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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Making my point for me.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that, a while back, I suggested a little hobby for folks. Specifically, I suggested an effort to edit Conservapedia* articles to help keep them in line with observable reality. This is, of course, a significant task since Conservapedia appears almost designed to introduce and preserve factual inaccuracy. At the time I indicated that I would be keeping an eye on the conservapedia entry for "Atheism" as atheism is very near to my heart, and it seemed to me that it would be a likely candidate for a pretty brutal hatchet job.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for a status report of sorts. You see, I've been watching the atheism page and it's been quite an experience. After some editing by myself and others the atheism page reached a relative high point back in March. You can see an example of this antique if you're interested. In this earlier incarnation it had a number of sections, including one on atheist morality:

Atheists often base their moral code upon emotion, experience, empirically derived ethics, or some combination thereof.[Citation Needed] It is important to note, however, that just as many religions disagree on specific moral points, and there is sharp disagreement within many religions (e.g. denominational disputes within Christianity), atheists differ substantially from each other in the details of their moral beliefs. Thus, it is difficult at best to summarize the beliefs of the "average atheist."

Atheists typically hold that no religious text can be our only source of morality although all of them may contain useful ideas or principles. As atheists do not believe in any form of deity, books purported to be based upon the wishes of such deities are inherently suspect. Additionally, many atheists point out that all religious texts contain, and often ascribe to God, extremely immoral acts such as the Israelite expulsion of heathen nations from Canaan (i.e. ethnic cleansing), the stoning of homosexuals to death, questionable treatment of women and the institution of slavery. Additionally, atheists often point to a large number of prominent contradictions present in the bible and other religious texts. The presence of such contradictions challenges claims that these works are the infallible word of God.

Atheists sometimes subscribe to the secular humanist idea that it is far more desirable to do what is right because you believe that it is right, rather than because you fear divine punishment or desire divine reward. Atheists sometimes condemn religious desires for exclusive reward (and the punishment of others) such as are found in many religious texts. [links omitted to save my sanity]


And on the atheist population:

In the Great Britain 2001 census, 15.5% of the population identify themselves as having no religious beliefs 2001 Census. This category included agnostics, atheists, heathens and those who wrote Jedi Knight. However other articles suggest a much higher rate of around 52% in the UK once agnostics have been considered.

More specific research on atheists conducted in 2006 suggests that the true proportion of Atheists is 4% in the United States, 17% in Great Britain and 32% in France. The Christian research organization, the Barna Group, reports that 12% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. Given that the methodology of the Barna Group study does not distinguish between atheists and agnostics, it is impossible to say if their results support, or contradict, the 4% figure. Estimates of the prevalence in atheism in the United States are, however, almost always much lower than comparable estimates from Europe.

It is important to keep in mind that surveys containing an option for "no religion" are not necessarily identifying solely atheists. Indeed, many individuals may believe strongly in some form of god but not subscribe to any one particular religion, and as a result will enter a response of "no religion" on surveys. As an example, 14.39% of the respondents to the 2004 General Social Survey in the United States claim to have "no religion." Of a subsample (197 respondents) of those persons with no religion who answered a second question on the origins of man, 19.80% believe that God created man while an additional 43.15% believe that God created man by guiding evolution over time. Thus, cumulatively 62.95% of those with "no religion" still believe that God was directly responsible for the creation of man in some fashion. Clearly, then, many of those claiming to have "no religion" are not atheists. These data are available and can be analyzed online GSS Data Online. Additionally, some atheists consider atheism to be a religion and will not respond that they have "no religion" on surveys, often preferring an "other" option.


Are these the best written sections ever? Of course not- but they represent a start. In fact, if we count the number of words in the entry for atheism way back in March we find a modest score of 1,455. Now let's consider the entry as it stands today. The most obvious change is the addition of a fabulously helpful visual aid:



When we get past that, though, we find that things have changed rather a lot. Take the section on atheist morality:

Although it is difficult to generalize about atheism because it has no creed in a way that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do, atheists typically hold that no religious text can be the only source of morality; they do not look for their morality in revelation, but rather in reason or some other internal force. However, many atheists believe that religious texts contain useful ideas and principles, such as the Golden Rule. Such people would, however, assert that useful principles entered religion because they are useful, and not the other way around. As atheists do not believe in any form of deity, books purported to be based upon the revealed words of such deities are not considered to have any more inherent moral authority than books written by people, as they consider them to be one and the same.


Or the section on atheist population:

It is difficult to accurately determine the proportion of the population that is atheist because survey definitions, and even real life definitions, are often unclear. Some people are unsure of the existence of God, but they are sometimes counted as atheists. People who think that the existence of god cannot be proven or disproven are called agnostics (see Agnosticism). Furthermore, surveys containing an option for "no religion" are not necessarily identifying atheists. Individuals may believe in some form of god but not subscribe to any particular religion.

Specific research on atheists conducted in 2006 suggests that the true proportion of atheists is 4% in the United States, 17% in Great Britain and 32% in France.


In fact, if we calculate the word count for the new version we get 774 words- or a scant 53% the size of the previous incarnation. This, of course, ignores the potential quality differences between the versions but I think most of you will agree that quality, as well as word count, has declined. When we compare both versions to Wikipedia's entry on atheism we find that the "liberal" encyclopedia clocks in at 5,324 words- vastly exceeding even the most thorough version of the Conservapedia article.

Now, what I find interesting in all this isn't that the Conservapedia article is shorter than the Wikipedia article- there are, obviously, fewer people working on Conservapedia- but rather that it has actually gotten shorter over tme. One would expect the opposite trend to hold sway. It actually appears that the total effect of producing a "Wikipedia for conservatives" is a shield against being exposed to too much information or too many perspectives. I suspected as much from the beginning, but it's nice to see Conservapedia more or less proving my point for me. It also gives me a rather charming idea for a new conservapedia slogan:

"Conservapedia: For people who think ignorance is strength!"

Catchy, eh?


* The encyclopedia for people who think that electricity is the result of tiny angels running in place!

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