Bring out the gimp . . .

17 08 2008
Read this book. Discuss it with your friends.

"Read this book. Discuss it with your friends."

I’ve been wondering what to make of book-spammers. These individuals travel from blog to blog, comments thread to comments thread, with no intention of actually participating in the discussion. Their sole intention is to dump (as a seabird would a heap of guano) a cut-and-pasted blurb about some paradigm-shifting tome promising to change your thinking about x, where x equals evolution, or the existence of deities, or education policy, and so on, and so on.

The following, whom I’ve encountered, may ring a bell, especially if you frequent blogs in the Atheosphere: the Young Earth Creationist cdavidparsons (Google “c david parsons The Quest for Right, a series of 7 textbooks created for the public schools”), Christian apologist Gerry Rzeppa (Google “My name is Gerry Rzeppa and I’ve written a short children’s book in answer to the works of Richard Dawkins”), and Edbooked, whose agenda (beyond getting you to read and purchase a certain book that purports to solve whatever ill-defined problems he sees in the US public education system) is unknown (Google “Twilights Last Gleaming On Public Education a portion of which may be viewed online”).

In The Authoritarians (See? Now I’m doing it!), University of Manitoba Associate Professor of Psychology Bob Altemeyer describes authoritarian followers. To some degree we all submit to authority, he acknowledges—when we obey traffic signals, for instance—and we would all be much worse off if this were not the case. Authoritarian followers, however, believe we ought to submit to authority not for utilitarian reasons but simply for the sake of submitting to authority. They would address the Heinz dilemma thusly: “The law is the law and must be obeyed” (though I admit to not having read enough of The Authoritarians to discover if Altemeyer thinks authoritarian followers—a.k.a “High RWAs”—would be at Stage 1 or Stage 4 in Lawrence Kohlberg’s schema of moral development, or even if Kohlberg’s moral theory is covered in the book at all). High RWAs, The Authoritarians argues, are characterised by three main personality traits:

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.

Altermeyer emphasises that he’s drawing on an Old English sense of “right”—“for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said”—and being a (psychological) Right Wing Authoritarian doesn’t necessarily mean one has right-wing political views. It just happens to be the case that (at least in North America) people with high RWA personalities turn out to have conservative political views, as well as a tendency to belong to fundamentalist religions.

Here’s my hypothesis: book-spammers are textbook examples of authoritarian followers. And the reason they cut-and-paste the same blurb in the comment threads of as many unfortunate blogs as they can find is because reasoned discussion is the last thing on their mind. To parrot(?) Altemeyer, “authoritarian followers aren’t going to question, they’re going to parrot.” I would add (and again, I’m not sure if it’s covered already), there is a presupposition on the part of the book-spammer that most if not all readers of your blog think like authoritarian followers think, and have the same a priori reverence for (claimed) authority. It’s in a book, therefore it must be true. Or he said it, therefore it must be true. This same kind of reasoning motivates the Darwin deathbed recantation myth, as well as the Christian apologists’ promotion of “Famous Atheist Deconverts!” tales and their own “deconversions” (e.g. Kirk Cameron, Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath). Heck, why do you think Gerry Rzeppa wants to give Richard Dawkins $64,000 in cold, hard cassssshhhhhhhh if  Dawkins answers a questions about Rzeppa’s turgid doggerel? Because they think we think like they do. If Darwin recanted, evolutionary biology falls. If Dawkins converts to fundamentalist Christianity on the spot (becoming $64,000 richer in the process), millions of non-believers the world over will follow their Pope and Supreme Leader into the open arms of Jeebus. Here’s this wonderful book. It’s written by an Authority I revere without question. He wouldn’t lie to me: he’s an Authority. His book is intriguing, enlightening and socially relevant. You may view a portion of this fascinating book online. See if you agree with the potential solutiions presented. Use this book as a point of departure for discussions with your friends . . .

(I wonder if we all have a little RWA spammer in us, though? Back in the early years of this decade I used to spam the inboxes of family and friends with news articles and agitprop regarding issues such as mandatory detention and the war in Iraq, until I was told in no uncertain terms to cease and desist. I was shocked and angry about what was going on at the time, but they weren’t interested, so I backed off, opting to pester the denizens of Tolkien discussion boards until the advent of blogging gave me a more appropriate venue to push my wheelbarrows.)

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11 responses

18 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

An interesting hypothesis, ol’ buddy, but at least in my case I think you’ve missed the mark. My long, checkered, and rather unusual life has been characterized by markedly iconoclastic pursuits (in computer science, music, literature, art, and architecture), not by “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities.” And certainly not by “a high level of conventionalism.” In short, I’ve been questioning authority and the status quo, in word, song, and deed, every since I can remember. Goodness! I don’t even look like most other men!

More importantly, you’ve seriously misread my motives for inviting Dr. Dawkins to answer a question about my little poem. While it would be a wonderful thing if he converted on the spot, my intent as a long-time shepherd of the sheep is simply to make the real issues in the creation/design/evolution debate clear to my fellow believers. Among the opposition, my audience is restricted to those few elect who have been graciously given “ears to hear” by the Holy Spirit of God. You appear not to be aware that when someone converts to Christianity, it is the work of God, not men, that makes the difference.

My philosophical position on this whole matter, in case you’re interested, is that almost all the decisions we each make every hour of every day — many of which affect ourselves and others in far-reaching and irrevocable ways — are better classified as “judgments” rather than “conclusions based on carefully collected data and properly executed syllogisms.” In other words, I believe that man can’t, and doesn’t, live by the “scientific method” alone. And I further contend that it is nonsense to attempt to sunder “scientific” thinking and data from metaphysical thinking and data.

In short, the only workable framework I can imagine for meaningful thought and living is as follows. We must begin with Theology (the study of God and His works) as the proper pursuit of man, and position all of our lesser and more specialized investigations (such as mathematics, physics, biology, geology, etc) in their proper places as contributors to that most glorious endeavor. And it is on this point, I believe, that Dr. Dawkins and the rest of his disciples — not to mention almost all of the Intelligent Design camp! — miss the point.

18 08 2008
AV

Gerry, I owe you an apology because I believe I’ve misrepresented you in at least one respect: you initally spammed my email inbox, not my comments threads, with your “$64,000 challenge” announcement, and you alone of the spammers I’ve mentioned in this post have been prepared to defend the contents of your spam (however unsuccessfully).

Nonetheless, nothing you say above really convinces me that you don’t fit the high RWA profile. (Perhaps you don’t, but it isn’t clear from your statements thus far.) You claim to have been “questioning authority and the status quo, in word, song, and deed, every [sic] since [you] can remember,” but I wonder if this includes Biblical authority. Authoritarian followers, according to Altermeyer’s research, submit to the “established, legitimate authorities in their society,” and I would suggest that the question of who qualifies as “established” and “legitimate” is a subjective one (what else could it be?). I would also observe that your contemptuous reference to “sheep” indicates that you see your audience as authoritarian followers—and perhaps, in the case of those who are receptive to your doctrine, you’re right.

You also claim not to be marked by a high level of conventionalism, yet your approach to the science/religion debates treads a path well-worn in popular apologetics. Kent Hovind posted a $250,000 challenge a few years ago; Catholic Apologetics International offered $1,000 to anyone who could “disprove” geocentrism and “prove” Copernicanism. One Anatoly Fomenko, “leading mathematician of our time,” was offering $10,000 to anyone who could disprove his claim that human civilisation originated in the eleventh century, and Jesus was born in 1053.

It isn’t simply the fact that you’re offering a cash prize alone that makes your $64,000 challenge conventional (as far as pop apologetics is concerned). It’s that, like the other challenges, your approach evinces a clear preference for style over substance. Hovind is a dab hand at PowerPoint (so I hear), but that isn’t a substitute for doing actual science. Dinesh D’Souza is a polished debater—if making one’s points in verbal ALLCAPS is considered “polished”—but this doesn’t make his arguments for theism any more sound. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum exhibits might be visually impressive, but this is not evidence in favour of Young Earth Creationism or against evolution. You may have cogent arguments to make in support of theism, and against the arguments advanced by the so-called “new atheists.” We’ll never know, of course, because rather than actually putting them in the context of a reasoned discussion, you opt for bread and circuses, burying whatever earth-shattering insights you may have about the “real issues in the creation/design/evolution debate” in obscurantist poetry. Obscure, that is, to all but the “those few elect who have been graciously given ‘ears to hear’ by the Holy Spirit of God,” something for which you provide zero supporting evidence. (By the way, I acknowledge that you believe that when someone converts to Christianity, “it is the work of God, not men, that makes the difference,” but you have given me no reason to believe this is true.)

My philosophical position on this whole matter

is actually of little consequence, except insofar as it bears on the question of whether it is reasonable to describe book-spammers as authoritarian followers. You make assertions, but provide no supporting evidence for them—and hence, in my view, no reason why anyone else should accept them—and attempt to “justify” this (ironically) with a hand-waving dismissal of reasoned justification, predicated on the irrelevant truism that our decisions are not in all circumstances governed by reason. Upon this foundation built of straw you make the further unsubstantiated claim that

We must begin with Theology (the study of God and His works) as the proper pursuit of man, and position all of our lesser and more specialized investigations (such as mathematics, physics, biology, geology, etc) in their proper places as contributors to that most glorious endeavor.

Why must we begin with Theology (and why is theology capitalised)? On what evidence can you claim that capital T theology is the “proper study of man”? What reasons are there for me to deem mathematics, physics, biology, geology etc. “lesser” than capital T theology? Why ought I to consider capital T theology a “glorious” endeavour? All I have to go on are your opinions, which you clearly expect me—or, if not me, your “sheep”—to accept without question.

That, my friend, is textbook high RWA thinking.

And it is on this point, I believe, that Dr. Dawkins and the rest of his disciples — not to mention almost all of the Intelligent Design camp! — miss the point.

No, I suspect a good many of the IDers “get” your point, if by “getting the point” you mean agreeing with you about the subservience of science to religious dogma. The only difference is that you seem to be more forthcoming (and therefore less politically savvy, if you share their views on what should be taught in the science classroom) than they.

BTW, I did not realise that Dawkins had “disciples” (and you have not provided evidence of this). Since agreeing or disagreeing with Dawkins is not an article of faith of atheism, nor is it an article of faith of biology, you and I are free to agree or disagree with him. There may be some who read him dogmatically or uncritically (call them “high RWA Dawkinsians”), but that is not his fault, nor is it a refutation of his work as a zoologist and science writer, or his writings on religion.

18 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

An impressive response, AV. I’m not quite sure how to fruitfully proceed from here. I think I’ll go for a quartet of minor points and then attempt some answers to your questions.

1. I regret the typo in my previous post (“every” instead of “ever”). I’d correct it if I could. I find it extremely frustrating — and nearly unbelievable — that today’s programmers, working with machines with gigabyte memories and gigahertz clocks, are unable to provide features (like WYSIWYG editing) that were standard on my 128-kilobyte, 1 megahertz Macintosh over two decades ago.

2. My offer to Richard Dawkins differs significantly from the other offers you mention because mine does not require the doctor to “prove” anything. The $64,000, as I’ve said elsewhere, is merely a speaking fee for extemporaneously addressing a subject of my choosing. He gets paid for showing up and talking, as he does in many other venues. It’s like a very short interview for a very large fee.

3. You say you did not realise that Dawkins had disciples. I think you’re using the term in a more technical sense than I. My online dictionary defines disciple as “someone who believes and helps to spread the doctrine of another.” In that light, almost anyone who gives a favorable review of The God Delusion — or buys a copy for a friend — can be considered a disciple.

4. I do not share IDers views on what should be taught in the science classroom, not only because I do not separate scientific thought from other kinds of thought, but also because I’m persuaded that home schooling (by extended family groups) followed by a series of appropriate apprenticeships (typically confined to the private sector) makes for a significantly better education.

And now for the Q&A.

Why do I capitalize “Theology”? To make it clear that I’m using the term in the broadest possible sense: specifically, “the study of God and His works“. Which includes, of course, the study of God through His works.

Why should anyone to deem mathematics, physics, biology, geology, etc, “lesser” than Theology? Simply because their scope is significantly narrower. The study of God and His works is all-inclusive, and ultimately requires all kinds of data-gathering and analysis methods, and all of the various human faculties for its accomplishment. The so-called “scientific method” is but one of those methods, and man’s ability to reason is but one of those faculties. Neither the scientific method nor our reason will lead us to conclude, for example, that fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes good. To make that determination, other methods and other faculties are required. But note that whether I’m weighing an orange on a precision scale, or sucking the juice out of it, I’m still studying one of God’s works — and, by implication, drawing conclusions about God Himself.

On what evidence can I claim that capital T theology is the “proper study of man”? The evidence I offer is this: No other worldview is ultimately satisfying. Emotionally, logically, physically satisfying. The thought of one accidental arrangement of molecules critiquing the “thoughts” of another accidental arrangement of molecules is, of course, ludicrous; materialism is a philosophy for schoolboys. The ultimate loss of one’s identity in some kind of undifferentiated pantheistic “unity” — with or without a preceding series of reincarnations — is repulsive to the human spirit.; we won’t find the answers the East. And all kinds of dualism share the fatal flaw that whatever divides the “good” from the “evil” must be over and above either of the two; so rationalistic philosophies are out as well. And therefore, after considering the alternatives, I conclude with the Theologians of old: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

18 08 2008
AV

I regret the typo in my previous post (”every” instead of “ever”).

Don’t mention it. It’s the English teacher in me.

My offer to Richard Dawkins differs significantly from the other offers you mention because mine does not require the doctor to “prove” anything.

Maybe not, but my point was that your offer of a cash prize—or “appearance fee,” if you prefer—is as much of a stunt as the other offers. In any case, I don’t like your chances of securing an interview with Dawkins, given his long-standing policy of not granting interviews to creationists—“not because I cannot answer their arguments, but because I have better things to do with my time and I do not want to give them the oxygen of publicity.” (And given the context of that statement, it isn’t surprising that the producers of Expelled had to resort to subterfuge. Your $64,000 challenge may be a stunt, but at least you haven’t sunk to lying.)

You say you did not realise that Dawkins had disciples. I think you’re using the term in a more technical sense than I. My online dictionary defines disciple as “someone who believes and helps to spread the doctrine of another.” In that light, almost anyone who gives a favorable review of The God Delusion — or buys a copy for a friend — can be considered a disciple.

In that light, anyone who gives a favourable review of anything can be considered a “disciple” of the person or persons who produced it, rendering the term practically useless. In which case one could be forgiven for thinking you’re equivocating, trading on the narrower, religious sense of “disciple,” and the wider sense to which you’ve retreated now that you’ve been called on it.

I’m persuaded that home schooling (by extended family groups) followed by a series of appropriate apprenticeships (typically confined to the private sector) makes for a significantly better education.

That’s nice. I’m not persuaded.

Why do I capitalize “Theology”? To make it clear that I’m using the term in the broadest possible sense

How does capitalising a word make it clear that you’re using it in the broadest possible sense?

The study of God and His works is all-inclusive, and ultimately requires all kinds of data-gathering and analysis methods, and all of the various human faculties for its accomplishment.

The study of God presupposes that there is a God to study. What evidence is there to support this?

Neither the scientific method nor our reason will lead us to conclude, for example, that fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes good.

If it is the case that fresh-squeezed orange juice is universally perceived as tasting good, which is to say that those who drink it derive pleasure from the taste, then it seems to me quite likely that there is a biological explanation for this sensation. The question is, is it indeed the case that fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes good to everyone, and if you contend that it is, what evidence do you have in support of your claim?

But note that whether I’m weighing an orange on a precision scale, or sucking the juice out of it, I’m still studying one of God’s works — and, by implication, drawing conclusions about God Himself.

Hmmm. Drawing conclusions about God by studying works which you assert are produced by God. That’s called circular reasoning.

On what evidence can I claim that capital T theology is the “proper study of man”? The evidence I offer is this: No other worldview is ultimately satisfying.

That’s not evidence. That’s the appeal to emotion fallacy.

The thought of one accidental arrangement of molecules critiquing the “thoughts” of another accidental arrangement of molecules is, of course, ludicrous

Why?

materialism is a philosophy for schoolboys

Ad hominem.

The ultimate loss of one’s identity in some kind of undifferentiated pantheistic “unity” — with or without a preceding series of reincarnations — is repulsive to the human spirit

Yet more appealing to emotion. What evidence is there that “the human spirit” exists?

And all kinds of dualism share the fatal flaw that whatever divides the “good” from the “evil” must be over and above either of the two

Goodbye Christianity, then, unless you want to repudiate the notion that Yahweh is good.

And therefore, after considering the alternatives, I conclude with the Theologians of old: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

How fitting that an authoritarian follower would close with an appeal to authority. 😉

19 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

You say, “…at least [I] haven’t sunk to lying.” Is lying a bad thing? How do you know? Exactly what do you mean by “bad?” Apparently you think lying is worse than other things. What do you mean by “worse”?

You also say that defining disciple as “someone who believes and helps to spread the doctrine of another” makes the word practically useless. I disagree. For example, I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ and a disciple of master programmer Niklaus Wirth, as well; but I am definitely not a disciple of Mohammed, nor am I a disciple of Microsoft programming hack Charles Simonyi (who, incidently, financed Dr. Dawkins’ chair at Oxford). A word that can make such sharp and “definite” distinctions can hardly be deemed useless. By the way, you seem to think that “usefulness” is a good thing. Why? How do you know? What do we mean by “useful”? by “good”?

You’re not persuaded that homeschooling followed by apprenticeship results in a better education, and dismiss the subject with a scornful “That’s nice.” But what if I’m right about this? Not only would it put an end to all the hubbub about what is and is not allowed in publicly-funded schools, but it would result in happier children and more productive citizens. But is happiness a good thing? If so, what evidence do you offer to support your claim?

You ask how capitalizing a word makes it clear that I’m using it in the broadest possible sense? It doesn’t, of course. But it does draw attention to it and establishes it as a technical term throughout the rest of the discussion. It seems to me that you’re a rather unnecessarily argumentative person, AV. Is that true? What do we mean by “true”?

You say, “The study of God presupposes that there is a God to study. What evidence is there to support this?” The evidence of the creation around us, and of personality within us. Since a greater thing cannot be caused by a lesser thing (I accept that as axiomatic), there must be a Personality with the intelligence and power to create such a place and such beings — beings able not only to comprehend, but to enjoy it. To paraphrase Huxley: “O brave old world that has such people in it!”

You appear to reject emotional satisfaction as an evidence that something is true. I think that’s a big mistake. If a good God created both the universe and us, we should expect to find that Truth is not only logically sound but emotionally satisfying and physically useful as well. And we do. Prediction verified. It is this three-pronged examination of the facts that helps us make better judgments about who we are and why we are here. If you limit your resources to logic and empirical data alone, you’ll never find the answers you’re seeking. We weren’t made to think and function that way.

You say that my paraphrase of C. S. Lewis, “materialism is a philosophy for schoolboys,” amounts to an ad hominem attack on the opposition. I disagree. The subject of the sentence is “materialism,” not those who practice it. The quote in context, in case you’re interested, is this:

“You can save yourself time by confining your attention to two systems: Hinduism and Christianity. I believe these are the two serious options for an adult mind. Materialism is a philosophy for boys. The purely moral systems like Stoicism and Confucianism are philosophies for aristocrats. Islam is only a Christian heresy, and Buddhism a Hindu heresy: both are simplifications inferior to the things simplified. As for the old Pagan religions, I think we could say that whatever was of value in them survives either in Hinduism or in Christianity or in both, and there only: they are the two system which have come down, still alive, into the present without leaving the past behind.” [And between those two, by a swift stroke of Occam’s razor, I’m left with Christianity.]

You ask, “What evidence is there that ‘the human spirit’ exists?” I reply, Who is asking?

You say, “Goodbye Christianity, then, unless you want to repudiate the notion that Yahweh is good.” Hardly. The universe around us — and we ourselves — bear all the marks of a good thing gone bad. And our good God has provided a great redemption, now in progress, to restore and glorify both the universe and those of us who are willing to participate in that regeneration.

Finally, you close with a jibe: “How fitting that an authoritarian follower would close with an appeal to authority.” Are you suggesting that I should attempt to live without appeals to authority? I contend that such a thing is utterly impossible. Authority is one of the four basic sources of information we have (for the complete list, see http://blog.coincidencetheories.com/?p=93) and acceptance of authority is a necessity for everyday living.

19 08 2008
In the armchair with Gerry Rzeppa « Five Public Opinions

[…] the armchair with Gerry Rzeppa 19 08 2008 If you’ve been following the book-spammer thread, you’ll have noticed my conversation with one Gerry Rzeppa, whom I’ve blogged about […]

19 08 2008
arthurvandelay

This discussion is beginning to veer off-topic. If you would like to respond to Gerry’s most recent comment (and if Gerry would like to respond to the responses), please do so here.

19 08 2008
ozatheist

You say, “The study of God presupposes that there is a God to study. What evidence is there to support this?” The evidence of the creation around us, and of personality within us.

What evidence is there for creation? I see none, why can’t blind chance have produced everything we see?

Are you insinuating that a god produces everyone’s personality?
If so, why would he produce people with personality disorders?

An interesting article and debate AV

19 08 2008
William Wallace

I’d correct it if I could.“Funny thing is I made a couple posts on Dawkin’s site, and you *Could* ex post facto make corrections.

4 01 2009
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