a definitive post or chapter which means that new readers will miss this. When new events happen, put new spins on the subject and bring it up again. (How many times has PZ written about bacterial flagella? It's good to be reminded & refreshed.)

* comment on or about the writings of PZ, Dawkins and other bloggers. Generate a conversation, create interest, show your insight can help them with the issues they feel are important. Right now you hold yourself very far apart from them so is it any wonder they aren't engaging you as you'd like?

Given your avoidance (bordering on contempt) for the popular writing on atheism, maybe you're thinking of the wrong crowd. If you don't want to change, then maybe reach out to Richard Carrier, Thomas Verenna or other academic writers. Carrier has a fairly bit public profile and has appeared in several videos yet his books aren't mentioned by any of the Horsemen, but within the right niche he's well known.

I wish you well and I do think there's room for all of you but it's no surprise that you walk in different circles.

ZDENNY said...

John, you still have a lot to learn about Atheism.

Atheism does not care about you. Atheism is centered on anger.

You simply need to increase your anger level in order to be recognized.

You don't have enough anger at this point. You are too kind which is proof that Christianity is still having an impact on you. It is this fact that makes me think you will return to Christianity before long.

If you want to be recognized, you have to be more angry about stuff even if you have to fake it.

Atheism is not about convincing people, Atheism is a way to express anger towards others who disagree with you.

I should know! I have spoken with hundreds of atheists now. I am just a nice guy who talks about love. I am ridiculed for talking about increasing the amount of love in our world.

God Bless..

Tyro said...


Perhaps they think you deal seriously with subjects that don't deserve serious attention.

That should read "...subjects that they think don't deserve serious attention."

Harlan Quinn said...

Does it really matter what other skeptics and atheists think?

We are all different facets of the same jewel.

The each member of the team has a job to do, and the others depend on him to do it. When I played team sports, I did my job, and I expected the others to do theirs, and I didn't care how they did it, but usually I thought my job was more important.

Thats just the way people are.

Just do your job, Dawkins and PZ will do theirs and we'll all march down the field together.

Mike D said...

Did I miss something? You don't state in the article what it is that you learned why you haven't gotten the attention of many skeptics.

I mean really, what are you expecting here? I rarely if ever see any of the four horseman endorsing each others' work unless they're in the same room together.

And I think that the approach of Dawkins, Harris et al is not remotely as vitriolic as it's made out to be – usually by believers. A great deal of people have been persuaded by the new atheist movement, and I'm willing to bet innumerable more have begun to question their faith more seriously. What are we expecting here, a massive change in sociocultural paradigm? Atheism is the fastest-growing "religious" orientation in the United States. We'll get there, in time.

webjr said...

John I like most of your writing and have not yet read your book. I would say that it isn't that they (the four House men), are putting down your book, by not referencing it in any of their talks, debates or videos. I'm sure they do not speak about the hundreds or thousands of other books about Atheism for the same reason, there are just so many. They prefer I'm sure to speak about their own books and thoughts on the topic.

As a matter of fact I would like to see more Videos from you about your thoughts and Ideas and less outright hawking of your book. To be sure all authors hawk their books, but they seem to do it by drawing interest to it, not by saying my book this and my book that.

think of other ways to promote you book, make other want your book.

I also find that when Christians are being in your words, "Blasted", it is because in most cases out blasting non-christians.

Please do keep up the good work.

Al Moritz said...

He helped create a heightened awareness of atheism among us and rallied us together to fight ignorance and superstition with science and reason.

Right. I use science (yes, all of mainstream science* ) and reason and come to the conclusion that theism is the most rational assumption.

* which includes Dawkins and the whole evolution shebang, but which excludes the atheist-beloved Stenger (who is contradicted by such mainstream scientists like Smolin, Susskind, Rees, Weinberg etc.)

Thaumas said...

I agree with Tyro's excellent comment. People like Richard Carrier, Bob Price, Earl Doherty, and Bart Ehrman are your natural allies. Even if you don't go with the mythicist position, you can be the non-mythicist-but-still-skeptical scholar role. None of these guys get much press from the big atheists, either. You're not alone in that. They are just different groups with different priorities.

akakiwibear said...

Hi John, between Tyro's comment on theologians and ZDENNY's on anger I think you have your answer.

I suspect they are suspicious of someone who can make a valid point without rhetoric as against needing rhetoric to make a point valid.

Now I certainly disagree with many of the conclusions you draw from much of your work but I respect the effort you put in to the material before you go off course;)

You may, for example, ignore elements of the context of a biblical passage you use to make a point, but you can defend your position. I am sure we both recognise Dawkins, Harris et al taking passages right out of context and wrapping them up in vitriol to falsely make a point ... but wow it sounds good.

My guess is they are simply scared that you may get people to think ... and in so doing reveal the 'emperor's clothes' they strut around in.

sala kahle -peace

Piratefish said...

I think they're aware of your work and they very much respect you John, I'm not sure how much recognition you need from them in order to feel recognized. It's probably comforting just to feel that you have allies, and these are damn good allies. If you need public recognition from them in order to be sure of yourself, which I hope not, or they need you to blast the xians in order to let you join their big boy's club, then I don't think any one of you deserve any of our respect.

André T. said...

I think there's room for everybody. Just go to that debate, win it, upload the video, join other debates, win them, etc, etc, you'll be more known then Dawkins in no time :)

Boz said...

John said: "My problem with people like PZ Myers and Dawkins isn't that they aren't right. They are. It's that they need to look beyond what they themselves would prefer to read and ask instead what would convince the believer. When they look beyond their noses and endorse that which will convince the believer, they will probably endorse my work."


Myers, Dawkins, and their ilk also convince theists to change their opinion, as can be seen in Dawkins' case by the testimonials on his forum.

I agree that both approaches (blasting and softly) are needed. Different people respond to different aproaches.

Which approach is more effective? It doesn't really matter. They both work sometimes.

Nonchai said...

John, why all the focus on yourself ? Why the need for
pats on the back from your fellow travellers ?. Why take all this so personally and then accentuate things by constantly posting entries that are more of a personal nature - ie about yourself, rather than the issue at hand?.

I think it would be a good idea to create a seperate blog names "John Loftus" on which you can vent anger, defend yourself against attacks, while leaving DC to deal with the issue at hand.

You introduced me to the Common Sense Atheism web site a few months ago, and im so glad you did.

Now i dont know if he just doesnt get so attacked as you - maybe not -he hasnt been around so long, but his very interesting articles ( often more philosophy centred i guess ) stay focused much more on the task at hand.

As to Dawkins et al, why seek the praise, these guys are busy men, and in Dawkins case his interest as you mush realise is far more science focused and defending it against creationism than a general close argued rebuttal against theist apologists and the like. Thats where YOU come in! but like others have said take praise from those who offer it. Dont go moaning because you feel you deserve it from others.

As to the horsemen and why they havent more directly mentioned you, I seem to remember that Hitchens had your book up on his book list so he knows you and probably has read your book.

Heres a final thought that comes to mind from when i used to play jazz in various jam sessions.

On the first few days i'd attend and do a good solo or play well, i'd get complimented by other players iand had my ego nicely inflated. But after a while people hear what you do, but stop with the compliments. Its not because the playing got worse - just that people dont tend to comment on same same - only when things change.

Tristan D. Vick said...

What's So Great About Dinesh D'Souza?

Here's my criticism of Dinesh D'Souza, I don't know if it will help you or not, but it may be worth taking a quick gander at:

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks everyone, especially Tyro. All I wanted to say is that there are two different approaches. I recognize theirs and support them. I wish they would be more vocal about my attempts. And not just me, but Bart Ehrman, Hector Avalos and others.

Shane said...

John, keep it up - you're doing great. I know a lot of Christians who are indeed turned off by Dawkins & Coyne & Myers (much as I love 'em), but different people need different approaches, and you cater for a very important niche. Your work is probably more effective than you realise.

I have a (very infrequently updated) blog attempt at in which I am at least *trying* to reach out to a group that I know is there in Christianity - people who know that they don't believe, but don't feel comfortable leaving the church.

A lot of Christian Atheists need help and reassurance that they are not abnormal, they are not alone, and they are not the stupid ones. Let RD and PZ do their thing; many mansions and all that ;-)

ismellarat said...

If it weren't for the spectre of an eternal Hell, I think most of what Christians argue about would hardly seem so important to them. It is imperative that God be believed in, and defined in exactly THIS way, and not THAT way. OR ELSE!

I think there's much indispensable good in the church(es) that atheists overlook, but Christians too often never get around to defending what I think should really count: putting any church and family-based solutions to our problems they may have on the table, and receiving credit where it's deserved.

Instead, they spend their time bickering amongst themselves and with atheists about these definitional trivialities that they themselves only half understand - apparently made not-so-trivial by their belief that they're important to God. It seems suicide bombers have the same motivations - "what we do may be unpleasant, but think about eternity..."

I find it so ironic that none other than Adolph Eichmann found traditional Christianity too abhorrent to believe, when told that his victims would be going to Hell. A mass murderer who might have been saved - save for his conscience. Imagine that.

Even William Lane Craig thinks his God is unjust - and says all real Christians think the same:

"No orthodox Christian likes the doctrine of hell or delights in anyone's condemnation. I truly wish that universalism were true, but it is not."

I keep waiting for him to revise this insanity-inducing quote, but its been up since the late 90s.

What's so bad about an afterlife in which you don't get punished eternally, and which eventually works out for everyone? "The Bible doesn't teach it," might start wearing a little thin, once people start realizing how easy it is to shame the fundies with holocaust pictures.

"Tell the camera what you want to see happen to these people. Go on. Jesus is listening; don't disappoint him, now..."

If only I could prove these people have it right: