Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Question for My Readers

I'm still swamped with the task of reviewing dossiers for an entry level position in our department, trying to sift through hundreds of qualified candidates (grateful that I'm not on the job market right now). On top of that, I now have final term papers pouring in. Hence, blogging is taking a bit of a back seat.

But there is a question I've been thinking about recently, and it seems a fitting one to ask on this blog--since it has to do with the blog. The other day, my friend and co-author made the observation that there seem to be an inordinate number of atheists and agnostics (and other kinds of secularists) who comment on my blog--by which he meant, I think, that a higher proportion of secularists comment on my blog than on comparable blogs.

Now his experience here is clearly anecdotal, and I certainly haven't conducted a systematic study on the proportions of secular to religious commenters on blogs like my own (nor do I know of any such study--or who would fund one). So I can't say whether his observation is accurate. In fact, it's hard even to say what is being asserted here until we have some sense of what counts as a comparable blog. That is, what is the broader class of blogs against which the comparison is being made? So-called "biblioblogs"? Philosophy of religion blogs that are sympathetic to religion and theism? Progressive religious blogs? The class specified by the overlap of these?

But whatever we're to make of the comparative claim, it certainly is true that (at least in the blog's recent history) there are at least as many comments coming from secular visitors to the blog as there are from more religious visitors (and, arguably, more from the former). I don't know if this is representative of the readership of the blog, since there clearly are far more readers than there are readers who comment. It may be that readers who agree with me are simply less prone to post comments (unlike PZ Myers' readers, where the reverse seems to be the case). It may also be that this pattern is a function of the small number of regular commenters (if only a handful post comments on a regular basis, then the fact that half of them are secular may be a kind of accident).

But still, my friend's observation got me wondering why the regular followers of this blog are here--especially the secular followers who comment regularly, but not only them. So, I throw it out to you: If you read and/or comment on this blog on a regular basis, why? With thousands of blogs to out there, what brought you to this one, and what made you stick around (especially once you figured out that I have a tendency to write REALLY long posts)? Are you here to blunt the impact of my message with telling critiques, because you worry that unwary readers may actually be convinced by my misguided views unless they are properly opposed? Are you here because I try address issues of religion and faith without demonizing or belittling those who disagree with my position? Or is it something else?

I'm also interested to hear from the "silent followers" who don't usually comment--in part because, as I've learned from years of teaching, if you can inspire a student who is generally quiet to talk in class, they're more likely to do it again.


  1. I'm an undergraduate studying philosophy and a "conservative" Christian, at least relative to you. If I had more time, I would probably comment on more of your posts; as it is, I am often (though not always) a silent reader. I read your blog because I always want to make sure what I believe is balanced, or at least honed, by a progressive perspective such as yours, and because I have a particular interest in universal reconciliation and am currently wrestling with what I believe about that.

  2. Eric, I usually don't comment on your blog, not sure why, but fact is I don't. But that doesn't, or shouldn't, imply anything about the content or why I read it or anything else for that matter.

    What brought me originally to your blog was reading your book. And I, having a little background in philosophy and as a Christian, am always interested in having my thinking both informed and challenged. And for doing that, I thank you... and I'll try to be better about commenting :)

  3. I like the engagement with atheism/theism questions, the philosophy, and the occasional Lutheran stuff. I think I might have run across this blog from a Religion Dispatches article a while ago. Keep it up!

  4. I originally came to your blog due to your book. I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and an M.Div. from what I'd call a progressive seminary, so I'm already both amenable to the positions you take and to the sorts of conversations you have.

    Honestly, the reason I don't comment (well, I did comment once) is time. I feel like if I say something, it really should be engaging and I really should devote time to the conversation. With a rather limited amount of time in my day, though, that ends up being difficult.

  5. I believe it has a lot to do with open-mindedness that perhaps belongs to more Atheists than conservative Christians. Also, perhaps it could be a desire to believe in a God that fits their perspective. The conservative Christians I surround myself with (not on purpose) believe that they have it all right and if they have a qualm about it, they can just flip through the KJV of the Bible or ask their church leaders, instead of seeking a more philosophical/theistic opinion.

    I believe there is reason behind secular blog activity and this study:

  6. And to add to the aforementioned comment, I believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as long as they genuinely believe it, so forgive me for sounding harsh but I do attempt to respect others' beliefs (Baptist, Muslim, etc).

  7. Hi Eric

    So many ways to answer this are jostling for attention, so let me use the words of somebody who said it better:

    "The scientific attempt to explore the 'depth' of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we also create.... It is on this thin topsoil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away deprives us of our consolation. Philosophy is important, therefore, as an exercise in conceptual ecology."

    That this site has a theistic bent is neither here nor there to me. It is well written, considered, and provides a forum for respectful and challenging discussions. I don't think of it being inhabited by believers and non-believers, so much as by fellow ecologists.

    Thank you so much for sustaining it.


  8. I'm an Orthodox Jewish Ivy college senior who takes a strong interest in informed attempts to grapple with the complexities of faith in the world. I try to read a bunch of varying religious and non-religious perspectives on the matter, collecting such blogs as I find them (they are sadly exceedingly rare in the broader morass of the blogosphere). I have a policy that any blog I read has to leave me more informed than I was prior to reading it, such that I gain something from the exertion whether I agree with the opinion espoused or not. Your blog provides that with every post, and as such, the length of your posts here is no object to me (indeed, it's actually an asset; soundbites seldom educate). I have and continue to learn a tremendous amount from your writings about both philosophy of religion and liberal Christianity - though silently, as my college workload typically makes serious commenting prohibitive.

    I should also say that I very much appreciate how you wear your piety and passion on your sleeve, putting yourself and your personal beliefs on the line in a way few academics, in my experience, are willing to do.

    Also @montag: Since the situation that gave rise to Prof. Reitan's question was the dearth of secular/atheist commentators on other similar blogs ("a higher proportion of secularists comment on my blog than on comparable blogs"), your assertion that atheists are commenting here because they are more open-minded would make such atheists the exception and not the rule - an inference I suspect you did not intend to draw. I think we'd be better off resisting the urge to pass any such blanket judgments - one way or the other - on the basis of such anecdotal evidence.

  9. A friend of mine's blog, The Parish ( wrote an entry about your blog. I came over to read the entry he referenced and saw that you had written a few entries that I was interested. So I bookmarked and then later subscribed to your page.

    I read about half of your entries, mostly based on the title. I am a pastor who loves philosophy and theology, but does not have the desire to work on a Ph.D (anymore) and find your writing stimulating to the mind. I don't know how much I agree or disagree with you, but I do like the thoroughness with which you write.

  10. I started reading you after I heard your interview on the Oklahoma Atheists Godcast.

  11. Hi Eric,

    What brought me to this blog was your book, and especially the idea in it that understanding “faith” as “believing without sufficient evidence” is proper and actually explains the value of religious faith.

    I stick around because I find I learn a lot, not only from reading your entries but from engaging with other followers of your blog. I firmly believe that the best (and perhaps only) way to learn is by discovery, and such discussions are thus for me the optimum way to learn philosophy. (Incidentally, a really excellent book about how one learns by discovering is Seymour Papert’s “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas”. I highly recommend this book especially to those who like computers and have small children. Papert is quite a figure, a Jean Piaget alumnus who became a MIT prof and co-founder of its AI lab. By chance I met him once. But I am digressing.)

    The fact that perhaps most of your active regulars are non-theists actually increases this blog’s worth for me, because one tends to learn more from people who disagree with one. When one manages to understand the difference in perspective it’s quite revelatory.

    I also enjoy the respectful tone that people here have for each other; I have participated in other forums (including some religious ones, such as the uk.religion.christian newsgroup) but have never encountered this kind of positive environment. Sometimes I hope your blog will not become more popular lest that quality is lost.

  12. Hi Eric,

    I came to your blog through your book and to your book essentially by chance. I have mentioned before how much I enjoyed it and this no doubt made me want to know more about your thinking.

    One reason I stayed is certainly the respect and fairness you show towards other points of view. Another I think is the general tone of the comments; there is none of the shouting matches we see too often on blogs (a show-stopper for me) - Dianelos is quite right to point out the positive environment created on this blog. I also feel a genuine interest in a respectful and open exchange of ideas, often quite challenging but always interesting.

  13. I have similar reasons to those already posted. I came here when another blog (I don't recall which) mentioned your book. I checked out your blog and really liked it so I subscribed and purchased your book. I stick around because of the content and tone -- philosophy, religion with a 'liberal' bent all done in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

    My reasons for not comment tend to lead back to time. As C. Warfield said I think that if I try to involve myself in a conversation I should devote time to the conversation and I just don't have it. Plus, since I'm not that good at putting my undeveloped and poor thoughts into a good comment in a timely manner (it takes me forever to write) then I just don't.

    Keep up the great work and posts, they are really meaningful to me -- especially those that reference authors and books (I've now got "The Evangelical Universalist" sitting in my Amazon Cart waiting for me to pull the trigger).

  14. I wandered over from The Parish as well because Greg's general skepticism makes most of his recommendations worth following, and immediately recognized the two things that I look for in blogs to frequent. A creative, honest, intelligent voice and a strong group of commenters. Alas, the burdens of working, grad school, and family have stifled my own contributions of late. Perhaps I can change that once the thesis is finished...

  15. 1- The blog is well-written. That always helps bring in literate people.

    2- You are seemingly open to opposing views, even tantalizing readers with sympathetic discussions of opposing viewpoints.

    3- You are a professor, with some influence over impressionable minds. Thus probing (and changing) your thinking is of extra significance. On top of that is the fact that you teach at a public university, as something of a Christian theologian, which for atheists presents a serious issue of state establishment.

    4- There is, finally, an addictive cognitive dissonance on the atheist's side between your generally sensible writing and claim of logic, and your nevertheless persistent maintenance of a religious viewpoint, however watered down, liberal, caveated, "reasoned", etc. It is frankly maddening to see so much good thinking go to such questionable ends. I mean- writing a book about hell? Aren't the middle ages over yet? And staking so much on mysticism and belief in unknown things? It just doesn't make sense. You may be interested in a recent SciAm article on mystical experience and spirituality.

    I think that atheists generally, insofar as they label themselves that way, are fascinated by religion, for better or worse. Opposed, yes, but while we look forward to a post-religious world, we want to figure out what goes on in the captivated mind. The "R" meme is undeniably hypnotizing, and we are anxious to figure out why that is and how to counteract it. Neither reason nor probability seem to be the answer, nor is blunt attack.

    Hard to say what could do the trick, really. The premise of a philosophical blog is surely that logic and rigor are more pertinant to this important discussion than nice behavior, personal attractiveness, and clever rhetoric. But perhaps not! It would be a sad day for philosophy to realize that people are not, in point of fact, persuaded by reason. Our political system does lend itself to such an interpretation, as does the history of religion.

    With appreciation...

  16. I'm an occasional visitor, and see my own blog as having many shared interests with yours. (A genuine, if sceptical open-mindedness to the god question and the meaning of life). I think I usually comment, but as I'm an occasional visitor that doesn't appear very often.

    I've noticed the comments about fairness and respect to all viewpoints. This encourages me as it's long been a "thing" with me, that topics like ours can be discussed with civility and friendship.

    I haven't yet read your book, but it's on my list.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia :)

  17. Hello Burk,
    You said: "The premise of a philosophical blog is surely that logic and rigor are more pertinant to this important discussion than nice behavior, personal attractiveness, and clever rhetoric. But perhaps not! It would be a sad day for philosophy to realize that people are not, in point of fact, persuaded by reason."

    I think most people are naturally persuaded by reason to some extent, and people can train themselves to exceed the normal range of sensitivity to evidence (though never make themselves perfectly so). However, one cannot cleave the importance of reason from that of "nice behavior" so easily. There is a complex web of needs and values for any person, and no one is able to completely sever their epistemic goals from their broader intra-personal web. As such, parts of what we are persuaded by will be influenced by such factors as what communities we admire/wish to belong to. Since belonging to a community often encourages (if not outright demands) certain beliefs, it is easy to see how this one largely non-epistemic factor can help to determine our epistemic practices in significant ways. That is why I think the New Atheist tendency to ridicule and disregard the beliefs and practices of religious people will be catastrophic for their cause. They are taking the least attractive and productive qualities of their community (academia, my community, too) and using them as the tactic for drawing people in.

  18. Hi, Cheek-

    I completely get what you are saying. But atheists really are not trying to "draw people in". We hardly have any community of our own.. that isn't the aim. We are just trying to change minds, using their own premises.

    The better analogy might be to the work of King and Gandhi, who used the self-professed beliefs and self-image of their antagonists against them. It was only to the extent that the British and whites in the US saw themselves as moral, with some degree of universal compassion and pretensions to equality among men that they could be shamed into extending rights and even respect to the "other".

    Likewise, Aquinas and Eric both claim that faith is "reasonable", even rational. I don't think it is. At best, it is a creative filling-in of mysteries which don't (yet) have a rational solution. But in many cases (souls, mysticism), it is willful filling-in of mysteries that we have plenty of reasons to believe are not mysteries at all.

    But you are right. Perhaps atheists should combine the project of showing that theists are wrong by their own supposed premises, with the project of charismatic leadership into new communities of hypnotized masses worshipping some new idol. Communism tried that, and it wasn't very pretty. Perhaps humans are irredeemably idolatrous and require symbols of "hope" for sustenance. Can such symbols be derived from our factual position? I think they might.

  19. Burk,
    I totally agree with you that atheists are not trying to pull people into a community, and I don't necessarily think that they should (instrumentally speaking). It's certainly not the only way they could respond to the critique. In fact, the critique is not aimed at atheists in general (the majority of whom, in my experience, don't much care what others believe about theism until such beliefs directly affect them), but at a specific sub-group of atheists who have formed a community of sorts, albeit largely a professional one (the people I have in mind, as you're no doubt aware, are people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, P. Z. Myers, and other like-minded public intellectuals). I'm not saying that community outreach and reasoned persuasion are mutually exclusive, just that attempting reasoned persuasion in a snide or dismissive way is unlikely to help with the persuasive part. Plus, when there are communities who might have less epistemically principled reasons for their beliefs, but who behave in attractive ways, the pull on people to join such communities and thereby be more likely to accept their beliefs is strong. However, I find the approach taken by folks like Stephen Hawking to be less abrasive, in that they stick to the actual arguments they possess while staying largely away from the nasty characterizations of the mental capacities of folks who disagree. Contrast Hawking's relative modesty with Daniel Dennett's condescending use of the term 'brights'. Both think they have strong evidence for the positions they hold, both are willing to come out of the atheist closet, but Dennett takes the further, perhaps cathartic but ultimately counter-productive, step of using adolescent humor and insults to step on the principled, though perhaps misguided, values of wide swaths of people, many of whom are every bit as intelligent and thoughtful as he is.

  20. I'm a progressive Christian and blogger in Oklahoma... in Stillwater... at OSU... on the 4th floor of Murray Hall (sociology grad student and Presbyterian elder). It's nice to know I'm not alone in middle America. We've actually met before. It was a few years ago at Fellowship in Tulsa. If you're interested, I'd enjoy the chance to interrupt your end-of-semester busyness and share a cup of coffee.

  21. I also came to your blog after reading your book (In one sitting at that, it was that good). I am a non-denominational "Progressive" Christian with a strong skeptical side, and largely agree with your views, but what I really like are the comments you attract. Discussion on the internet is almost never so respectful and informative.

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  23. Burk,

    If you want Atheism to becoming a mainstream viewpoint, then referring to believers as "captivated minds" is probably not the way to go. I am sure you would scoff at someone appealing to your psychology, personal history or community relationships to "explain away" your lack of belief, and rightly so.

  24. Dear Professor Reitan,

    I came across your blog when you mentioned it in class and I have found it very insightful. I'm an English Senior at OSU, and I consider myself a Buddhist, even though I was raised Catholic in a moderately-tolerant household.

    I know I'm usually very quiet in class and I haven't left a comment in here yet. But I just want to say I'm glad I took your class in my final semester at OSU. I used to admire who you call the New Atheists, and I struggled with what they said about religion and what the fundamentalists said in response to their attacks. It seems that it's a fight between ideas: "I am right and you are wrong!" type of thinking.

    After taking this class, I can understand how Christians think about God and the world we live in, I can finally understand the Christian mindset. And after careful study and consideration, I can peacefully say that I am not a Christian.

    This is what I looked for in the class, a peaceful study of a different worldview. It has opened my eyes just like Islamic Cultural Perspectives has done. It has made me shy away from the New Atheists idea that "Religion is evil." But what causes evil is ignorance and our very own human nature--according to my worldview.

    I can say I am not a Christian while accepting Christianity as just another religion. It's not mine, but it doesn't mean it's wrong. What I hope is that other people can open their minds as much as I have, to understanding people who are different, and therefore, try and discuss a peaceful solution to homophobia and other worldwide problems.