Pharyngula

The Ruse-Dennett feud

You may have heard that Michael Ruse has been caught out of school, sharing a private spat between himself and Daniel Dennett with the William Dembski. This isn’t too terribly surprising—Ruse’s reputation has been spiralling downwards rather rapidly, what with all his sucking up to the Intelligent Design crowd in recent years, and I’m half-expecting any day now to hear that he’s become a creationist. In his waning years he’ll be able to replace the legitimate respect of scientists, which he’s been working hard to flush down the sewer, with the fawning and lucrative love of creationists.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Dennett, and I don’t think I even own a copy of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea any more. While I disagree vigorously with many of his ideas about evolution, I think he comes off better in this exchange than Ruse, who spends a lot of time whining about those damned mean atheists.
Jason hits exactly the right note in responding to that, I think.

Now, I happen to share Dennett’s and Dawkins’ contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that’s not the part I want to comment on. Rather, I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.

This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that’s true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don’t think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Morris) thinks.

Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.

When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

Bravo. Ruse is echoing a common tendency, the habit of trying to hide away the atheists on the side of evolution—it’s also represented by that common adjective, “strident”. You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubes…while every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

We need more atheists speaking out—that’s how we’re going to get people used to the fact that we exist. The fact that we are content to work with the religious, while many of the religious will not reciprocate that tolerance and even some of our fellow scientists want to hide us away, is a good example of who is holding the moral high ground here, and Ruse’s condemnation is yet another reason why I don’t hold much respect for the guy.

Comments

  1. #1 Alexander Whiteside
    February 23, 2006

    I think the problem is that we don’t separate our “atheism is a moral, sensible worldview” and “evolution happens, dumbasses” efforts enough. Evolution’s well-established validity is independent of whatever theistic ideas a person may have (or lack).

    When the two efforts go side by side, people view evolution as some aspect of atheism (so very not right), and then go off on some ramble about how atheism is bad in order to attack evolution, which leads you into a dead end argument. Instead, we can simply say “Look, evolution happens, the evidence is X and Y and Z, and reality doesn’t care what your religious beliefs on the matter are”.

    Hrm, I’m going to have to rephrase this at some point.

  2. #2 Scott Little
    February 23, 2006

    Great Post PZ. I am in complete agreement with you. I’m (unfortunately) not a scientist, so my particular standing up as an athiest doesn’t do much. But I try where I can :-).

    Concerning the comment that Alexander made, there is a bit of contradiction in your post. You say that we need to separate or efforts, but it seems to me that at least half of the time we are not siding those two together. It is often, as you said in your second paragraph “…people… go off on some ramble about how athiesm is bad in order to attack evolution….” Well, even if our efforts are perfect that will still happen and it seems like the real problem to me.

  3. #3 Theo Bromine
    February 23, 2006

    It is not strident, and not inherently offensive, to have atheism as an underlying assumption of ones personal approach to life, the universe, and everything. It is strident (and often condescending) to say that atheism is the only possible conclusion that an intelligent person could reach after an honest intellectual investigation of the question (“Brights” comes to mind).

    Many Christian fundamentalists believe, and teach their flocks, that a belief in God is incompatible with accepting evolutionary science. I think it is unfortunate that some atheists agree with them.

  4. #4 Socialist Swine
    February 23, 2006

    PZ,

    I actually think that you’re a little harsh towards Ruse. While I don’t particularly agree with him. I think he’s just operating under the mistaken belief that it’s actually possible to reason with the ID/creationism crowd. I think that he’s advocating a more “lets try to reason with them rather than call them names” approach. I would suggest that Ruse is just reacting to the kind of rancour you find from people like Dawkins, rather than trying to hide us atheists in the closet. Though I must admit I don’t know the guy, this is just the sense I get from reading his stuff and hearing him talk about the issue.

  5. #5 Caledonian
    February 23, 2006

    There’s an unspoken expectation that scientists can evaluate the matter fairly, while religious people need to be shepherded past ideas they’d find offensive.

    If the idea of waging advertising campaigns for science appeals, you’d best get used to concealing the positions that are least likely to appeal to a majority of people. Nobody ever won a popularity contest standing up for unpopular ideas.

  6. #6 Jonathan Badger
    February 23, 2006

    Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence.

    Well, that’s not “condescending” but simply stating the truth. Whenever I question a religious belief of a relative or SO, I don’t get a calm rational response but an emotional outburst (so I tend not to do it much). Religion is an emotional affair. It might be nice if more people would only believe in things with actual evidence, but the fact is many people don’t.

  7. #7 Dr. Spinoza
    February 23, 2006

    Two things about this affair stand out: the first is that Ruse acted irresponsibly in putting this private correspondence into the public domain (and into the hands of Dembski, no less!). The second is that he’s right about how to take on the evolution/creation debacle.

    What I mean by this is that there’s a big difference between the scientific issues and the cultural issues. Scientifically, there’s no serious debate, and we need people like Dawkins and Dennett and Myers saying that loud and clear (rinse and repeat).

    But the cultural issues consists of various ways of responding to the question, “what’s the significane or meaning of the theory of evolution? how does it affect our self-understanding? Is it compatible with the picture of what it means to be moral?” etc.

    These are scientific questions, and they cannot be answered just by appealing to the theory itself. These are philosophical questions, and philosophers have a responsbility to explore them. So it’s not enough just to say that creationism is bad science (or “pseudoscience”). One also must show that evolution doesn’t have the aversive cultural consequences that reactionary pastors and preachers are saying it does.

    Part of the problem concerns the quality of science education, esp. at the high school (and earlier) levels. Science has been, and to a large extent probably still is, taught as a doctrine or dogma which must be accepted without question. And this is antithetical to the whole spirit of scientific practice — but this is largely how it’s done in the high school level. (If I hadn’t already been in love with biology when I got to school, school wouldn’t have cultivated it — and I was in the honors program.)

    If I’m right about the climate of science education, creationism and ID take on the emotional force of resistance to domination and indoctrination. I know it sounds bizarre — it is bizarre! — but that’s my take on what’s happening.

    It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that Ruse is pursuing a more effective strategy than Dennett is; I’m not sure about that. But I think that Ruse has seen the stakes more clearly than Dennett has, and that’s worth something.

  8. #8 Alexander Whiteside
    February 23, 2006

    Good point, Scott. Thinking about it some more, it does seem to be problem on the recieving end rather than the transmitting end.

    When religious people see folk like Dawkins explaining the reality of evolution, then leading a TV show which could’ve been called “Relgion, what the heck’s wrong with you? Seriously”, it turns them off to the former message, even though there’s no sensible reason for them to ignore it. The two ideas are independent even though they come from the same person, and that’s not an intuitive thing for most people.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I agree that it isn’t asking Dawkins to choose one idea and keep quiet about the other.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    February 23, 2006

    Perhaps the answer is to stop expecting scientists to compromise themselves in order to reach out to irrational people, and start demanding that the irrational people work to evaluate reasonably.

    In a struggle between people who evaluate arguments on their merits and those who respond according to their prejudices, it’s madness to expect the reasonable people to bow to the prejudiced.

  10. #10 wamba
    February 23, 2006

    Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people.

    Perhaps, but it seems there are so many religious people worthy of condescension.

  11. #11 Mike
    February 23, 2006

    What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of persuasion?

  12. #12 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    From what I’ve read of both Dawkins and Dennett, they aren’t being “strident” at all, just forthright about their views on religion. Both men are about as polite as can be when I’ve heard them speak on the subject as well. BTW, Dennett was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio this week discussing his latest book, and was quite pleasant to both the host and those calling in on both sides.

  13. #13 jeh
    February 23, 2006

    From above (because I haven’t figured out quoting here):
    “Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence.”

    But if this were not the case, most religious people probably wouldn’t be religious in the first place. I agree it’s condescending, but I don’t think it’s being too hard on most of them.

  14. #14 cm
    February 23, 2006

    It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.

    That’s right.

    Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

    Because they’re religious. And insofar as they are religious they are expected to reject evidence and trigger emotionally off Dawkins’s forthright rejection of religion.

  15. #15 GH
    February 23, 2006

    Many Christian fundamentalists believe, and teach their flocks, that a belief in God is incompatible with accepting evolutionary science. I think it is unfortunate that some atheists agree with them.

    And in Christian doctrine it really is incompatible despite the best efforts of many to make it not be that way. But the same can be said of all science. But not incompatible with other religions or God in general.

  16. #16 Keith Douglas
    February 23, 2006

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Ruse’s work, the fragments of it that I’m aware of. Taking Darwin Seriously is interesting in what it covers and reads like first of a long discussion, but the antirealist conclusions it draws are too extreme. Dennett sometimes sounds like a panadaptationist and such. But Dennett’s philosophy of mind is productive, although I don’t agree with it all either. The thing is, there are many other philosophers of biology, so one need not choose between them – David Hull, Mohan Matthen, Martin Mahner/Mario Bunge, Sahotra Sarkar, Kim Sterleny, Paul Griffiths, etc. (just to pick a small number).

  17. #17 Dale
    February 23, 2006

    “What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of persuasion?”

    Easy, the world in which atheists are responsible for everything bad. The world in which people seriously consider whether or not we should vote, hold office, or even be allowed to raise our own children. That world. Contempt? Nothing but, Mikey. Nothing but.

  18. #18 Greg Peterson
    February 23, 2006

    Yup, Dale’s basically right. I listen to Christian radio sometimes, when I’m afraid my blood pressure might be getting down to normal, and I hear preacher after preacher going on about atheists this and secular humanists that. We make up a miniscule percentage of the population, nimrods–we can’t possibly be responsible for all of that. But all tactics are fair, all corrosive, thoughtless names apt, all lies valid in taking on this phantom menace that we pose. I’m also a Democrat, and a Minnesotan, so I have experience in multiple arenas standing patiently and politely taking it up the backside. I’m convinced that this Gandhi sh*t doesn’t work in cases when the religious leaders have so much power (see more at “Inquisition” and “witches, burning of”). I think it’s fine to be civil and persuasive when possible. Essential, actually. But even if it doesn’t necessarily convince anyone to confront them with a “strident” truth, doesn’t our human dignity demand that we speak that truth rather than putting on an infidel minstrel show, shucking and jiving and Step-n-Fetchitting all over the damn place? Since you have me ranting now, one final thing: It’s an open question to me whether it’s more important to advance science than to halt and, if possible, reverse the cancerous growth of religion. I love science, and there’s no question the great good it has done for humankind. But weighed against the great wickedness and suffering that religion has visited on our planet, it’s not obvious to me if I were given the power to stop religion in its tracks, even at expense to science, whether the cost might not ultimately be worth it.

  19. #19 Shygetz
    February 23, 2006

    Just because you feel justifiably upset still doesn’t make contempt an effective strategy for persuasion. I actually agree with Alexander…let’s at least put an obligatory semicolon between “Evolution is a fact” and “Christians are deluded morons.” Society is not run like science; popular opinion matters a great deal, not just the worth of the idea. You can scream until you’re blue in the face about the need for theists to be rational materialists, but all that’ll get you is a blue face.

  20. #20 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    Who is screaming in anyone’s face? Surely not Dan Dennett or Richard Dawkins. It’s not like we’re talking about rhetoric akin to the likes of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh here.

  21. #21 Steve LaBonne
    February 23, 2006

    I’ve often wondered why so many religious believers are ready to wet their pants as soon as anyone dissents openly from their precious fantasies. Why can’t they remain serene in that strong faith of which they like to boast to their fellow delusionals?

  22. #22 Andy Groves
    February 23, 2006

    You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubeswhile every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

    Bravo. Scientists should shut up talking about atheism and religion. Scientists should take the position that science does not speak to the existence or the non-existence of God and leave it at that every time. Atheism and science are different things. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – there is no point in criticizing people like Philip Johnson for conflating philosophical and methodological naturalism if we do it as well. If you want to sell arms to the enemy, fine. But count me out.

    From a previous post of mine a month or two back:

    There are plenty of people who are happy to incorporate every new scientific discovery (including evolution) into their world view, but nevertheless have faith in a supernatural being. More often than not, that faith is important and comforting to them. Those people may find creationism deeply offensive or embarassing, but they will probably also resent the hell out of Dawkins telling them that they are idiots. If I had that sort of religious faith, I know I would. Dawkins is perfectly entitled to call them idiots, but to claim he has scientific justification for his view is wrong-headed.

  23. #23 Dale
    February 23, 2006

    ” Scientists should take the position that science does not speak to the existence or the non-existence of God and leave it at that every time.”

    Yup. And every time I point that out, I get f-ing shrieked at. And I quote-“The position that science does not speak to the need for Gunderscored, IS a statement of scientific atheism.” Sometimes they will talk about the “philosophy” of science inherent in the decision to limit science to the material world.

  24. #24 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    One might as well then say that there’s no scientific justification for calling a belief in a literal Adam and Eve idiotic. Which is, I hope all here would agree, quite idiotic. So science can and properly does provide justification for judging religious claims.

  25. #25 Shygetz
    February 23, 2006

    Who is screaming in anyone’s face?

    Read my post again. I said “Scream until you are blue in the face.” If I had used the phrase “banging your head against the wall” would you have demanded the name of atheists who are head-butting people?

    And if you haven’t seen PZ and others screaming about the irrationality of religion here, stick around a while.

  26. #26 Shygetz
    February 23, 2006

    One might as well then say that there’s no scientific justification for calling a belief in a literal Adam and Eve idiotic. Which is, I hope all here would agree, quite idiotic. So science can and properly does provide justification for judging religious claims.

    If you are talking about a literal interpretation of Genesis, then yes, science does discount that. There is a huge difference between “science discounts a literal interpretation of Genesis” and “science negates the existence of God.”

  27. #27 GH
    February 23, 2006

    Scientists should take the position that science does not speak to the existence or the non-existence of God and leave it at that every time.”

    While this is true, the methods of science can be used to investigate a claim. That also should not be ignored. But this is beside the point anyway. Most religions in conflict with science make real world claims not just a claim that God exists.

    So if your arguing for the existence of God your argument is a good one, if your arguing for a particular event claimed to an individual deity science has plenty to say about the probability of your statement being correct or not.

  28. #28 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    And if you haven’t seen PZ and others screaming about the irrationality of religion here, stick around a while.

    I’ve met PZ in person and he’s quite mild-mannered, actually. But I agree that he can be rather pissy at times online… 🙂

    I don’t think that Dawkins or Dennett can be accused of that themselves, however.

  29. #29 dale
    February 23, 2006

    Screaming till blue in the face is something of a normal reaction after you’ve taken on, for the 10^100th time, the same strawman about atheists and science. Actually, that shows a fair bit of restraint, I’d say. I find it surprising that more christians aren’t being rendered blue in the face through an (in)appropriate chokehold. I am sick to death of being intentionally misrepresented. I am sick to death of being told what I believe, even after telling ’em otherwise (why do you think I’m lying about what I believe-do you?). I am sick to death of public calls by pundits and preachers for the exclusion of atheists. And I am sick to death of the infantile, and demonstrably wrong tautology that atheists can’t be moral.

  30. #30 Robert Skipper
    February 23, 2006

    Some of us like to refer to Dennett’s book _Darwin’s Dangerous Idea_ as _Dennett’s Dumb Idea_.” There was a time, long ago, when his stuff was really interesting. Though I don’t think any of the philosophy of biology ever was.

  31. #31 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    There is a huge difference between “science discounts a literal interpretation of Genesis” and “science negates the existence of God.”

    That depends on what claims you are making for God, such as whether or not prayers are answered.

  32. #32 Dale
    February 23, 2006

    Greg Peterson:

    “doesn’t our human dignity demand that we speak that truth rather than putting on an infidel minstrel show, shucking and jiving and Step-n-Fetchitting all over the damn place?”

    Um, if you aren’t using “infidel minstrel show”, can I have that phrase? I think that might be a good title for something . . .

  33. #33 Greg Peterson
    February 23, 2006

    Dale:

    I’m flattered. By all means, if you think it’s worthy, use it however you like.

  34. #34 Andy Groves
    February 23, 2006

    While this is true, the methods of science can be used to investigate a claim. That also should not be ignored. But this is beside the point anyway. Most religions in conflict with science make real world claims not just a claim that God exists.

    I think you need to make a distinction between “religions” and “religious people”. Although some religions (like Catholicism) make very clear comments about their official position, you can find a huge spectrum of beliefs and degrees of fervour among people who call themselves Catholics, for example.

    I think it is most productive to try and persuade religious people to change their views on the scientific basis of real world claims without trying to turn them into atheists at the same time. If they want to come to that position by themselves (or as a result of thinking harder about the claims of science versus religion), fine. But I don’t want to evangelize for atheism.

  35. #35 Andy Groves
    February 23, 2006

    I am sick to death of being intentionally misrepresented. I am sick to death of being told what I believe, even after telling ’em otherwise (why do you think I’m lying about what I believe-do you?). I am sick to death of public calls by pundits and preachers for the exclusion of atheists. And I am sick to death of the infantile, and demonstrably wrong tautology that atheists can’t be moral.

    Maybe you should try turning the other cheek?

    🙂

  36. #36 mtraven
    February 23, 2006

    You make the mistake of treating religion and science symmetrically, which plays into the hands of your creationist opponents. They are not the same thing, they serve different purposes, their relation to truth and belief is different. Religion is closer to the heart and soul, whatever that means, for better or worse. It’s not about evidence, it’s not about argument, it isn’t about facticity. Only the crude fundmentalist forms of religion attempt to trespass on science, but that tends to be the only form of religion scientists see (not all scientists, but the ones engaged in this particular debate). Put it this way, you I’m sure get pissed (rightly) at those who claim that “science is just another kind of religion”, but when you treat religion as a scientific theory, you are essentially saying that “religion is just another (bad) kind of science”. This misses the point and that’s why this debate rages on endlessly and fruitlessly.

    The more moderate advocates of science I think are aware that there is nothing to be gained by frontal assaults on people’s most deeply-held beliefs. A much better strategy is to gently push them aside from where they don’t belong. This is not an easy task because it requires a degree of mutual understanding and respect, but in the long run I think it’s going to be a better strategy for all concerned.

  37. #37 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    I generally take the words of Harry S. Truman to heart when I discuss the subject of atheism with theists:

    I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.

  38. #38 Caledonian
    February 23, 2006

    Religions that don’t trespass on the territory of science necessarily don’t have any actual implications that can be said to be true or false.

    That puts religion in the same category as literature or nursery rhymes: historically arbitrary collections of statements which may amuse and entertain but tell us nothing about reality.

    If you tell a theist that they don’t believe God is real, 99.99% of the time they’ll tell you you’re a moron. And they’d be right when they did.

  39. #39 Dale
    February 23, 2006

    Andy;

    I have four cheeks, all have been turned, more than once. It’s not my turn anymore.

    mtraven:

    “but when you treat religion as a scientific theory, you are essentially saying that “religion is just another (bad) kind of science”.”

    Excuse me? That conversation doesn’t come up until after they ask science to treat their theology as science. Until and unless the religion makes a testable claim, the science folks I know don’t factor Gunderscored into what they do. So, here they are, working quietly at their lab bench, and somebody bursts in, waving a poorly edited thousands of years old book and demanding “what about this”. Are they surprised when the lab rat pushes their glasses up, takes the book, opens it, and points to some bit and says “well, that part is inconsistent with what we just found.” And then they have the audacity to be offended? Oy, my head hurts.

  40. #40 mtraven
    February 23, 2006

    Dale: it’s not a question of who started the fight, but how to end it. (You could also say that historically, it was science who seized some intellectual terrain that religion thought it held, but that’s somewhat beside the point).

    All I’m saying is, religion is almost by definition not reasonable, and if you try arguing against it you just strengthen it, and you strengthen the most objectionable parts of it.

    Personally I don’t think science is going to succeed in stamping out religion or other forms of unreason, nor should it — it’s too fundamental a part of human nature. Scientists need to know how to manage the borders better. Let people have their gods, and you get all of material reality. Seems like a good deal.

    Caledonian:
    Neither religion nor nursery rhymes are “arbitrary”, and they tell us plenty about our own psychology, which is part of our reality. I believe this is one of the themes of Dennett’s book.

  41. #41 DrYak
    February 23, 2006

    I think the point is that when people use religious reasons for discounting or disputing a scientific observation then they are setting themselves up. If one has a religious reason for discounting evolution and a scientist comes with evidence supporting it then he is using science to attack their religion – not because he wants to but because the first person has already set up the dichotomy (even if it is false). There is nothing whatsoever the scientist can do that will not be percieved as an attack on the person’s religion.

    How to avoid this? I have no idea but I am all for not pandering to them (of course it is easier for me not living in the US).

  42. #42 Socialist Swine
    February 23, 2006

    Rob,

    Though I don’t think any of the philosophy of biology ever was.

    I agree. While I find some of Dennett’s stuff in phil of mind interesting, it always seemed to me that he was a bit outside of his element when he commented on biology.

  43. #43 Ian B Gibson
    February 23, 2006

    Many Christian fundamentalists believe, and teach their flocks, that a belief in God is incompatible with accepting evolutionary science. I think it is unfortunate that some atheists agree with them.

    But that’s the point: evolution is incompatible with Christianity, where Christianity retains any of the beliefs that make it Christianity, rather than, say, Deism – There’s no external ‘purpose’ to life, we weren’t designed but evolved from ‘slime’, and we break up into our constituent parts when we die.

    That ain’t Christianity.

  44. #44 Mike
    February 23, 2006

    I can give myself purpose even though evolution hasn’t. There’s a hint there.

  45. #45 Mike
    February 23, 2006

    “I am sick to death of being intentionally misrepresented.”

    Me too. So how do I get folk like Dale and Shygetz to stop it?

  46. #46 JonJ
    February 23, 2006

    mtraven:

    “Neither religion nor nursery rhymes are “arbitrary”, and they tell us plenty about our own psychology, which is part of our reality.”

    But religious believers (most of them anyway) aren’t just claiming that their beliefs tell us about human psychology; they claim that they are true of reality. Christianity, for example, is not just a psychology dressed up in Christian language; it’s supposed to be actually true of the real world. God really exists; he really sent his son Jesus to save us from being sent to hell forever for our sins. Etc., etc. Up until quite recently, anyway, Christians firmly believed that all of this was a true description of reality.

    If they can’t give good reasons for the rest of us to accept the truth (I’m tempted to say “honest-to-God truth”) of such statements, then there is no difference between their beliefs and nursery rhymes, folk tales, etc. Or between them and, say, Greek mythology. I always like to challenge believers in the Christian mythology by asking whether they think the stories about Zeus and Hera are true, and if not, how can they show why the Christian mythology is true and the Greek mythology is not.

    Of course, the argument then usually turns to the question of why we have to use only rational argument to determine what statements are true and what are false. Isn’t there “another kind of knowing,” etc.? The answer to that, roughly speaking, is: your “other kind of knowing” ends up with everyone believing the truth of “their own truth,” which strikes me, at least, as absurd. But the religious folks think that result is fine. At that point, I am forced to conclude that there are two fundamentally different kinds of folks in the world, and neither kind will probably ever convince the other.

  47. #47 Robert S.
    February 23, 2006

    It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence

    I agree that atheists (and agnostics) should speak out more, but I emphatically believe that the above is often true, and not just in matters of religion, but also of politics, the two, of course, often being tightly entwined.

    Many people do respond emotionally. Many don’t think seriously about the evidence. And many can’t be expected to honestly assess the evidence placed before them.

    I think that noting these facts doesn’t have to involve a single drop of condescension, but quite simply an honest and objective evaluation of human nature and psychology.

    Many people do not want to believe the truth about anything. In fact, they think they already know the truth. So, they’re selective in the information they review and they have strong preferences for contemplating material which reinforces what they already believe. They are not truly interested in pursuing the truth as that would be immensely uncomfortable. They would not be aware of this of course, because we all probably believe we want to know the truth. But our observable behavior often reveals otherwise.

    This might sound like a misanthropic view of the average human being. It’s not intended to be. Just a realistic one. The desire not to pursue the truth actually seems more like a coping mechanism. One seeks to maintain mental stasis: there’s immense psychological weight bearing down upon so many of us not to change our opinions because of the darkly understood fact of what making changes to those opinions would mean. (This can be quite dramatic for fundamentalists, who may literally lose the opportunity for intimacy with their family members if they change their mind on issues which prove alarming to those family members.)

    None of this means, of course, that we shouldn’t avoid engaging in dialogue with people we disagree with. We must. There are some who can be convinced over time, some who have open minds, who will honestly evaluate the information placed in front of them (insofar as their various filters will allow them to). But this does explain why change takes so bloody long.

    Tangentially: if you understand the above in the light of the qualifications of a good scientist, you can see why so few people make good scientists. In order to be a good scientist, one would have to be willing to pursue the truth, even if doing so shattered many of your previous beliefs. Most folks simply aren’t really willing to do that, despite what they might say or think, and this explains a lot of superstitious thinking and how easily some folks are “taken in” by various urban legends, which happen to complement their world view, etc.

  48. #48 Dark Matter
    February 24, 2006

    mtraven wrote:

    The more moderate advocates of science I think are aware that there is nothing to be gained by frontal assaults on people’s most deeply-held beliefs. A much better strategy is to gently push them aside from where they don’t belong. This is not an easy task because it requires a degree of mutual understanding and respect, but in the long run I think it’s going to be a better strategy for all concerned.

    Once again with the talk of “mutual understanding”……The Answers in Genesis website
    has the subtitle of “Upholding the Authority of the Bible from the Very First Verse”.
    Go and look at the site……..these people are not going to compromise or come to
    any “mutual understanding” with evolutionists.

    mtraven wrote:

    Personally I don’t think science is going to succeed in stamping out religion or other forms of unreason, nor should it — it’s too fundamental a part of human nature. Scientists need to know how to manage the borders better. Let people have their gods, and you get all of material reality. Seems like a good deal.

    The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is a *politically naive* concept. There will be no
    “respectful observance of areas of expertise”, there will be only *incremental surrender*
    to theocrats if one is foolish enough to think the theoctats will stay in their “backyard”.

    Anyone who believes this is fooling himself (or engaging in willful blindness) if they think the theocrats do not want to be the dominant influence of the political, *scientific* and cultural life of the US….what do you think that “culture war” stuff is about?

  49. #49 Dale
    February 24, 2006

    traven:

    “All I’m saying is, religion is almost by definition not reasonable, and if you try arguing against it you just strengthen it, and you strengthen the most objectionable parts of it.”

    /metaphor It’s not so much that you are strengthening it, but rather that you are distilling it. The light fraction (reasonable folks) gets boiled off, and you are left with the heavy fraction. It was always there, but the reasonable fraction tended to keep the viscosity down. /metaphor

    Mike: I’m not sure where exactly I misrepresented you. Perhaps I was unclear:
    “What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of persuasion?” is a very good question. So why do so many of my christian brethren feel it incumbent upon themselves to point out to me that 1) I’m not moral, 2) I’m going to hell, 4) I’m unfit for public office because I’m untrustworthy, and so on. I regard that as contempt for me. And here is the difference. The minority can only persuade. The overwhelming majority can coerce.

    To rephrase you only slightly:
    What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of suppression? The answer-the world that folks like the Discovery Institute want to see us return to.

  50. #50 Andy Groves
    February 24, 2006

    Once again with the talk of “mutual understanding”……The Answers in Genesis website has the subtitle of “Upholding the Authority of the Bible from the Very First Verse”.Go and look at the site……..these people are not going to compromise or come to any “mutual understanding” with evolutionists.

    You’re missing the point. No scientist is ever going to convince the AIG crew to accept evolution. Not you, not me, not PZ Maierz. The question is how to get ordinary lay people with religious views to accept evolution. Is it best to do that by telling them that God doesn’t exist and they are idiots if they think S/He does? What does that have to do with science in general and evolution in particular?

  51. #51 HP
    February 24, 2006

    What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of persuasion?

    The same world where telling deliberate lies about others is considered “witnessing to one’s faith.”

    The truth is, the average American’s religious faith is a mile wide and an inch deep. If being religious ever became a social or political embarrassment, or an obstacle to one’s career, the churches in this country would crumble into dust.

  52. #52 Andy Groves
    February 24, 2006

    The same world where telling deliberate lies about others is considered “witnessing to one’s faith.

    How many Christians in the US do you think tell deliberate lies to witness their faith?

  53. #53 Dark Matter
    February 24, 2006

    Andy Groves wrote:

    You’re missing the point. No scientist is ever going to convince the AIG crew to accept evolution. Not you, not me, not PZ Maierz. The question is how to get ordinary lay people with religious views to accept evolution. Is it best to do that by telling them that God doesn’t exist and they are idiots if they think S/He does? What does that have to do with science in general and evolution in particular?

    The “AIG crew” is also everybody who is going to visit their
    little creation “museum”—-which is going to be a whole
    lot of “lay people”.

    Maybe it is *they* who are the ones that need to do some hard thinking—-on why all kinds of complicated philosophical “bioinfomatic-mathematical-complexity” theories can be tossed around to prove the existance of the god of Abraham and *not anybody else’s*.

  54. #54 HP
    February 24, 2006

    Andy, suppose I told you that, because I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in church buildings. And you took me out to France and showed me Chartres cathedral, and I said, “There’s no church here. It’s just a big empty field.” Either I’m delusional, or I’m lying. (I’ll make it easy for you: If you show me Chartres and I say there’s nothing there, I’m lying.)

    But I don’t deny the existence of church buildings. And I don’t find the existence of church buildings — even ones as divinely beautiful as Chartres — to be a threat to my atheism.

    Evolution is just as real as Chartres cathedral or the storefront Holiness Church down the street. When people deny evolution, they’re either lying or delusional. When the people who deny evolution do so *because* of their Christian faith, they are witnessing to that faith, whether they realize it or not. And the witness they bear is, “Christians are crazy liars.”

    Non-Christians judge Christianity based on the things that Christians say and do. You might not think that’s fair, but what else are we going to do? You know, atheists have no obligations to non-atheists. Zero. We don’t get any special afterlife points for destroying someone’s faith. But most Christians believe that they have a moral obligation to witness. The complete and utter failure of Christians to actually reach out to non-Christians in no way places the onus of communication on us.

  55. #55 Andy Groves
    February 24, 2006

    Evolution is just as real as Chartres cathedral or the storefront Holiness Church down the street. When people deny evolution, they’re either lying or delusional.

    That’s obviously not correct, and I’m saying that as a biologist. I can fly you to Chartres and show you the cathedral. I cannot show you an object called evolution. Evolution is not an object like a church, it is a biological process that is hard to demonstrate in living things in real time. That’s one of the many reasons why ordinary people with no specialist education find it hard to wrap their heads around it.

    When people deny evolution, they’re either lying or delusional.

    Or ignorant. When someone says that they don’t accept evolution, they could simply be completely unaware of the evidence for it. Does that make them delusional? No – it makes them ignorant.

    But most Christians believe that they have a moral obligation to witness.

    To paraphrase Reagan, there you go again. How many is “most”? Are you referring to Catholics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, or just evangelicals? Do you mean Christians in the US? I’m British, and I never ever heard the expression “to witness” in the context of the Christian faith until I came to the US. So who are these “most Christians” you’re talking about?

    The complete and utter failure of Christians to actually reach out to non-Christians in no way places the onus of communication on us.

    It does, and the reason it does is because we are the ones who want to change things. We want people to be more open to science in general and evolution in particular. Personally (and I’m speaking here as an apathetic agnostic), I don’t care if people lose their religious faith in the process or not. I don’t care whether they turn into “theistic evolutionists” or go the whole hog and become atheists. I don’t want to evangelize for atheism. I want to evangelize for science. You may feel that they’re the same thing (or shoudl be the same thing), and that anyone who accepts evolution and holds onto a religious belief is a woolly-headed nitwit. But these are the people you need to convince. Are you seriously hoping to convince them of your position by calling them liars or hopelessly deluded?

  56. #56 Andy Groves
    February 24, 2006

    The “AIG crew” is also everybody who is going to visit their
    little creation “museum”—-which is going to be a whole
    lot of “lay people”.

    First, I think you are giving AiG too much credit for their powers of persuasion. I accept that some people will visit the museum to re-affirm their belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but I doubt that everyone who goes to their museum has made up their mind forever when they leave.

    But even if I concede the point that anyone who visits the AiG or the ICR museums is unreachable, how many Christians are we talking about here? The 40% of regular churchgoers in the US? Are all of them unreachable too?

  57. #57 Mike
    February 24, 2006

    Dale,

    >Mike: I’m not sure where exactly I misrepresented you.

    Well, you see, I’m a Christian and I had been referring to the open contempt of Dawkins and Dennnett for all Christians, which you indicated you share on the basis of a dystopic world you evidently belief Christians are intent on imposing. Since I’m included, as a Christian, in your contempt (and the ‘Mikey’ didn’t exactly dispel the impression), you’re identifying me with that dystopic world and that is a misrepresentation.

  58. #58 gregonomic
    February 24, 2006

    Ruse is entitled to his opinion, but I like it that Dawkins, PZ, et al., are all up in religion’s grill.

    And at this stage, what do we have to lose? The jury’s been in on evolution for quite a while now, yet the religious still, for the most part, aren’t buying it. Is that our fault? No. The problem is that it’s a message that many religious people simply don’t want to hear.

    We can keep pussyfooting around the issue, but the fact remains: evolution and atheism are very comfortable bed-fellows. If religious people can’t handle that, well … tough.

  59. #59 Dale
    February 25, 2006

    Mike;
    “open contempt of Dawkins and Dennnett for all Christians, which you indicated you share on the basis of a dystopic world you evidently belief Christians are intent on imposing.”

    Well, actually my point-not very well made perhaps-is that there is contempt on both sides, and atheists have been on the pointy end of a lot of christian blame over the years, which might explain some of the contempt coming back at them. “Contempt? Nothing but, Mikey. Nothing but.” is refering not to my contempt, but that directed at me as an atheist. I save my contempt for the Discovery Institute and their ilk-you know, the wedge document folks. Or the guy down the hall at work who insists I can’t be moral because I’m not a christian. Do learn to distinguish between my contempt for folks pushing a particular agenda and my feelings towards folks generally. In fact, if you want to know a bit about how I feel about truly righteous christian folks, you might want to read this:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrwizard/la/journal01.html (actualy a toned down version of the praise I gave ’em in person)

    Now, if you happen to believe that non-christians can’t be moral, or that non-christians aren’t fit to hold public office, or that laws should be enacted to punish non-christian behavior, or that non-christians should be taxed to support churches, then I’ll happily lump you into the group I haven’t got much use for. Otherwise, I’ll count you on the side of the, um, angels. But until then, I’ll thank you to assume I can distinguish between theocrats and otherwise, and that my contempt is not for a person’s faith, but for his actions and stated purposes.

    For entertainment, I suggest you go find a copy of the wedge document and substitute the word “Jew” for atheist, secular humanist and so on. Maybe also “Jewish conspiracy” for materialistic agenda, and “Jew science” for scientism, and so on. The document reads very much like the work of this little Austrian guy with a funny mustache-the target changes, but the charges remain the same. The folks not of our religion are responsible for the downfall of civilization. That is the message-and I have nothing but contempt for the messengers.

  60. #60 Andrew Brown
    February 27, 2006

    On a small point of fact, I have talked to Ruse about this, and he says it was a third party who sent the exchange on to Dembski — he had “circulated it” himself, but not to the ID people.

  61. #61 Andrew Brown
    February 27, 2006

    On a small point of fact, I have talked to Ruse about this, and he says it was a third party who sent the exchange on to Dembski — he had “circulated it” himself, but not to the ID people.

  62. #62 Andrew Brown
    February 27, 2006

    On a small point of fact, I have talked to Ruse about this, and he says it was a third party who sent the exchange on to Dembski — he had “circulated it” himself, but not to the ID people.

  63. #63 Andrew Brown
    February 27, 2006

    On a small point of fact, I have talked to Ruse about this, and he says it was a third party who sent the exchange on to Dembski — he had “circulated it” himself, but not to the ID people.

  64. #64 djmullen
    February 28, 2006

    Mike: “What world do you guys live in where openly expressed contempt is an effective tool of persuasion?”

    The ID world.

    I’d say the Religious world too, but that would be redundant.

  65. #65 scooter
    July 15, 2008

    Dennet has good points, but he reminds me of the last generation of ATHEISTS.

    Booring!!

    That’s what happened to the last five hundred Atheist radio shows cancelled on College radio stations over the last 2 decades

    Booring!!

  66. #66 Sven
    October 2, 2008

    I thought this was supposed to be a science blog. All I ever see is the same ranting that is broadcast on the cable’s public access channel. Pathetic.

  67. Great comment Sven.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.