Pharyngula

The Dawkins/Dennett boogeyman

Why would a pro-science op-ed give credence to the words of William Dembski?

William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don’t believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God’s greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”

You can guess why: to engage in more atheist-bashing. Yes, Dawkins does much to antagonize the godly, and I’ve heard over and over again that that is bad strategy, but I’m sorry, someone must have that discussion. Despite Dembski’s welcome (which reeks of pleas not to be thrown in that there briar patch, Br’er Fox), the surest and I think the only way to end the creationist threat and many other social ills is to undermine the credulous authority granted to the religious. Trying to nibble away at the edges and parading around those awkward scientist-Christian chimeras as representative, while reassuring the cow-eyed masses that “yes, your sons and daughters can be smarter than you are while retaining the same blind obedience to Mother Church” is the strategy we’ve been trying for years and years, to utter, abysmal failure.

Scientists will never be the close, reassuring father figures that Americans see every week. We will always be threats to the backwards-looking flocks of the majority of the religious, and we will always be railed against from the pulpits—science is an alternative and better way to approach the truth, so we are the competition. The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ, and to short-circuit the inevitable whining that will follow in the comments thread: those faiths and those individuals are in the minority just as much as we atheists are, and are regarded by the Baptists and the Catholics and the Lutherans and the Mormons and other established sects as just as much of an evil.

Dawkins goes for the root of the problem. It’s the only way. The rest of you can keep nipping at the twigs, but you’re just playing at topiary, rather than addressing the source of our conflict.

The real problem isn’t Dawkins—it’s the spectacle of sorry appeasers like Michael Ruse trying to silence dissent. Oh, no, religion is sacrosanct; we must not speak the truth, or we’ll rouse the ire of the true believers.

Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse’s argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”

Hmmm. in•e•luc•ta•ble: “unable to be resisted or avoided; inescapable.” Dawkins doesn’t say that. He has said that evolution made atheism intellectually respectable, by providing a natural explanation for a prominent feature of our world, organic life. He has said that religion is a foolish delusion, and on that I agree with him; are we to be denied the privilege of criticizing foolishness? No one claims that science leads inescapably to atheism, since as any idiot can tell, many good scientists are also religious (which, of course, does not make religion good).

Ruse compounds his stupid error of equating “Darwinism” (have I ever mentioned that I hate that term?) with atheism, something that we do try not do, with his argument that this hypothetical, nonexistent state of affairs would violate the separation of church and state. Atheism is not a religion. Teaching science is not the same as teaching atheism, as Dawkins would plainly say, while Ruse is the one who insists on conflating them. Ruse is the one who is playing into their hands.

Try this: evolution is a secular theory. I’m sure even Ruse would agree with that statement, and it’s much more accurate than claiming it is an atheistic theory. Now update his sentence with this more accurate phrase: “If Darwinism equals secularism than it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state.”

I know, dear readers, that sounds insane and internally contradictory to you, but that is exactly what the religious hordes who oppose the teaching of evolution think. “Atheism” is merely one label for the things they hate, but “secularism” and “secular humanism” are also things they want to extirpate.

Atheism is the easy target. Secularism is next, then deistic freethought, then non-Christians, and finally we’ll have the schisms between the different sects. Ruse and the author of this op-ed are just waging the first stages of the war against secularism for the theocrats; this is why Dembski can so love Dawkins, because he can relish the sight of all of his opponents turning to slash at one of the few clear-sighted enough to see where the struggle has to go.

Madeleine Bunting, the author, is so clueless to what is at stake that I had to laugh aloud at where she took her diatribe next. When she starts talking about what religion is really about, all she’s got are naturalistic/materialistic evolutionary explanations about the advantages of religious belief on an individual and social and cultural level.

Both Dennett and Wolpert acknowledge that religion may have provided evolutionary advantages for humans. There’s good evidence for faith improving mental health and optimism, and reducing stress; shamanism, with its placebo effect, was the best healthcare system for thousands of years. Dennett cites those who argue that faith improves cooperation within groups (though not between them). This argument raises the crucial question of whether, in an era of globalisation and limited resources, religion has outrun its evolutionary advantage.

Nothing about God, or Jesus, or the Holy Ghost; nothing about faith and an afterlife; nothing about salvation or damnation. It’s all about belief, nothing but belief, as a biological mechanism that confers a selective or physiological advantage. No god is necessary for this mechanism to work. It’s as atheistical as anything Dawkins has ever said.

Remember, Madeleine, as you turn up your nose and sneer and favor the Dembskis of the world who love the way you applaud as they demonize us atheists: they see no difference between you and us, and you are next.

Comments

  1. #1 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby)

    You mean William Dembski the proven liar, failed barbecue proprietor, the Dover defendants’ rejected expert witness. If this guy is a leading light, then he’s among some pretty dim bulbs.

  2. #2 steve s
    March 27, 2006

    “the only way to end the creationist threat and many other social ills is to undermine the credulous authority granted to the religious.”

    Yep.

  3. #3 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Dawkins doesn’t say that. He has said that evolution made atheism intellectually respectable, by providing a natural explanation for a prominent feature of our world, organic life.

    I have to admit I’m only familiar with Dawkins by reputation, so I never saw this idea summarized so concisely. It’s a compelling point. For instance, you could read Lucretius to get the basic hypothesis that everything has a naturalistic explanation, but his details just aren’t believable. So I guess it would be difficult to argue against the existence of a god-like creator when there are gaping holes in our explanation of what we can observe every day.

    In Paley’s time, you could make a case that atheism did not even appear intellectually plausible. The trouble is that IDers and other creationists want to claim that even now atheism is not intellectually plausible, and they’re frankly wrong about that and in many cases consciously lying about it. The burden of proof has reversed with the advance of science. This is something that rational people have to be able to agree on whether they count themselves among the “faithful” or not.

    Religion was never supposed to be about proof anyway. Anyway, I had twelve years of Catholic primary and secondary education and was continually, subtly discouraged from expecting any outward proof of the existence of God. Maybe that was a 70s thing following Vatican II. Huh. I mistook it for a core theological principle.

    Anyway, in light of that it’s not obvious to me why Dawkins should be considered an enemy of religion merely by pointing out the self-evident. I would have been able to bring up the same point back in Catholic school in which case it would have been considered a statement about the importance of faith rather than its irrationality.

  4. #4 ericnh
    March 27, 2006

    There’s good evidence for faith improving mental health and optimism, and reducing stress; shamanism, with its placebo effect, was the best healthcare system for thousands of years.

    How about the placebo effect of praying to a sculpture of a guy nailed to a cross? After all, if his suffering makes you optimistic about death and praying reduces your stress over all the rules and regulations in your religion, go ahead and pray. Just don’t expect it to cure cancer.

  5. #5 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    BTW, I want to give a little credit to that Guardian writer. At least she called ID a “lobby” rather than a research program. That’s more than you get from the typical NYT article.

    Dembski may be one of the leading lights in the lobby, but the building has not had an occupant for years.

  6. #6 David Wilford
    March 27, 2006

    Something I’m sure will be of interest to PZ that I heard yesterday on Wisconsin Public Radio:

    Steve Paulson with E.O. Wilson on Science and Religion

    E.O. Wilson is one of the world’s most eminent scientists. His theory of sociobiology laid the groundwork for a new branch of science, but also created plenty of enemies. Now, he’s taking aim at a new target: religion. In this hour of To the Best of Our Knowledge we’ll talk with E.O. Wilson about the growing rift between science and religion; why he calls himself a “provisional deist,” and what he dislikes about the whole idea of an eternal afterlife in heaven.

    Wilson’s insight about the eternal afterlife is very pithy, but spot on.

  7. #7 Glen Davidson
    March 27, 2006

    First off, I’m fairly sure that Dembski likes having Dawkins as a (falsifiable) foil. Secondly, he probably does tell his “colleagues” that Dawkins is “God’s gift”, which I guess gets back to the unavoidable theism pervading “scientific” ID.

    Were Dembski a real scientist, he would instead consider what Dawkins says about evolution and the evidence, of course. Most scientists do not care a great deal about Dawkins’ extra-curricular beliefs, but IDists most certainly do. The whole Phillip Johnson project is aimed at smearing science as a commitment to atheism, and at substituting religion for actual science.

    Of course this is a false portrayal of Dawkins’ own position, which is hardly that science arbitrarily and capriciously excludes ID (there are some whose “naturalism” lead them to such a pathetic notion), rather his position is only that a fair application of the methods of science to religion leads to the conclusion that religion’s claims are incorrect. So what? So do courts, forensics, philosophy, and any reasonable understanding of literature. The fact is that Dawkins may or may not be correct about religion (probably it’s best to say simply that he’s wrong about religions which are entirely transcendent, right about the others), but he, like all of science, is only committed to evaluating ideas based upon the proper “rules of evidence”. He does not support the lies about science propagated by Phillip Johnson and Dembski, although these charlatans will smear him and science with their a priori conceptions of what science is and does.

    Dembski likely is less happy with Dawkins than with many scientists who will pretend that science arbitrarily excludes religion. Dembski attacks Dawkins like he attacks science, by using his own misrepresentations and misapprehensions, as if Dawkins’ position were the pre-committed position that IDists accuse science of having (the counterpart of their own precommitments). That Dawkins is willing to subject religion to the same tests as secular beliefs is what Dembski doesn’t like, since Dembski is committed to exempting ID and other religious beliefs from all proper tests. He attacks Dawkins because he doesn’t want to allow the proper consideration of religion to take place, and must make a caricature out of Dawkins to keep up their facade that “committed Darwinists are committed atheists”.

    Dembski thanks God (or at least should)–due to his religion-based life–for those who will exempt religion from the proper tests, since these people muddy the waters enough to allow many to “take ID seriously”. He thanks God for a caricature of Dawkins as well, since Dawkins may readily be treated as arbitrarily excluding God and religion, when there is no evidence for this arbitrary exclusion in Dawkins’ life (the fact that I have issues with Dawkins and his lack of a deep understanding of religion does not mean that his critique of religion is inadequate to the issue–I think it’s mostly inadequate in persuasiveness to the public).

    The real Dawkins is no help to him, for he exposes the inadequacy of religion (at least any religion not based wholly in mysticism) throughout, and is merely consistent in demanding that ID provide results to be taken seriously. It is probably well that many scientists are more accommodating to religion than Dawkins is, because of the politics of the matter, however it is only for these people that the real Dawkins serves as a useful foil, since they may honestly say that science and evolution are able to coexist.

    Here is where PZ is clueless:

    Nothing about God, or Jesus, or the Holy Ghost; nothing about faith and an afterlife; nothing about salvation or damnation. It’s all about belief, nothing but belief, as a biological mechanism that confers a selective or physiological advantage. No god is necessary for this mechanism to work. It’s as atheistical as anything Dawkins has ever said.

    Of course Buntings’ slight apologetic for religion is godless. She’s not stupid. What she is likely addressing in the quote that PZ so badly misunderstands is Dawkins’ “Root of All Evil” remarks. What she is likely saying is that religion is not the unremitting bad faith and “evil” that Dawkins too often portrays it as being, rather it is part of culture and of human evolution and development. PZ has yet to recognize this any better than we have seen Dawkins does, and yet excellent atheists like Nietzsche have expounded upon the benefits (and costs) to the believers of religion. Bunting knows about some of these benefits, but allows that the past benefits of religion may be less beneficial at this point.

    Indeed, it is such poor understanding of religion that does provide some aid and comfort to the enemy, whether from Dawkins’ pen or from Myers’ keyboard. On the whole, though, consistent thinkers like Dawkins are of little use to Dembski and other IDists, which is why they must re-make Dawkins into someone whose pre-commitments to atheism are responsible for his scientific methodologies. This is not true, however it would be a good argument for atheism if it were so.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  8. #8 Dawn O'Day
    March 27, 2006

    Dembski’s comment is cute, and it also mirrors my own thinking relative to the many hypocritcal deists out there: if I’m wrong and there does happen to be a merciful and fair god, and an eternal resort town called heaven, then I’m in pretty good shape to get there because of my deeds. (Bring the sunscreen!) Whereas many of the hypocritical deists – or at least the bigoted, greedy, unprincipled ones – will probably wind up in the ‘other place’ despite all of their protestations of faith.

    So, although I’m an atheist, I’m pretty sure that if there is a god, he/she is on my side.

  9. #9 Glen Davidson
    March 27, 2006

    First off, I’m fairly sure that Dembski likes having Dawkins as a (falsifiable) foil. Secondly, he probably does tell his “colleagues” that Dawkins is “God’s gift”, which I guess gets back to the unavoidable theism pervading “scientific” ID.

    Were Dembski a real scientist, he would instead consider what Dawkins says about evolution and the evidence, of course. Most scientists do not care a great deal about Dawkins’ extra-curricular beliefs, but IDists most certainly do. The whole Phillip Johnson project is aimed at smearing science as a commitment to atheism, and at substituting religion for actual science.

    Of course this is a false portrayal of Dawkins’ own position, which is hardly that science arbitrarily and capriciously excludes ID (there are some whose “naturalism” lead them to such a pathetic notion), rather his position is only that a fair application of the methods of science to religion leads to the conclusion that religion’s claims are incorrect. So what? So do courts, forensics, philosophy, and any reasonable understanding of literature. The fact is that Dawkins may or may not be correct about religion (probably it’s best to say simply that he’s wrong about religions which are entirely transcendent, right about the others), but he, like all of science, is only committed to evaluating ideas based upon the proper “rules of evidence”. He does not support the lies about science propagated by Phillip Johnson and Dembski, although these charlatans will smear him and science with their a priori conceptions of what science is and does.

    Dembski likely is less happy with Dawkins than with many scientists who will pretend that science arbitrarily excludes religion. Dembski attacks Dawkins like he attacks science, by using his own misrepresentations and misapprehensions, as if Dawkins’ position were the pre-committed position that IDists accuse science of having (the counterpart of their own precommitments). That Dawkins is willing to subject religion to the same tests as secular beliefs is what Dembski doesn’t like, since Dembski is committed to exempting ID and other religious beliefs from all proper tests. He attacks Dawkins because he doesn’t want to allow the proper consideration of religion to take place, and must make a caricature out of Dawkins to keep up their facade that “committed Darwinists are committed atheists”.

    Dembski thanks God (or at least should)–due to his religion-based life–for those who will exempt religion from the proper tests, since these people muddy the waters enough to allow many to “take ID seriously”. He thanks God for a caricature of Dawkins as well, since Dawkins may readily be treated as arbitrarily excluding God and religion, when there is no evidence for this arbitrary exclusion in Dawkins’ life (the fact that I have issues with Dawkins and his lack of a deep understanding of religion does not mean that his critique of religion is inadequate to the issue–I think it’s mostly inadequate in persuasiveness to the public).

    The real Dawkins is no help to him, for he exposes the inadequacy of religion (at least any religion not based wholly in mysticism) throughout, and is merely consistent in demanding that ID provide results to be taken seriously. It is probably well that many scientists are more accommodating to religion than Dawkins is, because of the politics of the matter, however it is only for these people that the real Dawkins serves as a useful foil, since they may honestly say that science and evolution are able to coexist.

    Here is where PZ is clueless:

    Nothing about God, or Jesus, or the Holy Ghost; nothing about faith and an afterlife; nothing about salvation or damnation. It’s all about belief, nothing but belief, as a biological mechanism that confers a selective or physiological advantage. No god is necessary for this mechanism to work. It’s as atheistical as anything Dawkins has ever said.

    Of course Buntings’ slight apologetic for religion is godless. She’s not stupid. What she is likely addressing in the quote that PZ so badly misunderstands is Dawkins’ “Root of All Evil” remarks. What she is likely saying is that religion is not the unremitting bad faith and “evil” that Dawkins too often portrays it as being, rather it is part of culture and of human evolution and development. PZ has yet to recognize this any better than we have seen Dawkins does, and yet excellent atheists like Nietzsche have expounded upon the benefits (and costs) to the believers of religion. Bunting knows about some of these benefits, but allows that the past benefits of religion may be less beneficial at this point.

    Indeed, it is such poor understanding of religion that does provide some aid and comfort to the enemy, whether from Dawkins’ pen or from Myers’ keyboard. On the whole, though, consistent thinkers like Dawkins are of little use to Dembski and other IDists, which is why they must re-make Dawkins into someone whose pre-commitments to atheism are responsible for his scientific methodology. This is not true, however it would be a good argument for atheism if it were so.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  10. #10 tristero
    March 27, 2006

    PZ,

    You write that this kind of religious belief is a minority viewpoint in American relgious life:

    “The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ,”

    You are right. If the stats in Kevin Phillips’ book are to be believed, this has been so for a long time.

    But there was a time, in the 60′s and 70′s, when the extreme right did not dominate all public discourse on religion and the kind of religious belief you wish for was the de facto public one. It wasn’t perfect then, but it was a whole lot better than it is right now.

    I see no reason why the religious right can be beaten back. It will take one helluva fight, but it can happen.

    As for the larger goal you desire, in truth, the only thing I care about is driving religious nuts back to the margins of American discourse. If Dawkins’ approach will do the trick, sign me up. (I know Ruse’s tactic can’t work and he’s a joke.)

    However, I suspect that it is not Dawkins per se that will do what I want – drive the creationists into irrelevance. But Dawkins PLUS the entire wide spectrum of interests and belief that find themselves in coaltion arrayed against creationists will.

    So. Yes to Dawkins, but yes also to Ken Miller, PZ Myers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Eugenie Scott, Barbara Forrest, etc. and anyone prepared to recognize that whatever their ultimate goal is, a useful proximate goal is the marginalization of the American religious right. Because that is achievable.

    I suspect we are saying the same thing, essentially, but in rather different language, btw.

  11. #11 DavidSewell
    March 27, 2006

    The problem with Dawkins

    PZ, I’ve just thought of an analogy to express the difficulty I have with Dawkins (less so with Dennett) as the most visible public advocate for a nontheistic worldview.

    Suppose that instead of Christianity the Western world had a dogmatic religion in which music was seen as the direct revelation of God via prophets we know as “composers”. Suppose that J. S. Bach was considered the supremest of God’s composer-prophets, and that religious duty consisted largely of listening to, memorizing, and explicating the meanings of his various preludes, concerti, masses, etc. Suppose that Bachians believed that the the fundamental physical laws of the universe are all ultimately to be found within Bach’s harmonies, and that they branded as immoral and atheistic any science that explained those law on any other basis.

    In this scenario, Richard Dawkins is the fellow who steps forward and demonstrates, both brilliantly and clearly, that the orbits of the planets have nothing to do with the Brandenburg Concertos, that quantum mechanics cannot in fact be reduced to the opening bars of the Toccatas and Fugue in D minor, and that scientists are just as musical as Bachians even though their own particular passion is extending the reportoire of the claw-hammer banjo.

    Unfortunately, anti-Bachian Dawkins also makes no attempt to conceal the fact that to him personally Bach’s music sounds like the howling of tomcats in heat. He can never quite keep straight the difference between J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, and for that matter P.D.Q. Bach; he’s unclear on the distinction between counterpoint and needlepoint; and he’s clueless about whether it was Buxtehude who influenced Bach who influenced Mozart, or the other way around.

    That’s pretty much the way I see Dawkins vis-a-vis Christianity. The problem is that the a-B Dawkins manages to offend everyone who admires Bach’s music, even if they don’t think it’s the foundation of the universe; and those non-Bachians who have spent a good chunk of their lives learning to play the harpsichord, or studying the history of music from Machaut to Vaughn-Williams, get a pained look on their face whenever a-B Dawkins launches into a discursus on music theory that gets things wrong in a dozen different places.

  12. #12 tristero
    March 27, 2006

    PZ,

    You write that this kind of religious belief is a minority viewpoint in American relgious life:

    “The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ,”

    You are right. If the stats in Kevin Phillips’ book are to be believed, this has been so for a long time.

    But there was a time, in the 60′s and 70′s, when the extreme right did not dominate all public discourse on religion and the kind of religious belief you wish for was the de facto public one. It wasn’t perfect then, but it was a whole lot better than it is right now.

    I see no reason why the religious right can be beaten back. It will take one helluva fight, but it can happen.

    As for the larger goal you desire, in truth, the only thing I care about is driving religious nuts back to the margins of American discourse. If Dawkins’ approach will do the trick, sign me up. (I know Ruse’s tactic can’t work and he’s a joke.)

    However, I suspect that it is not Dawkins per se that will do what I want – drive the creationists into irrelevance. But Dawkins PLUS the entire wide spectrum of interests and belief that find themselves in coaltion arrayed against creationists will.

    So. Yes to Dawkins, and yes also to Ken Miller, PZ Myers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Eugenie Scott, Barbara Forrest, etc. and anyone prepared to recognize that whatever their ultimate goal is, a useful proximate goal is the marginalization of the American religious right. Because that is achievable.

    I suspect we are saying the same thing, essentially, but in rather different language, btw.

  13. #13 garth
    March 27, 2006

    I don’t think we can make fun of religion enough.
    Frankly, if religionists want to do the right thing and be reasonable grownups, fine. I’m still not giving them a cookie for praying to make-believe men in the sky and weird white Arab dead prophets. That’s their problem.

    We need to make MORE fun of religionists. they so richly deserve it. It’s like, keep it in your crappy house of “worship”. I don’t want to hear it, and any right-thinking person shouldn’t have to hear it. Imagine millions of children emerging from their little couch-cushion forts and demanding that the Kingdom of Jimmy-is-the-bestest be recognized as the only source of moral authority because “it’s the bestest!”

    Its just stupid. These people are embarrassing and stupid, and Dembski is a “leading light” of the Stupid Right. I rhymed.

  14. #14 wamba
    March 27, 2006

    Here’s a print interview with E.O. Wilson at Salon.com:
    link

    It’s not clear to me why he can’t accept the label of “provisional atheist” rather than “provisional deist”, or why the “provisional” is necessary at all. Aren’t all positions open to re-evaluation when presented with new evidence? It’s just that the evidence continues to fail to appear.

  15. #15 Great White Wonder
    March 27, 2006

    Note to David Sewell: try a different flavor of bud this week.

  16. #16 Glen Davidson
    March 27, 2006

    One correction to my post(s) above. I wrote:

    The real Dawkins is no help to him, for he exposes the inadequacy of religion (at least any religion not based wholly in mysticism) throughout, and is merely consistent in demanding that ID provide results to be taken seriously. It is probably well that many scientists are more accommodating to religion than Dawkins is, because of the politics of the matter, however it is only for these people that the real Dawkins serves as a useful foil, since they may honestly say that science and evolution are able to coexist.

    The last sentence should read, “that science and religion are able to coexist”, or, “that religion and evolution are able to coexist.”

    And it is not a claim that the two are compatible as such, I’m simply saying that empirically we know that humans are able to accept both at the same time.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  17. #17 Dennis Lynch
    March 27, 2006

    The religious right conflates everything they oppose as a competing religion. This is how they mobilize their following, and activate partisanship. Thats why I also hate the terms they have chosen to annoint scientists with – Darwinist, evolutionist, etc. I have yet to find a university program that confers any degree in Darwinism, or evolutionism.

    The implication is we study Darwins theory like they do the Bible, and we are all experts in every facet. They use it like a club. Asking a Geologist a biology question and a Biologist a geology question – can’t answer it – see, evolution is wrong! As a Geophysicist I only know evolution where it intersects geology, I know little about protiens and flagellum.

    I have been called an evolutionist and a Darwinist several times. I coldly tell them no! I am a Geologist! If they ask me a biology question I tell them ask a Biologist! It steals their fire, they can’t battle me on my turf, they always slink away their colons tied in a knot.

    We should all reject their branding. It plays to their psychology and strength.

    I am also an atheist and am unashamed about telling anyone. I get a lot of different responses. One thing I won’t allow is anyone try to equate atheism with religion. Atheism is an absence of religion, facts and truth over faith.

  18. #18 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    BTW, nobody contradicted my characterization of Dembski as a failed barbecue proprietor, but I admit I’m guessing. There is still a Brazos barbecue http://www.brazosbarbecue.com/ but the website omits any mention of intelligent design, Dembski no longer lives there as far as I know, and I had assumed that he does not have a current stake in the venture. He’s not the administrative contact for the website either.

  19. #19 Great White Wonder
    March 27, 2006

    There was an article on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday about some woefully ignorant and supersticious African women who are opposed to eradicating a truly nasty parasitic worm from their “magical” drinking pool.

    A local African leader was quoted as saying something like, “I can’t believe this. I am a Christian. I don’t believe in that juju.”

    And I was struck by the failure of the author to note that there is a whole lot of Christian juju that is really no different from the juju that these African women were practicing. Whether this African leader chooses to practice the juju that is practiced by other Christians is his personal choice. There is very little or nothing about Christianity per se that is more pro-science or rational than any other religion.

    I was not surprised or shocked by the omission because the treatment of Christianity as a more “rational” religion than other religions is par for the course in the U.S. (it’s not necessary to explain why that is).

    In any event, the right thing to do is to treat the well and provide armed guards with the right to take necessary action against anyone who tries to interfere. There’s no reason an innocent kid should get infected by one of these parasites just because his/her parent is a supersticious idiot.

  20. #20 Great White Wonder
    March 27, 2006

    The whole Phillip Johnson project is aimed at smearing science as a commitment to atheism, and at substituting religion for actual science.

    I love it when people point out this elementary fact.

    Anyone going to Berkeley in April to lay some righteous farts in Phil’s general direction during his IDEA Club lecture?

  21. #21 wamba
    March 27, 2006

    Speaking of Dembski, he’ll be making appearances in New Jersy and Pennsylvania this week if anyone cares to show up and heckle^H^H^H^H^H^H ask him questions.

  22. #22 TomS
    March 27, 2006

    I was going to post a comment about PZ needing to look into a comparative religion class and about Lutherans and their take on creation, but it turned into something else. Sorry if this is too off-topic for folks.

    My Lutheran confirmation class where someone asked the pastor teaching the class about creation in Genesis vs. evolution. The pastor answered that the creation story in Genesis wasn’t literal but symbolic. The ELCA website even says “The Bible is…not a definitive record of history or science.”

    But then while looking for the above quote I found the following hooey:

    “Lutherans believe that God is Creator of the universe. Its dimensions of space and time are not something God made once and then left alone. God is, rather, continually creating, calling into being each moment of each day.”

    As an adult I wish someone in that confirmation class had asked when to stop interpreting the Bible and the church’s teachings as symbolic and not literally to see how he would have answered. Maybe if we weren’t all 12 or 13 at the time it would have occured to us (it didn’t to me then) or someone would have been brave enough. Over the years the percentage of my symbolic interpretation of both eventually approached 100% until I realized how much doublethink I had to go through just to hold onto some respect for or faith in the church I had been raised in and realized I just needed to let the whole thing go. I guess if I’m still defending them I haven’t let go completely yet.

    Over time I’ve come to the point where I gather much more spiritual comfort from my faith in the non-existence of god than I ever did in the existence of god. No more contradictions requiring mental gymnastics, no more self deception, and no self-doubt from trying to please the all-knowing unknowable invisible above.

  23. #23 cm
    March 27, 2006

    DavidSewell:

    I think you left some things out of your metapor of the “Anti-Bachian Dawkins”. Might want to add these in:

    Over history, adherents of Bachianism have suppressed, jailed, tortured, forced conversions, and burned at the stake those who favored Mozartism or other systems of ideas.

    Bachian power elites have suppressed fundamental breakthroughs in understanding our world, subjugating or burning people like Galileo or Tycho Brahe. This has resulted in retarding humankind’s ability to make a better, cleaner, safer world for centuries.

    Currently, very useful medical technologies are mired in controversy because of Bachian ideas such as stem cells having what they call “counterpoint”.

    Bachian fundamentalists are motivated by their allegiance to Bach to immolate themselves and others in acts of terrorism, something they call “achieving vertical harmony”.

    So, sure, have your problem with “Anti-Bachian Dawkins” for not playing nicey-nice with “Bachianism”, and condemn him for not knowing the obscure, arbitrary, senseless details of hundreds of different sects on top of the mountain of biological understanding he already has conquered. In the meantime, busses blow up, faith healers rob poor people blind, and selections from the “Brandenburg Concerto” are being discussed to replace our national anthem.

  24. #24 cm
    March 27, 2006

    DavidSewell:

    I think you left some things out of your metaphor of the “Anti-Bachian Dawkins”. Might want to add these in:

    Over history, adherents of Bachianism have suppressed, jailed, tortured, forced conversions, and burned at the stake those who favored Mozartism or other systems of ideas.

    Bachian power elites have suppressed fundamental breakthroughs in understanding our world, subjugating or burning people like Galileo or Tycho Brahe. This has resulted in retarding humankind’s ability to make a better, cleaner, safer world for centuries.

    Currently, very useful medical technologies are mired in controversy because of Bachian ideas such as stem cells having what they call “counterpoint”.

    Bachian fundamentalists are motivated by their allegiance to Bach to immolate themselves and others in acts of terrorism, something they call “achieving vertical harmony”.

    So, sure, have your problem with “Anti-Bachian Dawkins” for not playing nicey-nice with “Bachianism”, and condemn him for not knowing the obscure, arbitrary, senseless details of hundreds of different sects on top of the mountain of biological understanding he already has conquered. In the meantime, busses blow up, faith healers rob poor people blind, and selections from the “Brandenburg Concerto” are being discussed to replace our national anthem.

  25. #25 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Dennis Lynch:

    The religious right conflates everything they oppose as a competing religion.

    Actually, I don’t know if it’s just the rightwing of theistic thought; one oftens hears the statement that evolution is “just another religion” from those posing as contrarians or skeptics.

    I was thinking about this in the context of “methodological naturalism.” I consider it self-evident that naturalistic explanations, when available, are to be preferred to ones that invoke the supernatural, and claim that in practice this happens everywhere. Nobody, not the courts, not your dentist, not your plumber, not even your priest when asked for practical advice, offers “God did it.” as a proximal cause until a list of mundane possibilities has been exhausted.

    Now, you do hear the scientific worldview dismissed as “another religion” but notice that what you never hear are scientists claiming that creationism, astrology, entrail-reading, or rain-making is just another science.

    Isn’t this in itself strong evidence that in practice everyone accepts scientific reasoning as the gold standard of understanding the world around us and only punts it over to faith when science does not back up one’s belief.

  26. #26 Great White Wonder
    March 27, 2006

    Glen

    What she is likely saying is that religion is not the unremitting bad faith and “evil” that Dawkins too often portrays it as being…

    Too often? For whom?

    Remember: in the big picture, Dawkins is a nobody.

    To be consistent, the hand-wringers on the side of science who take offense at Dawkins’ “portrayals” of religion should spend ten times as much verbiage attacking Frank Zappa — a far more influential figure if you consider the number of teenagers whose heads exploded when they heard ‘Dumb All Over’ versus the number of people who have heard of Dawkins or bothered to read one of his books.

    If Dawkins didn’t exist or Dennett didn’t exist, then the Discovery Institute shitheads would simply find someone else to use a foil.

    Remember: the fundies will not be satisfied until everyone is a fundie, which is to say that they will never be satisfied.

    We could outlaw being gay and outlaw abortion and the fundies will want to outlaw unmarried people from living together.

    Fundies = psychos.

    Non-fundie religious people = one foot in the door.

    People who engage in mind games to prevent having ulcers = normal human beings.

    It’s not terribly complicated. Pretending that it’s complicated by issuing disclaimers about any alleged “good” that is allegedly unique to religion simply provides coverage for the fundies.

  27. #27 wamba
    March 27, 2006

    Why was a portrait of Susan B. Anthony put on the dollar coin? Because Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a freethinker.

    A version of this same debate went on during the fight for abolition, the fight for women’s rights, the fight for birth control. The freethinkers, who composed a sizable portion of the leadership for social progress, were told to shut up and sit down in the back of the bus.

    Now let’s all join hands and join in a chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome’.

  28. #28 Kristine
    March 27, 2006

    Oh, for pity’s sake, it’s so obvious that Dembski is jealous of Dawkins–of his success, of his credentials, of his place in history, which is assured. (I doubt that Dawkins takes the time to e-mail Dembski at any time, on any subject!)

    This kind of game is played all the time. “Thank you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for lobbying for women’s suffrage, because you’re just providing us slave-owners with more ammunition against the Abolitionist Movement!” Well, I’m holding you to it, Dembski! Cough it up or suck it up, my boy–I want results from Intelligent Design in 15 years. Thank the nonexistence of God for you and your theism, Dembski. Yes, let’s have it out. I hope all the little creationists hitch their wagons to your star, you bright light, you. See you in 15 years.

  29. #29 Ken Cope
    March 27, 2006

    Wamba, it’s bad enough Stanton is eclipsed by Anthony. SBA practically retconned Matilda Joslyn Gage out of the history of the movement. Most people have never heard of her.

    “Gage began to be more and more disillusioned with the NWSA, and eventually broke with it when Anthony underhandedly was able to combine the NWSA with the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which had combined with the Women?s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Gage was not against temperance; she had in fact worked for the movement back in the 1850?s. But she disagreed with the WCTU plan to make prayer mandatory in public schools and to change the Constitution to have Christ be the true head of the government. Gage thought this was outrageous, and after Anthony betrayed the NWSA, she created a new organization called the Woman?s National Liberal Union (WNLU). This organization worked toward the separation of church and state, and recognized that religion has been the oppressor of women.”

  30. #30 Glen Davidson
    March 27, 2006

    If Dawkins didn’t exist or Dennett didn’t exist, then the Discovery Institute shitheads would simply find someone else to use a foil.

    Of course. I’ve made that point often enough, such as in this post (Seth Gordon managed to say it first in the thread, but it had been my thought all along as I read the posts):

    http://tinyurl.com/qnvwk

    As I noted in that post, the fact that Dawkins resides in the UK may be convenient for us as well. Beyond all that, however, I think that what I wrote is important in discussing Dawkins, that he is an atheist who doesn’t exclude religion from the appropriate tests, and that it is simply his conclusion from the evidence that religion is wanting in legitimacy. Only the tests exclude religion, there is no a priori exclusion as the appropriately titled shitheads at the DI like to claim.

    Pretending that it’s complicated by issuing disclaimers about any alleged “good” that is allegedly unique to religion simply provides coverage for the fundies.

  31. #31 Glen Davidson
    March 27, 2006

    continuing from the above post:

    It is complicated, and I did not write that there was any “good” unique to religion. That a kind of selfish “good” may accrue to believers is what Bunting brought up, using Dennett in the doing. There is little else to use to evaluate the “worth” of religion, so that will have to do. The fact that Dawkins (like Myers) rarely evaluates religion as a decent philosopher, anthropologist, or sociologist would do does not help him to be convincing, and indeed, I do not believe that he is (except for those who think “memes” is profound–which is to say, to the already “converted”).

    Anyhow, I wrote about such matters less for their own sake than because PZ appears not to have understood what issues Bunting was addressing. But when the matter is raised, I am not about to pretend that religion is simple, or that it embodies any sort of evil (or good) that cannot be found elsewhere in human systems and behavior. The rigidity of many modern monotheistic religions presents a dangerous dimension that was mostly lacking in the promiscuous polytheism of the very distant past, which is my major complaint.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  32. #32 Nick
    March 27, 2006

    Do you really think Dembski is happy with what Dawkins says? If that were the case, why would he write to Dawkins with the apparent intention of getting Dawkins to change his strategy and rhetoric?
    It reminds me of “Some Mistakes of Moses” by Robert Ingersoll, when he mentions the clerics telling him that he is going about criticizng Christianity and the Bible all wrong, and they give him advice on how he should be criticizing them if he really wants to be effective. Ingersoll laughs at the idea that the clerics are really trying to help him accomplish his goals. They clearly want him to be less effective.
    The same seems to be true about Dembski regarding Dawkins.

  33. #33 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Kristine:

    Oh, for pity’s sake, it’s so obvious that Dembski is jealous of Dawkins–of his success, of his credentials, of his place in history, which is assured.

    I think this is a pretty fair summary. Dembski wants to be a real researcher. All other things equal, he probably has the brains for it, but science is about being honest as well as clever. He made some promising starts along the way, but he just bet on the wrong horse. Now he can console himself with sycophants calling him Isaac Newton of Information Theory, but he’s got to realize that he’s just puttering around, doing nothing but obfuscating the issue. Dawkins is one of many doing the real work and getting the real credit. Maybe Dawkins is particularly galling to Dembski because he wears his atheism on his sleeve instead of just not getting involved in religious discussions.

  34. #34 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    Over history, adherents of Bachianism have suppressed, jailed, tortured, forced conversions, and burned at the stake those who favored Mozartism or other systems of ideas.

    Bachian power elites have suppressed fundamental breakthroughs in understanding our world, subjugating or burning people like Galileo or Tycho Brahe. This has resulted in retarding humankind’s ability to make a better, cleaner, safer world for centuries.

    Currently, very useful medical technologies are mired in controversy because of Bachian ideas such as stem cells having what they call “counterpoint”.

    Bachian fundamentalists are motivated by their allegiance to Bach to immolate themselves and others in acts of terrorism, something they call “achieving vertical harmony”.

    cm, you might want to take the words of the Guardian writer, Madeline Bunting, to heart:

    All protagonists in a debate have a moral responsibility to ensure that the hot air they are expending generates light, not just heat.

    You may think it’s a killer rhetorical point to bring up the evils of religious fundamentalism as though it was somehow relevant to a discussion of why Dawkins might (I said might) be doing more harm than good, but it really isn’t. Someone should come up with a religious version of Godwin’s law to deal with this sort of silly lumping together of the Spanish Inquisition and, say, Midwestern Lutherans. Not all Christians – in the US or elsewhere – are gay-hating, anti-abortion, anti-sex, anti-science, anti-stem cell bigots. If you want to label them all like that, you have just made your job of promoting science much, much harder.

    There is a clear and legitimate difference of opinion in the pro-science camp on this issue. On one hand, there are people who feel that the goal of promoting science in general (and evolution in particular) is best served by accomodating those who have religious beliefs, even if they think those beliefs are wrong, silly or even potentially dangerous. On the other hand, there are those who see religion as the root of all evil, and argue that there should be no accomodation to the sensibilities of the religious, and that one should achieve the supremacy of science by wiping out the virus of religion once and for all.

    Both sides in this argument share a common goal of supporting and promoting science. Madeline Bunting shares this goal. You, cm, and I share this goal. It is OK to have this debate. The question is, which approach will work better?

    PZ thinks that the former approach has been an abysmal failure, to which all I can respond is this: try the second approach and see how far you get.

    There is a political analogy to this discussion. How do progressive Democrats make inroads into Red States? Do they do this by promoting gun control, pushing for gay marriage and tax increases? Or do they frame the debate in terms that will win them voters instead of driving them away in droves? You will never win over the real crazies. Do you want to split the moderates away from the crazies, or drive them into their arms?

  35. #35 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    I buggered up the italics in that last post. First four paras should be in italics.

  36. #36 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    I wrote:

    He made some promising starts along the way

    By which I mean only that he learned how to manipulate mathematical notation very well and received various degrees and awards suggesting some inherent capacity for mathematics. I don’t mean to suggest that any of his work on ID has merit.

  37. #37 PZ Myers
    March 27, 2006

    Ah, but Andy, I’m not saying we need to convert all the godly to good atheists, just as Democrats are not telling the redstaters that they must each and every one enter into a homosexual union. We’re saying we’re here, we’re part of the American reality, and you need to recognize our existence.

    The way to win over the moderates is to make ourselves known and show that we are no threat and aren’t going to attack their values, whatever those nebulous values are…that in fact we share those values.

    Those who advocate silencing the atheists are in the same boat as the reactionaries who think the way to advance Democratic politics is to lock the queers in the closet and tell them to accept limits to their rights and privileges. Yeah, it’ll get you a few more votes — by becoming Republican.

  38. #38 ivy privy
    March 27, 2006

    The rigidity of many modern monotheistic religions presents a dangerous dimension that was mostly lacking in the promiscuous polytheism of the very distant past, which is my major complaint.

    The very distant past? Slander!

    Greek Zeus-worshippers call for state recognition

  39. #39 Dennis Lynch
    March 27, 2006

    PaulC:

    I totally agree with you. Most people favor rational or natural explanations over superstition. Even Billy graham and Pat Robertson reach for the barbituates when the old siatica acts up. Most people take their cars to the mechanic when it breaks down, not the family priest.

    Most people wouldn’t question their mechanic if he told them the reason their auto air conditioning isn’t working is it needs a new transmission. But, they look at a Scientist funny when he tells them the cracks in their walls are because the fault running through their living room is actively shifting and predicts a quake. Those people will go to their priest, and ask for a prayer.

    People are just funny that way!

  40. #40 poke
    March 27, 2006

    I don’t see what’s wrong with accepting atheism as a scientific theory anyway. We treat religion naturalistically, most of the time, and the change from studying religion as a supernatural phenomenon to studying religion as a natural phenomenon followed usual patterns of theory change. That is, not everything in the original theory was “disproved,” the newer theory was instead found to be a better explanatory framework. That’s normal science. Nor is it troublesome that the theory that was displaced had supernatural elements; the history of science is full of cases where a naturalistic theory has displaced one that contained extra-physical causes.

    The only difference between the religious case and other similar cases is the extreme opposition to the new theory found in society. But even there, as I said, we treat religion naturalistically most of the time. It’s only for certain types of religion that we take the naturalistic theory of religion to be provisional or instrumental or even out right false. Those types are usually religions that are well-established in our own society or the religious beliefs of other cultures in certain circumstances. If someone believes in a minority cult, Scientology say, or in a religion that isn’t currently in favour, various forms of paganism for example, we treat it naturalistically.

    To my mind, there is no difference between Creationist opposition to evolution and religion-in-general’s opposition to atheism/materialism. The main difference is the sheer number of theories categorised under “religion-in-general,” which out number those of Creationism, some of which are more difficult to respond to than others. But as in the case of Creationism, such theory proliferation, which is clearly designed to dodge criticism, should give us pause (as it does in every other area of science). I don’t think the fact that we lack a single, “complete” naturalistic account of religion is a problem either; there are many theories united under a wider consensus, much like any area of science, including evolutionary biology.

  41. #41 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    The way to win over the moderates is to make ourselves known and show that we are no threat and aren’t going to attack their values, whatever those nebulous values are…that in fact we share those values.

    Do you think that the posts you write on religion and atheism are achieving that very laudable aim? Because I don’t, and I’m an atheist! I can’t quote you chapter and verse without resorting to a search engine, but at various times on your blog, you’ve said things to the effect that religion is silly, stupid, a lie or some such. Yes, you also make it clear that you don’t think all religious people are awful, but still….. what effect do you think your words will have on a moderate Christian who has heard about your site and visits it for the first time to learn more about evolution? Do you think they will be more or less receptive to what you have to say about the science?

    Those who advocate silencing the atheists are in the same boat as the reactionaries who think the way to advance Democratic politics is to lock the queers in the closet and tell them to accept limits to their rights and privileges. Yeah, it’ll get you a few more votes — by becoming Republican.

    You misunderstand what I was trying to say. The best way to promote gay rights is to elect Democrats. If you can do that best in red states by not making gay rights an issue in your campaign (or by simply dismissing the controversy as anti-american, a la Paul Hackett), good for you. I’m not saying you have to remove the promotion of gay rights as a policy position, just as a campaign position. You will not elect Democrats in red states by making gay marriage the centrepiece of your campaign any more than you will increase the acceptance of science by Christians telling them they are deluded.

    We may have to agree to keep disagreeing on this. It doesn’t mean I love you any less. The funny thing is that from reading your accounts of giving presentations to the public, you seem to be more sensitive to people’s religious views in person than on your blog. So we may not be so far apart as we think……

  42. #42 Damien
    March 27, 2006

    [Dembski may be one of the leading lights in the lobby, but the building has not had an occupant for years.]

    PaulC: that was awesome.

  43. #43 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Andy Groves:

    Do you think that the posts you write on religion and atheism are achieving that very laudable aim?

    I don’t think that PZ’s posts are intended to win over moderates and I don’t think that this contradicts the fact that he has a more realistic view of what it takes to achieve that aim.

    I think his role is more along the lines of keeping the negotiation honest. Atheists and theists can live together, but it has to be a relationship that acknowledges the fundamental disagreement between the two viewpoints. Someone else can work to bridge the divide. PZ’s job is to delineate it and he does it in an engaging, provocative fashion.

    The funny thing is that from reading your accounts of giving presentations to the public, you seem to be more sensitive to people’s religious views in person than on your blog.

    I found it interesting that PZ’s response to a comment I made recently left me with nothing to disagree about.
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/03/archbishop_of_canterbury_antic.php#comment-40749

    Still, I’m sure that PZ and I really do disagree about the appropriate level of respect between people who disagree about the existence of God. Yet I’m still not sure where that disagreement begins.

    My view is that you respect people by default and drop the respect only if their behavior towards others is intolerable. Nobody gets everything right. Some people are wrong about an awful lot and yet make valuable contributions. And even their “contributions” are a red herring: the right of each individual to pursue their own happiness without hurting others entirely supercedes any view I might have about their utility or merit by any measure. Of course, I want social policy that creates good citizens, not just free individuals, but the appropriate means are education, not coercion. Ridicule is a form of coercion, since it wins not by attaining consensus but by using weapons against a weaker opponent. While I consider it appropriate to carry out this kind of ideological war on the likes of William Dembski (it was his side that started it) I don’t think it’s appropriate to attack everyone and their grandmother for being devout believers. To a large extent, I think PZ limits his attacks to those who are already on the attack, so I have little problem with his blog.

  44. #44 PZ Myers
    March 27, 2006

    So what exactly would you have me change? To not say that religion is silly, stupid, a lie? Because that’s what I think, and that’s what I have to say.

  45. #45 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    If the previous comment was directed at me (since it followed it), I think it should be clear that I’m not recommending any change at all.

  46. #46 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Actually, I think that the answer to where PZ and I disagree might be what I said in the Archbishop of Canterbury thread, namely that PZ considers religious belief less inevitable and more harmful than I do. It just strikes me that people are naturally superstitious and nobody has been able to find a cure for this tendency that works for more than a small percentage of the population. But this is not in itself an obstacle for getting a long. Our commonality of interests supercedes our differences.

  47. #47 Christopher
    March 27, 2006

    I guess it’s just because I’m pretty libertarian, but I approach this from a different angle: Dawkins doesn’t have any kind of responsibility to talk about atheism in the way that best attracts the godly.

    He’s not president of the Atheist Outreach; He’s a scientist. His responsibility is to do good research. He isn’t obligated to tone himself down for the sake of the Christian PR machine.

    And another thing: Christianity has as one of its central tenets the idea that all other religions are stupid and wrong. This is a point that comes up again and again from the old testament to the new.

    So why ON EARTH do Christians expect everybody else to act as though their religion is sensible and good?

  48. #48 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    PaulC: that was awesome.

    Thank you. I’m not even sure what my metaphor is supposed to mean, but I was inspired by night-time drives through the commercial vacancy wasteland that is Silicon Valley (or was and is I hope getting a little better).

  49. #49 Christopher
    March 27, 2006

    Oh Andy Andy Andy.

    Why, exactly, should we expect Democrats to champion gay rights when A)They don’t need to to get elected, and B) If they do it signifigantly hurts their chances of re-election?

  50. #50 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Christopher:

    So why ON EARTH do Christians expect everybody else to act as though their religion is sensible and good?

    I’m not sure they do. Evangelicals seem to expect and demand a culture war. Genuine moderate Christians would have to respect the right of others to disagree (that’s part of being moderate).

    I suspect the calls for unity are coming not from Christians but from weak-kneed secularists who are afraid of turning the majority against them. I don’t agree with this on two counts. First the religious majority already appears to have an axe to grind against atheists and no amount of appeasement will change this. Second, if you make it clear where you draw the line, then people might at least respect you for standing your ground. I don’t see any great benefit to appeasement, nor do I see any great harm in what Dawkins is doing. He may be doing some good just by being engaging and standing as a shining role model of how an unapologetic atheist can be a great success and contribute to society through his work.

    The idea that people like Dawkins cause harm is promulgated mostly by their opponents, like Dembski, and bought into by those who ought to know better but have no strength of conviction. On the other hand, the vast majority of religious people have probably never even heard of Dawkins or, for that matter, anyone connected with ID.

  51. #51 windy
    March 27, 2006

    Not all Christians – in the US or elsewhere – are gay-hating, anti-abortion, anti-sex, anti-science, anti-stem cell bigots.

    And few scientists are outspoken atheists. Still fewer are publicly speaking against religion. The day when the Christian bigots are as few in number, and other Christians consider trying to silence these bigots lest they “hurt the cause”, then we can get back on whether Dawkins and Dennett are being unreasonable.

  52. #52 Russell
    March 27, 2006

    The problem with Dawkins’s comment on that evolution makes atheism respectable is precisely that it presumes exactly the same thing as many theists: that a gap in naturalistic explanation must or should be filled by God. It is precisely this illicit move that rationalists should reject. Our failure to find a natural explanation for some observed phenomena is evidence only of the state of man’s knowledge, and never by itself constitutes evidence that “God did it.”

    We still don’t have a good theory of how life originated. Does that mean atheism still lacks some measure of intellectual respectability? Nonsense! It merely means there is much yet to figure out. Not yet having figured it out in no way bolsters belief in a god, not even if believers attribute him as having done what we don’t yet understand.

  53. #53 PaulC
    March 27, 2006

    Russell:

    The problem with Dawkins’s comment on that evolution makes atheism respectable is precisely that it presumes exactly the same thing as many theists: that a gap in naturalistic explanation must or should be filled by God.

    I was half thinking this as I wrote my comment in support of Dawkins’s statement. I agree that there is no logical sense in which a gap in our ability to explain something implies the existence of a God to explain it.

    I still agree in spirit with the point about intellectual respectability, though. I think there is a qualitative difference between our understanding of biological systems around the time of Paley–just to pick an somewhat abitrary milestone–and today such that atheism is now a reasonable default whereas it was not obviously so at that time.

    Clearly, there has been an atheist hypothesis for much longer, and Lucretius is one exposition of it that comes to mind. But I would mainly give Lucretius credit for being a good guesser, not for developing a very convincing argument. Before we had a basic understanding of chemistry and could apply it to living as well as non-living processes, there really did appear to be something about living things that just defied our mechanistic understanding. There were just too many hidden processes and scarcely the beginning of an idea of how to make them visible or even that they could be made visible.

    I grant that it should have always been intellectually respectable to dismiss any particular notion of God, or even any theism in a very generic sense. On the other hand, it would have really been quite a leap to claim that the rules governing living things were the same as the rules governing non-living things and that there was really no transcedent mystery behind, say, the ability of a seed to lay dormant for a season and grow into a flower.

    It would have been intellectually respectable to propose that there could possibly be rules, but it would look like kind of a longshot against the idea there was some irreducible transcendence that we would just never pin down. Of course, it shouldn’t have been intellectually respectable to speculate much further, so there were plenty of mistakes made in the other direction.

    We still don’t have a good theory of how life originated. Does that mean atheism still lacks some measure of intellectual respectability?

    I think a big difference is that we have a number of hypotheses that seem plausible provided we can get the details to fit. Lucretius’ atomist explanations look like fairy tales by contrast. There is a genuine sense in which we now have a research program that looks like it may over time convince the objective observer that everything has a cause definable in terms of scientific theories but we did not have such a program 200 years ago and might reasonably assume by default that one was not possible. I think that is Dawkins’s point.

  54. #54 Russell
    March 27, 2006

    PaulC: “I grant that it should have always been intellectually respectable to dismiss any particular notion of God, or even any theism in a very generic sense. On the other hand, it would have really been quite a leap to claim that the rules governing living things were the same as the rules governing non-living things and that there was really no transcedent mystery behind, say, the ability of a seed to lay dormant for a season and grow into a flower.”

    Well, I agree with all that. It still seems to me that the inability to connect life with chemistry and matter has nothing to do with atheism, per se. The mystery of life, when it was still a mystery, is not a religious stance. “Dismissing any particular notion of God” is atheism.

    What made atheism respectable was not advance in biology that made life less mysterious, but advance in philosophy that severed the foggy connections preachers tried to draw from that mystery to religion. I think that is an important point for both biologists and atheists. For biologists, because it shows the fallacy to the claim that evolution is atheism in disguise. For atheists, because other mysteries remain, and we should not allow them either to become the preacher’s false purchase.

  55. #55 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    So what exactly would you have me change? To not say that religion is silly, stupid, a lie? Because that’s what I think, and that’s what I have to say.

    You don’t have to say it. In fact, you sort of implied in comments to a previous post (“Rude and Foolish Kansans”) that you don’t say that when you talk in public about evolution. Here are two of your comments:

    Yes, I do. I state loud and clear that I am an atheist and personally find religious explanations wanting. I also say that science isn’t a matter of beliefs one way or the other, and that all I can do in the talk is state the evidence and the logic behind biologist’s explanations.

    So far, though, my experience has been that those kinds of metaphysical questions aren’t a big deal for my audiences, and they’re much more interested in the biological explanations. People usually come up afterwards and tell me that no one had bothered to lay out the biological story for them before, and I think that’s where the interest lies.

    You may disagree, but I think there’s a world of difference between saying that you personally find “religious explanations wanting” to an audience and saying that you personally think religion is “silly, stupid and a lie”. Do you think some people in the audience would have bothered to listen to you if you had?

    That’s the point – I have the feeling that you DO censor yourself to some degree when you talk in public, and that you censor yourself far less when you post online. I think you do this because you’re a considerate and polite person who doesn’t want to needlessly upset the audience in front of you. Am I completely off the wall here?

  56. #56 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    Why, exactly, should we expect Democrats to champion gay rights when A)They don’t need to to get elected, and B) If they do it signifigantly hurts their chances of re-election?

    The sound you just heard was of two questions being begged.

  57. #57 PZ Myers
    March 27, 2006

    No…but if I can’t express myself plainly and without reservation here on my very own weblog, where do you propose it is appropriate? Should I go in the bathroom, lock the door, and shout down the toilet?

    And the reason that I don’t say such things in public talks is not caution or consideration: it’s because in those situations, I’m talking to Joe and Jane Episcopalian, mild-mannered believers, who are just looking for information about evolution. I honestly don’t object to anyone wanting to believe or practice religion as a personal matter. However, when we’re dealing with broader issues, when the Robertsons and Falwells and Bushes are part of the subject of the conversation, then no ambiguity is allowed. They are enablers and nasty little people who take religion out of the personal and turn it into a dominating force in public policy. There, the gloves come off.

  58. #58 Shane Celis
    March 27, 2006

    Awesome. Not only is your entry wonderfully insightful, but I’m also learning new words as I go. [Looks up: extirpate, topiary.] Many thanks!

  59. #59 David Wilford
    March 27, 2006

    PZ wrote:

    Try this: evolution is a secular theory. I’m sure even Ruse would agree with that statement, and it’s much more accurate than claiming it is an atheistic theory. Now update his sentence with this more accurate phrase: “If Darwinism equals secularism than it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state.”

    I noted this story earlier today via my LiveJournal, and wrote a similar response to a Brit about it:

    Michael Ruse really ought to know better…

  60. #60 oldhippie
    March 27, 2006

    While I have no argument with the meaning of anything Dawkins says, he can come over as rather arrogant and elitist. The problem with all this is that we have to win hearts and minds without prevaricating. This means being careful about manner and tone. Using perjorative terms like silly, and moronic… probably does not help. Though I have to confess one of my favorite Dawkins quotes is the one where he says something about if you want to go to church you have to check your brains out at the door.

  61. #61 Andy Groves
    March 27, 2006

    And the reason that I don’t say such things in public talks is not caution or consideration: it’s because in those situations, I’m talking to Joe and Jane Episcopalian, mild-mannered believers, who are just looking for information about evolution. I honestly don’t object to anyone wanting to believe or practice religion as a personal matter. However, when we’re dealing with broader issues, when the Robertsons and Falwells and Bushes are part of the subject of the conversation, then no ambiguity is allowed.

    I think you have put your finger on the source of our disagreement. I agree with you completely about the distinction between mild-mannered Episcopalians and the religious right. But when you say religion is silly, or stupid or a lie, you are talking to both groups whether you like it or not.

    You said last week that you don’t think you have any influence, and I called you on it at the time because I disagree. Like it or not, your blog is very widely read – those Koufax nominations aren’t dished out randomly, after all – and while some perverts like me come for the squids, the sex and the fact that your wholesome Midwestern looks make me go all squishy in a really girly way (forget I said that last bit…..), I am sure that some others come who, in your own words “are just looking for information about evolution”. And what they will find here alongside really good stuff about science and evolution is to be told that their religion is a lie.

    I said last week that it’s not my place to tell you what to put in your blog. But since you asked me what I would have you do, I’ll give you two options…….

    Option 1: Post to your blog like you were talking to Joe and Jane Episcopalian in public. Put another way, try to split Joe and Jane away from the coathanger brigade, rather than giving them common cause against you.

    Option 2: Next time you give a talk in public, make a point of saying to the audience that you think that religion is stupid, dangerous and a lie.

    I guess our disagreement really boils down to what we both think your blog should be for. On this matter, your opinion is legitimate and mine isn’t. Judging from comments you made a while back, I have the feeling that you have been through this sort of argument with members of the Panda’s Thumb too. Clearly this argument isn’t going away…….

  62. #62 PZ Myers
    March 27, 2006

    1. I am giving Joe and Jane cause to split away from the coathanger brigade. I am a vocal atheist, unashamed of my unbelief, and I don’t eat babies…and as you note, I am a wonderfully wholesome and toothsome human being (we have to be careful here…my wife does read the blog, and we don’t want to have one of those brokeback moments). I don’t see how hiding any of the truth away would help, and rather, would just help perpetuate the misconception that all the nice people really are Christians.

    2. I have no problems doing that. There is this YearlyKos thing coming up, and I could give a few Democrats a stroke… That it does not come up in the context of most of my talks does not mean I’m reticent about it. Maybe if you’re ever in attendance, you could raise your hand and ask the question. I’ll try to prepare an answer that would be sufficiently outrageous and ferocious.

    And that is correct, the argument isn’t going to go away, and it especially will not go away if all the atheists hide their beliefs and say “yaaas, massa” when the Christians ask if we love and respect them.

  63. #63 PZ Myers
    March 27, 2006

    One other curious thing: it simply doesn’t matter if I say or don’t say that religion is stupid and silly. I didn’t say that in this article, and that’s what I’m being harangued about; why aren’t people jumping all over Michael Ruse, whose quoted comment above is quite possibly the most idiotic thing I’ve seen from him, ever? If anything is helping out the extremist religious right, it’s people who surrender to their idea that secularism is wrong.

  64. #64 cm
    March 27, 2006

    Should I go in the bathroom, lock the door, and shout down the toilet?

    PZ, if I recall, didn’t you put out a CD in the mid 90s called “Shoutin’ Down the Toilet”?

  65. #65 Julia
    March 28, 2006

    Andy is right when he says, “some others come who, in your own words ‘are just looking for information about evolution’. And what they will find here alongside really good stuff about science and evolution is to be told that their religion is a lie.”

    I’m one of the “others,” a Christian who finds both creationism and ID to be illogical, contradictory, and simply unbelievable, and who is interested in learning about evolution. I had been in the habit of telling my church friends that we need to support, politically and financially, scientific research and teaching; I have urged them not to be afraid of anything science has to say because science, rather than directly addressing the question of God’s existence, instead addresses all the fascinating questions of how and when and by what means natural processes function.

    In my curiosity, several weeks ago I began reading this blog almost daily. For a while, I thought I had been mistaken about the relationship between religion and science, as it appeared to me that this blog assumed/suggested/claimed that science does of necessity conflict with religion, so that one must choose between them. As I kept reading, however, I found other statements that seemed to say/suggest otherwise.

    I have learned a great deal about evolution from reading your blog, PZ, and I thank you for the information. I have questioned why I continue to feel uneasy with the tone of some of the messages here, but tonight I think I have the answer to that question in your words “if all the atheists hide their beliefs and say ‘yaaas, massa’ when the Christians ask if we love and respect them”. It’s the “them”, meaning the actual people, rather than “their opinions.” That, I think, is what I’ve been picking up that has made me hesitate to recommend your very interesting, well-written, clear and mostly persuasive blog to my Christian friends.

    The tone, whether meant or not, sometimes appears to be one of personal contempt for people who don’t share your opinion on the existence of God: contempt not just for their opinions, but for the people themselves. The tone seems to suggest that all the unpleasant words you use to describe religion is really at some level directed toward the individual people who follow that religion.

    As, whatever you think of my religion, I am personally neither stupid nor a liar (though, I grant you, occasionally silly), I shall continue to read your blog and learn from it Thank you for writing it, and for attracting and encouraging those others who regularly make such informative comments (no, I am referring to myself).

  66. #66 Julia
    March 28, 2006

    Excuse my typing error, please; the last sentence in my post above was meant to end ” . . . informative comments (no, I am not referring to myself).”

  67. #67 Torbjorn Larsson
    March 28, 2006

    “I don’t see what’s wrong with accepting atheism as a scientific theory anyway. We treat religion naturalistically, most of the time, and the change from studying religion as a supernatural phenomenon to studying religion as a natural phenomenon followed usual patterns of theory change.”

    I agree, and we can do both – pursue the general research program as PaulC says, and specifically look at theories and experiments that look at deviations from what we know about natural actions.

    We have already done much of the later when we with the direct help of observations and indirect help from new knowledge of fundamental interactions has put down many specific pseudoscientific faith theories (parapsychology) or old religions (astrology). We probably know enough now on natural systems that with the help of general conservation properties of energy and probability we could generally exclude any other forms of interactions with nature, at least in a simplistic manner as a first order theory, with the help of many small and relatively cheap probing observations, for example on diverse chemical reactions that probes EM fields.

    The latter is rather naive, unnecessary and clumsy from the perspective of the general research program. But it would quickly provide both falsifiability, an automatic Ockhams razor on all nonnatural religious claims, and revert the burden of proof to nonsecular claims on science (like deism or buddhism). Which is why I’m curious why it’s not attempted at all, now that more basic questions of “origins” et cetera has been sufficiently answered. It’s not in the usual purview of science, but it looks like it could be done which should be reason enough.

    Incidentally, since we are discussing conflicts, it could also unite the atheist and agnostic worldview. Eventually it could be verified and extended beyond any reasonable doubt. The atheist could say that the theory leaves no place for gods, and it shouldn’t be especially treated with doubt apart from other normal theories. The agnostic could say that any theory may eventually be falsified or replaced with a better one.

  68. #68 Torbjorn Larsson
    March 28, 2006

    Julia,
    There is a conflict between science and religion. But it’s like the resource conflict between work and spare time – you have to find your own balance.

    PZ does 100/0 %, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Some do 100/100 %. ;-) (No, I don’t know how they do it, and neither does PZ, it seems. :-)

  69. #69 RickD
    March 28, 2006

    “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state.”

    Let us consider the foundation of this argument. The idea that “Darwin equals atheism” is untrue, but let us concede the point that Darwin’s theory of evolution undermines many religious beliefs because it, well, falsifies the claims that the religions make.

    Since when is falsifying a claim made by another person considered equivalent to making a claim oneself? Let us say there is some religion that worships Santa Claus and claims he lives in a house at the North Pole. Now, let’s say geographers and explorers search the North Pole and say “hey, this claim you’ve made is clearly untrue”. And let’s even say that this counter-philosophy is called aSantaism, the disbelief in Santa.

    Is it now verboten to teach about the geography of the North Pole because some group made a truth claim about the North Pole and elevated that claim to dogma? What a curious, unserious approach to truth this is! Apparently if you make falsifiable claims in the name of your religion, then any attempt to falsify them is also inherently religious, since the religion has declared the claims to be beyond inquiry.

    FWIW, I think PZ’s work is laudable. At the very least, it makes little sense to pander to the religiosos by producing “politically acceptable religious biologists” to discuss evolution because, well, said people don’t really represent the mainstream of biological thought. We know that and the religiosos know that.

    PZ is also correct to say that there is a difference between “secularism” and “atheism”. Personally I find the crusading against “secularism” to be abhorrent. What the religiosos do is insist that their god-vision be included in every aspect of life, and when it isn’t, they bitch and moan about “secularism”. There are reasons that many institutions are secular, such as the public transportation system, the highways, emergency medical service, the police, the schools, etc. It’s because inserting religion into those aspects of life only serves to get in the way. If you live in a religiously heterogenous society, the only way the society can thrive is if the religious differences are suppressed whenever it’s convenient.

    The secular nature of these insitutions is an adaptation that lets the society that incorporates them to thrive. Conflating religion with non-religious activities can only serve to hinder the missions of the organizations pursuing the activities. (Consider how much time we waste dealing with creationism and ID that could be better spent doing actual science.)

  70. #70 Keith Douglas
    March 28, 2006

    One thing that I try to do is emphasize that I stand against all silly or harmful ideas, not just the religious ones. The whole point, after all, is to increase knowledge of the universe and better our lives.

  71. #71 PaulC
    March 28, 2006

    Russell:

    What made atheism respectable was not advance in biology that made life less mysterious, but advance in philosophy that severed the foggy connections preachers tried to draw from that mystery to religion.

    This is probably coming too late for a response, but one thing that occurred to me is that while it doesn’t make logical sense to fill in a gap with anything in particular, it is understandable that people fill in gaps with the societal consensus whether or not it has any objective merit. This is in effect an argument from authority but it’s not entirely unreasonable if you have little to compete with it.

    So, for instance, if I were living in medieval times and I was told that Aristotle was a very smart person who figured everything out about science, and on reading he seemed to have answers where I just threw up my hands. Moreover, suppose when I asked other knowledgeable people, they accepted his answers. I that case, I would give his answers more weight than my own. This is strictly a logical fallacy, but it’s not totally crazy either. People are social animals and can easily be made to reject good ideas if others ridicule them or to accept bad ideas if others support them. However, many ideas accepted this way are actually useful–certain folk remedies, farming techniques–as a result of sheer trial and error and may be preferred to de novo solutions.

    I don’t think that I’d use the phrase “intellectually respectable” to describe what I’m getting at, but there was a time when it was socially unreasonable to replace a societal consensus about the existence of God with some other idea when the the other idea had inadequate explanatory power. I agree with your point that advances in philosophy are as important in this context as advances in scientific understanding. Actually, the Enlightenment should also be credited as a unique event that overturned the supremacy of a societal consensus when it could be countered by reason. In many cultures, the consensus is the gold standard of belief.

    But I think that a tipping point has occurred in the last two hundred years or so such that empirical evidence was insufficient to overturn a societal consensus about religion in the past whereas it is now sufficient. There is still a majority view that runs counter to the evidence, but it ceases to be a consensus, much to the consternation of the cultural rightwing. Dawkins may place too much emphasis on the importance of modern biology in making atheism a reasonable worldview, but I think it is a contributor. If someone says: “Look, this is what we’ve all been taught. Do you have a better idea?” You can actually reply with a better idea rather than some other unsupported idea that lacks a constituency.

  72. #72 Arun
    March 28, 2006

    A couple of observations:

    Sometimes the arguments here get perilously close to “if you don’t agree with me, it must be because you’re an idiot”.

    This is a good argument: “if you believe in religion because you think it provides an explanation for the workings of the world, then you’re mistaken, there are better explanations”.

    But that is not all that religion is, and that is probably one of the least reasons why most people engage with religion. It seems to me that the argument is “I think I have everything that I need for life, and it doesn’t require religion, therefore nobody requires religion”. Yet, people continue to cling to religion, and therefore, since they are believing in lies and superstition, they must be stupid, and stupid people are dangerous, and the way to wean them from stupidity is to tell them they are stupid.

    If that is the argument, certainly it is your right to make it, but I think it presupposes much more knowledge than you actually have regarding a person’s needs.

  73. #73 PaulC
    March 28, 2006

    Arun:

    If that is the argument, certainly it is your right to make it, but I think it presupposes much more knowledge than you actually have regarding a person’s needs.

    I agree, but would make the point more explicitly. Most people have a sense of identity that derives in large part from membership in a community. For most people, this identity and group membership is more important than having accurate information that in practice does not help them do anything that they didn’t know how to do already.

    So when you attack somebody’s traditions, religious or otherwise, you’re demanding that they sever themselves from their community. This could be justified in some cases, by the way, if their community violates fundamental human rights, such as practicing slavery or human sacrifice. But it is an act of aggression and has to be seen as such. The question is whether it is justified.

    I don’t see it as a justifiable act of aggression to demand that some other person–like me a social animal–cut off ties to the community in which they’ve invested their entire life. What do I have to offer in return: “Well, you’ll have a fairly accurate understanding of biology to replace the fairy tales you now believe in.” Wow, that’s really a great trade, right? They were among people who spoke the same language, ate the same food, played the same games, laughed at the same jokes. Now those people don’t like them anymore. They don’t quite fit in with my group either. They spend the rest of their lives exiled among strangers. But… but… at least they have access to the best scientific understanding of the origin of the eukaryote cell, right, so that makes it all worth it.

    Now, personally I kind of like the sense of being exiled among other exiles. I never fit in to begin with. I suspect that this feeling also appeals to others in the minority culture of science. But demanding that somebody else adopt this life is like demanding that they wear a hairshirt or live out in the desert. For a tiny minority, these things are spiritually fulfilling. For others they are a pointless hardship. I don’t wish pointless hardship on anybody and I am not that optimistic that those who are now religious can be ridiculed into adopting a secular worldview, nor that if they are that they will ever be as happy as they were beforehand.

  74. #74 ctw
    March 28, 2006

    “I shall continue to read your blog and learn from it”

    which suggests that you are a grownup, able to ignore a few discomforting asides in those interactions that you consider necessary and/or beneficial – something the irreligious have to do in many (and in the past, most) interactions in a society dominated by religion. if you really respect your religious friends, no need not shield them from the opportunity to practice being grownups as well.

  75. #75 ctw
    March 28, 2006

    OT: has a workaround been identified for the “name and address required” posting problem (other than deleting the scienceblogs cookie, which doesn’t work for me)? mozilla is OK, but not having to open a new browser for a comment would be nice. tnx.

  76. #76 Julia
    March 28, 2006

    “something the irreligious have to do in many (and in the past, most) interactions in a society dominated by religion”

    Sadly true. Thank you for reminding me of that.

  77. #77 Russell
    March 28, 2006

    Arun writes: “It seems to me that the argument is ‘I think I have everything that I need for life, and it doesn’t require religion, therefore nobody requires religion.’”

    I think what some are saying here is that religion is irrational. You seem to admit as much, when you say believers accept religious claims about factual matters because religion satisfies a need. (It’s hard to imagine a better definition for the term!)

    There is an argument, of course, that people sometimes need the irrational. As you point out, we should have some pause before declaring what someone else needs. Fine. But does accomodating those needs mean that others also must pretend that the irrational is something it isn’t? That seems a stretch.

  78. #78 Pete
    March 28, 2006

    “I don’t see it as a justifiable act of aggression to demand that some other person–like me a social animal–cut off ties to the community in which they’ve invested their entire life.

    I’ve never heard anyone here try to tell people to leave their religion. What I have heard is the entirely justifiable demand for intellectual honesty.

    There are a lot of people who say, “I want to be a scientist/critical thinker, but I want to keep believing in my religion too.” And there are lots of people here who say this cannot be done, myself being one of them. If someone wants to just be left alone to have their contradictory thoughts, that’s fine – just as long as they don’t want to be accorded some kind of respect for that in the intellectual sphere, including the Pharyngula forum.

  79. #79 PaulC
    March 28, 2006

    I’ve never heard anyone here try to tell people to leave their religion. What I have heard is the entirely justifiable demand for intellectual honesty.

    As I stated earlier, I don’t have a big problem with anything that PZ has said about religion on this blog. My point was that intellectual honesty can potentially come at a social cost. A tacit assumption I often see in blog comments is that people are getting something clearly better by working towards a non-contradictory basis for their beliefs. I think that assumption holds for those making that assumption, who place a high value on intellectual honesty, but there is no reason to imagine that it holds for everyone.

    There are a lot of people who say, “I want to be a scientist/critical thinker, but I want to keep believing in my religion too.”

    By its nature, critical thinking can be validated objectively. So people can keep believing whatever they want and can still produce valuable science and critical thinking within restricted domains. This is actually the norm of human existence.

  80. #80 jethro tull albums prior to 1980
    March 28, 2006

    PaulC:

    I don’t see it as a justifiable act of aggression to demand that some other person–like me a social animal–cut off ties to the community in which they’ve invested their entire life. What do I have to offer in return: “Well, you’ll have a fairly accurate understanding of biology to replace the fairy tales you now believe in.” Wow, that’s really a great trade, right?

    First, it’s not demand. It’s hope, implore, argue, reason, converse, and in the end be tolerant of in any case.

    Second, I took the trade, and I’m a satisfied customer like nobody’s business. I was a devout Catholic child, and I could’ve chosen to cleave to that, but I chose science and rationalism. Understanding a bit about evolution and neuroscience has been much much more fulfilling and I’d do it again even if it meant losing the Immaculate Heart of Mary midnight mass or softball game. What’s more, I made lots of good friends in the rationalist camp.

    Though I understand that group identity is a big winner with the human ape, still, doesn’t something strike you as funny about holding onto beliefs merely because of the friends it brings?

  81. #81 PaulC
    March 28, 2006

    jethro tull albums prior to 1980:

    Though I understand that group identity is a big winner with the human ape, still, doesn’t something strike you as funny about holding onto beliefs merely because of the friends it brings?

    Yes, it’s very funny, but I think it has empirical backing. I also don’t doubt that you’re happy to have left your religion. For some people, it’s a big win. But I feel such people are disproportionately represented on this blog and others like it.

    I’m just trying to understand why so many people still cling to some kind of religion, and I find it hard to believe it’s because they haven’t been exposed to the possibility of rejecting it. I’m inclined to trust their ability to maximize utility and I assume that they are really happier having it.

  82. #82 Dan
    March 28, 2006

    DavidSewell:

    That’s pretty much the way I see Dawkins vis-a-vis Christianity. The problem is that the a-B Dawkins manages to offend everyone who admires Bach’s music, even if they don’t think it’s the foundation of the universe; and those non-Bachians who have spent a good chunk of their lives learning to play the harpsichord, or studying the history of music from Machaut to Vaughn-Williams, get a pained look on their face whenever a-B Dawkins launches into a discursus on music theory that gets things wrong in a dozen different places.

    The problem with your analogy is that 98% of these Bachians who are getting a pained look on their face don’t have the slightest clue what Dawkins is talking about in the first place. They don’t know how to play the harpsichord, their eyes glaze over whenever anyone tries to explain the difference between an authentic cadence and a plagal cadence, and they think that Vaughan Williams is a B-list movie star who punched a mall-cop in Las Vegas last week. Most of them have never even heard of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and they certainly don’t know that WF was a lazy drunk who put his own name on the manuscript of one of his father’s concerti. They probably think that Mozart was an agent of the devil, too.

    Whether or not Dawkins is actually talking sense on the matter is completely irrelevant. These Bachians are only getting a pained look on their faces because the people who tell them what works to listen to are getting a pained look on their faces.

  83. #83 jethro tull albums prior to 1980
    March 28, 2006

    PaulC:

    I’m just trying to understand why so many people still cling to some kind of religion, and I find it hard to believe it’s because they haven’t been exposed to the possibility of rejecting it. I’m inclined to trust their ability to maximize utility and I assume that they are really happier having it.

    It doesn’t seem this way to me, at least in many cases. I think a sizable number of people haven’t had a fair hearing of the atheist/secular position, because they grow up in echo chambers. It really never has been in the mainstream media in America, other than as a way to label Communists, and still it was never patiently elaborated. In fact, I’d guess that the more religious one is (zealous, orthodox), the more cloistered one is, such that the chance of getting a good sample of atheistic viewpoints is lower. Sure, some orthodox religious types read widely from various philosophers and still stay with their religion, but for many they have less exposure. And some people just don’t do much thinking about it one way or the other and accept the local conditions as the path of least resistance.

    As far as maximizing utility, I have doubts about that too.

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