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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Fellows > Russell Blackford

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Beyond the “New Atheism”?


Russell Blackford
Russell Blackford
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

Posted: Sep 27, 2010

Understanding (and misunderstanding) the so-called New Atheists


Caspar Melville has a blog post over at The New Humanist in which he analyses a “debate” held a few days ago, apparently in London, on the subject “Beyond New Atheism: Where next for the God debate?”

On this occasion, four people who agree with each other that the “New Atheism” is somehow dehumanising, flawed, and boring, exchanged reasons why the “New Atheism” is dehumanising, flawed, and boring. That’s hardly surprising, given their starting points, but there you go. Melville adds that:

It is true that there was no New Atheist on the panel to defend the arguments, but Laurie [Taylor] did a good job of pressing the panellists on the claims made by Dawkins and others for the importance of not allowing an exaggerated sense of respect [to] stop you from making a strong atheist case, and the audience too were quite critical. Given the frequency with which science came up, all three [others] professed a love for science but felt that some misused it, I was sorry we didn’t have a scientist on the panel.

Well, I can’t help wonder how this can be called a debate when all four speakers, including Melville, took essentially the same position on the “New Atheism” ... and there was nobody involved who was prepared to argue for a contrary view. Still, I wasn’t there, so maybe the event wasn’t as bad as Melville makes it sound. It sounds awfully like a handpicked bunch of people getting together to attack a bunch of other people who have not been invited along to defend themselves. That is hardly interesting or charitable or constructive. It’s nice to be assured that someone asked a few pointed questions, but surely if you’re talking about what is “beyond” the “New Atheism” it would be appropriate to ask for an opinion as to whether there is any such “beyond” - and what it might be - from someone who is more or less identified with the “New Atheism” itself. As there are plenty of such people in the UK, I don’t understand why that was not done.

I could understand it if this had been a Christian event, and the discussion had been about how Christians should respond to their “New Atheist” opponents. Of course such discussions are legitimate. In this case, however, the discussion was about how to respond to a group of people who are, on the face of things, allies of the organisers. So why not ask them along? Someone must have been available to provide the missing perspective.

image1I actually have a difficulty with this whole “New Atheism” thing, i.e. with the label New Atheism. Why? Because much of what is being said by the core group of supposed “New Atheists” - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens - is not new at all. These men are delivering familiar critiques of religion’s truth-claims and social role that could be found in many books and articles published before the appearance of The End of Faith (by Harris) in 2004, the event that marks the beginning of whatever New Atheist movement might exist. What changed about that time was not the essential character of the critique. In part there was a restoration of business as usual, a softening of the taboo in middle class circles (and especially academic) against criticising religion.

Of more immediate impact was the greatly increased willingness of large trade publishers (not only specialty presses and academic presses) to accept books on the subject of religion from people with broadly anti-religious views. That, and the willingness of media corporations to use prominent atheist authors and thinkers as on-air talent.

These latter developments, in turn, reflect the commercial judgment that there’s now a hunger out in the community for critiques of religion, a hunger that was not in evidence prior to the mayhem and mass destruction of September 11, 2001 ... and other events that have shocked many educated people out of their complacency about religion.

Whereas religion had seemed benign, if not actually true, to many thinking people, the September 11 attacks, the widespread religion-based opposition to stem cell and therapeutic cloning research, the never-ending resistance to gay rights and abortion rights, the callous actions of the religious in the Schiavo affair, the Catholic Church’s appalling insensitivity towards abused children, and the many atrocities perpetrated daily in the name of religion of one kind or another, all converged to create a sense that human religiosity has a dark side of cruelty, dogmatism, moral blindness, authoritarianism, and intolerance.

In such an environment, there was finally a popular market for the views of forthright critics of religion - not just Dawkins and the others mentioned above, but also AC Grayling, Michele Onfray (in translation), Victor Stenger, and others. As a result, the message is now going out more widely than ever before. Caspar Melville may well find it boring, because many of the arguments and conclusions are not very new. But at least two important points need to be made here.

First, this does not mean that the individual books, speeches, media appearances, and so on, are merely repetitive and add no value. “New Atheist” thought (i.e. atheist thought finally reaching a popular audience) is not monolithic, and the various relevant works are, indeed, adding value, even though they do so incrementally. Second, it’s taking a very short-term view of things to think that the popular message is already stale after only six years.

If the message is to have a strong impact, it will need to go out in forthright and persuasive ways for decades, until the “New Atheists”’ issues, arguments, and conclusions permeate the popular culture and the lessons are widely absorbed into the consciousness of educated people. Talking in a jaded manner of “What comes next?” is just too impatient. It kind of misses the point that the New Atheism responds to opportunities that have only just, in the broader scheme of things, become available.

Naturally the core “New Atheists” have taken on projects that involve more than just advocating the merits of atheism. Richard Dawkins recently released a new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which provides one of the most thorough defences of biological evolution ever published; Christopher Hitchens has written an autobiography, and is involved in numerous other projects (despite suffering severe health problems); Daniel Dennett also has new projects, including a study of priests who have lost their faith; and Sam Harris has written an important new book about the nature of morality, which is just about due for publication.

If we want to know what comes next, we can do a lot worse than checking out what the original “New Atheists” are actually doing right now, and considering its value. All of these projects build on aspects of what has come before, as reputable intellectual inquiry almost always does, but each adds value.

Much more needs to be done, of course, such as producing new and better studies of religious freedom and the role of the state, and new and better studies of how moral restraint works, or ought to work, in the absence of God or anything supernatural. I’m working on both of those topics myself, but that does not mean that I need to deprecate the work of Dawkins and the others.

Towards the end of his post, Melville emphasises his right to disagree with people who are broadly his allies:

My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation - all of which I am and will continue to be - does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.

But surely that goes without saying! If not, let me spell out the point that disagreement on specifics is - always - not only permissible but valuable. Indeed, there are many specific points where I find myself in disagreement with one or another of the core “New Atheists”. That does not, however, mean that it would be helpful or accurate for me to dismiss their work as crude, simplistic, and boring. Books such as The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell are not crude or simplistic, though there are good reasons why the former is aimed at the more simplistic forms of religion, and nor do I see what is boring about them. Of course, they are written for popular markets and are not as complex or compressed as strictly academic books on similar subjects such as those of Michael Martin or Graham Oppy. But the latter do not - so far - write books that are meant to be accessible to readers in the popular market.

Melville should by all means disagree with Dawkins, or whomever, on whatever points he thinks fit. Perhaps Dawkins’ critique of the ontological argument is not satisfactory and could be improved upon; perhaps he has not done enough to show that certain liberal sorts of religion are harmful or implausible; or perhaps he needs to say more about the effects of various minds of religion on children. Or whatever. Let’s hear the specific criticisms, if they exist, and also the improved or streamlined analyses of religion that critics such as Melville have to offer.

But Melville seems to think there is something “dangerous” about any degree of solidarity among people who are “critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation”. I’m afraid I can’t see it.

There is nothing especially dangerous about people organising in pursuit of a common cause, such as the one that Melville mentions. Indeed, it should be apparent that there’s strength in at least some degree of unity. Once you do organise, to whatever degree, it makes good sense not to attack allies in an overly broad or damning way, or to organise seminars specifically designed to “other” them and treat them as deficient. Far better, when dealing with allies, to consult with them, treat them inclusively where at all possible, and discuss points of detail in an open, constructive manner. Of course, no one should have to sign on to a point that s/he disputes, but it’s more productive to keep in-house disputes specific, detailed, and constructive (while keeping any manifestos broad and inclusive), and not to dismiss your allies’ contributions in a way that assists with their demonisation.

In general, Melville seems to have lost his sense of strategic and historical perspective just lately. I hope he finds it soon.


Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.
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COMMENTS


the September 11 attacks…

There is nothing specific to religion in the examples you mention. Atrocities can, and do, happen whenever a group of people obsessively hate other groups of people (like some New Atheists). I am sure I don’t need to remind you of the atrocities committed by atheist regimes against believers. The freedom to think with one’s own head is non-negotiable.

I completely agree with Melville: “My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation – all of which I am and will continue to be – does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.





New Atheism - “What comes next?”
Why, “New Agnosticism” of course! Or if you prefer “New existentialism”?

But seriously, the debate is highly subjective, as always. I do not agree with your conclusions here, yet we should not underestimate the hard work of the “New” key players. The thing is everyone has problems with this “new” prefix, and the celebs, (and media), have only themselves to blame, as the prefix kind of implies “flash in the pan” that theocrats are hoping will fizzle fiercely and fade?

I think Melville has it correct. In fact his blog has brightened my day and inspired me to realise I’m not alone in my views of “accomodation”, (I see it as spiritual evolution).

@ Giulio..
You are correct, critical thinking is paramount, and neither can the debate be reduced to merely “yes” or “no” camps. The world will “at very least” pass through agnosticism towards spiritual evolution, (the way I see it)?





It’s too airy-fairy on both sides. Why can’t for starters someone with a sheepskin write: “religion’s basis is necessary fiction, to act as a form of (say) rightwing socialism until further notice”?





@Giulio Prisco

So you think a bunch of atheists are about to pilot loaded planes into a skyscraper? I don’t think so.

That sort of lunacy needs religion.





> “...the widespread religion-based opposition to stem cell ... research,”

Embryonic only.

> “the callous actions of the religious in the Schiavo affair,”

Both sides were callous. Were the folks who said “let her slowly starve to death” not callous?





@Simon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_atheism

A unpleasant list of atrocities, don’t you think?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_McVeigh

Was this guy a believer?

This does not seem the description of a believer: “he said he had sort of lost touch with Catholicism and “I never really picked it up…”

As in my first comment, atrocities can, and do, happen whenever a group of people obsessively hate other groups of people.

 





It is premature to say “religion is outmoded”. Technically, religion IS outmoded. But when—if—scientific immortality can offer an alternative to the afterlife you will see all of a sudden people losing their negative attitudes concerning h+.
Until then, since a good house of worship, or an informal ashram, or even merely chanting & praying at home, offer succor for those sick, dying, or fearing death,
you can be sure religion/faith will continue.





Talk about a straw man, Giulio! No one here is supporting the quasi-religion of Marxism in its Marxist-Leninist strains. Of course quasi-religions that take something like History as their god are just as dangerous as the otherworldly monotheisms, and likewise there are religions that are not especially dangerous, such as pagan polytheism - they don’t have the same totalitarian tendencies as Christianity and Islam (and Marxist-Leninism).

The people Melville attacks are, by and large, political liberals, not fanatics who think they have the impersonal logic of History on their side.

I’ve often written and spoken about this, as you should be well aware. Your comments are ignorant, irrelevant, and offensive.





“they don’t have the same totalitarian tendencies as Christianity and Islam (and Marxist-Leninism).”


No, Christianity is authoritarian, not totalitarian.





@Russel - I am aware of your writings. But my comments was directed to Simon, who seems to think only religious believers can commit atrocities. I just offered two examples of the contrary. I could have offered many more.

“Offensive” is in the eye of the beholder. “Irrelevant”, I most certainly don’t think so. But “ignorant? How can mentioning relevant facts be taken as a show of ignorance? Russell, I am sure you have studied history. But so have I.

You can, of course, attack religions from many angles if you wish, and I very often agree with you. But I react to those who try to persuade us that only religion can cause atrocities. This is provably false.





I’ve found, through three years of debate and discussion with the laymen of the New Atheist movement, that they are quite a dishonest bunch of people, much more apt to commit their favorite appeal to ridicule fallacy of choice than to say anything really meaningful at all.

You get comments such as the ones postfuturist makes, claiming religion is “outmoded” and claiming that all religion has to offer is a placebo cure for the fear of death.

In what sense is religion outmoded?  What has science done to further morality?  Science can tell us how to build bombs, but cannot tell us when to drop them.  Science is rather neutral in the question of God, though many of the “New Atheists” like to use science as a bat with which they bludgeon believers.  But that, too, is dishonest, and only serves to further my conclusion that New Atheism can be mainly characterized by dishonesty and uncritical thinking.  Even Dawkins book was a illogical polemic filled with fallacies.  Is this what New Atheism has to offer?  Cheap shots, logical fallacies, and a dishonest claim that science owes itself to atheists?  I would say that New Atheism merely needs new packaging, but when you open the package, there’s nothing there to be found!

And Russell, while you may not be supporting the anti-religious Marxist philosophy, which killed well over 120 million people in the 20th century, New Atheism doesn’t offer anything to the contrary.  Even Kant recognized that to truly ground a system of morality, God was necessesary. 

One can confidently say that most successful brutal dictators shared the common belief that there was no higher power than themselves, even when they cloaked themselves with the mantles of religion.  No doubt Hitler used religion to rouse his people, though he was an ardent fan of Neitzsche.  I would even go so far as to include many Popes and kings in this category, who used religion rather than practiced it themselves to further their own causes at the cost of human life.

Now, instead of taking the New Atheists’ typical uncritical, pluralistic view of religion, I will actually state that there are religions which are evil and do promote violence and death.  Islam is the main example here.  Once can see, empirically, the correlation between an increasing percentage of Muslims in a society and the amount of civil unrest, until you arrive at a mostly Muslim population where it then decreases. 

But in today’s politically correct, uncritically thinking world, the New Atheist takes quite an unequal amount of cheap shots at Christianity.  Perhaps they fear a fatwa, or perhaps they have some subjective reason to despise Christianity more than the rest, or perhaps truly it’s because New Atheism is seated in the West where Christianity is the dominant religion, but it betrays the deep-seated and quite honestly ignorant bigotry that is well entrenched in this movement.  This bigotry, along with its dishonesty is indeed transparent.  If you don’t believe in God, fine, but do not pretend that New Atheism has any new arguments to offer, it doesn’t.  And do not pretend that those who believe in God are not believing in something that has well reasoned arguments, if not ultimately conclusive.  To pretend that religion is the domain of the ignorant, as many New Atheists do, does nothing but entrench the religious and make discourse all but impossible.

Atheism will fail precisely because it has nothing to offer except the “liberating” excuse to live life in an immoral manner.  That’s it.  That is its sole attraction, unless you count the ability to claim the intellectual high ground, which is really a hollow promise.  And while atheists claim this is not the case, the atheists I speak with are overwhelmingly in favor of abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, and of course their favorite - dishonesty.  The one thing they are not is intellectual.  The sheer amount of cognative dissonance between what atheists claim is true about atheism and what is empirically verifiable in their own speech is telling.  They will claim there is no atheist philosophy while they describe it to you.  They will claim that atheists can be moral people while they simultaneously justify all manner of traditionally immoral behavior, at least at the layman level.





I find it funny how people can actually discuss religion seriously. I mean we are talking about the abuse of the mind and the senses here. Religion is a taught mental illness. There are no counter arguments to this fact. There is no such thing as god, and believers need to wake up and study and question the world around them more.





Joseph, so what do you do with an Antony Flew?





Don’t know what it is like in other countries, but the commercialized & smarmy religion in America is nothing short of revolting. Remember this lyric?:

“If Jesus saves
well he’d better save himself
from the gory glory seekers
who would use his name in death”





... there’s no point in answering Justin directly; he knows that though I wrote religion is technically outmoded, it is still valid for families who need succor at funerals, and so forth; Justin thinks he is wasting our time, but he is only wasting his own time with such a quixotic task as attempting to convert bloggers at a transhumanist site.





Sorry to re-post yet again, but it is almost shocking to see a 500 or so word comment from a rightwing Christian here, comparable to visiting a Christian website to see a lengthy comment from a transhumanist. It is positive in a way, as we know what it is they want by them coming to us. I want to engage Justin by way of his own ethical standards: Justin wants Christian morality, and if his were based on genuine Christian ethics there would be no argument. But Christianity is often a commercial enterprise—it cannot be denied religion in a nation such as America is influenced by rightwing business practices. Some Christian organizations (such as on- campus Christian outreach groups) are dominated by teenage or slightly older students who don’t have enough experience in the outside world to relate the Bible with—comparable to staffing NFL teams with high school football players. Not to be too critical of Justin, however he does appear to be too young to understand the nuances of Christianity and related issues. Take just for starters the following quote from his comment:
“I would even go so far as to include many Popes and kings in this category, who used religion rather than practiced it themselves to further their own causes at the cost of human life.”
Heavens to Betsy, we never would have known many Popes and kings used religion to further their own causes. Golly, how could we have missed such a thing?
Not merely popes and kings, but also those such as Justin, have corrupted & commodified the legacy of Jesus.
Justin, it is a desolating abomination.





“Of course, no one should have to sign on to a point that s/he disputes, but it’s more productive to keep in-house disputes specific, detailed, and constructive (while keeping any manifestos broad and inclusive), and not to dismiss your allies’ contributions in a way that assists with their demonisation.”

Good point Russell.  Arguments are good, but that’s no reason to try to segregate certain allies.





“the atheists I speak with are overwhelmingly in favor of abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, and of course their favorite - dishonesty.”

At any rate it is amusing that Justin would bring rightwing, anti-gay Christianity to a blog such as IEET’s; it is comic relief.





i am going to try to look at all this in a different way.
is the us govt the same as the usa?
most of readily realize this isn’t true. the govt changes willy-nilly with the times; but the usa is a grand country with majestic nature sites,with mostly hard working people since 1776 just trying to live out their lives.

and perhaps religion and god concept are similar. its easy to attack mankind’s creation of religion. over centuries, many religions have prompted completely foolish acts by humans. religion is mankind’s folly.
but are we tiny little entities on this tiny speck of earth prepared to make a judgement of the universe and whether there is a god?
how egotistic and megalomanic can it get?
religion isn’t the answer.
science isn’t the answer.
both are fledgling ideas.

don’t argue, pursue the truth, whether it bolsters your position or not.
THE TRUTH WON’T HURT YOU!

we have alot yet to learn.





Well, Guilio, to be fair to you I agree that religion is not the only thing that can cause atrocities. But you should be aware that bringing up communism in this context - the context of the original post - is a hot-button thing to do.

My own position has long been that atrocities are caused by comprehensive, apocalyptic belief sytems (among other things, such as by sheer racial hate). Whether they are theistic or atheistic is not so much the point, though when we scrutinise these systems we will find ourselves scrutinising their central concepts. In the case of Christianity, it will include the concept of God; in the case of Marxism, it will include certain concepts of how history is supposed to unfold.

No one ever flew a plane into a building merely in the name of atheism, but someone might well do so in the case of some sort of revolutionary Marxism. Certainly worse things have been done by the likes of Pol Pot.

I think that we should be scrutinising all comprehensive, apocalyptic systems, but I don’t think that worrying about formally atheistic ones, such as variants of revolutionary Marxism, is a very high priority at the moment. The Cold War has been over for a long time.





Hi Russel, this the precisely the point I wanted to make: “religion is not the only thing that can cause atrocities.

Re “I think that we should be scrutinising all comprehensive, apocalyptic systems…”:

Books do not fly planes into buildings. People do.

What sort of people? The bigot, self-righteous, fundamentalist sort. Those who don’t accept that others may have different opinions. Some believers are people of this sort. And some atheists too.





“both are fledgling ideas.”

Far as I know, religion is not fledgling, religion has gone far enough, though religion can & does work as emollient for the suffering. Unfortunately, people crave power; the GOP God of Palin is a god (or in her case, goddess) that has failed—so the Republican National Committee will have to forgive those who do not wish to send a check to the RNC.
To forgive is Divine!

 





911 has been mentioned many times in this thread, and I wonder why nobody says the obvious. Strange, because many people on this forum should be familiar with the materialist view of history.

Nobody does anything for ideological or religious reasons. We do everything for economic reasons, often using ideology, religion, or whatever comes handy as a pretext.

If refugees camps in the middle east were like Beverly Hills, they would not find anyone to fly planes into buildings.





> Giulio writes: “Nobody does anything for ideological or religious reasons. We do everything for economic reasons, often using ideology, religion, or whatever comes handy as a pretext.”

So kindly explain why so many people close their lucrative business on their Sabbath. And why they spend so much extra money on religiously-acceptable food.

In other words, I think that although you have a point, you went too far by saying “NObody.”





@Abraham - because if they did not close on Sabbath they would be boycotted by the community and lose money as a result.

I am not saying that individuals cannot be motivated by ideologies, but that social patterns can usually be explained in simpler and more tangible terms.





“If refugees camps in the middle east were like Beverly Hills, they would not find anyone to fly planes into buildings.”

Agreed; now we have to explain it to those such as Reverend Jones the would-be Koran burner, who is probably angling for an eventual book deal.
There are ways to communicate with our opponents here & abroad without being trimmers. We can say we will respect their creeds (which is true up to a point) but not necessarily appreciate their creeds at all. We can tell ‘pro- life’ activists we can’t please every faction, and we can tell them gays have very little connection with abortion, for instance.





I have a bit of a problem with people who propose that I read evil words calling for evil deeds. It’s, like, not my thing, at all, you know.

If we outlawed printing of text calling for violence - turning dead trees into pure, concentrated evil - the world might be a bit less violent place, don’t you think?

Oh it is illegal? Then why are certain publications exempt? Oh I see: if you do in the name of x, y, or z, it’s ok. Like really really ok: then it’s Good. Very Very Good.





> “@Abraham - because if they did not close on Sabbath they would be boycotted by the community and lose money as a result.”

Seriously, now. If the guy had a home-business, working via telephone, nobody would know. And even if his community would boycott (which is definitely not a definite thing as you imply), the market for buyers outside that community far exceeds the income he’d get from inside that community.

I gave merely two examples of choices people make where finances are clearly NOT the key motivating factor, but their faith is. I can think of scores more. You sort of admitted that when you wrote:“I am not saying that individuals cannot be motivated by ideologies.” But you should have gone further. You should’ve said, “I do agree that individuals can be motivated by ideologies or religion over their financial motivations.  However, I’m glad you wrote, “social patterns can usually be explained in simpler and more tangible terms” which is much better than your previous, “Nobody does anything for ideological or religious reasons.”





“... there’s no point in answering Justin directly; he knows that though I wrote religion is technically outmoded, it is still valid for families who need succor at funerals, and so forth; Justin thinks he is wasting our time, but he is only wasting his own time with such a quixotic task as attempting to convert bloggers at a transhumanist site”

Religion is technically outmoted?  I didn’t know that science had advanced that far.  Frankly, pretending that science can give you a grounding for morality is quite comical in and of itself, but beyond that, science simply cannot lay any claim to the truth of the existence of God.  Any attempts to claim the contrary are either dishonest or cross over into metaphysics where they then run into a host of philosophical problems.

And while your 200 word reply was filled with all kinds of nice analogies, it completely missed its mark.  I do have enough experience in debating atheists to know when someone has no arguments.  And you have no arguments.  No new ones, for sure.  You have to resort to the general ad hominem attacks like “you’re too young to know anything about the Bible” type of statements.

Again, I rest my case.  If that’s the best you have, you do not have anything.

@ Russell: As to the belief that atrocities are spurned by apocolyptic beliefs.  You apply this to Marxism in such a vague and unintelligent way as to essentially say nothing.  Most people with a political agenda have an idea about how they would like to see the future.  This includes politicians in democracies, representative republics, and dictatorships.  I’m not sure that you have really said anything meaningful in your statement.

On the other hand, what can be meaningfully said about atrocities is that they are committed by people who act immorally.  But, as most humanists are moral relativists, I’d be surprised to see any humanist be bothered by such a notion.





“And you have no arguments”

You are correct; and believe it or not I don’t like arguing. However when a rightwing Christian posts anti-gay, anti-abortion messages at a site such as IEET, then IMO it is a signal from God to argue.
BTW, there is circumstantial evidence Jesus was gay: he wore a gown and hung out with men, mostly—his disciples.





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Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
Williams 119, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford CT 06106 USA 
Email: director @ ieet.org     phone: 860-297-2376