Mixing Memory

It seems some people are having trouble wrapping their minds around what it means to be a Neville Chamberlain atheist, while other people are just making up any definition they can to make anyone who’s not a hyper-scientistic Dawkinsian look bad. Recall that I think the Chamberlain-Churchill distinction is b.s., but since fundamentalists of any sort, including fundamentalist atheists, have a tendency to see things as “either-or,” with the eithers and the ors defined by the fundamentalists themselves, it doesn’t look like the Chamberlain label is going away anytime soon. So I thought I’d write a quick note to attempt (fruitlessly, I fear) to clear things up.

It should be clear that no one placed in the Chamberlain school, be it Razib, Scott Atran, or myself, has ever advocated letting anyone, religious or not, misuse, misrepresent, or suppress science for extra-scientific reasons. Instead, the criticism that the Chamberlain school tends to make against the Churchill school is, in fact, the very criticism that the Churchill school levels against the religious. They are misusing and misrepresenting science anytime they say, or imply, that science says anything about the veracity of metaphysical religious claims. In other words, when scientists, who pride themselves on their methodological naturalism, try to step outside of that naturalism and make metaphysical claims based on science, they’re as guilty of being unscientific as theists are when they use science to defend metaphysical claims. All the Chamberlains are saying is that there are large intellectual and practical spaces in which science and religion don’t run into each other, and in those spaces, there’s no need to trash the religious for not being Dawkinsian atheists.

Oh, and it should be noted that these are not the only reasons for not saying all religious people are irrational (or at least, irrational in their religious beliefs):

(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here’s why…
(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here’s the evidence…
(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.

As I’ve said before, I think there are perfectly rational reasons for being a theist and for being an atheist, and noted that I haven’t arrived at my atheism for epistemological reasons (all of Moran’s possibilities involve epistemological positions on religion). I suppose it’s too much to ask to get a fundamentalist atheist to see beyond his limited rationalism, though.

Comments

  1. #1 grigory
    December 4, 2006

    This is still going on? Man, talk about a tempest in a (celestial) teapot.

  2. #2 Joshua
    December 4, 2006

    I second grigory’s sentiment. ;)

    I also, as I commented in your “Atheism and Suspicion”, think that a lot of the source of the Churchill-Chamberlain slugfest is a misunderstanding of the original meaning of the “Chamberlain” epithet. There’s a very real difference between the more and less vocal segments of the atheist community, and I also think that the skepticism vs. suspicion distinction you made previously is a real and useful one. However, the original meaning of the “Chamberlain” epithet refers to those who are willing to accept some kinds of irrational, unscientific thinking while still rejecting the impossible-to-ignore hard science stuff like creationism. More Francis Collins than Ed Brayton or Eugenie Scott, really. Larry Moran was flat out wrong with his grouping of Ed with the “Chamberlain” school.

    PZ represents the more sensible side of the (I guess) “Churchill” school. He’s shown a willingness to be entirely inclusive of anybody who wants to fight bad science. He just doesn’t like it when people give silliness like Francis Collins a free pass.

    (For the record, the problem with Collins, in my view, is not that he believes in God yet accepts evolution. I disagree, but that’s fine. His problem is that he seems to think that science supports his belief in God. This is the same mistake that you deride of making a metaphysical claim from naturalistic evidence, which is clearly invalid. That’s why his belief falls down outside the bounds of reason. If he accepted that his reasons for believing in God are not related to science, then fine. No problem. I disagree, and I’d probably still think he’s silly, but there wouldn’t be a conflict.)

    I also share PZ’s rejection of the NOMA principle, as it happens, but I don’t think that accepting NOMA in itself makes one a crazy religious fundie or appeaser. I just bring it all up to suggest, as I have before, that the battle lines that have been drawn are completely disconnected from what the original “Chamberlain” accusation was about. The “Chamberlains” are those who don’t accept NOMA and simultaneously claim that science supports belief in God. It clearly doesn’t. It doesn’t support non-belief in God, either, mainly because nobody can agree what “God” means in any sensible way, but that’s not the point. What actually happened is that a lot of atheists who do accept NOMA for some reason (and here again I have to point at Larry Moran, since he’s the one who named names out at the start of this) thought that the “Chamberlain” epithet was aimed at them.

    It wasn’t, of course, but when has that ever stopped a fight?

    It seems to me that the real battle here is the age-old battle about tactics, the vocal atheists versus the silent majority. The only new thing is that the reckless and irresponsible interjection of ahistorical epithets, combined with an even more reckless and irresponsible finger-pointing episode, has elevated the level of vitriol beyond anything previously. Which is tragic, really, but that’s the blogosphere for you.

  3. #3 igor eduardo kupfer
    December 4, 2006

    How come so many of these posts have a sentiment that runs something like “I think the distinction is bullshit, but if it were meaningful — speaking hypothetically, of course — the actual distinction would be …”

    Not that I mind. Laurence Moran, a well-known shit disturber for years on talk.origins (and I mean that in the best possible way, a skeptic who prods people to think about fundemental biases through outrageous provocation) started this whole thing just to get some kind of dialogue going. He has most certainly succeeded.

    Joshua:

    It seems to me that the real battle here is the age-old battle about tactics, the vocal atheists versus the silent majority.

    It seems to me that there are two battles, the tactical and the social. In addition to the one you describe, there is also the I’m-here-I’m-queer battle that some atheists are fighting, trying to demarginalise their existance. This is the one I care about.

    As to the tactical, I can’t believe any of the players has any cause for their certainty that their way will work better. Although it must be said that the accomodationist way hasn’t exactly worked well so far. Creationism is still here, it’s still queer, and it isn’t going away soon. Maybe a change in tactics is called for.

  4. #4 pough
    December 4, 2006

    Maybe a change in tactics is called for.

    Wedgies!

  5. #5 Chris
    December 4, 2006

    Eduardo, fundamentalists have a habit of making you argue on their turf, as I’m sure you know.

    I wouldn’t have said anything after my previous posts, if Moran hadn’t brought Scott Atran into it, and Myers hadn’t linked to Moran approvingly.

  6. #6 Orac
    December 4, 2006

    Maybe a change in tactics is called for.

    The Hitler Zombie agrees. ;-)

  7. #7 Rob Knop
    December 4, 2006

    I must not read the right PZ missives, because I have yet to see anything other than disdain and insult for anybody who’s at all religious from him. The “rational side” of the Churchill camp?

    I also think that the term “accomodationist” to describe the “Chamberlain” camp is incorrect. Those non-atheists in favor of good science education do not accomidate Creationists at all. Unfortunately, if you’re a Dawkins, a PZ Myers, or a Larry Moran, it seems that you think that “religious at all” is just a small step away from being creationist, an that in any evnet you’re closer to a creationsist than somebody capable of accepting good science.

    It’s all about definitions. If you define the enemy right, you can make it clear that those who don’t share your position on something irrelevant are, in fact, just a secret part of the enemy.

    -Rob

  8. #8 igor eduardo kupfer
    December 4, 2006

    Rob, I don’t think it’s about definitions at all. I used “accomodationist” to refer to those who think that theistic evolutionists should be the favoured spokespeople against creationists — in contrast to those who think that atheist evolutionist should be favoured. I think here is a legitimate debate there. I’m not interested in who instulted who, or friends and enemies of my cause, or why poor Chamberlain is being dragged into the debate. People, can’t we leave the greatest basketball player of all time out of this?

    Who owns anti-creationism, anyway? Is the reliance on court decision a viable strategy to keep creationism out of our schools? Would attacking creationism at its source be a better way? What is the source of creationism, anyway? These are the questions that are being asked, along with a bunch of less relevant but more tendentious stuff. It would pay to ignore the labels and look to the issues — there’s real meat in there if you ignore the mudslinging.

  9. #9 Stogoe
    December 4, 2006

    Look, we can work with theistic evolutionists towards the same goals of defending kids from nonsense. We loud-and-prouds just also reserve the right to tell the theists they’re wrong. If we don’t keep poking at theism, it spreads, and the next battle to save science and public schools gets harder.

  10. #10 Chris
    December 4, 2006

    I have no problem with atheistic “evolutionists” being as vocal as theistic evolutionists, but anytime anyone says that evolution leads to atheism, or is an argument against theism (it’s an argument you hear often, in one form or another), whether they’re theists criticizing evolution or atheists abusing it, they deserve to be slapped on the wrist.

  11. #11 razib
    December 4, 2006

    It seems to me that the real battle here is the age-old battle about tactics, the vocal atheists versus the silent majority.

    you know, i’ve been active in the campus freethought movement (as was chris mooney). i’ve personally convinced people of the validity of the atheistic position. i don’t ever stay silent when people assume i’m religious. the people at my place of work know i’m an atheist. i’ve declared myself an atheist at campus crusade meetings (some of those chicks are cute). moran’s posing is an infantile pathology of atheism. this sort of “against us or with us” attitude is worth of fundamentalists. all this shows is that god or no god has little to do with character, grace and civility.

  12. #12 Dylab
    December 4, 2006

    Are razib and Chris the only Neville Chamberlain atheists with the banner?

  13. #13 razib
    December 4, 2006

    Are razib and Chris the only Neville Chamberlain atheists with the banner?

    the only ones with the pugnacious spine to haft it up!

  14. #14 Rob Knop
    December 5, 2006

    I used “accomodationist” to refer to those who think that theistic evolutionists should be the favoured spokespeople against creationists — in contrast to those who think that atheist evolutionist should be favoured.

    But why favor one or the other? If we’re talking about good science education, presumably you’re capable of talking about it whether or not you’re religious, so long as you understand the overwhelming case for religion.

    Tactically speaking, it’s very helpful to have some of those who are loudly proclaiming the merits of evolution to also be able to proclaim that they are not atheists, for that takes some of the air out of the creationist claim that evolution is all part of a conspiracy to foist atheism on the public. Now, yeah, some of those arguing for good science education also want to foist atheism on the public, but that’s a separate battle that others of us are not comfortable with, and that many of us (theist and athiest alike) consider hopeless. For both reasons, it’s not only foolish, but wrong, to tie that to teaching good science education.

    And, yet, trying to “favor” atheistic speakers against evolution would seem to do that.

    Favor those who are good speakers, who make a good case, and who fight the good fight, regardless of their philosophical leanings on irrelevant topics.

    -Rob

  15. #15 Rob Knop
    December 5, 2006

    all this shows is that god or no god has little to do with character, grace and civility.

    And that the attitude “my views on religion make me [morally/intellectually/ethically] superior” are common to many of the religious and many of the not-religious….

    All of it makes me tired.

    -Rob

  16. #16 writerdd
    December 5, 2006

    There can be no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist because there is no atheist bible to take literally. What a crock.

  17. #17 Mr. Grouchypants
    December 5, 2006

    No atheist bible? What do you think the writings of Dawkins and Dennett are?

    And note how they react to people that don’t treat their views as the gospel truth. They’re fundamentalists alright.

  18. #18 Larry Moran
    December 5, 2006

    Chris says,

    All the Chamberlains are saying is that there are large intellectual and practical spaces in which science and religion don’t run into each other, and in those spaces, there’s no need to trash the religious for not being Dawkinsian atheists.

    If that’s all the appeasers are saying then I agree with them. We’ve been over and over this on talk.origins and elsewhere. I have been persuaded that there are forms of Deism that pretty much avoid any direct conflict with science.

    However, when people like Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway Morris try to reconcile science and miracles, I draw the line. Miracles and science are not compatible and I won’t hesitate to say so. This is not a case where religion and science don’t run into each other.

    The appeasers want to look the other way when theistic evolutionists spout scientific nonsense. Presumably, they are willing to do this in order to avoid antagonizing their religious colleagues who are part of the alliance against Intelligent Design Creationism. That’s a compromise up with which I will not put. :-)

    BTW, I am an atheist but I am not a Dawkinsian atheist. I agree with Dawkins on some things but I very much disagree with his views on evolution and with some of his statemetns about religion.

  19. #19 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    December 5, 2006

    No atheist bible? What do you think the writings of Dawkins and Dennett are?

    That’s ridiculous.

  20. #20 CA
    December 20, 2006

    What an intersting denomenational discussion! Sounds like a bunch of Baptists arguing with Presbyterians or Catholics and Church of Christ members debating the correctness of their own denomination and the error of the others. The same, only different =-)

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