Further reflections on discrimination

[Image, via Wikipedia: The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveller who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament.]

A scientific experiment avoids confusion by holding as much as possible constant, while systematically varying some factor of interest. When you are trying to think through a complex train of thought it can be helpful to do something similar, especially when sorting out separate arguments that might be confused. My previous Boing Boing post, "Should employers be blind to private beliefs?," could be seen as raising four separate questions. These were in danger of being confused with each other, and it is helpful to consider them one at a time, setting the others on one side temporarily--the equivalent of holding other variables constant in an experiment. The four questions were:

1. Should Martin Gaskell have been turned down by the University of Kentucky? I got rid of this one by explicitly stating that I was not concerned with it. I shall continue to ignore it here.

2. Should employers ever discriminate on grounds of the beliefs of candidates? If the answer to this is no, there is no point in going on. I tried to dispose of it by reductio ad absurdum. I postulated hypothetical extremes (flat earth geographer, stork theory doctor, astronomer who thinks Mars is a mongoose egg). I presumed that everybody would agree to discriminate against such obviously preposterous extremes, and that we would therefore have a non-controversial baseline from which to move on to more subtle questions. As it turned out, I was wrong: I underestimated the emotive impact of the very word 'discrimination'. I may also have underestimated the power of the relativist doctrine that all opinions are equally worthy of respect. But in any case my purpose was not to erect a straw man and knock it down. I wanted to find a baseline of agreement, which would enable us to set Question 2 on one side, while we went on to the other questions.

3. Should employers discriminate on grounds of religion per se? Here, I had thought we could establish a baseline agreement that there are at least some religious beliefs that nobody would wish to discriminate against. None of us, certainly not I, would rule out Georges Lemaître when employing a physics professor, on the grounds that he was a Catholic priest. But there could be beliefs, which might happen to have their origins in religion, but which some people might otherwise have considered grounds for rejecting a candidate under Question 2. We are not talking about discriminating against religion per se but against a counterfactual belief that happens to come from religion, and this leads me to Question 4:

4. Suppose you are one of those who will allow a yes answer to Question 2, and are prepared to contemplate at least some discrimination, say against flat-earthers. Would you allow religion to serve as a special, privileged, protective shield against such otherwise-agreed discrimination: a shield not available to non-religious flat-earthers? Should those who are prepared to discriminate against stork-theorists make an exception if it turns out that their storkism stems from religion? In other words, should we discriminate against non-religiously inspired storkers and, implicitly by comparison, discriminate in favour of religiously-inspired storkers? As I understand it, the law, at least in some countries, does sanction exactly that. You can legally rule a candidate out because he believes in something obviously absurd, but not if he can hide his absurd belief behind the protective screen of religion. This makes Question 4 a worthwhile question. But it is a question that simply doesn't arise for anybody who answers No to Question 2, which is why it was worth getting that question out of the way first.

But my main purpose today is to move on and raise - though not necessarily answer - some further issues raised by this whole discussion, which I think are genuinely interesting.

To start with, there is the intriguing psychological question of the extent to which the human mind is capable of compartmentalizing itself. A good example is the astronomer who publishes respectable work, involving calculations assuming that the universe is billions of years old, while privately holding the contradictory belief that it is only thousands of years old. If such split-mindedness is a real psychological phenomenon, that is a fascinating fact about the human brain, well worth studying in its own right. How closely intertwined are the mutually contradictory beliefs? Are they literally held simultaneously, or does the victim believe one of them on some days and the other one on other days, so that he is never literally in a state of believing a contradiction? Is this related to the well-attested multiple personality syndrome? Are there any limits to the degree of contradiction that one mind is capable of tolerating inside itself? Should the simultaneous holding of mutually contradictory factual beliefs be regarded as evidence of insanity? Do we all from time to time, in a mild way, accommodate mutually contradictory beliefs inside our heads?

Then there are some important questions of law. Why should religion in particular be singled out as grounds for shielding beliefs from scrutiny? If a South African enthusiast for apartheid pleaded that his insistence on racial separation stemmed from his deeply sincere adherence to the Dutch Reformed Church, should we respect his racialism in a way that we would not if he traced it to a deeply sincere prejudice instilled into him by his parents when he was at a sensitive age?

Should the law take a more lenient view of a wife-beater if he could plead that his behaviour was mandated by his holy book? This was explicitly done in recent years by a (female) judge in Germany. As the New York Times reported, Judge Christa Datz-Winter "cited the verse in the Koran that speaks of a husband's prerogatives in disciplining his wife". The judge further justified her decision on the grounds that "In this cultural background, it is not unusual that the husband uses physical violence against the wife." This judge not only allowed religion to over-rule human decency, she also allowed it to over-rule the law of Germany in the particular case of a couple who were Muslims. The New York Times went on to comment, "For some, the greatest damage done by this episode is to other Muslim women suffering from domestic abuse. Many are already afraid of going to court against their spouses. There have been a string of so-called honor killings here, in which Turkish Muslim men have murdered women."

How about clitoridectomy? Should the law protect girls from such mutilation except in cases where the mutilator pleads religious justification? In Britain today this barbaric custom is practiced. It is against the law, but the police turn a blind eye for fear of being thought 'Islamophobic'.

Should we exempt halal and kosher slaughterhouses from prosecution under laws against cruelty to animals, on grounds that religious considerations trump humanitarian ones? Such exemption is widely demanded and accepted but never, as far as I have seen, coherently justified.

During the Vietnam war, conscientious objectors had to prove to a draft board that their objection really was conscientious. By far the easiest way to prove this was to plead religious conviction, but only if the religious conviction was long-established. A young man whose parents were Quakers had no trouble at all. I suspect that a young man who had written a PhD thesis on the moral philosophy of pacifism might have been given a harder time. If so, this needs to be debated. Why does our society, as represented in our laws, give religious conscience a free pass, where a secular philosophical conscience has to work really hard to earn it?

Moving on from law, we have the issue of fact versus opinion. There are those of us who see a radical distinction between a factual belief like "I believe the Earth is flat" and an opinion like "I believe Richard Nixon was a bad man." Some relativists, on the other hand, blur fact and opinion, see no reason to privilege fact over opinion, and take the view that all opinions are equally valid and equally worthy of respect.

One of the reasons I am willing to describe flat-earthism and young-earthism as ridiculous is that they are contradicted by publicly observable facts. But there are other beliefs about fact, including scientific fact, that are not obviously true or false, perhaps because the evidence is incomplete or open to varying interpretation, or perhaps because terms are not clearly defined. "I believe the Permian extinction was caused by a meteorite impact" is a belief about a matter of fact, but neither it nor its negation are obviously silly in the way flat-earthism is. I think it would be very wrong to discriminate against a geologist on grounds of his belief about the Permian extinction. There might be other factual beliefs that are intermediate, where we might have a genuine argument. Some might nominate climate change denial as an example. Others might suggest Holocaust denial as a borderline intermediate case, a bit further towards the loony end of the spectrum.

By choosing flat-earthism and storkism as my hypothetical examples, I was trying to establish a baseline, setting aside the argument over whether discrimination of any kind is ever permissible. The purpose of choosing these palpably ridiculous hypotheticals was to make it possible to move on to the more difficult cases, where we might hope to have an interesting discussion.

If there are some people who cannot accept even this baseline, and reject all discrimination of any kind, they presumably will have nothing to contribute to the supplementary questions I have raised in the latter part of this article. But I hope others may find them worthy of honest debate.


  1. Paulo Francis, a Brazilian journalist and intellectual, used to say something that loosely translates into “I am contradictory; I contain crowds” (in a sense that his opinions are formed and influenced by a multitude of sources / people).

    1. Do I contradict myself?
      Very well, then, I contradict myself;
      (I am large—I contain multitudes.)
      –Walt Whitman

      As for the rest of the discussion, I’ll butt out, as I’d mostly wade in saying, “But no, that’s not what he or she actually SAID.”

  2. Mr Dawkins, you bring up a very good point about the split-mindedness of the human mind, which is not so much a psychological phenomena as you might think.

    We are entirely dependent on sensory input to determine our reality, and we know that it is not terribly reliable, the refutations of positivism are numerous and part of several emergent philosophical positions. The American pragmatic philosopher Donald Davidson quite powerfully argues that all truth is related to conceptual schemes, the interpretive buffer between our rationalizing, categorizing and compartmentalizing minds and the empirical reality. It all comes down to interpretation.

    What this brings up, as you observed, are profoundly ethical questions. This is simply *discernment* in light of the faulty nature of both our sensory experience and our conceptual schemes.

    So who has the most power when it comes to discernment? Not an easy question to answer, and I personally think that inter- or multi-disciplinary approaches are very instructive. For example, I can personally hold both atheist and theist strategies as they expand the realm of possibilities in discernment.

  3. Question: Do you believe that science has never been wrong or contradicted – and in fact has never had firmly held ‘facts’ turned around based on new evidence?

    If your answer to this is yes – then you hold science in the same place as *many* hold religion – but not all.

    If your answer to this is “of course not you silly person!” Which I suspect to be the case, then you hold science in the same place that *many* hold religion.

    The answer to your question above (at least to me) would be in that same facet. That is the astrologist believes that some fact or piece of information is wrong – and he doesn’t *require* a perfect set of facts or understanding to move forward with his work or belief.

    Many scientists still try to prove the theory (not law) of relativity wrong – that doesn’t meant they don’t believe in the theory. However they don’t require disbelief in order to do their work.

    1. “Question: Do you believe that science has never been wrong or contradicted – and in fact has never had firmly held ‘facts’ turned around based on new evidence?

      If your answer to this is yes – then you hold science in the same place as *many* hold religion – but not all.

      If your answer to this is “of course not you silly person!” Which I suspect to be the case, then you hold science in the same place that *many* hold religion.”

      I’d be shocked if Mr. Dawkins hadn’t said in his books that Science is self-correcting and overturns beliefs when new evidence comes to light. This is used frequently in debates of reglion vs. science.

    2. Why does anyone who disagrees with science immediately label widely held scientific beliefs as “Theories” as though this somehow makes them less appicable than “laws?”

      Gravity is a theory, last I checked. Do we not believe in gravity because it’s a “theory?”

      While science does make mistakes, it attempts to correct them. Religious doctrine, even in the face of massive amounts of evidENce to the contrary, simply ignores the evidence and continues to put forth fantasies as “facts.”

  4. I’ve always felt that this strong relativism, which holds all opinions are of equal value, is inherently self-contradictory. If I believe all opinions are equally valuable, this is in itself an opinion and so, to me, just as valid as the opinion that some ideas are better than others. As such, I have no basis for holding the opinion that all ideas are equally valid.

    1. It’s a meta-opinion, a second-order opinion, an opinion of opinions.

      Thus, of a different class altogether than the specific opinions (those which are about things which are not themselves opinions) which form the subject of its statement.

      A meta-opinion.

  5. In a spherical coordinate system the Earth IS flat.

    On a more serious note, the concept of flat earth shows it is quite sane to hold contradictory facts as true. We all know the earth is round. But that rarely comes into play in our daily lives (for most of us). We tend to perceive and treat the area we live in as flat (with bumpy features like hills and mountains), not as a segment of a sphere.

    In mathematical speak, we use a linear approximation of a curve for our daily lives and it works. Technically wrong, and we know it, but fully functional.

    Science itself works the same way. Science is a collection of “best explanations so far.” It uses approximations and assumptions when necessary. We know there are errors, we don’t know where, but are prepared to deal with them when discovered. We don’t toss it all because a part may be wrong. So even science itself can only function if one is willing to permit contradictory thoughts.

  6. I see the following factors

    1: Whether or not you know what their religion is
    2: Whether or not they are performing their job to your satisfaction

    A) You know their religion + they are doing a good job = Keep them.
    B) You know their religion + they are doing a poor job = Get rid.
    C) You do not know their religion + they are doing a good job = Keep them.
    D) You do not know their religion + they are doing a poor job = Get rid.

    The only significant factor is obviously whether or not they are doing a good job. Someone who believes the Earth is 6000 years old is perfectly capable of being a successful geologist. They can even teach geology successfully. If they believe this erroneous information yet are able to conceal it from you then they are clearly performing their duties to your satisfaction. If they start to teach the Earth is 6000 years old though then they are failing at their job, the cause of the failure is irrelevant.

    Knowing their religion in my opinion makes it more difficult to get rid of them, because they can claim that you have discriminated against them due to your knowledge, whereas if you do not know their religion then your basis for dismissal is easily justified.

    The question isn’t whether or not WE should be able to discriminate based on someone’s religion, but whether or not people in general should be able to discriminate against people based on their religious position (including whether or not they are an atheist.) Of course this would mean that churches etc would not be able to discriminate against atheists applying for jobs.

    I think the answer is clearly “No”. By their fruits shall ye sack them :-)

    1. The point of a hire is not just to have them do a good job, but for them to keep doing a good job and trust their judgement. A young-earth astronomer cannot be trusted to do a good job continually as they demonstrate that they don’t actually believe what they are saying most of the time. They are not intellectually trustworthy. It’s intellectually dishonest to espouse or teach a view that you do not, in fact, believe.

      Would I, a strict atheist, be allowed to teach in a church? What if I was an incredibly good Sunday-school teacher? If I were a world renowned expert of Yeshiva, yet an atheist, would a Jewish school be wrong to not hire me?

      To ask scientists to be anti-discriminatory, yet say its ok for religious people to be discriminatory is irrational.

      1. “It’s intellectually dishonest to espouse or teach a view that you do not, in fact, believe.”

        No, of course it is not. Any more than it is intellectually dishonest to take a position in a debate that you do not believe. Any more than it is dishonest for a defence lawyer to defend someone whom he believes to be guilty.

        In fact it’s just good teaching. For one thing when you teach, you aren’t saying “this is how it is” but “these are the views/theories/ideas that were put forward by X and Y” — unless you are teaching preschoolers.

      2. The point of a hire is not just to have them do a good job, but for them to keep doing a good job and trust their judgement. A young-earth astronomer cannot be trusted to do a good job continually as they demonstrate that they don’t actually believe what they are saying most of the time.

        Your argument that the worker’s “bad” belief will affect the quality of their work in the future is undermined by the fact that you have no evidence that it has affected the quality of their work in the past. Effectively, you’re saying, “Forget the evidence, my irrational suspicion about the influence of their irrational belief is more important.”

        Which isn’t very rational.

        Seems like Dawkins et. al. want us to give them permission to discriminate on the basis of their suspicion that a “bad” belief will lead to bad work, even if there is no evidence that the “bad” belief on the part of this worker has led to bad work. Is that really the argument that they want to make?

        1. Seems like Dawkins et. al. want us to give them permission to discriminate on the basis of their suspicion that a “bad” belief will lead to bad work, even if there is no evidence that the “bad” belief on the part of this worker has led to bad work.

          How much hiring and firing have you done? Because, if you do a good job hiring, you don’t have to do much firing.

          I don’t care how much experience a candidate has in answering phones and filing, I’m not hiring him to be the receptionist at Planned Parenthood if he tells me that he’s a vocal opponent of women’s right to choose.

          1. Perhaps that would be wise: nevertheless, tea-totallers may be the best of bartenders.

            It depends on the specifics of the job, and the specifics of the conduct occasioned by the candidates’ beliefs.

            Sometimes they may conflict: but sometimes that conflict is only apparent, and in fact may even be a hidden virtue.

  7. A good character to consider here is Jack Parsons.


    Rocket Scientist, co-founder of the JPL, pioneer of solid rocket fuel and JATO units – and yet he managed to combine hard experimental science with a collection of occult beliefs and practices, Thelema, the OTO, etc.

    His religious beliefs didn’t seem to get in the way of his performance as a scientist and an engineer.

    I would argue that wasn’t because they were “religious” and therefore protected by statute (the protection available to such unconventional beliefs would have been very limited anyway), but because chanting a hymn to the great god PAN before a test launch isn’t going to affect the outcome one way or another, so if it made him happy, why not?

    1. So if religion beliefs don’t impact someone’s work, would you get brain surgery from a stork-theory doctor? Would you let an excellent teacher who is also a Jihadist Muslim teach your children about moral philosophy?

      How far does your utilitarian indifference go?

      The issue for me is not whether the person is doing a good job, but whether I can continually trust them to make rational decisions.

      If someone was schizophrenic, delusional, or had any other traits of occasionally hyper-irrationality, yet was considered very good at a specific task, would you trust them in the same way?

      1. Yes, because, as you have said, they are excellent at their job. If they fall below specified criteria, they can be sacked. And tolerating believing shit other people think is stupid is not the same as letting schizophrenics pilot aircraft or suchnot. I have a friend who implicitly believes in the 2012/Nibiru/Planet X/Chemtrails/insert conspiracy of the week hogwash, despite my best attempts to dissuade her, yet I would trust her with my child’s life. She’s fucking nuts, yeah, but she’s okay. That’s how I’d apply it.

        I’m demanding a public apology from her on Jan 1st 2013, mind.

  8. The prohibition against religious discrimination always struck me as odd. The areas usually protected against being singled out against (Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Disability) are beyond the applicants control.

    Adding religion to the mix is almost a statement that no one can control what religion they are. That religion is as immutable as the color of your skin.

    It’d be unthinkable to ask someone to defend their physical disability. Is it unrealistic to ask someone to defend their beliefs?

    1. “Adding religion to the mix is almost a statement that no one can control what religion they are. That religion is as immutable as the color of your skin.”

      No. You claim two different things here, clearly believing that they are the same. People’s beliefs change, but people don’t just believe what they want to! That would be denial; the suppression of the knowledge that a certain thing appears to be true.
      I can no more start believing I’m a duck than I can decide to fall in love with the next stranger I meet.
      I could become a Mormon, if I wanted to, but I would have to lie. Maybe to others, maybe just to myself.
      The issue here is not so much what club somebody belongs to, but what they think is true.

  9. Most people, when seeing the word discrimination think of the first definition (unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice) rather than the second (the cognitive process whereby two or more stimuli are distinguished). Obviously unfair treatment is not a good plan.

    But in general, do I believe that making a difference based on what people believe is appropriate? No. I don’t want any employer asking me, or anyone else, personal questions about our beliefs. Now differentiating based on our ACTIONS, that’s a different matter. If a candidate goes and speaks at conferences about how the Nazis were right, the earth is flat, we need to practice quiverful lives, etc, then this becomes something public. By making it a public matter, it becomes fair game for questions, and potentially for differentiating between candidates.

    For what it’s worth, I do believe Mr. Gaskell fell into this category, having participated in at least one conference.

    Furthermore, I do realize how much this sounds like “don’t ask, don’t tell” a policy I opposed with respect to the military. But I actually think that the differentiator is that presentations at academic conferences are fairly considered part of one’s professional life, while one’s sex life is irrelevant to one’s professional life. At least that’s how I rationalize it.

  10. We discriminate between candidates for a job all the time: we discriminate based on education level, experience, etc. But the characteristic on which we base ourselves has to have a proven impact on job performance. We could not for example discriminate against red-haired people if there is no evidence that having red hair would lead to a poor performance. The same goes for religion: yes if it has an impact it should be a valid argument against a candidate. The problem in the original example was that there was no evidence that the guy’s religion interfered with his work and so disqualifying him would amount to bigotry.

    1. @Forkboy, re, “But the characteristic on which we base ourselves has to have a proven impact on job performance. We could not for example discriminate against red-haired people if there is no evidence that having red hair would lead to a poor performance.”

      Actually (at least in the US), you can discriminate against someone for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with job performance, as long as they’re not the protected classes of gender, race, age, etc.

      You can decide not to hire someone as a chemist because they golf, or don’t golf. You can refuse to hire short people (unless it’s a shortness covered by the ADA), ugly people, people who like Disco, Packers’ fans or people who don’t like your cooking.

      As far as whether it’s OK to discriminate based on religious beliefs in a job setting, I think I’d have to ask specific questions relative to the job requirements. Though religious myself, I don’t support a blanket immunity for religious opinions that contradict the needs of the job. If you can’t work on Sunday because of your religious beliefs, and you want a job at a place that requires weekend work… I’d file that under tough luck. Our religions require us to make choices about our behavior; they shouldn’t adversely affect somebody else’s choices.

      Same for that absurd British court case re wife beating. The law trumps religion. At least in secular states where there is a separation of the two. You don’t get to kill enemies of your church because you think God told you to. You don’t get to walk in and take my stuff because Loki supports your right to steal religiously.

      I want the freedom to practice my religion, but within a framework that allows for universal and reasonable co-practice; that is, the practice of your religious views shouldn’t inconvenience me or make my social systems less robust. A country that allows sect-specific beatings, mutilations, etc. will be foisting the ongoing costs of those behaviors on the rest of us. If your practice doesn’t interfere with mine or my life, knock yourself out. Otherwise… make the choice. Live by the rules of the country you’re in.

  11. A statement as to the characteristics uniting the members of a set is itself necessarily outside of that set.

    True or false? or irrelevant? Please give examples.

    1. If you’re not careful with that we’re going to be making perfect record players and unplayable sounds all afternoon.

    2. False.

      Consider the set of all characteristics regarding sets. This set has characteristics which are also in the set.

      1. Careful. The set of all characteristics regarding sets is not a characteristic belonging to sets; and is thus outside the set of all characteristics regarding sets. Spoiler: that is going to happen every time you make it self-referential.

        @Ugly Canuck: it’ll be Godel numbers next.

        1. Ah yes, Ugly Canuck’s original post was talking about a statement. A statement is not a characteristic.

          So I’ll change to:

          Consider the set of all statements. A statement regarding the characteristics of that set is a statement. It is therefore in the set it is describing.

          Did I understand the problem correctly this time?

          1. Better, but then consider the statement “This statement is not a member of the set of all statements”. If you are concerned that the statements must also be true, this always happens. If you don’t care if your statement is true, you’re spot on.

          2. “This statement is not a member of the set of all statements.”

            That statement is simply false – and thus uninteresting. You don’t need to look beyond it, to see that it is so.

            That statement is one of the set of all statements, more specifically, which may be called self-evidently false.

            Unlike the statement preceding this one.

          3. Statements about statements are less interesting than statements about things that are not statements.


      2. Are you sure you can still call such a set a set? Perhaps imprecise use of the concept set allows such a set to exist, whereas it should properly be called a meta-set. Can such a set be proven to exist?

        1. Even a set of sets is a set. And a meta-X is still an X. Anything that is not an X cannot be a meta-X.

          The set of all statements is a real set. I won’t write it here because it is infinite. And also because some of the statements are offensive to left-handed people.

  12. While not directly analogous, and most probably irrelevant to your thesis, when you mention the astronomer who, on his off hours, believes in a young Earth/Cosmos, I think of the quantum physicist. I personally do not claim to understand the mathematics which such scientists describe reality at the quantum level, but surely they have to do so in a similar state of suspended belief. They believe certain things about the make-up of reality which directly contradict what they believe possible in their own lives. In a way, this state of affairs is worse than the hypothetical young-Earther, since these individuals can claim to provide proofs for both systems, while the astronomer does not have proofs of a young Earth—indeed all evidence worth the name points in the contrary position.

    I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m disagreeing with you. I assure you that this isn’t the case at all.

  13. Should an employer ignore someone’s private beliefs? If they want to. But some people would like to use their money to promote an agenda, maybe they want to be surrounded by people they like and of a like mind.

    I do not like people who hold personal beliefs that are anti-woman, and personal freedom, etc… Hiring someone you want to punch in the face daily seems dumb. If I was a business owner I’d pretty much only want to hire atheists with similar concepts of right, wrong, and purpose.

  14. How closely intertwined are the mutually contradictory beliefs? … Do we all from time to time, in a mild way, accommodate mutually contradictory beliefs inside our heads?

    As a solid-state scientist I have no problem in treating a solid as a collection of hard spheres packed together, or as a collection of points attached by springs, or as an electron gas subject to a periodic potential, or even as a collection of imaginary non-interacting particles subject to a potential taken from an entirely different system, depending on what particular property I’m looking at.

    Of course, these are all explicitly models rather than what I imagine is “actually” going on inside my solid, but the fact that I am able to do this without experiencing the slightest cognitive dissonance suggests to me that this sort of doublethink may be easier than one might expect.

    1. Things “in themselves” are unknowable: all reason (and thus science) has is models.

      Didn’t Immanuel Kant come to some such conclusion?

      Ah yes, here we are:


      (Only linked to that particular page as a suggested starting point for those interested.)

  15. We should definitely discriminate beliefs that are obviously harmful to others. While the notion that the Earth is flat is silly, it shouldn’t cause harm to anyone unless the belief-holder is captain of an oil tanker. Whereas the belief that women should occasionally be disciplined is directly harmful to people and can not be tolerated (I don’t know what the judge was thinking, but she grossly violated German Basic Law with her verdict. It may have to do with being politically correct to the point of absurdity and also general confusion about the role of the church in German society. For instance the catholic and the evangelical church are granted rights they should not have, since under German Basic Law church and state are seperate. Yet there are state-sponsored public schools run by either church, crucifixes hanging on classroom walls in public schools, church taxes collected by the German state and priests who can decide for themselves whether or not they want to investigate colleagues accused of child abuse.)

    If you discriminate against just any silly belief when hiring someone to do a job, you will basically not have anyone to hire, since you’ll probably find that even people who describe themselves as atheists are capable of superstition and whatnot.

  16. I don’t think this relativism is as widespread as you claim. The examples you gave horrified me and I suspect would have the same effect on most people in Europe. Politicians do have a tendency towards relativism though probably because they don’t want to alienate potential voters and unfortunately are quick to condemn everyone who takes a stand on these issues “right wing” and “islamophobic.” I think that’s a major factor of the success certain populist political parties have been having across Europe.

  17. tl:dr? here’s a summary of Mr Dawkins post:

    In a previous post I said that I thought it was perfectly alright to not employ people based on their religion, even if they were very qualified for the job in question. I was shocked (shocked I tell you!) to find many of you did not agree with this!

    “But my main purpose today is to move on…”

    I still think its OK to discriminate against people based on their religion and here are a few ridiculously extreme examples to support my viewpoint.

    “If there are some people who cannot accept even this baseline [then they are idiots which I will dismiss in a condescending manner].”

    1. I can see your point, but I think dawkins made it pretty clear that he just wanted to establish that there are some situations which exist on his argument’s side of the fence (as of course there are situations which fall on the other). I know they are ridiculous situations perhaps, but his point was simply that the existence of sets of circumstance which fall into two distinct spaces implies that there must be some region in the middle where a step too far pushes one into the neighboring space. Given that, although it may be difficult to characterize when precisely this occurs, the argument of a universal “NO” can’t stand, being that there is some sort of gradient on which each circumstance may lie. (or perhaps the boundary is so fuzzy as to not even be defined, which would also serve dawkins’ point)

      Since you find the examples he gave absurd, yet I’m sure are aware of others in which the opposite viewpoint is vindicated, I ask you this: can you imagine scaling his examples back piece by piece, lessening the magnitude of absurdity until they fall into a region acceptable to you for reasonable discussion? If so, then we’ve discovered the region of circumstance dawkins was attempting to prove existed. And such a region’s existence therefore precludes the universal “NO” answer before any discussion even begins, given that at some point a thoughtful person must entertain an argument; it becomes obvious that a universal answer cannot hold in this region.

      That’s all I believe he meant to say. I don’t think it was his intention to force you to agree that sometimes people should be discriminated against by posing absurd cases. He just wanted to illustrate that a range of cases implies a gradient of some sort, which precludes an overly simplistic one-size-fits-all answer.

  18. I suppose we must differentiate religious beliefs from philosophical beliefs because at some level, philosophical beliefs are personal whereas religious beliefs belong to a segment of the population. At some level, it is different to decide that one person is a wacko than a measurable segment of the population is wacko. Or, more cynically, maybe it is harder (on a personal and on financial level)for a single person to fight against discrimination than for a person with a support group of similarly minded people. Aside from that, most popular religions have been recognised as such by governments; they are officially sanctioned systems of belief.Should it matter? Probably not. I think that for the most part, perspective employers should know as little about the personal lives of perspective employees as possible. For the most part, our personal beliefs and habits do not affect our ability to do a job. To use the example of the astronomer again (sorry) I think that we need a better idea of the actual responsibilities of the job. For instance, if the role he is fulfilling is simple to perform and direct scientific research, and he is able to put aside his beliefs in order to be consistent with current scientific knowledge, then there is probably no reason not to give him the job. If the job entails interaction with students, the media, or the general public he would have to be willing to speak scientifically as well, as he would be (or could be) seen to be expressing the university’s official stance. Employees do not generally have the privilege of making their employer look bad or foolish. If the astronomer was likely to tell students or the media that while scientific evidence suggests the age of the universe at billions of years, it was in fact only 6000 years old, the institution would have a legitimate concern.

    As to the ability to hold contradictory beliefs; the human mind is very flexible. It seems to me it is like am extreme case of playing the devil’s advocate. We all have, at some level, the ability to imagine arguments contradictory to our beliefs; some of us were even taught to do so for the purposes of debate. We cannot adequately defend our own position if we cannot envisage what arguments our opponent might make in order to refute them. I am very good at it when I wish to be; it irritates people to no end. I don’t think I would want to live that way though. Perhaps it depends on the nature and strength of the belief…

  19. I wonder if he’d see a problem with a University discriminating against a materialist for some kind of Humanities professorship because the chair believes a materialist wouldn’t be able to adequately explain or describe, say, Milton or Blake.
    It’s as though Dawkins believes absolutely that the war between the scientific ( scientism) world-view and all competing views has been settled, and his efforts are dedicated to placing scientism in a position of absolute authority. It’s far from settled, and there is no indication it will ever be.

  20. I’m sorry, but I think #2 is *the* critical assertion.

    The issue is that I, as an atheist, consider belief in a magic man in the sky to be about as absurd a belief as one can have. The only thing that makes it slightly less ridiculous than the stork or the flat earth is that you can actually *see* that babies being born, as you can see the curvature of the earth at high altitude. But in general, there are all kinds of less obvious proofs that what most of the religious texts say are not true.

    But I also recognize that many, in fact most (if not all), humans who have ever lived, have held disparate viewpoints simultaneously. If I discounted people for holding what I deem to be contradictory views, I would have no one left to work with.

    And the judgment of some beliefs as “ridiculous” or “absurd” is a dangerous thing. I do not belief that all facts are due equal respect; I do believe that discrimination of people based upon the set of facts they believe in opens society up to discriminate against all sorts of things. It’s like this: I don’t think that everything you do in your house is equally good. As an example, I don’t think watching hours of television is healthy. But I don’t think I should be able to set up a camera in your house to judge you, and I don’t think I should be able to use your TV watching habits as a way not to hire you.

    The capacity to hold viewpoints which oppose in different contexts is part of the structure of how our neural networks learn. It is not surprising. We have different holon structures, all taken from experience, layered on top of each other.

    And the reality is that the people doing the hiring will also have all kinds of biases. What I say I should do is different from what I actually might think if a job candidate told me that s/he watches 6 hours of TV a day. I freely admit that I would discriminate. That doesn’t mean I should have a right to.

    If someone is good at their jobs, they are good. If they are not, they are not. There are arguably some important side issues like, “are they pleasant to work with?” But while questioning motivations is incredibly human (we are social creatures after all), it is also more dangerous, societally, than just letting the actions speak for themselves.

  21. I wanted to find a baseline of agreement, which would enable us to set Question 2 on one side, while we went on to the other questions.

    The problem with the question is that, in attempting to construct a baseline of agreement, you presented us with an impossible, self-contradictory strawman.

    You asked us to believe that there could be a geographer who was both a flat-Earther and an otherwise good candidate for the job. This hypothetical person is easy to discriminate against because they can’t possibly exist. It would be akin to asking if we should discriminate against an airplane designer who was both good at his job and believed wings weren’t necessary.

    This is why it’s proving so difficult for many commentators to “set question 2 aside.” Because no believable example has been provided that are a clear case for discrimination.

    Rather than base the argument on non-existant flat-Earthers, are there any real-world examples that you could give us that would actually be clear-cut cases for discrimination of an otherwise-good candidate based on belief?

  22. As an atheist in the United States, I see protections against religious discrimination as helpful to non-christians. I am not in academia and I assume that my experience is very different than that of Mr. Dawkins. What I keep thinking is: if it’s ok to discriminate based on beliefs, what stops Christians from discriminating against non-Christians? Who’s to say which beliefs are absurd or ridiculous? My current employer believes that it is ridiculous to not believe in the divinity of Jesus. Is it okay for him to discriminate based on that? Who gets to decide? Is it up to the employer? Shall the government create a list of acceptable or ridiculous beliefs? Can you see our Congress doing that?

  23. > “We are entirely dependent on sensory input to determine our reality, and we know that it is not terribly reliable, the refutations of positivism are numerous and part of several emergent philosophical positions”

    This is a statement that philosophers of many shades have embraced to try and justify their existance, but it is false. Individual observations using any of the senses can have some degree of unreliability, as can our memory of them (the degree of which is *very* situation and person dependent), however humans have been pretty good at making a sufficiently coherent view of reality when taking all input in aggregate over time. While the degree of detail largely depends on the degree of interest, when people see a Douglas Fir they are near universally in agreement about the nature of the tree. David Hume tried to challenge induction by claiming that observations aren’t perfect, but what he and every other philosopher of similar mindset have failed to grasp is that we don’t need perfect – we just need “good enough” (where the margin of error to determine “good enough” varies with application).

    As for the original question and follow up questions, let me just remind people that religious descrimination is already widespread and embraced. I moved to mormon land recently, and when originally looking for a job prior to the move the mormon church popped up quite a lot on job boards with jobs in my field. They explicitely state that being mormon is a hard and fast requirement even though the jobs had nothing to do with religion other than the corporations that happened to employ you. Every religious corporation from the Vatican to the Southern Baptist Convention require you to be of their belief, and society accepts that. It isn’t enough for a person to know the beliefs and be willing to promote them for money (though I suspect some people are that way, but are thorough about their deception) but rather religious organizations require you to be a follower.

    This incidentally spreads to tangentially related fields – the executives of catholic, baptist, and methodist hospitals have to be the appropriate type of believers. Similarly with religious charities. We descriminate against beliefs all the time in the name of other beliefs, at the work place.

    So why then, is it not ok for a job that requires strong emperical skills to require its candidate to showcase said skills in all aspects of their life, including what they choose to believe?

    The constitution says you are free to believe what you want and that the government will not endorse one belief over others. It does not say that your belief is free from societal cost, or that it won’t endorse the secular laws over your beliefs. Life functions on descrimination, on deciding one choice is inferior to another. Our choices are not the product of random chance. People who balk at the word descrimination don’t seem to grasp that. Descrimination is not wrong – descriminating on particular qualities that have no bearing and are intrinsicly part of a person (skin color, gender, etc) is what is considered wrong.

    1. Sorry to be a spelling troll, but “descriminate” isn’t a word and considering that the title of the article we are commenting on is “Further reflections on discrimination” it’s amazing you could get the word wrong in various verb tenses as well.
      Really am sorry.

    2. … let me just remind people that religious descrimination is already widespread and embraced.
      …They explicitely state that being mormon is a hard and fast requirement even though the jobs had nothing to do with religion other than the corporations that happened to employ you. Every religious corporation from the Vatican to the Southern Baptist Convention require you to be of their belief, and society accepts that.

      Well, according to the US EEOC, these are be violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
      And yet, you are correct: religious organizations (and non-religious ones as well, I’m sure) routinely discriminate based on religious views that don’t concern the job description.

      I don’t support discrimination based on religious views, which does also mean that I don’t support discriminating against religious people occupying secular or scientific positions as long as their views do not affect their work.

      Is this the argument used by religious organizations to let them violate the civil right act? That all work done in a religious organization, even non-religious work, would be negatively impacted by non-believers? Does the act specifically exclude religious organizations in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st amendment? I honestly don’t know, but I’m curious if anyone does.

  24. You bring up several quite distinct issues here, e.g.:
    (1) Is it alright to hire a flat-earther to teach geography if he does so diligently according to established round-earth science?
    (2) Is it alright to allow wife-beating and clitoridectomy, which is otherwise unlawful, on religious grounds?

    I thought a lot about (1) the first time you wrote about it. In the end I decided it would be alright as long as the flat-earther never let his belief interfere with his job and as long as there were no better qualified applicant with a more mainstream belief. The only victim is the flat-earther himself, whose beliefs are constantly in conflict with his work. Something to be pitied, for sure, but it would be his own choice.

    (2), OTOH, I consider unacceptable because the religious beliefs of some, however common, should never allow them to victimize others.

    All in all, I think my philosophy can be summed up as “Do and believe what you want, as long as you don’t thereby cause others to be physically or mentally hurt.” (By ‘mentally hurt’ I mean lasting harm, not just hurt sensibilities.)

    BTW, the topic of halal butchering is brought up from time to time by a right-wing party in Denmark, but gets derailed every time because veterinarians say it is NOT any more cruel than regular butchering, in part because the law requires the animals to be sedated before any kind of butchering.

  25. Saying that an employer should be able to discriminate, say, against an astronomer who believes that Mars is a mongoose egg is to say that the context doesn’t matter. What about an astronomer who believes Mars is a mongoose egg, and yet produces excellent research? Whose scientific work is exemplary, and has increased the understanding of his field? Should an employer be able to discriminate against this individual just because of his beliefs? Or to put it another way, it sounds like you would be comfortable (and I would agree) with discriminating against an astronomer who was applying for a job, and about whom all we knew was that he was a Mongoosian; but what about someone who has been employed for decades, been a brilliant researcher, excellent teacher, and friendly with all the staff, about whom it was then discovered that he was a Mongoosian – would discrimination be justified then?

  26. Mr Dawkins, I read your last article, and after the initial “ugh that doesnt sound very nice” thoughts have come around to think that you are more or less right, at least from a theoretical point of view. But in my real world experience (highly technical work) I have found that religious people (Christians, Muslims, Hindus) are often good workers, where as when I have had to work with hardcore atheists, they are often are not good performers, and not team players. (again this is my experience and of course is not the rule) I dont have an explanation for this, but if I had chosen my workers based on belief system I would have missed out on some really smart and reliable workers. People should have the chance to prove themselves with their work. I could care less if they believe that the world is 6000 years old as long as they can crank out good code :)

  27. Dawkins is right that point 2 is the sticking point, but he just doesn’t seem to get the fact that this is not about the emotive nature of the word “discrimination”, or because his examples aren’t absurd enough, or because all opinions are worthy of equal respect. It’s not about any of that. It’s about the fact that if someone, on an objective, evidential basis, is the best person for the job (the best eye doctor in his example), then the fact they hold eccentric or even absurd or completely wrong views on some unrelated, irrelevant topic is no basis to wreck their career. How difficult is that to understand?

    In his world, we’d have highly qualified people consigned to we know not where, while less competent people poke around ineptly inside eyeballs solely because they have clearly repudiated storks. This is rational thinking?

    1. Your comment presents a straw man argument.

      The sad part is, that we do indeed have the world you set up as a straw man.

      If you believe as the boss does you get the job, if you don’t, you don’t.

      So there.

      Now if you want to talk about fair, do you want a court telling you that someone is the better applicant for a job?

      Why is the system we have, which discriminates (distinguishes) between: Handshake, does he look at you when he speaks or does he avoid eye contact?, personality tests, and IQ tests. Why is this better?

  28. I am loving this essay.

    “Do we all from time to time, in a mild way, accommodate mutually contradictory beliefs inside our heads?”

    Probably the most persistent theme in all Sir Terry Pratchett’s excellent Discworld books. The answer is YES and it’s AMAZING!

  29. We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. – Thomas Jefferson

    Shouldn’t all scholars adopt these words as their motto? Isn’t this the very essence of what “academic freedom” is all about? Once we start trying to suppress ideas we disagree with, by ostracizing the scholars who hold those ideas, we become dogmatists, not scientists. Legitimate science confronts error with reason and open debate, not with excommunication. If you feel an overwhelming need to purge “heretics” from your fellowship, perhaps you ought to consider a career in the clergy instead of the academy.

    1. Isn’t that the way of religious reformers and anti-religionists from time immemorial: deny the content, amp up the volume and rhetoric, of those one ostensibly disagrees with?

      Perhaps Dawkins could simply put forth a case, a modest proposal if you will, for the usefulness of anti-religious prejudice: as weeding out the non-scientifically-minded, as less harmful that prejudice that’s theistically derived, etc. At least then he’d be able to argue for his beliefs openly and truly, and not put himself in the unenviable position of arguing against a set of beliefs and positions while using intensified and more virulent habits of mind, rhetoric, language, etc. drawn from his so-called opponents. Kinda like what Stephen Dedalus says about remaining Catholic qua becoming Protestant: “What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”

    2. As a matter of fact, any scholar worth their salt DOES, at least implicitly, operate from that position. What Prof. Dawkins is describing (at least as far as I can tell) is a failure to abide by that most critical final clause: “so long as reason is left free to combat it.” The flat-earth geographer has specifically prevented reason from combating his errors. Yes, it is important to investigate all avenues in the search for answers, even if they seem improbable or absurd at the outset. But to continue to follow those paths IN SPITE of all logic, reason, and contradictory evidence is not only the mark of a poor academic, but in an entirely non-pejorative sense it is a mark of fundamentally disordered thinking.

  30. In the US it is legal to discriminate based on belief in the way Prof. Dawkins suggests. For example a Synagogue seeking to hire a new Rabbi can declare as a Bona Fide Occupational Requirement “Must be Jewish” logically excluding the set people subscribing to all other religious beliefs from candidacy. But, there is a legal test for intention which can be difficult to pass.


    I suspect the University settled to avoid the legal costs they would incur to demonstrate that their decision passed the test. Further I would guess that they did wish to draw ire from their Christians boosters.

  31. Rather than base the argument on non-existant flat-Earthers, are there any real-world examples that you could give us that would actually be clear-cut cases for discrimination of an otherwise-good candidate based on belief?

    The case that started this is clear cut; a cosmologist who routinely observes objects more than 6,000 light years away believing the universe is only 6,000 years old is as ridiculous as flat-earth geographers, etc.

    What needs to be judged is whether Gaskell’s appointment is more damaging than his discrimination. Neither appears good, so which is least bad?

    1. The case that started this is clear cut; a cosmologist who routinely observes objects more than 6,000 light years away believing the universe is only 6,000 years old is as ridiculous as flat-earth geographers, etc.

      See, this was exactly the problem with Mr. Dawkin’s first post, which is that, although he explicitly stated that Mr. Gaskell did not believe the Earth was 6000 years old, he did so in a confusing way and many people like yourself appeared to have left thinking this was the case.

      A cosmologist who believes the Earth is 6000 years old is just as self-contradictory and strawman-y as the flat-Earth geographer or the aerospace engineer who doesn’t believe planes need wings. These are not honest, possible examples.

      Still hoping for a believable clear-cut example where a candidates work can be exemplar yet we could still discriminate against them based on their beliefs.

      1. “Still hoping for a believable clear-cut example where a candidates work can be exemplar yet we could still discriminate against them based on their beliefs.”

        That, I think, is the point. RD was quite correct in the original article (IMO) to put the actual case to one side and posit this as a corner case. I think you won’t find a clearer example than the two he set.

        I’m still astonished that an educated person, brought up in a democratic system, and having drawn the lines so succinctly, would come down on the side of the argument that he did.

      2. “A cosmologist who believes the Earth is 6000 years old is just as self-contradictory and strawman-y as the flat-Earth geographer or the aerospace engineer who doesn’t believe planes need wings. These are not honest, possible examples.”

        The cosmologist isn’t THAT impossible. Improbable, perhaps.

        Potential thought process as follows:
        1: God created the world six thousand years ago, give or take.
        2: God created the world to look like it was created billions of years ago
        3: God must have had a reason.
        4: Wouldn’t it be _fascinating_ to figure out what that is?

        And suddenly we have a cosmologist who believes that God created the world 6000 years ago, but is exceedingly interested in trying to figure out how the universe works and why, in the context of a billion year old universe.

        As for Dawkins’ desire for more discrimination: We, the human race, have tried belief-based discrimination for many a year. The clause against “religious discrimination” isn’t there because we decided religions were special and needed to be protected; it’s there because people have never been good at tolerating people who believe differently from them about important things, and religions just happen to have been the biggest, most obvious of them. Historically, these attempts at discrimination have never turned out well. I don’t trust you to run a new one, any more than I would trust the Pope or the president.

        And whatever you discriminate on will end up in the courts, and they’ll decide if you can or can’t. And it’ll end up as law, or anti-law. And there will be people determining which beliefs are protected and which are not, and which aren’t allowed of public servants, and which aren’t allowed in publicly traded companies…

        So yeah. People with crazy beliefs can and should be able to have jobs any jobs, as long as they can do the jobs in question. Because the alternative — a thought-police — is worse.

        On the other hand, here’s a straw man:

        Joe is an awesome nuclear weapons engineer. His reviews claim that he’s one of the best, his peers brag about having worked with him. He’s applied for a job in the US army, working with their nuclear weapons and power plants.

        His religious beliefs, based on his facebook page, show that he belongs to a small cult that believes that life is meaningless and the world ought to perish in fire. The sooner the better. His profile picture is a globe dotted with mushroom clouds. When questioned, he admitted to being part of the cult, but claims that it would not affect his ability to do the job.

        I would choose to discriminate against him.

      3. Still hoping for a believable clear-cut example where a candidates work can be exemplar yet we could still discriminate against them based on their beliefs.

        My point, apparently poorly made, is that the clear-cut example isn’t necessary, as it doesn’t provide any more clarity. So we might as well stick with young-earth-cosmologist and not bring any flat-earth-geographers into the argument. What’s required is judgement as to what causes more damage, posting a scientific/academic candidate with a reluctance or refusal to apply skepticism to pertinent beliefs or preventing the posting because of those beliefs.

        I don’t want to promote religious persecution, but neither do I wish to see scientific progress stifled within the institutions set up to promote that. When I judge in favour one way, it is not because I think the other is without merit, or that I will judge the same way in all cases. Any clear-cut example I could give would simply be one case, and not indicative of how I would judge in the Gaskell case if I had all the facts.

  32. Dishonest bullshit like this is why I stopped arguing with religious fundamentalists. They ask a question, and when they don’t get the answer they want, they ignore it.

    The previous post asked us if we would discriminate against a worker who held a belief that we thought to be incompatible with good work. The expected response was an unqualified “yes”. Instead the response was a qualified “no”. As in, “If the worker produced good work, then no, I would not discriminate against them merely because I had thought their belief to be incompatible with good work.”

    That sort of reasonable response is apparently unacceptable.

    And now it’s an endorsement of abuse, mutilation, and murder.

    Should the law take a more lenient view of a wife-beater if he could plead that his behaviour was mandated by his holy book? This was explicitly done in recent years by a (female) judge in Germany. As the New York Times reported, Judge Christa Datz-Winter “cited the verse in the Koran that speaks of a husband’s prerogatives in disciplining his wife”. The judge further justified her decision on the grounds that “In this cultural background, it is not unusual that the husband uses physical violence against the wife.” This judge not only allowed religion to over-rule human decency, she also allowed it to over-rule the law of Germany in the particular case of a couple who were Muslims.

    This is the sort of evidence that would make Glenn Beck proud. Bravo, Dawkins.

    1. But my main purpose today is to move on and raise – though not necessarily answer – some further issues raised by this whole discussion, which I think are genuinely interesting.

      Dawkins has said explicitly that he is discussing whether we should allow a person’s religion to change our minds about the appropriateness of that person’s actions. That is, the rest of his paper concerns question 4, not question 2.

      You could say he’s ignoring your complaints about question 2, but to say it you’d have to ignore what he said about question 2.

  33. I suspect that a young man who had written a PhD thesis on the moral philosophy of pacifism might have been given a harder time.

    I am a member of a local Selective Service board (formerly known as a Draft Board). As far as I can tell, from the guidance and training that we are given, as long as the thesis was his own work and not a product of an online research paper factory, we would have no problem with using that document as evidence of his conscience.

  34. Thank you for taking onboard the responses to your previous article.

    “Suppose you are one of those who will allow a yes answer to Question 2, and are prepared to contemplate at least some discrimination, say against flat-earthers.”

    No. Look. Discrimination against anyone on the grounds of belief, religious or otherwise, is just plain wrong. Certainly you can discriminate on the grounds of how these people *behave*. But that’s not the same thing at all.

    I’d accept your flat-earther as a geography teacher — if he was good at it, and taught the actual syllabus rather than what he believed. I’d discriminate against him as a motor mechanic if he wanted to talk about flat-earthery rather than fix cars.

  35. “A good example is the astronomer who publishes respectable work, involving calculations assuming that the universe is billions of years old, while privately holding the contradictory belief that it is only thousands of years old.”

    It’s slightly embarassing for him I guess, but otherwise there’s genuinely no problem. Surely the whole point of any scientific endeavour is to investigate the world empirically and act upon those findings whether they concur with your own beliefs or not? Your semi-hypothetical astronomer appears to be an individual who thus epitomises such scientific rigour, despite his curious beliefs.

    You seem to struggle enormously with this concept, the notion that people can believe something, whilst simultaneously “knowing” something else. You suggest this situation is anomalous, but in my experience it’s something the vast majority of humans are guilty/ capable of. Perhaps your real question is whether an individual can hold such opposite beliefs without experiencing some dissonance between them, which ultimately might lead them to becoming biased? That’s a fair question, but again, that’s true of all of us, and we can at least say of our astronomer that he has experience managing these difficult challenges. If he should find something that does not fit with what was previously expected, it seems to me that he may be more willing to accept it and explore further, than would an astronomer who has never had his world view challenged.

    What would you do, if your own work were to suddenly provide evidence to suggest that all the beliefs you held dear were wrong? Would you happily embrace it, and instantly revise your own beliefs up to that moment? I think it’s unlikely. What I would hope is that you would keep studiously examining the issue, in the hope of ascertaining the truth. What, exactly, is wrong with that?

  36. Two things have been nagging at me during this and the previous post…

    First, the reductio ad absurdum, and then the swipe at commenters under the ‘relativism’ smear.

    I tried to dispose of it by reductio ad absurdum. I postulated hypothetical extremes (flat earth geographer, stork theory doctor, astronomer who thinks Mars is a mongoose egg). I presumed that everybody would agree to discriminate against such obviously preposterous extremes, and that we would therefore have a non-controversial baseline from which to move on to more subtle questions.

    It’s been said at least once but bears repeating — the original examples are self-contradictory. You posit an actor whose beliefs (A) are ostensibly incompatible with a set of tasks (B), but has not demonstrated such an incompatibility (!B); in fact, the actor has executed the tasks quite well. Your stated goal in the reduction was to set a baseline for agreement, namely that the belief is sufficiently likely to cause a task failure that discrimination is warranted.

    P1: A (actor holds beliefs — flat earth, stork)
    P2: B (tasks are performed quite well — geography, eye care)
    Baseline assertion: A->!B (beliefs will cause task failure of some degree)

    Your problem is that your baseline cannot follow from your premises. If P1 and P2 are both true, the assumption is necessarily false, and therefore many commenters are willing to reject your assumption in favor of the stated premises. Your expressed desire to make the beliefs as absurd as possible combine with your conclusion to indicate that you are willing to contradict your own premise. As someone said in the first post’s comments, you can’t have it both ways; either the belief impacts the task or it does not. If it impacts the tasks, you can base your decisions on the tasks, not the belief. If it does not impact the task (which is the evidence presented by the premise), then why would you discriminate?

    Finally, be careful not to confuse tolerance with relativism, or relativism with absolute relativism. There is a vast difference between “I can tolerate her beliefs because she’s a good eye surgeon” and “She’s a good surgeon, so her beliefs must be founded”. There is also a vast difference between “mine is the only true belief” and “all beliefs are true”.

    1. Amen!

      Doesn’t he understand the difference between accepting an absurd premise for the sake of argument and actually believing it to be factual?

    2. Isn’t lack of information an issue though? Given that you may not know more about an applicant for a job as a geography teacher than that he believes in a flat earth, wouldn’t it be wise to discriminate given a lack of any further information?

      Of course though, if the idea is to entertain the idea of absurd belief in the face of fine performance, then the belief becomes irrelevant owing to the fact that only the performance should matter. I don’t think that he is really asking us to hold both characteristics in mind and even so, make a judgement based solely on the absurd belief, is he?

      1. If that was all that you knew about the candidate, unfair discrimination would not be necessary: the person may be fairly (and accurately) judged incompetent from that one given and known fact alone.

        It goes without saying that discrimination between options is essential and prior to any choice amongst those options.

        IMO this discussion centers more on a question of the fairness of the criteria used to discriminate, or of the legitimacy of the use of those criteria, rather than of the justification of the need to discriminate.

        Hmmm. Saying that took a lotta ‘of’.

  37. Some real-world observations that may pertain to the discussion.

    Our small software development company hires people from time to time. When we do so, we extensively interview each candidate and are careful to ask questions that pertain only to the job the applicant will be expected to perform. However, in our post-interview comparison of notes when we are discussing the merits of candidate A versus candidate B, there is obviously discussion on technical merits but there is also a discussion as to how well the candidate will “fit” into our workplace culture – and this “fit” is almost always based on impressions derived from how the person presented themselves during the interview. Did they flinch if one of us slipped and let an expletive fly? Did they laugh at our lame jokes? Did they speak understandable English? It is this type of “fit” that determines how easy or how difficult it will be to work with a particular candidate on a daily basis. Will they fit in with the culture of our business/family/tribe? If we will have to expend significant effort remembering the cultural/religious/belief limitations that will necessarily surround our daily interaction with a potential candidate, then we will likely give them a pass. For us, it would be better to hire a slightly less technically capable individual with whom we could easily interact without all the baggage.

    We are all tribal to some extent – I might identify with geek culture, or goth, or Christian, etc. Each of these carries with it definitions of what it takes to be an accepted member of the group, and when evaluating a non-member for potential membership, we make judgement calls based on how our tribal identifiers differ from a candidates tribal identifiers. Too big a leap and membership is discouraged. The interesting thing that I have observed, however, is that the more two tribes remain in contact, the more they are open to modifications of their tribal identifiers – i.e. familiarization breeds acceptance as the two tribes learn how to deal with each other’s quirks.

    Inter-tribal humor provides a measuring stick of acceptance. When we reach a point that I can tell a joke about a tribal identifier in a mixed-tribal setting – and get laughs from both parties – it is an indication that one tribe is well on its way to acceptance of another.

  38. I think some of the friction you ran into with question #2 was that you stipulated that the work produced by these individuals was good. Thus, it wasn’t a debate over whether discrimination of any kind is ever permissible, but whether discrimination against apparently irrelevant traits was permissible. Some felt that if good work was produced, then it was preferable to be accepting of apparent insanity. Letting irrelevant data prejudice the selection process would compromise the stated objective. What makes me a little uncomfortable is that you seem to be trying to insert some sort of unstated sociopolitical objective into the process as an assumption. Are you assuming that we award jobs as a reward for sanity, thus bringing us closer to some utopic ideal?

    Moving on:

    How would you differentiate your description of compartmentalization from the study of the human capacity to withstand cognitive dissonance? Is it cognitive dissonance when the contradictory propositions exist in the realm of opinion, then becoming compartmentalization when entering the realm of fact?

    I don’t have any other comments for the rest of your essay, except to say that they are very clear and that I agree that it is important to fight the inclination to give every proposition equivalent weight in some ham-handed attempt at having an open mind.

  39. A question is posed about holding opposing views. I think that the scientist in question is probably Dr. Gerald Schroeder. Even if he is not, I know that he holds the view that the age of the universe is both 13 billion years old and around 5700 years old (with qualifications).
    Let us take him as an example. (These are not my views.)

    In 1959 the scientists in Scientific America were asked the age of the Universe. Majoriy of them said that there was no beginning to the universe. The scientists believed the Greek philosophers rather than anything written in the Bible. Then in 1965, the universe is born: it has a beginning- the Big Bang by Penzias and Wilson.
    Dr. Schroder explains the perceived contradictions in his beliefs through many examples. He uses ancient commentary which states that the 5700 years does not reflect the age of the universe but rather the beginning of humans. (Midrash – Vayikra Rabba 29:1). He goes on to write about the theory of relativity and how time on the moon is faster than time on earth and yet both are correct. So, someone holding these views would not be nuts. I think that the point is that it is quite unfair to simply write that someone can hold such views without reasons.
    I was surprised to see the story about the German court ruling on the divorce case involving a Muslim couple. What Mr. Dawkins does not tell us is that subsequent to the court ruling, the woman did get a divorce. What he did not tell us is that the ruling was condemned by Muslim clerics as well as all German officials, including the courts. What he did not tell us is that the judge, herself, was sorry that she ruled the way she did. Mr. Dawkins also forgot to tell us that the judge was influenced by a memory of someone disagreeing with one of her decisions and coming into her court and spraying it with bullets. That seemed to have an impact on her. (It was a Muslim man I believe.)
    I shall stop here but if we begin with the notion of scientific thinking (not the only type) then before we hold one constant we should hold to the idea of truth in mind. The other idea is to at least pretend that one’s readers are not idiots (and I do not mean in the original Greek sense).

  40. Yes, it’s bad that religious beliefs get legal protection over other beliefs.
    Yes, it’s common for people to hold onto beliefs that contradict what they know. In fact, we could state that this is rule, rather than the exception, to human experience.
    Yes, we should be able to consider the beliefs and opinions of a person when choosing to employ them or not.
    Yes, it makes sense to employ the person who is best at the job, irrelevant of their beliefs.
    Yes, this is an unlikely ideal – people will always choose on a combination of how good someone is at a task, and how well they fit in with their own beliefs.
    Yes, someone who chooses not to employ someone because of a belief that causes no negative effect to the job performed or their coworkers is being a dick.
    Yes, I’m sure Dawkins would (if he has not already) complain if a religious employee refused to employ an atheist who was perfectly good at a job editing bibles, but who didn’t believe in their text.

    No, Dawkins still hasn’t quite got it that belief is irrelevant.

    The purpose of science is not to enforce any belief system. That’s the role of religion. Science doesn’t even counter beliefs, other than to say ‘this model works a lot better’. What does it matter that someone prefers a poor model, as long as that model isn’t used forcefully on others?

  41. How does “I believe the Earth is flat, but I work competently as a cosmologist using the assumption that it is not” differ from “I believe that faster-than-light travel, but I work competently as a science-fiction writer using the assumption that it is not”? If someone can do their job competently, treat them accordingly. Don’t punish them for your own lack of imagination.

  42. How does “I believe the Earth is flat, but I work competently as a cosmologist using the assumption that it is not” differ from “I believe that faster-than-light travel is impossible, but I work competently as a science-fiction writer using the assumption that it is not”? If someone can do their job competently, treat them accordingly. Don’t punish them for your own lack of imagination.

    1. I think you point to something key there. There really isn’t that much difference in our way of thinking between imagining something and believing in it, just as there isn’t a clear distinction between imagining we see something and actually seeing it.

      Neural networks as complex as ours handle both behaviours without clear delineation between them, as has been shown in across cases of event recall, criminal witnessing, and any number of cognitive testing. We are constantly imagining what we see and what we believe, as much as we are perceiving it. Those activities happen often without a feeling of contradiction.

      In other words, it’s not insane to hold, and strongly advocate for, contra-factual beliefs. It is entirely human. We all do it, whether we want to admit it or not.

      And, in the end, IsolatedGestalt nailed the real crux of this.

      1. “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1936)

        I find it sad that Professor Dawkins wants us to fail anyone who passes this test.

  43. Noted scientist/educator writes essay, sparking debate, which in turn unearths more questions, which in turn provides occasion to further the debate and sharpen the ideas. This is what it’s about. Awesome.

    No, religion should not get a free pass. There is also a distinction to be made between “beliefs” and scientific theories, which, as I see it, are not so much beliefs as they are supported and corroborated by observation/evidence (maybe something like String Theory doesn’t fit into this category yet, but I’m definitely no expert). Part of what makes a belief a belief is the very fact that it needs no evidence, otherwise it would be something else entirely. Take belief in God for example. Since it is not something that can reasonably be said to be supported by anything we might call “evidence”, the question becomes meaningless and irrelevant in a scientific sense.

    Part of what distinguishes religion from science (in terms of Creation anyway) is that it sets itself above any arguments which need to be tested by controlled experiments/evidence, and therefore conveniently does away with any notions of having to prove itself – as in “Deus ex machina”.

    Maybe this is why we tend to relegate these kinds of questions into the “personal” realm, and are therefore reluctant to discriminate based on them, as they are similar to what we could call “tastes” and “preferences”.

  44. From what I gather, Question 2 was intended to set degrees of insanity on a line and choose the point at which every applicant to the right would be unemployable for a particular task.

    Many here hold Opinion B, that they would place the cutoff squarely at a Position A, the point at which applicants to the right fail to sufficiently complete the task.

    Many others hold Opinion C, and would put the cutoff somewhere to the left of Position A. Many of these, if not all, are actually assuming there is a margin of error that overlaps Position A.

    The implication in Opinion C is that the applicants’ suitability for the task is not completely discoverable through past work, but that beliefs crazy enough to put them near Position A indicate that they may have been “just lucky” previously.

    Of those holding Opinion C, some would hire the applicant anyway, in expectation of firing him later. Laying aside all the busy work involved in hiring someone you expect to fire, this also assumes that they would be able to detect the failure of the applicant to complete a task. If the applicant had a largely independent task, for example teaching, it would actually be very difficult to determine if the employee was keeping their personal beliefs completely separate from their duties.

    I’m of Opinion C and I would not hire an applicant with a belief that I judged indicated that he was crazy enough to be near Position A. Of course, I’d also doubt my judgement, so I’d try to err closer to Position A rather than farther from it.

  45. Dr. Dawkins, I am very sorry that you did not understand the point that many of us tried to impress upon you in the previous discussion, and continue to hold a strictly “compartmentalized mind”, to use your term, which has destroyed your ability to see the issue of job discrimination clearly. I’ll restate that point in one sentence any time you wish.

    However, I am happy that our previous discussion did not distract you from the point that you were clearly converging towards in your previous post!

    In political theory, law can respect religion to the extent that religion respects law. Preachers who incite their followers to break the law will be punished, judges who follow their religion in contravention to the laws will be unseated and their decisions overturned. This works fine in a secular dicatorship ruled by Plato’s Philospher king, at least as long as that king is immortal anyway.

    In the United States, law is constitutionally elevated above religion, but persons wishing to have their religious shibboleths enacted into law (think blue laws, the christmas holiday, suicide prohibitions) need merely have a voting majority in order to crush people of other faiths to their will. This is a continuing problem in a country that has benefited from great religious and cultural diversity – the Christians believe that they are doing the right thing by forcing the rest of us to observe their primitive rituals.

    I think we all suffer somewhat from “the tyranny of the majority” that the founding fathers feared. Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the other ones.

  46. I wonder if he’d see a problem with a University discriminating against a materialist for some kind of Humanities professorship because the chair believes a materialist wouldn’t be able to adequately explain or describe, say, Milton or Blake.
    It’s as though Dawkins believes absolutely that the war between the scientific ( scientism) world-view and all competing views has been settled, and his efforts are dedicated to placing scientism in a position of absolute authority. It’s far from settled, and there is no indication it will ever be.

  47. Instead of all this straw-manning, let’s offer a real example, an one close to the home (academically).

    Mr. Dawkins, would you as a head of an institute hire a biologist who is an ardent and fruitful researcher, but ridiculously considers the obvious, progressive theory of evolution through inheritance of acquired traits to be false? Instead, this scientist subscribes to a decadent (if not outright reactionary!), burgeouise “theory” posed by Darwin and Mendel, and believes in actual existence of genes. He has no qualms about professing his backward belief when asked about it, but so far it has not surfaced in his published articles, as he was bright and reasonable enough to explain the results of his experiments in the light of proper scientific framework of Lysenko-Minchurism.

    The example offered is generic, but fits many poor biologists of Stalin’s an Khrushchev’s era. There should be NO discrimination in academia other than by amount and quality of performed research reflected in publish research articles. The peer-review process is discriminatory enough.

  48. The answer, presumably, is ‘it depends on the individual case, and furthermore, will involve thinking long and hard about said case’, is it not?

    Mind you, I know of at least two companies near me, where to be employed at a high level, one must be a member of their specific congregation (one of these is a world-reknowned Fair-Trade goods company). Given that reversal is it okay for them not to hire someone (barring Libertarian fulminations about companies being able to do what they damn well please, and the Market will fix it)?

    It’s a hard question without a single definitive answer. Which makes it splendid for fighting over on the internet, of course.
    /gets popcorn/

  49. The eye surgeon example raises the difference between a technician and a teacher. I don’t want to care what the person believes, who cuts my hair or fixes my car or sells my groceries. But since an eye surgeon is more than a technician, s/he’s a doctor, with social standing and a reputation and a class distinction all hir own, then what s/he believes is going to enter the picture. Hiring decisions are *not* a scientific process, they’re an engineering and a political process.

    A case could be made that a candidate who can work with both young earth conventional model cosmology, is *better* qualified for a teaching position. They’d be in a place to teach science to people who really need to know the difference between science and religion.

    And since this really has a lot to do with competing cosmologies, what might have happened if John Dobson had applied for the position? He doesn’t hold with the Big Bang theory at all, and his proposed alternative is chewy and nuanced and controversial. Would he be discriminated against because he’s in the minority?

    If Martin Gaskell was penalized for having religious beliefs, then I think his lawsuit has merit. If the University of Kentucky was trying to avoid a political controversy, then $15,000 sounds like a relatively cheap price for them to have paid.

    I can see merit to both sides of the argument, and that seems to be a minority view here.

    1. Gaskell was penalized for promoting religious beliefs. Don’t know if that difference is important to you or not.

  50. Perhaps the best response to (2) is the job of a defense attorney. Often an attorney knows or believes that a client is guilty of a crime. It is, however, their duty to disregard their own knowledge or belief of guilt in the pursuit of justice. Such an attorney could also be a very strong advocate for the harsh punishment of criminals and the prevention of crime at all costs and still retain his job. Attorney-client privilege protects him from revealing his personal beliefs or knowledge of a client’s actual guilt. A similar argument also applies to a prosecutor who believes in the innocence of a defendant but continues to prosecute.

    How is this different from a scientist who holds personal religious beliefs that are contrary to widely accepted scientific theories who nonetheless believes so strongly in the pursuit of science that he or she is willing to temporarily set aside personal beliefs in the pursuit of scientific progress?

    In short, society puts a higher value on justice and the scientific method than it does on individual belief. These meta-beliefs allow a person to hold mutually contradictory beliefs that are subject to the rules of the meta-belief. If scientific reason and divine revelation are meta-beliefs, I can even think of an obvious meta-meta-belief which is that the scientific method is appropriate for the natural world, and everything not subject to scientific discovery is subject to divine revelation. Similarly, there are meta-meta-beliefs that scientific rationalism is the only choice, and the meta-meta-belief that divine revelation, mysticism, or other supernatural understanding is the only choice. I’d say a majority of people fall into my first category; science works so well that almost no one can ignore it, and the majority of people at least allude to some religion and this category would also include agnostics. Strict atheists would fall into the second category, and the religious extremists fall into the third.

    Philosophy tends to be the exploration of the depth to which meta-beliefs can be extended. Given a meta^n-belief, I imagine the only limit on n is the size and complexity of the human mind. One can always wonder if solipsism is true, or if it’s really a nihilistic assumption of solipsism, or if perhaps some platonic universal truth leads one to a nihilistic belief in solipsism, or even if an existential belief in…. etc. In any case, I would predict that human brains do not actually maintain mutually contradictory beliefs at the highest meta-level.

  51. Mr. Dawkins,

    In response to some of the near 400 comments to your last post, you wrote this:

    “As it turned out, I was wrong: I underestimated the emotive impact of the very word ‘discrimination’.”

    Please don’t immediately denigrate opposing viewpoints to your own as emotionally-based. The reason I myself disagreed with you was not based on emotion. There could conceivably be logical grounds for hiring people whose personal beliefs are at odds with their day-to-day jobs, and as such your reductio ad absurdum argument was unsuccessful.

    For instance, the flat-earth geographer you proposed is, by your own admission, better at teaching round-earth geography to students than the other candidates. What does his “honesty” have to do with anything, if we suppose the goal is to have the best teacher (especially if he’s being honest in stating his belief while doing so)? I find the existence of a flat-earth geographer who is particularly adept at teaching high-level academic geography remarkably unlikely, but as it was a part of your supposition, I suppose we had better run with it. If your motive is to hire the best teacher, do that.

    As for your examples regarding law, I find many of them to be red herrings to your previous discussion. There you are no longer talking about religion shielding beliefs from scrutiny, but rather about religion shielding actions from scrutiny, which is another argument entirely. Do take care to distinguish the two.

    So: I agree with you that religious reasons should never trump humanitarian ones in gauging appropriate actions. Nevertheless, I would still hire your absurd flat-earth geologist if I were looking for the best teacher.

  52. Unless you suspect the motivation of the flat earther and his capacity to suppress his real beliefs. In which case its perfectly valid to opt for another candidate.

  53. This “discrimination” talk is essentially about fairness, is it not?

    Is not the real question: what amount or level of non-conformity is sufficient to rationally – and morally – ground a decision not to hire some specific person, for some specified employment?

    When is it fair to consider the traits which we can observe in people in making the decision?

    But first, which traits are fair to even consider as being determinative of the outcome of the decision?

    It is certain that skin colour is not enough to do so, regardless of all other factors. The law recognizes this. But what of sexuality? What of unexpressed sexuality?

    What traits of the candidate may be fairly considered to be determinative of the question, regardless of all the other factors?

    Citizenship? usually.
    Personal hygiene and presentation? Usually.
    Language? Usually.
    Conduct? Most certainly.

    Physical disability? Depends on the job.
    Religious conviction? depends on the job.

    Note also that “religious conviction” shades into the general question of the candidate’s “conduct”.

    Personally, I distrust and dislike inquisitions into the state of a person’s soul or conscience or beliefs. Too much nasty history associated with inquisitions for me to be comfortable with the motives and intents of any who would preside over such.

    FWIW, it seems to me that I tend to care less about what people think, and more about what they can do – and what they actually do – the older I get.

    That is to say, I consider that only a candidate’s conduct relevant to the tasks of the job are fair to consider as determinative of her suitability for the position.

    Can they do the job? That is the only question which matters, and which it is fair to consider.

    The next question is, can they do it better than all of the other candidates presented who also so qualify?

    But that’s another kettle of comparative fish.

  54. Let me try another example, this time not hypothetical but a real one, and this time involving not opinion but factual knowledge. Some thirty years ago, a colleague in a British university told me of an undergraduate pupil who was unable to find Africa on a map of the world. That is literally true. We agreed that this young woman should never have been admitted to the university. I’m guessing, from the response to my hypothetical storkist doctor and flat-earth geographer, that some readers here will immediately protest that knowledge of Africa should only debar a student if it is relevant to her subject of study. If the student was studying Biochemistry, say, or Old Norse literature, knowledge of the location of Africa should not be required. Her admission in the face of stiff competition from other students should have turned solely on her competence as a biochemist or as a scholar of Old Norse.

    Let me try to explain why I would still have excluded her. It is no excuse that she might have missed a crucial lesson in Geography, or maybe never had lessons in Geography at all. There are any number of routes by which she could, and should, have learned the location and very characteristic shape of the African continent: from newspapers, from the television news, from maps on walls, from browsing in encyclopedias, from the globe in the corner of the classroom. To have survived 18 years and remain ignorant of one of the largest landmasses on Earth indicates a mind lacking in curiosity, in the ability to pick up and retain information, in awareness of the real world: lacking in almost everything that makes a mind teachable – and worth bothering to teach. Her lack of knowledge is not in itself what matters. What matters is what it tells us about the kind of mind she had.

    The same kind of reason would lead me to exclude the flat earth geographer and the storkist doctor. Even given the unlikely premise that their eccentric opinions have no impact on their competence to teach, they would still be indicative of the kind of mind inside the person’s head: a piece of evidence about them that should be taken into account when deciding whether to hire them.

    1. Yes, but first you exclude somebody for not caring the slightest about the world around them, and soon you’re excluding people for not being able to recite Anna Karenina. It’s a slippery slope, trust me.

    2. I’ll guarantee I could throw a rock in my campus and hit six who couldn’t find their own county, for that matter. Though I wouldn’t argue that a goodly proportion of them would be dolts.

      However, I’m still not sure that your analogy should apply. There’s many an expert who is drastically lacking outside of his or her own field is there not? Some of whom have been mentioned. Hoyle’s adherence to the steady-state hypothesis doesn’t alter the excellence of the astronomy book on my shelf. I understand the point, but would reiterate that it really does depend. We humans are a messy, disparate lot and I’d rather we were more lenient to one another. Granted, our propensity for believing nonsense is infuriating, but what to do?

      1. Is adhering to a once plausible but now discredited hypothesis regarding astronomical evidence really comparable to never being curious enough to look at a map of the world? Sometimes differences in scale become differences in kind.

        1. Yeah, like I said, ‘it depends’. But it was the only thing I could dredge from my brain. And I maintain the map analogy is specious. You could quite easily be superb in your field and not have a clue where Africa was (although, what kind of globe doesn’t have ‘Africa’ written on Africa?).

    3. I disagree with your assertion. Your real world and fictional examples are apples and oranges apart in my opinion.

      Neither the storkist doctor nor the flat earther in your fictional example lack basic knowledge of the world, or their vocations. Presumably by the vary nature of having a teaching certificate or doctorate we would have placed the public trust that they have enough drive to have completed a course of study and graduate.

      I also disagree with your assertion that a curious mind is the only one worth teaching. To use Mr. Einstein again – he failed out of school and certainly was brilliant.

      Brilliance does not always lead one to have a broad view of the world, and frequently will lead one down a very narrow path that fascinates the brilliant – and they alone.

      By it’s very nature – being discriminatory leads to loss of opportunity – not just for the person being discriminated against – but to everyone.

    4. Oh. So, effectively, if you don’t know what I think you should know, or believe what I think you should believe, regardless of whether that knowledge or belief has any influence on the quality of your work, I can conclude your mind is worthless.

      Good to know. I think everyone should be competent in at least one programming language by the time they are twenty. Because I’m generous I will allow them to choose which one. But anyone who isn’t competent in at least one programming language is clearly mentally deficient and unsuitable for any work of any kind.

      1. “But anyone who isn’t competent in at least one programming language is clearly mentally deficient and unsuitable for any work of any kind.”

        Limit that maxim to only those whom you hire on your own payroll, and I have no ethical problem with it whatsoever.

        After all, it’s your money.
        So you do call the tune. And it is no one’s business but your sweet own whether that tune is happy or sad, mad or sublime.

        1. What, even Visual Basic?

          Even PHP. I want the standard to be so low that when I do decide that person’s right to work, there will no question as to whether my decision is fair.

    5. My response to the girl who couldn’t find Africa would probably be to ask her to explain why, in her years on this planet, she had not thought it relevant to make a mental note of it. Then I’d see if she had any other major gaps in her general knowledge. One presumes that she did not, given that she made it in to the university in the first place, but one can’t be certain.

      My problem is that your response is remarkably totalitarian in nature. You ask us, based on knowing nothing else about a person, to make a blanket judgement about them based on a single fact. As far as I know of the situation, this student could be a mathematical genius for whom geographical boundaries in foreign places held no relevance or interest. Do I approve of the kind of solipsistic worldview in which only the place in which one resides matters? Not particularly. Would I judge a person’s competence based on the answer to a single question? Rarely, I think. (I’m sure there are exceptions).

      Would I have excluded her from university? Not without an interview to understand why she didn’t know.

    6. o_0 Your attempt to clear things up just made it more muddled and offers another scenario.

      The woman doesn’t have an opinion, she has a lack of knowledge. Not admitting her to college is part of insisting on academic standards.

      Your flat Earther, creationist, or stork doctor don’t necessarily lack knowledge, they have different opinions with out ‘proof’ to back up how they feel.

      So if any of the three were to take an academic test and they were to give the ‘right’ answer, regardless of how they might feel on a subject, then there is no reason to not admit them to the college.

      As for what to discriminate in hiring such a person – again it has to do with the context, their ability to function, and how their beliefs are accepted in society.

      The guy who always talks about the time he took LSD and his toaster turned into Jesus maybe be discriminated against because of his religious belief. But it isn’t because it is religious, it is because it is too far outside of what is ‘normal’. Personally, I find Mormons to be o_0, but they are a mainstream religion and if I didn’t hire one just because they were Mormon I would be sued.

      Just about everyone has some ‘off the wall’ belief. One might find the notions of aliens visiting us and ghosts to be as absurd as belief in God, yet I bet if Mr. Gaskell were only a Ghost Hunter on the weekends or vacationed in Roswell every year, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

      Being within certain parameters means your belief is merely odd or illogical. Being outside of those parameters makes you appear crazy.

      The problem is there is no clear line. One person’s crazy is another persons odd belief. The problem when you start to outright ‘ban’ ideas is who does the banning and their agenda. It would be impossible to have an actual law that would be clear and concise enough to be consistent.

      In Summary:
      So yes, it is ok to discriminate based on wacky beliefs – even religious ones. No you can’t really make a law about it because it would be impossible to define. Yes they have the right to sue you for discrimination, in which case a judge will decide if your belief has merit or not.

    7. Sorry, professor, but your new hypothetical doesn’t prove your case any better than your original hypothetical did. Here is my summary of your original argument:

      Premises (as laid out by Professor D):
      1. Candidate A is known to be perfectly competent in his field.
      2. Candidate A is also known to hold a belief that Professor D considers untenable.
      3. Professor D believes that one cannot be truly competent in one’s field while holding an untenable belief.

      Conclusion that Professor D wants us to reach:
      Candidate A is not truly competent in his field and, therefore, should not be hired.

      Conclusions that logic actually demands we reach:
      Candidate A is perfectly competent (as stipulated in premise #1 above).
      Professor D’s belief (at #3 above) is therefore untenable.

      Further conclusion we must reach:
      By his own reasoning, Professor D is not truly competent in his field.

      [Weird. I just felt like Captain Kirk there for a second. Never mind. It will pass.]

      And here is my summary of your second argument:

      Premises (as laid out by Professor D):
      1. Student B can’t locate Africa on a map.
      2. We know nothing else about Student B.
      3. The inability to find Africa on a map is indicative of inadequate learning.
      4. Assuming that Student B had access to a proper education, Professor D believes (with some justification) that inadequate learning is indicative of a lack of intellectual curiosity.
      5. Professor D also believes (with some justification) that lack of intellectual curiosity is a handicap to developing competence in any academic field.
      6. Therefore, Professor D concludes that Student B is unlikely to perform up to the standards that would be expected at an institution of higher learning, and probably should never have been admitted.

      Conclusion that Professor D wants us to reach:
      If we are justified in not admitting Student B to university based solely on the fact that the only thing we know about her is that she can’t locate Africa on a map, then we are equally justified in not hiring Candidate A, in spite of his demonstrated competence in his field, based solely on the fact that we know he holds a private belief that Professor D finds untenable.

      Conclusion that logic actually demands we reach:
      Candidate A ≠ Student B. The two situations are so completely different that treating them analogously is not only unjustified, but is intellectually dishonest. Professor D might be right or wrong in his evaluation of Student B’s academic potential based on a single piece of information about her; but his conclusions about Student B are inapplicable to Candidate A, whose competence in his field has been well established. In Candidate A’s case, we don’t have to base our judgment on a single piece of information about him: We have lots of evidence we can examine, the bulk of which clearly demonstrates his competence. Yet Professor D wants us to ignore that large body of evidence about Candidate A’s competence, and focus only on a single fact about him: that he holds a private belief that Professor D finds untenable. That is knee-jerk prejudice, pure and simple.

      You’re going to have to do better than that, professor, if you want to convince us that you’re right. You seem to think that you’re the one being coldly logical here, and that those of us who disagree with you are doing so for emotional reasons. I think you may have that backwards.

  55. I wonder if he’d see a problem with a University discriminating against a materialist for some kind of Humanities professorship because the chair believes a materialist wouldn’t be able to adequately explain or describe, say, Milton or Blake.
    It’s as though Dawkins believes absolutely that the war between the scientific ( scientism) world-view and all competing views has been settled, and his efforts are dedicated to placing scientism in a position of absolute authority. It’s far from settled, and there is no indication it will ever be.

    1. I could accept not hiring someone for a scientific position if they actually thought “scientism” was a thing.

  56. Mr. Dawkins, while you make an excellent case, I think you would benefit from dissecting the logic of your argument (as well as those against you). You seem to be applying the methodology of virtue ethics. You do not focus on the morality of the hypothetical teachers’/doctors’ actions, but their underlying character (they teach or apply ideas contrary to their own). This is, by the way, a well respected field of ethics, which you apply (knowingly or not) quite well. However, the criticism against you is for an absolutist stance, that the character of the person does not affect ability to make a useful contribution, and that their contributions do count as points towards their morality. Deontology (ethics based on maxims that can be applied universally) is the source of the “no discrimination, period” mindset that you scold. The purpose of deontology is to minimise bias by predetermining rules based on things that are universally against the general good, or nearly so. We create a maxim “do not discriminate” to hold back our instinct to privilege our own freedom to discriminate over that of another. The problem you rightfully find with this is that it is not necessarily always true, i.e. one should probably discriminate against someone with a history of violence when hiring a babysitter, even though their maxims say otherwise. Hopefully you’ll notice that you criticize for the same reason as your opponents, that being absolutism. Thankfully, there’s a third useful branch of ethics, utilitarianism (greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). Now that we’ve stripped away the question of universal hate of discrimination, and the question of the virtue of the people themselves, as disguised opinions which break down when forced to consider the presence of other logical paths, we can look at the ethics of the ultimate outcome. Utilitarianism is tricky, but here’s my take. If the people in question are able to make a valid contribution, then that benefits the greater good. If their beliefs interfere with the work they were hired to do, then that’s not for the greater good, and that’s what firing and lawsuits are for. Admittedly, my answer for the utilitarian viewpoint is subject to bias, but hopefully this shows that the utilitarian argument is, in this case, the only valid one. Hopefully, this will help you present a case in a more logical manner, which you should love, as a man of the scientific community. :)
    P.S. A bit long, I know, but you wanted a way to build a baseline for ethical argument, so there it is.

    1. Anon #96: Some would account it a virtue to use people properly.
      Would such a view not also be “utilitarianism”?

      Or is “utility” only necessarily related to that ephemeral state called ‘happiness’? If so, whose? The latter does not exist as an aerial gas, after all. (Unlike that fine commercial product “Liquid Ass”, described elsewhere on this website.)

      Are virtue and utility so like oil and water in reality?

      1. Sorry, forgot how ridiculous and vague the term “virtue ethics” is. Let’s call it “Intention ethics.” I think that there is many a mellow, yellow-eyed lad or lass who might say happiness does, in fact, exist as an aerial gas, but I digress. Yes, of course, ethics is a vague and unpredictable science, but it can help us take a look at the big picture (as much as I detest that cliché), and see why we have the ethical ideas we do. And by looking at a few different types of ethical reasoning, one can get a fairly strong and diverse point.

    2. This was my comment (not saying so for credit, just to clarify), and I just want to explain my logical backbone quickly. You have three schools of reasoning, and generally one supports each side of an argument, but they don’t work, because they need some support from other schools of thought (ethical arguments, on their own, have quite a few false positives/negatives, but when reinforced by another argument, they are hugely more accurate). Both arguments rely on the moral theory they use being correct, so we look at the other moral theory, which gives us one side which is less likely to be based on a flaw in an ethical system.

  57. You have a problem in the logic of #2. Your specific species of reductio ad absurdum is actually a proof by contradiction. Which normally works, but only in the case of a dichotomy. Your question, is unfortunately a false dichotomy, and can not be proved by contradiction. This fallacy is the reason it didn’t work out, not because of a some emotional tie to the term discrimination or ‘relativist doctrine’. You construct a false dichotomy out of a much more nuanced question where ‘maybe’ can be the right answer when weighed by a variety of criteria. Then you attempt to trivialize it with examples that work well in a yes or no situation.

    A stork theory doctor could do well to study a species where the gametes, fetus, or even young are delivered by a symbiotic second species.

    Ever wondered how man made, land locked, lakes have mussels?

  58. So Dawkins has gone from hypothetical strawmen to extreme cases in order to argue that some beliefs are just too irrational and illiberal to allow.

    Extreme cases are better than strawmen as they are at least real world examples.

    There is a wealth of political theory that deals explicitly with these issues and I would suggest to Richard that he head down to the arts faculty, or at least read what academics in the field have to say about such issues. Maybe start with Will Kymlicka.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Dawkins will be impressed as logical positivism is long out of fashion. Perhaps he could read about why it lost its foot hold in the humanities.

    As it is, when Dawkins wades into these issues, he seems eerily similar to the ID mob who try to debate him on matters of evolutionary biology: woefully ignorant.

    As far as whacko beliefs and suitability of candidates go, I thought that was answered in the last thread: if those beliefs do not affect the candidate’s ability, they should have no bearing on the decision to hire.

    The above applies only in liberal societies. If you want to have a society that punishes people for not believing in the official “truth”, then you are already far further down the illiberal rabbit-hole than many of the religious people, beliefs and institutions you wish to criticise.

  59. For those wanting a real life example, I think Peter Duesberg is an interesting one.

    Duesberg is a respected molecular and cellular biologist based at Berkeley. His research into cancer is lauded by many within the field, and (my science is weak so others may want to correct me) he postulated contrarian views that were in conflict with accepted knowledge, however these views later helped to enhance our understanding of cancer causes.

    Duesberg also believes that HIV does NOT cause AIDS, he is the most respected AIDS-denier, and uses his social and intellectual capital as a tenured professor at a prestigious university to give his cause legitimacy.

    I don’t think that it is too unreasonable to suggest that it is the same contrarian impulse that led Duesberg to both his successful research into cancer, as well as his less successful research into HIV.

    Although my earlier tone probably precludes a response, I wonder what Dawkins has to say about Duesberg?

  60. I would also like to point out that Dawkins’ reasoning preferences ontological bias over empirical data.

    That is, Dawkins states that it is reasonable to fire/not hire someone not on demonstrable evidence, but rather on Dawkins’ own ontological assumption that does not match the empirical data. The data, after all, points to the person being able to perform their duties. Dawkins says they cannot possibly perform their duties because they hold two incompatible notions in their head at the same time which illustrates their inability to think clearly.

    Somewhat ironically, Dawkins wishes to condemn someone’s intellectual capacity to perform a job because they hold two incompatible propositions to be true, while at the same time presenting reasoning that holds two incompatible propositions to be true: that a person can be excellent at their job, yet that that person cannot possibly perform their job at an excellent level because of something they think.

    So without resorting to liberal values as a way to solve the issue, perhaps we could simply ask Dawkins to privilege the empirical data over his own unprovable ontological assumptions.

    I would have thought this would be Dawkins’ preferred methodology.

  61. Once again Dawkins is conflating a number of very different (sometimes partially overlapping) conceptions of conviction, personal belief, theist affiliation, (official) position, opinion, idea, viewpoint and theory*. Being convinced the earth is flat, is not the same as thinking the earth is flat, which is not the same as thinking of the earth as flat, which is not the same as subscribing to a flat earth model. Until he can learn to distinguish these, I would say that most of the points he makes are moot.

    *Adding general knowledge to the equation just weakens the point further.

    This is not exhaustive or absolute, but a general stance towards distinguishing these concepts can be illustrated as follows:

    – Conviction: “I know XXX is true/right. That’s the end of the matter.”
    – Personal belief: “XXX feels true at a personal level (even though there’s no evidence to support it).” (Note: This is often involuntary)
    – Theist affiliation: “I’m of YYY religion, and our holy scripture says XXX.”
    – Official position: “I’m of YYY religion, so of course I ‘believe’ XXX, but…”
    – Opinion: “I think that XXX is true, but that’s just me.”
    – Idea: “I think that XXX might be true. I wonder if there’s a way to prove that.”
    – Viewpoint: “I find that thinking of XXX in terms of ZZZ helps to make more sense of AAA and BBB.”
    – Theory: “I think that XXX is a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence available.”

    So when you’ve found your absurd “belief” that surely would be worth discriminating over, decide which category it would realistically fall under, and then explain why it should be a problem.

  62. Some thirty years ago, a colleague in a British university told me of an undergraduate pupil who was unable to find Africa on a map of the world.

    Your original hypotheticals did not suggest the examples had a lack of knowledge, but a difference in belief. An accurate comparison (in relation to the one you just provided) would be someone who can indeed point to Africa on a map, but doesn’t believe that it exists.

    I’d wager there is no one on earth who meets that criteria. But I still wouldn’t, based specifically on that aspect, deny them a job as a humanitarian aid worker on location in a continent they don’t believe in. If they provided comfort and tirelessly delivered goods and medicine, I’d welcome them.

    I still think you’re confusing the issue. First, while I agree there is an emotive impact to the term discrimination, I would also wager that had you left that specific term out of your original post, someone (myself included) would have been more than willing to provide it for you. So, I think it’s disingenious to suggest that a great deal of opposition to that post was a result of emotional reaction to your word choice. The opposition was to the situation being described.

    Second, it isn’t necessarily all opinions/beliefs that are equally worthy of respect, it’s all people that are equally worthy of it, regardless of opinion/belief. It is people’s right to choose their belief that deserves respect.

    For instance, I do not respect a belief that says a widow must be cast into the fire burning her now-dead husband’s body. US law also does not respect acting on that belief. But I have no right to prevent a person from holding that belief, or denying them opportunity if they have shown a capable history of not acting on that belief, and following US law instead.

    Third, if there is a religious basis to that person’s beliefs, that does not prevent such a belief from scrutiny. The belief is indeed a questionable thing, but questioning belief is vastly different than denying someone opportunity based on belief. And it is not against the law to question if someone is the best candidate for the job based on their belief. You would certainly be allowed to investigate if someone who is a flat-earther is able to teach correct cosmology, to include asking them to their face if their beliefs will prevent them from teaching the subject. However, it is against the law to deny them such a job based on the unfounded assumption, without investigation, that such a belief will diminish their performance, particularly when the evidence that is available actually shows the contrary.

    Democracy is inherently based on the concept that people must hold views and beliefs that are contrary to the current law (to include not believing in democracy itself), yet still be able to participate in democratic governance. And while I certainly agree that the results of science are not democratic, sociologically I wouldn’t withhold the option for someone to hold a contrary view and still have the freedom to not be denied the opportunity to participate provided they play by the established rules whenever they do.

    Ultimately, if you want to gather opinions about which beliefs people think are ridiculous, the internet is pretty good place to start, and I probably have quite a list I could give you. On the other hand, if you want to gather opinions about which beliefs are so ridiculous that opportunity should be denied to people exercising their freedom to believe them (not necessarily acting upon them, which they may or may not have the freedom to do), then my answer to Question 2 remains a resounding, “No.”

    Though I’d find it disheartening if you still presume I had nothing further to contribute to the discussion.

  63. I should also point out that the issue here is NOT about relativism, as Professor Dawkins suggests, but about relevance. Either a job candidate’s personal beliefs are relevant to the job or they’re not. If they’re not relevant, THEN THEY’RE NOT RELEVANT; and we shouldn’t treat them as if they were. If, on the other hand, those personal beliefs are relevant to the job, then we ought to be able to demonstrate their relevance: How exactly do those beliefs affect the candidate’s ability to do his or her job, and to add value to the organization?

    If a candidate’s beliefs render him or her incapable of fully and competently performing the duties that he or she would be expected to perform as part of the job, then those beliefs are relevant. If the candidate’s beliefs are likely to create distractions, or to lead to workplace conflict, so that it negatively affects the work of his or her colleagues, or makes the organization less effective, then those beliefs are relevant. If the candidate’s beliefs are so repugnant that they are likely to bring the organization itself into disrepute, then those beliefs are relevant. But if the only “problem” with a candidate’s personal beliefs is that they cause a few pompous intellectuals to “harrumph” about the fact that someone who doesn’t fully share their own worldview is able to get a nice job in a field that they believe should be populated exclusively by people who think exactly the way they do, then those beliefs are NOT relevant, and ought to be ignored.

    So, can you demonstrate that the candidate’s personal beliefs are relevant to the job, or not? Set aside your straw man arguments, and explain just how this candidate’s personal beliefs impair his ability to do the job effectively, and to add value to the organization that was considering hiring him. If you object to his being hired because of his personal beliefs, but you can’t show how those beliefs will render him incapable of doing the job well, or will disrupt the work of his colleagues, or will discredit the organization he was applying to work for, then all you’re doing is harrumphing.

  64. Two things I see people not mentioning:
    1) Belief is not what we believe it is. The last two decades in the anthropology of religion has shown that when English speakers use the word ‘belief’, we are talking about something that is not the same ‘thing’ everywhere. In many places, religious practice is perceived as more relevant than thoughts about the religion; those thoughts are not perceived as having enduring substance in the way we might imagine a ‘belief’ to have enduring substance. Of course, the psychology and neuroscience of memory suggests that the enduring substance of a belief is ‘in fact’ a mirage — every time I ‘believe’ something, I am (re)constructing a brain state that is similar but not identical. So practice, whether internal, physical, social, etc., may be a better model than ‘belief as substance’. This is relevant because all your (Dawkins’) arguments are founded on somebody holding a belief. It might be more useful to talk about models we use for particular domains, and the actions we take based on those models.
    2) Those who call themselves scientists and speak against religion often apply a literalism in others’ use of metaphor that they do not apply in their own field. Please understand — I appreciate your work as a scientist; I am simply staying with what we can observe! And I will not be arguing that religious use of metaphor is “usually good”. I do claim that religious use of metaphor is often an attempt to describe experiences and concepts in one domain, but is taken literally in another, and that scientists who take it literally are being no more useful to us than religious fundamentalists who do the same. In any case, if you want excellent work on metaphor in science, you can read Donna Haraway’s various works on military metaphor in works on the neuroendocrine / immune systems. The sociology of science has plenty more where that comes from. The key point here is that any metaphor may seem ridiculous, depending on the use to which someone puts it. Does the heart “beat”? No, it contracts, of course, in a rhythmic way that is like a drum. An example: some make a comparison between inaccurate Western medical models that treat the human body as a machine or a battle ground and inaccurate Traditional Chinese Medical models that treat the body as being made up of an interdependent flow of patterns such as “wind-heat”. From the perspective of one, the other seems nonsensical or damaging. However, each is capable of producing astonishing treatment outcomes, by applying its metaphors in a way that is meaningful within its domain. To accuse an acupuncturist of believing that a person’s body has been “penetrated by wind-cold” is the same as accusing a mechanical engineer of believing that a machine is made out of solid matter. Mostly, of course, it is space; in that space whirl a probabilistic distribution of charged particles. But within the domain of the engineer, the metaphor of solidity is most useful for predicting the set of interactions they wish to avoid or elicit. The same with the metaphors of biomedicine and TCM.

    Referring back to the original questions you raised, I do not believe that asking about a person’s ‘beliefs’ is useful. Asking them what models they will use in their work, what models they will teach, how they are likely to respond to different situations — these are useful questions. Anything else is exactly the sort of absurd misapplication of metaphor — the belief as object mistake — that you combat when you oppose religious absurdity.

  65. I can think of a few great minds that held absurd religious beliefs; Isaac Newton and Pythagoras for instance.

    I consider myself an atheist but I was raised in a relatively strict catholic household. When I was young I was fearful of rejecting the religion that had been a part of my life since birth even though I knew it was false.
    Can we imagine a situation in which an intelligent person with a strict religious upbringing would, acting out of fear, continue to profess to others to hold beliefs they knew were false? Should we discriminate against such a person?

  66. I think there are a couple of difficulties to address here (that haven’t already been addressed by other commenters):
    First, you speak of discriminating on the basis of religion (or not), but really the questions about the flat earthers and storkists are about discriminating on the basis of particular beliefs under particular circumstances.
    Let’s say there’s a storkist religion who worships the great god UniCrane. For all intents and purposes: who cares? It’s only the one particular case of the medical issue where this might matter. The problem of course is then teasing out whether this particular believer believes this particular thing. Not all religions require belief.

    In fact, Judaism and Islam are distinctly different from Christianity ( to the extent that we might want to say that one or the other isn’t really what we mean by religion) in that, after you get beyond some specifics such as believing on only one God, who has no physical form (and never had a physical form and never will have), and dependence upon a particular set of texts as determinative of legal requirements, they don’t really care much about belief at all, only about behavior.

    Thus we have a problem if we start discriminating on the basis of religion: how do we suss out what someone believes? Should we stand around asking every doctor what religion they belong to and then determine whether she believes certain categories of things from that religious community? If we do that, then how do we determine whether someone is trying to figure out whether someone has a nutty belief or whether they just hate Jews (or Muslims or Catholics or whatever)?

    Similarly, do we want government in the business of determining what a religion does or doesn’t actually believe and what might qualify as nutty? In fact, you yourself raise a place where this can be problematic: kosher slaughterhouses using hoist and shackle aren’t in fact, following Jewish law. There is no requirement for it. yet most kosher slaughterhouses continue to use this method of restraint because it’s more convenient. I would love to see this go, because in fact, in contradicts Jewish laws of tzaar baalei chaim – which prevent cruelty to animals. Normally kosher slaughter is actually quite humane (well, as humane as killing a living being can be), but in our country business interests trump all else – if that’s not a form of religion, and one with silly beliefs that ought to be weeded out, I don’t know what is.

    Which brings us to the question: how exactly do you plan to weed out nutty beliefs, practically speaking. We don’t even have to say religious beliefs: there are plenty of people with weird beliefs that have nothing to do with religion. For example the belief that religion prima facie interferes with intellect, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.
    How would one compile such a test, even if one wanted to?

  67. How much hiring and firing have you done?

    Not much. But if references from another Planned Parenthood clinic for the anti-choice secretary, I think that would assuage any concerns I might have with respect to their work.

  68. Some thirty years ago, a colleague in a British university told me of an undergraduate pupil who was unable to find Africa on a map of the world. That is literally true.

    Those are called “teachable moments,” and competent educators face them every day without too much O tempora, o mores handwringing. Some of us even manage to teach without shaming the ignorant.

    Anyone notice how many times Dawkins situates himself as the lone King Canute of All Knowledge against the ignorant hordes? The strawmen examples above, the Africa-unknowing undergraduate, even that poor young woman who challenged him re: atheism (“What if you’re wrong?”) at a public lecture, all get the set-them-up-knock-them-down treatment, and Dawkins gets to enjoy the role of a Martyr for Knowledge against the Unwashed Multitudes. Absolutely tiresome. As Gibbon said, “Victory against such foes is humiliation enough”: these are tiny victories that make him look petty and small, and meanspirited to boot. A worse evangelist for his many causes it would be hard to imagine….

      1. Which is why I said he said it. :D

        From Hugh Trevor-Roper’s introduction to the Everyman’s Library Gibbon, vol. 1, p. lxxvii:

        Gibbon’s Vindication is a devastation work. He wrote it unwillingly: he resented the interruption to his work which it entailed, and he was conscious that his enemies were not worth his powder and shot. Victory over such opponents, he said, was humiliation enough.

        Trevor-Roper himself doesn’t cite this passage, nor can I find it in the Vindication, so perhaps it’s some Table-Talk or Gibboniana that’s come down to us. But there’s your citation for you.

        1. Ah, a quote attributed to Gibbon.

          I had thought that he might have written “to receive a Triumph for a victory over such enemies was humiliation enough”; perhaps while writing of some Triumph accorded to a minor ruler or general, late in the Roman empire, some place in the course of one of Gibbons’ Histories; that is, I actually thought that perhaps you might have mis-quoted Gibbon.

          Thanks for the response though.

          1. Misquote Gibbon? How dare you presume, sir!

            I do like your reading, though. Imagine an august Roman general exulting in triumph as a tiny, starving tribe shuffles past, and not getting that he’s a dork for glorying in an easy victory. Totally fits, and totally something a Roman would have done.

          2. It also seems to me something that one rivalrous “august Roman” might arrange to humiliate, or blunt, another Roman’s rising fame or ambition.

            A mockery in which the mocked is deceived into thinking that he is on the contrary being given a great honour.

            But I’m afraid that this must remain a thing of imagination only; for I am unaware, and I indeed would doubt, that any Roman ever actually arranged to hold a Triumph for another as a means to mockery or humiliation.

            The Romans took their Triumphs too seriously for that.

          3. Gee, that’s like the action at the climax of the plot in Brian De Palma’s horror film ‘Carrie’, isn’t it?

            Except that the mockery of Carrie doesn’t stay subtle in her case.

          4. Gibbon writes of a would-be rebel who took to wearing the purple robes normally reserved for the emperor. Emperor Julian sent him shoes to match the outfit.

  69. It’s past time to reclaim the term ‘discrimination’ as a positive thing.

    After all, what’s wrong with the far more accurate ‘prejudice’?

    Usage of ‘discrimination’ in place of ‘prejudice’ should be relentlessly corrected and called out for the water-muddying it is, and the pseudo-PC wishy-washy moral relativists who benefit from the confusion it causes slapped down.

    I like the idea of political correctness, but the whole notion has been thoroughly discredited thanks to relativist zealots, making it extremely difficult to actually pursue its intention.

    Look no further than humanist utilitarianism for a basis for absolute good.

  70. A very enjoyable thread, despite a few people’s unnecessary rudeness in expressing their opinions. Thank you all!

  71. Would you hire this detective?

    … His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

    “You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

    “To forget it!”

    “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

    “But the Solar System!” I protested.

    “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” –

    From “A Study in Scarlet”

    How is it that Arthur Conan Doyle who believed that woodland faeries are real could write stories about a rigidly logical detective who didn’t know, or care, that the earth revolved around the sun? Would you hire that author?

    1. Thanks for pulling that one out! I was thinking the same thing.

      One could cherry-pick the worst behavior of all the artists in all the history of the world, and make a case that art is a morally bankrupt tradition, and that only Science, never Art should be used for making choices on how we want to live. In the theater discipline alone, you’ve got John Wilkes Booth, Mata Hari, and Ronald Reagan- clearly, theater is evil, and has no place in modern discourse.

      Which isn’t to say that I want people with *only* an arts background to teach me science. But if they also hold artistic opinions, I don’t want to exclude them from the conversation.

      Is religion intrinsically more toxic than art? If you really think this is true, you’ll have to do better than appeal to my bigotry.

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