Nicholas of Cusa wrote a book back in the 15th century called De Docta Ignorantia, often translated as “On learned ignorance”. It has nothing whatsoever to do with this post. Well, it sort of does.
Nicholas, a Cardinal, held that human reason was limited, and could not reach knowledge of things beyond the world. In short, he was an agnostic. Wait, I hear you saying – a Cardinal of the Catholic Church who thought that nothing could be known of God? Well yes, as Cusa held that “knowledge” of God was had solely by faith.
The world, as we are so often reminded, divides into two kinds of people. In this case, it divides into those who do not know about God, and do not care, and those who do know about God, and who do care. I am firmly of the former camp – an apathetic agnostic (don’t know, don’t care), or apatheist, as some like to call it.
The Rest of the World is further divided into those who think they do know about God and do care, and those who think they know there is no God, and do care. Ken Miller is one of the former. Richard Dawkins, and recently PZ Mghlsls and Larry Moran are of the latter. And what the latter think of me and my ilk (it appears to be ilk hunting season) is that we are wimps, irrational, Neville Chamberlain types who seek only to appease the former.
Now I know both PZ and Larry well enough to know they are fine fellows. Both have bought me beer, so I cannot disparage their character. But I ask you, oh neutral reader, is it really useful or important to attack those who agree with nearly everything you say, irrespective of their metaphysical commitments, because you think that certain kinds of religious believers are ignorant and misinformed?
There is a long-standing tradition among atheists – it goes back as far as I can recall (the early Quaternary) – to attack those who reject religion, but do not condemn it, as wishy washy. I can only speculate on why this is. It seems to me a peculiarly American thing (not the nation, but the continent) to divide the discussants into sharp team like that. The British tradition is much looser – you can be an Anglican agnostic, a bit like Cusa, or you can be a hard atheist who respects others’ beliefs. Perhaps it has to do with the all-encompassing nature of religious discourse in America. You really cannot escape religion there, while in more apathetic nations like mine, you have to go looking for it to have a really good debate (and even then you are likely to find it hard to get a good discussion going; in my atheist post-Christian period, I really wanted to have it out with some folk, but they unaccountably weren’t interested).
Why is it that atheists of that ilk (more ilk! Be vewy vewy qwiet; I’m hunting ilk!) want to both attack us of the Mediocracy (fence sitters, wimps, appeasers), and at the same time claim that really, we are in their camp? Do we need camps? If, as PZ suggests, we are choosing teams, then there are going to be a slew of us who are left at the end not being chosen to play, and I hate that.
Fact is, all I’m interested in is getting people to understand science (and the odd bit of philosophy). I do not care if they believe in the divine right of kings, the absence of one or more gods, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster… hmmm, maybe I’ll make an exception in that case, because global warming depends on the number of pirates who worship His Noodliness). I don’t care if they think that evolution is true – truth is for the believers (of both kinds). I only want people to know the facts of the science. If someone tries to enter a university course on biology who doesn’t know the basics of that science, then of course they should not be granted entry. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with their believing in it.
Of course, it may be hard to maintain disbelief in the face of actual data, but that’s a taxon of another clade.
Incidentally, Chamberlain is badly treated by history. It made perfect sense to try to avoid a devastating war with an industrially superior nation. He was not to know what is in hindsight perfectly obvious, that Hitler would not keep his treaty obligations (Stalin found that out as well). This is hardly an analogous case – we know perfectly well what the fundamentalists want, and it has nothing to do with science per se, but with social control. But that simply isn’t true of most religions or religious believers. The loss of secularism in social policy in America is not the agenda of most denominations, although we can expect they won’t cry if they are in the ascendancy. It is not the goal of most religious folk I know. And we can deal with the fundies without needing to draw sharp lines in the sand, and daring people to cross them.
So my unasked-for advice is to chill. If you want, in your heart, to think I am atheist, do so. I don’t think I am. I am a learnedly ignorant person, who moreover thinks the whole debate is rather irrelevant to what really matters: science. That’s all that counts.
So I’m with John Lynch on this. For God’s sake, cool it.