More press for the godless

Ho hum, I’m quoted in Nature again this week (do I sound convincingly blasé?) It’s a short news article on Francis Collins’ new book, The Language of God, which I find dreadfully dreary and unconvincing, and I find his argument that “The moral law is a signpost to a God who cares about us as individuals. God used a mechanism of evolution to create human beings with whom he could have that kind of fellowship” to be ridiculously unscientific garbage.

Many scientists disagree strongly with such arguments. Some suggest that science is on the defensive today ? not just in the United States ? and that society needs exactly the opposite of what Collins suggests: less talk about faith and more about reason. Religious concerns are largely behind the US law restricting federal funding of stem-cell research, for example. And many feel threatened by the influence of intelligent design in science education.

In the United States, “the default position right now is to assume that religion is perfectly OK”, says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota in Morris and author of the popular science blog Pharyngula. “Collins is taking that default position, and while a large majority of scientists will shrug their shoulders, a few voices will be shouting out, saying ‘wait a minute, this is nonsense’.”

Hmm, the author left off the context. She asked whether I thought Collins was being courageous, speaking out for religion as he was. Obviously, I don’t think anyone speaking in favor of greater religious meddling in the United States is taking a brave stand at all.

It’s nice to see the company I’m keeping, at least.

“I cannot see how this could be good for science ? supernaturalism is fundamentally anti-scientific,” says Richard Dawkins, a biologist from the University of Oxford, UK. “Scientists work hard at trying to understand. Supernaturalism is an evasion of this responsibility. It’s a shrug of the shoulders.”

Dawkins acknowledges that, particularly in the United States, there might be tactical reasons for trying to get on with religious people. “That is a perfectly reasonable political stance, but it has nothing to do with truth.”

I’m not so pleased with Eugenie Scott’s comments, though.

Others welcome Collins’s book, however. “I think it’s helpful when scientists of Francis’s prominence speak out on the compatibility of faith and science,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, California, that lobbies against creationism.

Scott agrees with Collins that so far the harshest voices have achieved most prominence, and that this situation doesn’t help either side. “Creationists love quoting Dawkins and Daniel Dennett,” she says. “But those individuals don’t represent the fairly sizeable proportion of non-theists who are not out to destroy religion.”

Neither Dawkins nor Dennett (nor I) are out to “destroy religion”: we want exactly the same thing Eugenie Scott wants, that religion be kept out of our government, our education, and our science, and treated appropriately, as a personal choice for an individual’s private life.

Check E (2006) Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate. Nature 442:114-115.


  1. #1 Jonathan Badger
    July 13, 2006

    Neither Dawkins nor Dennett (nor I) are out to “destroy religion”: we want exactly the same thing Eugenie Scott wants, that religion be kept out of our government, our education, and our science, and treated appropriately, as a personal choice for an individual’s private life.

    There are plenty of secularists (not all of whom are atheists) who *do* want that, but both Dawkins and Dennett *have* gone beyond that stage and it is simply silly to deny it. In particular Dawkins would be quite proud to be called an enemy of religion.

  2. #2 Shygetz
    July 13, 2006

    Leave some room in Nature for the rest of us!

    Neither Dawkins nor Dennett (nor I) are out to “destroy religion”: we want exactly the same thing Eugenie Scott wants, that religion be kept out of our government, our education, and our science, and treated appropriately, as a personal choice for an individual’s private life.

    Come on now, PZ, I think this statement is a bit misleading. In these pages, you have referred to religion as a cancer and as an addiction, in addition to other things. After all of your pontificating on not only the silliness of religion but on the objective harm of religious beliefs to the individual and society, do you really expect us to believe that you don’t want to destroy religion?

  3. #3 Alon Levy
    July 13, 2006

    The people who talk about atheists who’re out to destroy religion typically conjure images of forced deconversions, of Soviet-style murder of priests, and of children being taken from their parents’ homes simply because their parents are religious. As far as I can see, nobody’s advocating that, not even Dawkins.

  4. #4 evolvealready
    July 13, 2006

    J. Badger,

    Dawkins’ quotes and commentary are easily found all over the web. Feel free to post anything suggesting his desire to “destroy religion”. Or, failing that, feel free to define going “beyond that stage”. Thanks.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    July 13, 2006

    I’d be happy to be called an enemy of religion, too — but I’m not out to destroy it. I want it eliminated as a privileged voice in the public sphere, no more. What other people believe is not something I can dictate, nor would I want to.

    Having read Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, I can also say that he definitely isn’t out to destroy religion, either (but I can’t say more, yet — the book won’t be public until October.)

  6. #6 Jonathan Badger
    July 13, 2006

    Dawkins’ quotes and commentary are easily found all over the web. Feel free to post anything suggesting his desire to “destroy religion”.

    Watch his documentary “The Root of all Evil”. While it has not (to my knowledge) been shown on US TV, you can download it through Bittorrent quite easily. It’s a lot better than relying on mere quotes (which are often doctored or taken out of context anyway).

    Or, failing that, feel free to define going “beyond that stage”. Thanks.

    It’s quite simple: Secularist position “Eh, religion, whatever. Just don’t teach it in public schools”.

    Going beyond that stage. Saying publically that religion is stupid and/or evil. It doesn’t mean that they are in favor of shooting priests.

  7. #7 Steve LaBonne
    July 13, 2006

    Yeah, we live in a world where religion is in such a precarious position that Dawkins and Dennett are mortal threats to it. [roll eyes]

  8. #8 Jonathan Badger
    July 13, 2006

    Of course, if we’re going to insert meaning into ideas on that scale, now you’re going to have to deal with Eugenie Scott. She’s an atheist, too, you know…does her disbelief mean she’s out to destroy religion?

    Yes, I know she’s an atheist. As am I. But her organization (of which I’m a member) is dedicated to preserving science education in US public schools. Her point (which I quite agree with) is that the antics of people like Dawkins in no way help our cause. Probably a majority of people in the US support secular goals (if only because they fear that *their* brand of religion won’t be the one selected if religion is taught in schools), but only a tiny minority of people in the US are atheists. So she doesn’t go around alienating potential allies by saying that religion is stupid or the root of all evil.

  9. #9 Chris
    July 13, 2006

    I want to destroy religion.

    But I don’t want to do it violently, by killing people for what they believe in. Sam Harris might (I won’t say he does, not having read his book), but I don’t. That’s a legacy of religion that I refuse to adopt.

    Instead, I want to destroy religion by the simple effect of reason. I want to deconvert each and every religious person on the face of the planet. Not by compelling them, but by *convincing* them with logic and evidence and whatever psychological tools are necessary to overcome indoctrination and restore their faculty of critical thinking.

    I want every human being in the world to realize that religion is a superstition with no basis in reality, and however much we may like our mythology as a source of metaphor or an inspiration for art, to believe that it is actually real is a serious and dangerous delusion. I want everyone to laugh at the pope, his ridiculous outfit, and his even more ridiculous claim of infallibility. I want the pope himself to realize that his life has been mostly based on lies, and turn over a new leaf.

    I don’t think any of that is going to be easy and some of it may well be impossible. But it’s my goal. When religion no longer controls a single human mind, I don’t see how you could call it anything other than “destroyed”.

    I believe that this is substantially Dawkins’s position as well (although of course I have no authority to speak for him, so I could be wrong), and I would be quite surprised if it wasn’t PZ’s. So I think this is probably a semantic issue – PZ doesn’t want to be equated with wanting to *violently* destroy religion, and since that’s one of the leading connotations of the verb “destroy”, he probably prefers some other word less susceptible to misinterpretation (or deliberate distortion).

    But seriously – you want to reduce the influence of religion, right? How low is low enough? Would you really stop trying to reduce it all the way to zero?

  10. #10 Paul W.
    July 13, 2006

    I wasn’t saying that there isn’t a sense in which PZ (or I) is “out to destroy religion.”

    The phrase is ambiguous on several points—it’s not clear exactly what “out to” means, or what “destroy” means, or even what “religion” means.

    Sure, I’m opposed to religion, would like to see it go away, and will continue to oppose it as long as it exists. In a weak sense, I have zero tolerance for religion—I’ll always say it’s stupid and people should get past it, so in a very weak sense I’m even “out to” destroy it.

    But saying that I’m “out to destroy religion” is more false than true. To be “out to” accomplish something implies that accomplishing it is a possibility you take seriously. I don’t think any of the people in question, or anybody here, seriously entertains the notion of destroying religion by any means that they can stomach.

    I think Martin Luther King is a bad example. Saying that he was “out to destroy racism” is less deceptive because people know who Martin Luther King is and what he was about—they know he was nonviolent, and that disambiguates the statement in a crucial way. They know that he didn’t advocate coercive measures against his opponents.

    Similarly, for people who really know where PZ or Dawkins or Dennett is actually coming from, saying they’re “out to destroy religion” isn’t particularly unobjectionable; it’s just kind of overblown.

    But for many people, that reality check isn’t there. They don’t know what PZ or Dawkins or Dennett actually advocates, and simply saying that they’re “out to destroy religion” is irresponsible. There is an interpretation of that phrase under which it’s true, but there’s another obvious interpretation under which it’s false.

    Eugenie Scott is playing with fire here. If she’s going to distance herself from her allies, that’s okay, but she should make it clear that it’s not because they’re bomb-throwing radicals who are going to confiscate your Bibles and put people in camps. She’s effectively calling people like Dawkins and Dennett extremists, without acknowledging that they’re not extremists, either, really.

    The MLK example is instructive.

    Consider the sentence “MLK was out to destroy the white establishment” vs. the sentence ”

  11. #11 Ichneumon
    July 14, 2006

    It is curious how the purported desire of atheists to ‘destroy religion’ has gained currency. Is this recurring theme a vestige of the godless Red Scare days? A collective persecution complex of many theists? An unrelated stupidity attendant to the theist mind? Curious.

    In my experiences, theists get that impression because:

    a) Not knowing any atheists personally (or at least none who are willing to admit to it around them), their main familiarity with atheists is via the public antics of the more outspoken types, especially the ones using the courts to “eliminate religion” (from the view of the theists) such as by removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance or from coins, objecting to prayer in schools or other public venues, etc. etc., or via atheists like Dawkins denouncing religion in the same tone as one would denounce pedophilia, etc.

    b) Theists are often told (or reflexively believe) that “atheists” are responsible for [fill in the blank] evil or social ill or “attacks on religion” (real or imagined), even when the actual beliefs of the alleged perpetrators are unknown (because gosh, no fellow theist would ever do such a thing…)

    c) A lot of theists seem to love a good persecution complex, so even minor slights (including “could you not preach in my face, please?”) are elevated to the status of being fed to the lions or attempts to “destroy religion”.

    For numerous examples of these kinds of dynamics, see for instance the book: Persecution : How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity

  12. #12 Mike Haubrich
    July 14, 2006

    Whether or not Dawkins is “Helping the cause” is immaterial. He poses some great questions about the value of religion in society, and whether or not we would be better without it than we are with it.

    I say that we are better without it and that people would see that morality is necessary not because “God created it” but as a means of continuance of the species. While I admire atheist scientists that are willing to work with non-atheists in protecting science from intrusion by religion; I think that the things that strident atheists have to say are very important and they do “help our cause.”

    Remember, provocative speech is more interesting than speech which urges “common ground.” Dawkins public and frequent attacks on religion are very important because it helps pierce the assumption that we have to accept the dominance of religion in public life. One hopes that more piercings over a long enough period of time, will eventually lead to the understanding that secular society is more peaceful when one religion doesn’t dominate.

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