Are the New Atheists Bad for Science?
By J. Daniel Sawyer
In an article on Beliefnet this week, Michael Ruse argues that the â€œnew atheistsâ€ are a â€œbloody disaster.â€ He argues using a mixture of caricatures, complaints, and criticisms, so before I go into why I think the man is full of organic fertilizer on the broader issues, I will address the salient ones:
[Cut for opinionated rantings that might irritate some readers]
1) â€œ…the “new atheists” – people who are aggressively pro-science, especially pro-Darwinism, and violently anti-religion of all kinds, especially Christianity but happy to include Islam and the rest.â€
Among the â€œnew atheistsâ€ he names Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, P.Z. Meyers, and Jerry Coyne. Notably absent from this list is the movement’s galvanizing voice, Sam Harris, whose book The End of Faith busted the market wide open for everyone else. Harris is familiar with a number of religions, and in The End of Faith and in his lectures at the Beyond Belief symposiums makes nuanced arguments about the relative merits and demerits of different religions and different flavors of different religions, all while insisting that faith must no longer be socially sacrosanct. He argues that not all false ideas are equally destructive, and it may be that not all religious ideas are equally false, but that it is dishonest, dangerous, and foolhardy to continue to behave as if religious ideas are especially immune from criticism when compared to political, moral, ethical, economic, philosophical, scientific, or artistic ideas. His arguments may have problems â€“ anthropologist Scott Atran has given them an extensive critique â€“ but they do not fit the brush Ruse is painting with in the slightest.
A call to level the intellectual playing field by practicing what Harris calls â€œconversational intoleranceâ€ of religious ideas is the central program of the New Atheists. It’s what Dawkins, Dennet, and Hitchens explicitly advocate, and it’s what Meyers and Coyne deliberately practice. Dawkins frames it as â€œlet’s have an argument.â€ Dennet frames it as â€œlet’s break the spell that makes religious ideas specially immune from criticism.â€ Meyers desecrates communion wafers and pulls other provocative stunts to raise discussion and demonstrate that, when it comes to inquiry, nothing is sacred.
The charge that the New Atheists are violently anti-religion is, to put it frankly, a lie. None are in favor of any form of violence towards religion â€“ all advocate argument. Nor is it true that their ire falls especially on Christianity. While Dawkins and Dennet talk about Christianity more than any other religion, neither says that â€œChristianity is the worstâ€ â€“ quite the contrary. In both cases, being raised in Christian environments, they focus on it simply because they are more familiar with Christian history and theology than they are with, say, Confucianism. On the other hand, Hitchens and Harris are familiar with a variety of western and non-western religions and single out Islam and some of the other more easterly religions out for more severe criticism than they level at Christianity.
Ruse is engaging in well-poisoning on this one. Shame on him.
2) â€œFrancis Collins has been incurring their hatred…since Collins is a devout Christian.â€
Ruse is here referring to the controversy over the recent appointment of Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, as head of the National Institutes of Health, but Ruse’s characterization of the controversy is disingenuous. As the head of the NIH, Collins will have influence in areas where he has a dogmatic ax to grind: embryonic stem cell research. At no time that I’ve seen (granting that the web is a big place and I can’t be everywhere at once) have any of the New Atheists impugned Dr. Collins’ scientific credentials, even when directly attacking some of the less scientific things he’s said in print. Check out Michael Shermer’s blog entry on the topic for a quick, representative summary. The question at issue is not Collin’s credentials, and it’s not Collins’ religion. It’s whether his non-rational dogmatic commitments compromise his ability to do the job of overseeing research budgets, and it’s every bit as legitimate a question as asking whether a Quaker or a Jain is an appropriate pick for Secretary of Defense.
1) Ruse complains that the â€œnew atheistsâ€ are terribly mean to him â€“ meaner than they are to the religious folks.
To be perfectly frank, I think Ruse’s complaint that the New Atheists have insulted him in their writings is more than a little childish, and also more than a little hypocritical.
First, as demonstrated by the depths he sinks to in this essay, he’s not above reckless and dishonest ad hominem attacks himself â€“ complaining that someone is mean when you’re dishing it right back and worse is gradeschool behavior.
Second, he doesn’t publicly hold the people in the creationist community he considers friends (Gish, Dembski, Johnson) who are even ruder in print and in public (see Dembski’s nasty little cartoon about the Judge in the Dover case for an example).
It should also go without mentioning that, in the war of ideas, people can and do say very aggressive, hard things while telling the truth as they see it. This is an adult world, and Ruse should have learned at University that science and philosophy are not disciplines for the timid.
That said, let’s put this complaint in context, and consider the charges that the â€œnew atheistsâ€ level against the priesthood(s). Religious leaders are, according to Dawkins and Hitchens, â€œchild abusersâ€ for their promotion of the doctrine of hell and of infant circumcision. Hitchens further characterizes the Catholic Church’s youth outreach activities as â€œNo Child’s Behind Left.â€ They all accuse Imams of fostering an environment that might lead us to nuclear war, and Dispensationalist Christians of breathlessly searching for a silver lining (i.e. The Rapture) in the prospect of Manhattan going up in a mushroom cloud.
Whether these accusations are defensible or not is not at issue here. What is at issue is that Ruse evidently thinks a book review calling his ideas â€œso nonsensical that only an intellectual could believe them,â€ a book calling his condescending attitude towards religion â€œappeasement,â€ and a blogger labeling him â€œa clueless gobshiteâ€ is worse than being called a pedophile, a child abuser, a genocidal warmonger, and a fanatic.
I must say, his semiotic score-keeping system mystifies me.
2) Ruse complains that the New Atheists are mean to him because he doesn’t think all believers are evil or stupid, and that science and religion do not have to clash.
If Ruse honestly believes this is the source of the invective he’s found himself on the receiving end of, he is sorely mistaken. The book Jerry Coyne reviewed is stunning both in its ambitious scope and, more importantly, in its lack of intellectual rigor. The book in question, Can A Darwinian Be A Christian? might be a worthy subject for a book, but Ruse’s method in the book is blinkered toward both religion and with science. Its methods and hermeneutic are only applicable to a very small minority of Western Liberal Protestants and Catholics â€“ the rest of the religious universe (including well over 80% of the world’s Christian population) is unaddressed by his argument, which tries to show the God-of-the-Gaps as the starting point for making Christianity and evolutionary biology mutually reinforcing.
Contrast this with a religious scientist that the New Atheists do not attack, Ken Miller. A conservative Catholic teaching at Brown University, Miller is the author of Finding Darwin’s God, perhaps the most nuanced and well-argued defense of theistic evolution ever written. In his book and arguments, he refuses to give short shrift to science in order to give comfort and shelter to his doctrines, and does not engage in the normal â€œGod of the Gapsâ€ or â€œNOMAâ€ nonsense. He is an unapologetically religious man who has the courage of his convictions, both religiously and scientifically, and is very much respected by both his peers and his adversaries for that fact.
1)â€œTheir treatment of the religious viewpoint it pathetic to the point of non-being.â€
Unfortunately, with the exception of singling out Dawkins for being philosophically simplistic (a criticism that is, to my mind, pretty near the mark), Ruse provides nothing to back up this assertion. He certainly doesn’t engage any of the arguments offered up in the New Atheist books, nor does he seem to notice that the â€œnew
atheistsâ€ are in dialogue with believers. The notion that the New Atheists are boxing with a straw man is belied by the fact that believers in Islam and Christianity overwhelmingly pay lip service to scriptural inerrancy, prophetic infallibility, and a whole slate of other doctrines that the New Atheists are aggressively attacking.
Judging by his comments about Christianity in other contexts, it seems that Ruse considers as straw manning arguments that do not engage liberal theologians such as Bultmann, Tillich, et. al. These men are eloquent writers, and theologically subtle, but such men hold a position in the borderlands between religion and atheism, being held to their religion by personal spiritual experience but utterly unable to defend with argument a single doctrine, not even the existence of God. They are of interest to the academy, but not of much interest to the average pew-sitter. When it comes to the culture war, they are largely irrelevant.
Dennet, of course, isn’t engaging in this kind of argument anyway. He raises questions about how religion got the way it is, how it might have served an adaptive function, what is it that, if we discover parts of it are false, should we hold on to and learn from?
P.Z. Meyers and Jerry Coyne are interested in scientific education and intellectual rigor in that field, and make precious few forays into arguments against religion except when directly addressing the Intelligent Design crowd.
Harris and Hitchens are the only two left, and both have come under a goodly amount of fire for generating more heat than light. However, Ruse’s notion that they are philosophically naive or religiously uninformed is bogus â€“ that they differ in outlook from him is certain, but disagreement does not idiots make. In The End of Faith, Harris articulates an entire epistemology that dialogues with Kant, Bacon, Descartes, addresses postmodernism, and takes heavy account of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.
Hitchens, on the other hand, is highly conversant with all of the great socialist thinkers, and references many of them directly in his book, as well as A.J. Ayer, C.S. Lewis, Bertrand Russel, and many others that would take too long to list here. There may be places where their arguments are sloppy or just plain wrong, but to dismiss the entire crowd as â€œpoor quality,â€ â€œpathetic,â€ â€œa disservice to scholarship,â€ and â€œknowing nothingâ€ of the subject matter is calumnious.
2) â€œThe new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to keep Creationism out of schools.â€ Ruse develops this further, saying that â€œif science generally and Darwinism specifically implies that God does not exists, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.â€ He goes on to say â€œThis is the claim of the new atheists.â€
Ruse again proves himself aptly named by gracing his audience with a rhetorical ruse. Taking these items in reverse order, the new atheists do not say that science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist. The closest you can come, other than statements of personal conversion moments (such as when Christopher Hitchens relates his childhood revelation that our eyes are adapted to the environment and not vice versa, or Dawkins’ lack of ability to comprehend how someone can believe in a god that would ordain a bloodthirsty process like evolution), is Dennet’s observation in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that the idea of natural selection acts as a universal acid, dissolving away our common-sense notion that things are designed from the top down rather than the bottom up.
Now, that may imply that the God promulgated by religion is less likely than not, but let’s not confuse weak implication with necessary conclusion.
Secondly, Ruse is manifestly wrong on the question of Constitutional law. Children are exposed to facts in school which contravene their religious heritage all the time. From Galileo onward, the western world has been inundated with facts that strongly imply that some religious doctrine or another is false, from the corruptible heavens to the expanding universe, from the realization that species can go extinct to the discovery of geologic strata, from the atomic theory of matter to the heliocentric solar system expanding universe, from the discovery of female gametes to neurologically embodied mind, from plate tectonics to ancestral genetics to evolutionary theory.
We forget now, because we don’t realize how profoundly these scientific discoveries affected the doctrinal development of different religions â€“ we assume that the religions we have today are as they always were. But that’s not the case. Each one of the above accepted scientific paradigms either threatened to unseat or completely obliterated at least one accepted religious doctrine that was, at the time, considered fundamental to the faith of Christians, Mormons, Muslims, and/or Jews. The Constitution does not protect believers from inconvenient facts in a government-run school, it protects everyone from proselytization by anyone representing the government. Saying â€œThe Grand Canyon was formed by geological forces over millions of yearsâ€ is not a religious dogma, even though it specifically gives the lie to the Genesis creation and flood accounts and, if the evidence is followed down the geologic column, eventually calls into question the foundations doctrines such as original sin and biblical inerrancy.
This criticism, the ultimate point of Ruse’s entire essay, also turns out to be wrong on both the facts and the logic, and thus the whole of his article amounts to little more than vacuous grandstanding.
For myself, the thing I find most disturbing about Ruse’s little diatribe is the lack of intellectual honesty (the same problem I have with Gould’s NOMA nonsense). The epistemology Ruse espouses in this article is highly unethical, as his strategy (again, like NOMA) is a bait-and-switch con game with believers. Does this sound unfair? How else can you describe someone who says â€œWe must not tell people that Darwinism implies that there is no God, because it endangers science teaching.â€ [paraphrased]. If Darwinism does imply that God doesn’t exist, then telling religious folk that â€œonly a few cranks think thatâ€ is a lie. If Darwinism does not imply that God does not exist, then all that need be done is argue with the people who say that it does. In neither case is it necessary for an honest person to perpetrate a confidence trick upon people whom he’s trying to sway to his side.
In the article, he also conflates two disparate concerns. First, the scientific:
While what people believe about the universe is their own business – I certainly have my own weird handful of notions – if one wants to play in the science classroom one must adhere *at least* to the doctrine of falsifiability. Thus far, all creationist hypotheses have proved false on every testable point. This is true of even the strong version of Intelligent Design, known as irreducible complexity, whose original examples of irreducible complexity (the immune system, the bacterial flagella, etc.) have since been proved reducible, thus falsifying the hypothesis.
Of course, the weak version of ID (â€œThere must be some designer somewhere out thereâ€) doesn’t make a falsifiable claim, which makes it a philosophy without even an hypothesis. It is not even bad science. To quote Wolfgang Pauli, it’s “not even wrong.â€
Second among Ruse’s conflated issues is the sociological:
People love their pet beliefs, particularly when it comes to notions about creation or design, which most people erroneously conflate with metaphysical notions of purpose. Fortunately, affection doesn’t give one the right to have their beliefs coddled in a science classroom, nor should it. Science has always, and (so long as it continues to progress) will always be a philosophically and theologically unsettling enterprise – not just for the religious, but for all of society. As our data about the universe changes, our ethics, philosophy, beliefs, laws, and values change in reaction to it. Sometimes it’s subtle â€“ sometimes it’s hugely traumatic. In neither case may one claim an exemption from coping with that fact because it conflicts with something someone taught in a church or read in a holy book.
The argument over the teaching of evolution is one of four major arguments now brewing that effect the whole of the scientific endeavor. The others are neurology, biogenetic research (particularly, but not exclusively, on human embryonic stem cells), and nanotechnology. All three of these fields profoundly threaten a variety of doctrines from a variety of religions in ways at least as profound as evolutionary theory does – and all of them are indispensable in dealing with climate, famine, pollution, disease, and a host of other engineering challenges that either loom on the horizon or are already with us. Ruse’s strategy of accommodationism didn’t work in the last 50 years of the 20th century – it seems that a different set of tactics are needed. Direct confrontation and argument is a more honest and, quite possibly, a much more productive mode of engagement in the culture wars of all sorts than is ingratiation.
In every form it has been hitherto proposed, creationism is either a falsified hypothesis, a con game, or an assertion without
any content. We scientifically literate folk should treat our adversaries in this culture war with the dignity that they’re due as adult human beings and be clear that, in so many words, we’re fairly certain that they’re full of shit. It is both dishonest and insulting to pat them on the head and point at the sandbox in the corner and say â€œover there we have a little room for your theology, and we promise not to wreck your sandcastles â€“ at least not today.â€
Of course, there are different levels of pugilistic engagement â€“ P.Z. is a provocateur, and proud of it. So be it â€“ the world needs people like that, lest we all get so afraid of offending someone else that we lose our willingness to participate in the arena of ideas. A free culture needs its assholes like a pond needs water.
Friends arguing philosophy over beer in a pub have the option to be kind â€“ that’s the kind of forum I participate in at Apologia, and I’m proud to do it. But friends don’t generally take kindly to being treated like children by their peers, and there is a difference between kindness and mealy-mouthed passive aggression; practicing the latter in a friendly conversation might well get you snubbed at the next get-together, because it displays both cowardice and condescension.
However, intellectual pugilists in the arena of ideas do not have the option of sparing the feelings of the other side. It is possible for one side to be completely wrong on a given issue, and in such circumstances, seeking a middle ground is dishonest. So, I say “Hooray” for the new atheists, and wish more people, especially those who think they’re assholes, would actually read them. I’ve known more than a few Christians (including very conservative ones) who find the new atheists refreshingly honest and who can make common cause with them in the matter of intellectual ethics, even as they disagree completely on matters of theology, morality, politics, et.al.
Let us stop honoring opinions as sacred, and instead honor those who are willing to have an argument – regardless of what they believe.
And let’s honor them by informing ourselves and actually engaging the argument, rather than complaining that they don’t like us.
*** Appendix ***
In the comments below, Todd Stark points out a basic dichotomy of approaches to intellectual arguments – how some see them as a fight, while others see them as a conversation. He’s right about this, but his comments point up that I wasn’t clear enough about the basic premise from which I was operating.
I don’t think “argument” equates to “fight” – but then, I also don’t think “adversary” equates with “enemy.” There is a place for the friendly conversation (for example, Apologia). There’s also a place for the boxing match. Both are an argument, defined well by Michael Palin in the Monty Python sketch “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” It’s not “the automatic gainsaying of something the other person says,” neither is it abuse. In such a sense, both are conversation, fraught with all the normal difficulties you point up in conversations.
In other words, The fact that open societies exist shows that people can be pragmatic about their irreconcilable differences. Argument separates the substance of the opinion from the person holding it for the purposes of understanding – you may think I’m batshit crazy for thinking it’s worthwhile to have humans living on mars, and I might think you’re batshit crazy for reading a horoscope, but I know from arguing about those things with you that you’re ethical in the way that you think, so we can still have a business relationship, or a friendship.
I think the whole reason to have an argument is to ferret out the substantive differences from the semantic ones, whether that argument is friendly or adversarial, the basic structure remains: I’ll stack my facts and logic up, you stack up yours, and we’ll critique each other.
Some particularly colorful arguments, particularly those between public intellectuals like Ruse and Meyers (or William Dembski and anybody, or Christopher Hitchens and anybody), can contain abuse, but if abuse is the entire argument, then there’s nothing to see. My objection to Ruse’s paper is that it consists of very few facts (almost all of them wrong), with the balance spent abusing his opponents while complaining that they abuse him. He has jumped into the boxing ring and is complaining that he’s getting hit, which seems, to me, childish.
Thanks for the comment and the constructive criticism, Todd!