Friday, April 18, 2008

Collins and Nisbet Miss the Mark on the New "Angry" Atheists

Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, was recently interviewed and treated us to this quaint little comment, filled with all the loaded terms and basic intellectual dishonesty we've come to expect from far lesser intellects:

"I also think that those of us who are interested in seeking harmony here have to make it clear that the current crowd of seemingly angry atheists, who are using science as part of their argument that faith is irrelevant, do not speak for us. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not necessarily represent the consensus of science; 40 percent of scientists are believers in a personal God. A lot more are rather uncomfortable about the topic but certainly would not align themselves with a strong atheistic perspective. To the extent that it can be made clear that the assault on faith, which has been pretty shrill in the last couple of years, is coming from a fringe - a minority - and is not representative of what most scientists believe, that would help defuse the incendiary rhetoric and perhaps allow a real conversation about creation.

Ah, the "angry atheists" being "shrill" and a "fringe". What bush-league framing, an obvious attempt to poison the well and make the three horsemen look unreasonable via labeling.. "Angry atheists" should proudly take their place next to the "uppity blacks" and the "flaunting homosexuals". It's all the same dance, the tunes and partners just change over time. Never mind why an oppressed group is a bit angry, just imply that their anger is their problem.

Just where exactly have those gentlemen claimed to speak for the consensus of scientists? This, like all scientific issues, is about evidence, not what the consensus is. The issue is what is a proper scientific perspective on this issue. Whether most scientists live up to that standard on this most incendiary of issues, remains to be seen. However, given that to many religions, denying the existence of the gods is considered one of the most serious offenses one can commit, the notion that this conversation can be had without rhetoric that seems incendiary, is naive in the extreme. There is no nice way to say "there is no evidence, and thus no reason any scientist should accept, to believe in gods". It is incendiary by its very nature.

Of course, Mr. Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do Framing Master Matt Nisbet would have us believe otherwise. His evidence? Mere assertion:

"The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."

It's not the scientists that are placing them in opposition, it's the religious who keep making baseless claims about the material world that do. The problem is basic, and goes to the heart of the milquetoast evasion above. Religion is NOT a way of understanding the world. It might be a way of coping with the world, or of rationalizing the world, but that is as far as it goes. Were it a way of understanding the world, it would on occasion derive some understanding that the rest of us can use, instead of confining it's "discoveries" to all that meaningless happy talk known as theology. Not once in the history of man has a group of theologians made a discovery which resonated in science, changing theories and prompting research. Theology is the one and only academic pursuit which sees no need to reconcile itself with other areas of study, and thus contributes nothing to them, or of human knowledge.

This gives us those of us with intellectual integrity two options: reject all religious claims which fail the test of science, and be left with a religion so generic it is hardly worth having, or play an internal game of lets-pretend, where we apply one standard to our scientific lives, and a completely different one to our comfy religious views, despite any good reasons why this one area of thought should be exempt from the standards to which everything else is subjected. Well, except one: religion cannot withstand that. It cannot be a nonoverlapping magisteria because it isn't a magisteria at all.

But unperturbed by this bit of logic, Nisbet then goes on to once again, blame those who demand intellectual consistency on these subjects, and based on the loftiest of sources:

"In reviews otherwise harshly dismissive of Expelled, Jeffrey Kluger of Time magazine describes Dawkins and Myers performance as 'sneering, finger in the eye atheism,' while Justin Chang of Variety refers to Dawkins as 'atheism taken to hateful extremes.'

Wow, with cites of such journals of distinction on his side, what possible retort can we muster? I know, we'll wait to see what Teen and Seventeen have to say on the matter. Once again Nisbet demonstrates that he is the William Dembski of the social sciences (right down to censoring conflicting views on his blog). Damning Dawkins and Myers based on the misrepresentations of them in the popular, nonrigorous media is in the same vein as damning Darwin based on what deranged German dictators thought of him. However, it is even worse, because it is the histrionic reaction to the simple, level-headed comments that people like Dawkins make about religion that is the problem, not what Dawkins is saying. He is proof that it doesn't matter how it is said. As long as it said, the religious will react that way. This is the lesson of history.

And what would a Nisbet rant be without his article of faith:

However, in coming decades, if the goal is to defend the teaching of evolution in schools and to maintain public trust in science and scientists, [Dawkins' and Myers'] message likely serves as a liability towards that end.

That's right Matt, keep chanting that self-serving mantra and hope none of us notice the complete lack of supporting evidence. If your goal is to get us "angry atheists" to change our ways, imitating the worst rhetorical traits of creationists is not the way to go about it.

The transition of our society from one based on superstition to one based on science will be a long gradual one, as most great changes are. There will be bumps along the way, as those like Francis Collins clinging to their baseless comfortable views will no doubt resist the changes. But some of them will change, either through a little intellectual handholding through "framing", or a swift kick in the intellectual ass as delivered by the we "angry atheists". It is a heterogeneous audience, needing a heterogeneous approach, and the idea that those using a more direct, confrontational approach do harm to the cause is a claim not only in complete conflict with history (think MLK, Ghandi), but with current experience as well.

1 comment:

Harriet said...

Dr. Collins comment that 40% of scientists believe in a personal god is rather disingenuous. Among National Academy level scientists the figure is 7%.