Monday, August 06, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (Neville Chamberlain edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster (via R. Joseph Hoffmann)

Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich. Jerry Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I believe in. And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to be as a “clueless gobshite.” This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that science and religion have to clash. [emphasis added]
Um, no. The invective is all because you spinelessly appease the religious, write nonsense, and actually are a clueless gobshite. Either address the substance of the criticism or reproduce it and show that it is without substance.

Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing.
Dawkins would also make a lousy Catholic priest. So what? It doesn't matter whether or not Dawkins would fail an intro to philosophy course. He's not doing philosophy. He makes arguments, and philosophers have no monopoly on argument; in my experience, philosophers are especially good only at making especially bad arguments.

Now we get to the real stupidity.

Secondly, I think* that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage to the cause of Creationism fighting.
What damage? Point to the actual damage being done.

*I work as a writing tutor. When I see the phrase "I think" (or its cognates) in a paper, I get the heebie-jeebies. We know the whole paper is what you think; your name's at the top. Do you just think it, or do you think it's true? If the latter, take out the weasel words.

We are not fighting Creationism. We are fighting religion. We are fighting superstition. We are fighting lies and bullshit. We are fighting for the truth, and we are unwilling to sacrifice one truth for another. Indeed, the charge that we must sacrifice one truth for another is precisely why we believe accommodationists like Ruse are indeed spineless appeasers; indeed to compare them to Chamberlain is an insult to Chamberlain.

Americans are religious people.
We know. We want that to change.

Survey after survey shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science.
We don't want them to fall in the middle. We want them to fall on the correct side.

They want to be science-friendly.
I don't think they do. I think they want science to be religion-friendly. It's not.

We have got to show [religious people] that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy.
But it's not. We would have to lie to them to show it's friendly.

And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of fanaticism, is just not going to do the job.
First, who accuses Collins of fanaticism? I've seen accusations that he has many anti-scientific beliefs. More importantly, the only way it should be wrong to accuse Collins of fanaticism would be if he were not actually a fanatic, i.e. if it were not actually true. Saying that we should not accuse Collins of fanaticism because that would hurt some cause or another betrays a casual attitude towards the truth that New Atheists find profoundly objectionable.

And now Ruse breaks a stupid meter.

If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.

Ruse accuses Dawkins of failing Intro to Philosophy, but Ruse here (despite the numerous times his error has been noted) badly fails Intro to Constitutional Law. Even if it were absolutely true that science implied God did not exist, it would not be a violation of the First Amendment to teach science in the school. It would be a violation only to make the implication explicit. Although recent Supreme Court decisions have strayed a bit, the Lemon Test is still the best guide to compliance with the First Amendment. Teaching science and evolution has a clear secular purpose, it does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion (by definition, an implication is a secondary effect), and it does not result in an "excessive government entanglement" in religion. If Ruse wants to show us actual evidence, I'd like to see it, but absent such evidence, Ruse's utterly inept attempt at legal reasoning notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe the teaching of evolution faces any serious First Amendment challenge.

Furthermore, it's far too broad to assert that "science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist," even as a conditional. Neither "God exists" nor "God does not exist" are meaningful propositions, because "God" is too equivocal to stand alone as a meaningful concept. And because "God" is a religious term, it is arbitrarily definable; other than blatantly self-contradictory definitions, there is no such thing as an illegitimate or invalid definition of "God". All that science generally and evolution specifically can do is imply that certain definitions of "God" — e.g. "God is the sort of being who created human beings out of dust and ribs about 6000 years ago" — contradict scientific knowledge. That's all that the New Atheists or anyone else have ever argued. We argue, of course, that science generally and evolution specifically contradict more "sophisticated" conceptions of God (e.g. Collins' and Ken Miller's belief that God is the sort of being who directs evolution), and the New Atheists argue that of all the various religious beliefs, atheism is the one most compatible with scientific knowledge. The general principle, that science shows that some religious beliefs contradict scientific knowledge, is uncontroversial (Ruse himself believes, one hopes, that Creationism contradicts science); the only controversy is which religious beliefs are or are not in contradiction. The idea that some religious contradictions of science are privileged, and we should ignore the science or just not talk about the contradiction to preserve science from a First Amendment challenge is nonsense.

Most importantly, it is reprehensible that Ruse should demand that we should not argue that science contradicts religion just because it is hurting his or any other cause. The only legitimate grounds against a position is that it is not true. If it were true that science absolutely and definitely proved that God does not exist, then so much the worse for God. If the First Amendment would then prohibit the teaching of science, so much worse for the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not holy writ, it is a tool created by human beings to solve specific human political problems that existed in 1789. It seems to have held up well in the subsequent 240-odd years, but it it turns out today or tomorrow to be harmful, then we will have to reconsider it. Fortunately it usually does not — the men who wrote the Constitution were pretty clever — but the New Atheists will not let even the Constitution interfere with the search for truth.

If Ruse wants to argue that the New Atheists are mistaken, let him argue that. It's going to take more than one argument — we New Atheists obstinately insist on looking at issues deeply and from all sides — but that kind of an argument, if made competently, should not earn the advocate any opprobrium. Indeed, Ruse and those like him earn our indignation not because he disagrees with us, but for two more important reasons. First, Ruse's arguments are, as seen in this article, hopelessly incompetent. More importantly, the argument that the New Atheists should not hurt his cause clearly implies that the truth of our arguments is irrelevant. To be indifferent to the truth entails more than just accommodationism, to the extent that he considers himself an ally of science, it implies treason.

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