I had to talk about it sooner or later…

24 08 2007

I wanted to finish up my post on whale locomotion/evolution this morning, but things have come together in the blogosphere just-so that I can’t ignore the issue of the “new atheism” any longer. It initially cropped up last night in the comments of the previous post in discussion of the documentary Flock of Dodos. Personally, I felt that the scenes shot of the scientists at the poker game were a bit of a set up, creating something of a straw man version of who scientists are and what they think. We weren’t treated to a similar meeting of evangelicals, but, lest we forget the great “Framing Wars” from earlier this year, scientists are often shown as being intolerant, condescending, and bad communicators overall. The recent spate of atheist literature, most notably The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation, seem to have reinforced this view as some of the authors (like Dawkins and Dennett) are so closely associated with previous works on evolution, seemingly confirming that it is the mission of scientists to destroy religion in whatever form it might take. To be honest, I haven’t read any of those books and I am not particularly interested in them, but there are discussions about them everywhere on the blogosphere, and the impressions seem to be relatively polarized. I can’t speak to what the books do or do not say being that I haven’t read them, but there has been a great debate as to the approach the authors have taken in trying to get their point across, a method that some people feel makes science seem bigoted and condescending.

My friend Walt, from the blog Prehistoric Pulp, summed up his take on the subject this way;

[A]s I was moving away from pseudoscience, the last thing that would have helped was some know-it-all telling me how stupid I was for believing all that garbage. People are naturally defensive, and the most likely result of me hearing that would’ve been to found reasons to keep believing, to solidify my stance to let this jerk know I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. That’s why I hate the language the two use to defend atheism – it’s so counter-productive to the cause. I’m not saying that certain big wig creationists, like the Discovery Institute folks, shouldn’t be ridiculed and criticized. They most certainly should. I’m talking about everyday folks who usually give no more thought to religion than maybe showing up for church every Sunday. People like to be treated as equals, and showing a certain amount of respect to their own views can help open the door to getting them to think about other points of view.

This is a feeling shared by many people, and even if authors like Dawkins and Hitchens don’t call people stupid outright, that is the impression that titles like “The Enemies of Reason” (which, don’t get me wrong, is an excellent documentary) can sometimes give. Even so, deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs often lead to a certain amount of defensiveness and sensitivity (as Walt noted), especially when we’re dealing with a personal god that many evangelicals claim to know. Take this quote about the god of the Old Testament from The God Delusion, for example;

[A]rguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Is the comment pointed? Surely, but nonetheless true. This particular quote has been one of the most cited, yet it does not deal with Christians/Jews themselves, merely the way their god acted according to the Old Testament. Even when I had something resembling Christian faith myself, I found the sheer violence and anger of the Old Testament God to be absolutely horrifying and disgusting, yet many of the worst stories are repackaged for children via shows like Veggie Tales. In one particular episode I was made to watch about the famous fall of Jericho under the leadership of Joshua, the various seed-bearing fruit seemed to be having a good time, their faith causing the walls of the city to come crumbling down with no loss of life or limb. When I got home I pulled a Bible off the shelf and decided to check out what really happened;

When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

[Joshua 6:20-21]

This is just one of many examples of the bloodstained past that Christianity so proudly proclaims, but mentioning this fact (or implying that a God who deems such an act fit to carry out is an unjust one) is often taken as a personal attack. Indeed, religion is such a touchy subject that one need not say “You’re an idiot” to easily offend, and for that reason any discussion of religion that is too pointed is said to be intolerant. At this point even mentioning the name “Richard Dawkins” in some churches or small groups is enough to make hackles rise, and (from what I can tell from my own experiences at least) he is often seen as the archetype for all modern scientists.

Then comes a bit of correspondence from Sam Harris in the latest issue of Nature calling for scientists to stand up against “unreason.” Harris first mentions the overall incompatibility of orthodox Muslim beliefs with modern science (primarily that nothing can challenge or contradict the Koran), then moving on to Francis Collins and how Nature commended Collins’ attempt to bridge the science/religion gap despite Collins coming to choose his belief system because of how beautiful a frozen waterfall is. I’m not a big fan of Collins and I don’t think the arguments he has made in many public forums have been especially good (I haven’t read his book, The Language of God, nor am I much inclined to), but I fail to see how his personal conversion story somehow undercuts all of science or is a threat to it. I may disagree with Collins about his beliefs or assertions he makes based upon them, but Harris’ highlighting of Collins as a religious, rather than scientific, figure seem to be little more than a jab at religion for it’s own sake.

By the same token, however, I often have issues when scientists claim that there is no conflict whatsoever between science and religion, or that they are mutually exclusive ways of understanding the universe. The history of the debate in and of itself shows that not to be true, and religions often have very different interpretations of nature and where humans came from than the evidence that humanity has been able to gather about nature through science. Taking a NOMA-type approach might be pleasing or non-threatening, but (at least for me) it doesn’t work cognitively. The fact that people have deeply held religious beliefs which shape the way they view and interact with their world should be understood (dare I say respected), but this doesn’t mean that we should pretend like there is no larger conflict here. I would like to believe that if we focused on good science that important ideas like evolution could gain a much wider acceptance (and I think this is true to some degree), but at least in the present time beliefs on this issue have often become so polarized that religion is tightly wound around ideas about nature, and it’s nearly impossible to try to reach people who don’t understand evolution without making them feel like they’re being attacked by an atheist.

So what are we to do? Unfortunately I don’t have many answers, and often times I don’t try to address this hot topic of modern atheism/agnosticism because I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. I think we should be honest and straightforward about atheism/agnosticism and putting forth good science without being overly antagonistic (Carl Sagan seems to have taken to this sort of approach in many of his works), but even then some people are going to feel attacked because personal belief is such a sore spot. Even beyond putting forth good science, superstitious beliefs and nutty hypotheses should be addressed and confronted, and I don’t think there’s any reason at all why religion should somehow be exempt from criticism or scientific scrutiny. Still, even classic science documentaries like Cosmos offend by stating that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be,” some feeling that such statements implicitly deny God, who is often said to be “outside” of time and space despite his interventions in the affairs of man and nature. Even documentaries that have nothing at all to do with religion, putting forth only science, seem to irk the religious. Talking about some of the responses to the various documentaries he’s hosted, David Attenborough said this;

I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the programmes a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature, to which I reply and say, “Well, it’s funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the almighty, always quote beautiful things, they always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses.” But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he’s five years old, and I reply and say, “Well presumably the god you speak about created the worm as well,” and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful god with that action, and therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.

I can’t help but feel that people who protest so much believe in a “small god” who can only exist within the strained confines of one book instead of the world itself, but my opinion on the matter makes them no less fervent about their personal beliefs. Science aside, I don’t think that religion is inherently bad or inherently good; just as anything else it is a mix of the two, and there are radical fundamentalists just as well as more liberal and reasonable thinkers. Figuring out how such mindsets become entrenched, rather than trying to battle against them as a whole, seems to me like a more productive affair than labeling the whole of religion “expired” and struggle to get it into the dust bin. In fact I’m sure religion will continue on through my entire life and long after I’m gone, just as science will, and I think people will (and should) disagree on topics where the two intersect. Ideas may be railed against, refuted, and deemed ignorant, but even as we try to do away with ancient belief systems that hinder us as a society I think we need to respect that others whom we disagree with are “fellow travelers” shaped by their own life experiences as well, and understanding who they are, where they’ve come from, and why they think the way they do can be more helpful than simply attacking their opinions with no considerations. This isn’t a call of relativism or to ignore the problems of reduced science literacy coupled with increases in memberships to fundamentalist religions, but rather my opinion that it may be more helpful to listen carefully and respond firmly without calling many of the world’s inhabitants superstitious morons.

John Wilkins has some more informed/better written thoughts on the same subject over at Evolving Thoughts, so be sure to check out his take on this subject.


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11 responses

24 08 2007
Bad

I was just musing about this (and the Harris quote) the other day. Harris has something of a legitimate point, but recycling it over and over and treating it as being as outrageous as he does just gets on my nerves.

It’s a real problem, though because even after discarding outright knee-jerk ridicule and rudeness (which of course is counter-productive) we get still caught between the “anything less than calling something what it is is dishonest and condescending” and the “we must frame everything” camps. The title “Enemies of Reason” is an excellent example of this dilemma.

There’s also the issue of just getting a message out there. A title like “Enemies of Reason” is provocative and challenging in a way that “Two scientists, a rabbi, and a palm reader chat in a studio” is not. Whatever ones view of Dawkins, he is plumbing some pretty important issues concerning an almost criminal lack of skepticism in media, government, and other institutions. But would anyone even listen if it wasn’t at least a little challenging?

Worse, a lot of the people who criticize the “new atheism” are often far lazier in their criticisms than the new atheists themselves, which hardly elevates the debate. But if people like Harris had never written these books or raised these points, it’s hard to believe that all of these critics would have raised them or spent much time on skepticism of woo without them getting some attention.

Still, the question of “where are you going with all this” is a fair one. Any vision of the future in which hordes of people give up their religious beliefs just because they are told that their beliefs are “silly” seems pretty naive. On the other hand, motivating only the “choir” is not always a crazy idea, especially when the choir has traditionally been isolated and marginalized.

24 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comments Bad. I agree with you, and I think there are problems all around. I think religious dogma and superstition should definitely be challenged, and doing so will always cause people to feel like they’re being persecuted (especially when there is little ideological ground that the two sides hold in common). By the same token, I think there has been a habit by some, especially in the informal blogosphere, of writing off those with religious beliefs as idiots. From my own interactions, I have more of a “They accept a stupid idea, but are not stupid themselves” take on the culture war, for if people cannot be reasoned with or simply are that ignorant, it would seem that we’re wasting our time.

Like I mentioned in the post, I’m not especially heavily invested in the issue from an atheism perspective (I’m far more interested in science and the ability to study nature uninhibited from mythical constraints), but I think it is important to consider in terms of how science is perceived by the public. There is no easy answer here and no matter what we do someone is going to get offended, but I am a little concerned that science is suffering from a bit of a PR problem right now where all scientists are considered to be carbon copies or worshippers of the atheist writers I mentioned.

24 08 2007
Christopher Taylor

Attenborough’s comment is probably well-expressed by the song “All Things Dull and Dreary” from The Meaning of Life.

25 08 2007
DoubleW

Thanks for the thoughtful post, and I pretty much agree with you. My view is that we shouldn’t hold back on criticizing the beliefs themselves, even if it means offending people. I have no problem pointing out to devout Christians that their god was often contradictory and not-very-godly, or that there is no evidence of the Exodus, Noah’s Flood or a Virgin Birth.

I just don’t see the point of needlessly offending the believers by calling them names or by making sweeping generalizations about them that — let’s be honest — really run against what skepticism is supposed to be all about. Belief can be a complicated thing.

Anyway, I see your point about scientists who say religion and science are 100 % compatible. I always wondered how a nueroscientist, for example, could believe in a soul that survives after death, given that our very identities are completely tied to our physical biologies. Still, I think that denying that religion serves certain psychological needs would be a mistake. Some people will always need it, sometimes for good reasons. My answer is that science should always trump religion on questions about the nature of the universe and on setting policy (although in the latter, ethics should have equal footing). Just don’t treat believers as less intelligent or assume that they somehow are incapable of rational thought because they believe in a magic man living in the sky. How can a church-going paleontologist reconcile his career with Genesis? Beats me, but many do it, and they don’t give it a second thought and do good scientific research.

Also, just to end on a pet peeve, what exactly is “new atheism”? How is it different philosophically from old-fashioned atheism? The only thing I’ve been able to determine so far is that its proponents are angry white guys, but dude, we’ve have angry white guys ranting against religion for decades, centuries even. A lot of people are making a big deal about the glut of new books concerning atheism on shelves, but trust me as a guy who regularly haunts bookstores, these fads in themes come and go. It may be atheism today, but tomorrow it will be basket weaving while synchronized swimming. I’m admittedly a little behind the times here, but so far I haven’t seen any arguments made by these so-called new atheists that haven’t been made a million times before. Someone enlighten me: I need a revelation!

25 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment Walt. I don’t like the term “the new atheism” either and I don’t see how it’s especially different from the atheism of past ages on a basic level, but I use it because it’s the most recognizable term.

And I think religion does have value, especially in terms of community building, helping the less fortunate, and helping individuals cope with issues that are out of their hands. The problem is that these things can all too often be bastardized by dogmatism, and I don’t think they’re all necessarily exclusive to religion. Still, like I said before, I don’t think organized religion is inherently good or evil; it varies widely, and we should avoid paiting the faithful with too broad a brush. We can and will disagree, sure, but there’s no reason to be jerks.

26 08 2007
John Pieret

As far as “neo-atheists” (my preferred form) or “new atheists,” the practitioners themselves frequently speak of fostering a new, less accomodating, more assertive, attitude among their ranks so I can’t see how they can complain about the term. A change in tactics is enough to make something “neo.”

As to the rest, this tempest will do nothing if all it does is reinforce the attitudes of each side about the other. While I’m no fan of evolutionary psychology, it is not impossible that there is no changing each other’s mind and [cough] framing the issue as a “conflict” may retard, rather than hasten, the change in the general public’s attitude towards atheism (that I think will come anyway as a result of the breakdown of insular communities by the internet and other communication developments).

In any case, I like Darwin’s solution better, since I think it is deeper and more likely to be lasting, though it will take longer:

[T]hough I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow from the advance of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family , if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.

27 08 2007
laelaps

Thank you for the comment John. While I think that there should not be a silence regarding religion, I think you and Darwin was definitely right in that nearly any mention of it is going to polarize people and lead to misunderstandings. Just looking at all the in-fighting that goes on amongst the religious alone shows that there is not going to be an overnight change, although it does seem that however slowly science is changing people’s ideas. While fundamentalists today might be no less fervent than those of Darwin’s day, the creationism of today (that actually accepts natural selection and the reality of fossils) isn’t quite the same as past manifestations. We still have to work hard to make sure there is understanding of science, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t see at least some progress.

27 08 2007
Jeremy

I’ve been equally reluctant to address this issue. It sparks an endless debate (as it is on Wilkins’ blog) in which things are broken down into little teeny bits (define science, define rational thought, etc.) and haphazardly put back together until everyone loses interest or the debate moves to another thread.

Dawkins & Co. irritate me because of their reliance on slogans and silly campaigns like the “Scarlet A” thing. Give me a break. How much more poor me bullshit do we need to hear from the mouths of educated, rich white men?

They can rant and rave all they want about rationalism, atheism and science. I don’t think it’s hurting anyone’s cause or destroying science or pissing people off unnecessarily, I think it’s melodramatic and overstated.

27 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment Jeremy. I’ve actually been quite pleasantly surprised to see the comments of so many intelligent and tolerant people in this thread; I was wondering if I was going to get blasted by someone. In general I just don’t care to much about the whole neo-atheist thing, and (to me, at least) it smacks a bit of the peasant in Holy Grail yelling “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” when the reality of the situation states otherwise.

You can tell that the arguments and debates of this issue are getting to Dawkins, though. In the 2nd part of the “Enemies of Reason” show when he briefly talked to Deepak Chopra, Chopra said that there were fundamentalists in science. Dawkins’ incised reaction to the term speaks for itself.

Also, there is often much debate about “moderates” and if they even exist. From what I’ve been able to tell from my own experiences there are plenty of people who would definitely accept evolution as true, but they don’t want to bring up the issue because they don’t want to “rock the boat” in their church small groups or they don’t know where to start if they want to learn more. Even though I’ve run into some very militant creationists, not all are like that, and usually the leaders of creationist ministries seem to be more stubborn and rigid than members of their ministries or congregations. What the actual makeup of these more inquisitive or open-minded people is, I don’t know, but they do exist and I think it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who thinks the earth is less than 10,000 years old agrees with everything Ken Ham says. In fact I think a lot of people just don’t understand the science and “default” to creationism because it is comfortable and familiar and seems to answer everything. I won’t go off on a rant on this topic, but I think there are definitely many people who would be open to learning more about what science can tell us.

Anyway, like I mentioned in the post, I don’t have much of an interest in the recent pop-atheist literature and am more concerned with the understanding of science than trying to convert (or deconvert) people to one religious/a-religious worldview or another. As John noted, if there is going to be change it is going to be gradual, and being tolerant but firm in or stance is, for me at least, the best way to go.

27 08 2007
John Pieret

… Chopra said that there were fundamentalists in science. Dawkins’ incised reaction to the term speaks for itself.

I haven’t seen the second half yet but while I was watching the first half I couldn’t help but wonder why someone kept shooting lemon juice up Dawkins’ nose. … At least that’s what had happened to me the last time I got that kind of look on my face!

27 08 2007
laelaps

I also had to wonder how many of the people who were interviewed or otherwise confronted by Dawkins knew what they were in for. I would wager that he would be a rather well-known figure, so I was actually pretty surprised that a number of people tried out their various beliefs on him. But as far as the facial expressions go, no, he carried something of a sneer through much of it, and his countenance reminded me of the kind of person who’s quiet and attentive but you can tell is waiting just to rip your argument apart so you keep talking and talking and try to come up with better illustrations and they you start rambling and….

Anyway, I thought it was a good program overall, but it was interesting to watch it not long after watching Sagan’s Cosmos. Sagan seemed to be having a good time, introducing the viewer to the wonders of the universe, a warmth that Dawkins seems unable to emulate.

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