In Part One of this review I focused on the broad themes of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book. My general feeling is that their presentation of the state of play is simplistic in crucial ways and that their proposed solutions are impractical at best. Now I would like to zoom in specifically on the eighth chapter of the book. It is called, “Bruising Their Religion” and focuses especially on what M and K see as the doleful influence of the New Atheists.
Regrettably, I think they get a lot of important things wrong. Let us have a look.
They begin with a whitewashed version of the Webster Cook affair. Cook, you will recall, was the University of Central Florida student who removed a communion wafer from a Catholic Mass. If you need a reminder of what this led to, go read this. P. Z. Myers, responding to the absurd overreaction of many Catholics, subsequently procured and destroyed some communion wafers of his own.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum, hereafter M and K, provide no specifics of this overreaction. Doing so would have weakened their main narrative, which is the entirley familiar one about how the New Atheists inflame moderate religious believers and turn them against the cause of good science education. Ma nd K’s discussion includes this remarkable statement:
The most outspoken New Atheists publicly eviscerate believers, call them delusional and irrational (“demented fuckwits,” as Myers put it in the Webster Cook case)… (p. 97)
This is an egregious misquotation. Here’s what Myers actually said, taken from the link above:
That’s right. Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits.
I’d say there’s a big difference between hurling profanity at religious believers generally, and hurling it only at the small subset making death threats. Wouldn’t you? I would have hoped that, precisely because Myers’ actions in the Webster Cook affair were so controversial, M and K would have bent over backward to present all of the relevant facts. Those so inclined could still find plenty to criticize in what Myers did (I was conflicted about it, and I am a big fan of P. Z. Myers.) Sadly, what they wrote is one more example of a difficulty that plagues many sections of the book: The desire to reduce complex situations to simple narratives.
This is just a warm-up. Their main thesis is this:
If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects llike the teaching of evolution when we dont’ have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. (p. 97-98)
Skipping ahead a bit:
The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. (p. 98)
Generations to come? Goodness! Alas, their evidence for this melodramatic claim consists, in its entirety, of this little nugget, buried in the endnotes:
In fact, education researchers have found that defusing the tension over science and religion facilitates learning about evolution. “I submit that anti-religious rehtoric is counter-productive. It actually hampers science education,” a biologist at Davis and Elkins College in West Virgina. In Stover’s view, students who feel that evolution is a threat to their beliefs will not “want to learn,” and only reconiliatory discussion can open them up to evolution. (p. 183)
It is painful to read such things. Isn’t it just groaningly obvious that the problem here is the attitude that places religious faith in a privileged position relative to science? M and K tell us that people value faith over science, and from this they conclude that Richard Dawkins is the problem? Stover tells us that students don’t want to learn until you assure them that you will leave their religious beliefs unchallenged, and his advice is that we should not be criticizing religion?
It’s madness. M and K and Stover are right in describing the attitudes of many people, but that is an argument for ramping up our criticism of religion. If the problem is that dopey religious ideas are standing in the way of good science education, the solution is to scream and yell with enough vigor that non-religious views become part of the conversation. The contribution of the New Atheists is to make atheism visible as a viable way of life. Do this long enough and it becomes demystified, to the point where the younger generation no longer thinks there is anything sordid or illegitimate about it. We do not have to just sit back and accept that religion will always be a dominant social force. We can take steps to increase the likelihood of that not being the case for those future generations, even if that means bruising some feelings in the present.
Curiously, M and K undercut their own argument when they write:
Of course, the New Atheists aren’t the origin of the cleft between religious and scientific culture in America — they’re more like a reaction to it. (p. 98) (Emphasis in original)
Exactly right. Surely, though, this shows that the idea of a rift between science and religion had no trouble propagating itself long before the New Atheists arrived on the scene. The rift exists becuase there really is a conflict between science and religion generally, and Christianity and evolution specifically. This simple fact is not contradicted by the existence of religious scientists or by the existence of forms of Christianity that have made their peace with evoluition. Saying there is a conflict between A and B does not mean that A and B are mutually exclusive. (In fairness, M and K acknowledge this on pages 101-102.)
They do not fare any better when considering the specifics of the argument. They put a lot of weight on the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism, apparenlty thinking that the New Atheists are confused about the distinction. As we have discussed in several recent blog posts, this distinction is of very little help in reconciling science and religion. They repeat Robert Pennock’s asinine statement that, “Science is godless in the same sense that plumbing is godless,” which I discussed in this recent post. If M and K think this is clever than I do not believe they fully understand the problem.
And then there is this (from the endnotes):
In fact, Dawkins repeatedly claims that his critiques of the eixstence of God are “scientific” in nature, rather than philosophical or metaphysical. Or as he puts it at one point in the book, the existence of God is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.” At yet another point in the book, he argues that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.”
We’re confounded by such claims. If God is a supernatural being, and supernatural agents are, by definition, “not constrained by natural laws”, then surely we cannot use science’s “methodologicla naturalism” to know anything about them. That includes testing whether they exist or establishing the probability of such existence. (p. 180)
I wonder if M and K would write such things if we were talking about ghosts instead of God. Are scientists helpless to argue against the existence of ghosts? Everything we know about human anatomy suggests that personality and whatnot are the products of physical phenomena in the brain; they die with the body. Countless claims of alleged hauntings have been investigated and perfectly natural explanations have been found. Are we being unreasonable in saying, based on such evidence, that it is unlikely that ghosts exist? If someone claimed that science has cast real doubt on the existence of ghosts, can we count on M and K to rush in and accuse them of making philosophical claims and of overstepping their proper bounds?
How do we use the methodological naturalism of science to say something about the possible existence of supernatural entities? The same way we use it to detect the existence of neutrinos, which also can not be perceived directly with our senses. We look for their effects on the natural world. We may not be able to control supernatural entities, but we can certainly search for their effects on the natural objects we do control (or at least understand). We can search for things in the natural world that can only be plausibly explained by recourse to supernatural entities. That we consistently fail to find them is surely relevant in assessing the likelihood of God’s existence.
Can we prove that God does not exist by such means? Of course not, which is why none of the New Atheists claim that we can. We also can not prove that ghosts do not exist, but everyone thinks we are justified in describing their existence as unlikely. That the only sort of God consistent with science is the kind that does not intervene in nature in any detectable way is an important and contingent finding. It is also devastating to the religious views of a great many people.
This is one small chapter in a longer book, and if the only issue were that M and K are being unfair to Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers I would not make such an issue out of it. But the defects in this chapter are symptomatic of the defects in the entire book. They consistently emphasize counterproductive (in their view) things that scientists do while mostly ignoring the broader social forces that really hamper science from attaining its proper position. Instead of forthrightly challenging the bad religious ideas that make people unwilling even to listen to science, M and K want us to walk on eggshells, and to try to work around these bad ways of thinking.
Throughout the book the emphasis gets put in the wrong places. Sure, there are entrenched and powerful interests determined to keep everyone ignorant about global warming, but the real problem is that some academics turn up their nose at science popularization. Yes, granted, many people hold religious views that close their minds and make them unwilling even to consider challenging ideas, but can you blame them what with Richard Dawkins being snotty and all? The media is sensationalist and uncritical and happily parrots any dubious claim it thinks will attract a few viewers, so the solution is to have more scientists trained in the art of framing and sound bite construction.
Forgive me for thinking that M and K’s suggestions are out of proportion to the magnitude of the problem.