Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have another of their New Atheist bashing essays up, this time in The Los Angeles Times. It is, alas, a dreadful piece of work. P. Z. Myers has already wieghed in here, as has Jerry Coyne here.
The actual arguments in the op-ed are standard fare: The New Atheists are needlessly confrontational, they scare away moderates, blah blah blah.
The novelty here is the bizarre, and very misleading, way they go about making their points. Even as they encourage mutual understanding and nonconfrontationalism, they are perfectly happy to ignore their own advice in dealing with those of different views.
Here’s the opening:
This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins — most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, “The God Delusion” — returns to writing about science. Dawkins’ new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” will inform and regale us with the stunning “evidence for evolution,” as the subtitle says. It will surely be an impressive display, as Dawkins excels at making the case for evolution. But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?
This is a joke, right? They’re deliberately baiting us so they can have a good laugh over the idea that we thought they were serious.
When Richard Dawkins wrote a book about atheism he was excoriated for writing outside his area of professional competence. Why doesn’t he stick to writing about science, many wailed. But now when he returns to writing about science, he gets excoriated for that too. Looks like the man can’t win.
Why all the sarcasm in this paragraph? Why use words like “stunning” and “regale” which in context seem calculated to have readers rolling their eyes at Dawkins? Why is “evidence for evolution” in sneer quotes?
Then there is the biggest problem of all, found in the final sentence. That is the idea that the world is cleanly divided into two kinds of people, those who are pro-evolution and those who are anti-evolution. If your book will not cause the anti-evolution folks to slap their foreheads and convert, then it is not worth writing.
You see this sort of thing a lot. Virtually every hostile review of the New Atheist books featured some version of “You’re not going to convince anyone!” It’s one of those empty, superficial things you can say when you want to look moderate and sensible but don’t really want to engage the substance of the argument.
There are many people who have no particular opinion on this subject, or whose views are loosely held, or who just want to learn a bit more about it. Those are the people you have some hope of persuading by writing a book. Furthermore, the value of the book goes beyond the words printed on the page. You write the book not just so that people will read and contemplate the specific arguments you are making, but also to make sure that your ideas are part of the conversation. Major societal change occurs in large part by going after the younger generation. You want to create an environment where certain ideas are so familiar and commonplace that younger folks do not see anything odd or threatening about them. We see that happening today with gay marriage, and we can look forward to a future time when the same happens with atheism.
But even at the level of the already-made-up-their-minds, this assertion is hopelessly naive. Yes, sometimes people do change their minds on the basis of seeing facts and evidence of which they were not previously aware. Dawkins has a fine list of testimonials to his credit. There is no shortage of prominent people who had their naive religious views challenged by clear presentations of the facts. E. O. Wilson and Michael Shermer come to mind, as two people who were led to abandon their faith. Denis Lamoureux and Karl GIberson were moved to more nuanced forms of Christian faith.
This all has some personal resonance for me, since I am also someone who had his views changed by good popular-level writing about evolution. I have never been inclined to take my Bible literally, but when I first started learning about this subject I was quite open to the idea that scientists had been overstating their case. People like Dawkins and Gould had a lot to do with getting me over that view.
What makes this op-ed especially annoying is the relentless use of harsh, militaristic metaphors where they are not appropriate. Consider:
Thus the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences take the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible — and are regularly blasted for it by the New Atheists.
A smaller but highly regarded nonprofit organization called the National Center for Science Education has drawn at least as much of the New Atheists’ ire, however.
Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science. The atheist biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for instance, has drawn much attention by assaulting the center’s Faith Project, which seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions.
In this, Coyne is once again following the lead of Dawkins, who in “The God Delusion” denounces the NCSE as part of the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists,…”
Richard Dawkins denounces the NCSE? Jerry Coyne assaults them? The AAAS and the NAS are blasted by the New Atheists?
Of please. How about “constructively criticizes”? Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers are all huge supporters of the NCSE. I know this because they have expressed that opinion many times. They merely have an objection to one aspect of their strategy. And even there the objection is not to making common cause with religious people, it is to promoting the view that the only acceptable opinion on the science and religion question is one of accommodation, with those who disgaree castigated for hurting the cause.
As denunications and assaults go, that one seems pretty milquetoast.
M and K close with this:
Despite the resultant bitterness, however, there is at least one figure both sides respect — the man who started it all: Charles Darwin. What would he have done in this situation?
It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, “Though 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 & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.”
Others have pointed out that Darwin is one person who lived in very different social circumstances, and not someone whose views on everything are necessarily definitive for the rest of us. Perfectly true of course, but I would make a different point.
I am perfectly happy to accept that quote. I see in it a very clear implication that Christianity and theism tend to be opposed to freedom of thought. There is also a clear implication that science tends to weaken religion. My kind of guy! I even agree that direct arguments often don’t produce a big effect on the public (though a small effect is not nothing, as I suggested earlier). But Darwin did not live during a time when information is readily available from a multitude of sources at a moment’s notice. I don’t think he was factoring into his conclusions the cumulative effect of having ideas spread via cable news and the internet, even if only in very superficial ways.
There is a striking contradiction at the heart of M and K’s argument. When Dawkins writes a book about the evidence for evolution, M and K wag their fingers and explain how he is not going to convince anyone. But when he writes a book about atheism the sky is falling and he is helping the forces of ignorance and anti-science.
What is so significant about the New Atheist books is the sheer volume of books that they sold. They have revealed that to a far greater extent than was previously realized, there is a hunger in America for books written from a non-religious perspective. That is a momentous accomplishment, and one that should warm the hearts of anyone who cares about promoting science and reason.
This is all just standard scapegoating from M and K. It’s so much easier to focus on a handful of writers who arrived on the scene just in the last few years and to ignore the deeper cultural forces that have tended to make America more hostile to science than other industrialized countries.
I find that vexing.