Our double standard

I’m sorry, Josh, but while you introduce the issue well…

There’s been a minor thing brewing in the last week or so between PZ Myers, Chris Mooney, and originally Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett (and by now the rest of the blogosphere) about “hiding atheists away” in discussions of evolution, the framing issues involved in calling atheists “brights” and other tangentially related topics. It taps into the deeper issues of the connection between evolution and atheism, how that impacts the Great Creationism Wars, and on and on.

…you then go on to perpetuate the usual misrepresentation of atheists in this debate.

If atheists make their atheism an issue in a discussion about evolution they’re playing the same game religious authoritarians are, and making it easy for the authoritarians to push their religion. Evolution isn’t a weapon to be wielded against religion, nor is religion a tool to be wielded against evolution, and the science class isn’t where atheists and theists should have their squabbles.

That just isn’t the way it works, and I’m feeling more than a little irritated at having to explain it over and over again.

You will not find me claiming that you must be an atheist to defend evolution, that only atheists understand evolution, or that Christians can’t be on our side in the evolution debate. I do not tie evolution to atheism or vice versa. I preface my talks to students on the subject with the explicit disclaimer that they are not required to abandon their faith to support good science. I do think religious credulity is the antithesis of the kind of critical thinking we should be encouraging, and that we ought to be working to reduce the role of superstition in our culture, but come on, give us atheists some credit—we are actually capable of generating a focused argument on a topic. We do.

So could everyone please stop pretending that the atheists in the scientific community are all making some fatuous “Evolution, therefore god is dead” argument?

Seriously, we aren’t saying that. We are making an independent argument for reason and atheism and against superstition; and the people who object to that are in essence suggesting that people who argue for evolution should keep silent. I could understand the complaint if it were against making bad arguments for evolution and atheism, but that simply isn’t the case here.

I’m beginning to resent it. People who wouldn’t think of telling a Jewish or Christian scientist to “hey, could you tone down any mention of your religious belief, anywhere, anytime?” think nothing of informing atheists that they shouldn’t defend their unbelief, anywhere, anytime. I’m sure I’ll hear that that isn’t what Josh is saying, but it’s hard to interpret it any other way when there are these vague expressions of disquiet over the presence of assertive atheists in our midst.

What makes it worse is the double standard. I have to pick on Mike for saying this most clearly.

I’m not a complete idiot; I realize the ‘religious’ right introduces religion into the debate to a far greater extent than the pro-science side. However, responding to that is an issue of tactics and framing, and is not what I’m discussing here. Personally, I don’t think atheists should have to hide their beliefs. However, when explaining and defending evolution, getting into the ‘God conflict’ is not only bad tactically, but as I explained, simply not relevant. Tactically, the ability to shoot down the ‘godless evolutionists’ concept by proclaiming one’s religious beliefs is, regrettably, a useful rhetorical device.

Got that? Statements about god-belief, pro or con, are off the table in arguments about evolution, except when those statements are pro-religion. Those are OK. Ken Miller writes a book on evolution that’s also a defense of religion in general and Catholicism specifically, and do we hear these same people decrying the introduction of the theist/atheist “squabble” into the evolutionary argument? No, his book is recommended all over the place (even by me—the science is good, but the religion is bogus). We can praise the clergy for getting involved, but atheists? Regrettable. Tactically bad.


We also get arguments that criticizing religion hurts the pro-evolution cause. So what? You could also say that criticizing creationism hurts the pro-evolution cause, because it pisses off all those millions of creationists. The claim completely misses the point. Atheists reject religion, so we aren’t at all worried that the targets of our criticism dislike our criticism. We aren’t going to stop.

Now Josh and Mike and Chris are smart people; but it’s not at all clear what they hope to accomplish with these complaints. Is there some specific problem in mind, or is it just a general, fuzzy discomfort with all the vocal ungodly on your side? What is it that should change? Because I can guarantee that I’m not going to slack off on denying religion, loudly and proudly…and I doubt that Richard Dawkins or Steven Weinberg, a couple of rather more prominent opponents of religion, are going to back off either. So what’s the gripe? Why shouldn’t I feel that many who should be my allies are making excuses for a broader irrationality that undermines the more specific argument for evolution that they want to support? While utility in the short term is nice, I’m not in favor of losing to superstition in the long run.


  1. #1 Andrew F.
    March 31, 2007

    ‘Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame.’
    –Albert Einstien

    Atheism was determined (by the Supreme Court) to be a religion in classification with Buddhism and others like it because it assumes many thing not proven by “pure science”.