Pharyngula

I usually like Cornelia Dean’s science reporting, but this recent collection of book reviews put me off from the opening paragraph. She begins with the tired old claim that “scientists have to be brave” to embrace religion. Malarkey. I’ve never heard a scientist bring up the subject of religion, pro or con, at a scientific conference or associated informal gathering. You can be as devout as you want to be with no risk to your professional career (you may even find yourself an icon for the compatibility of science and religion!), and as for your personal life, being religious in a country in which 90% of the residents self-identify as religious, and in which religiosity has become a defining character of our political leadership, is hard to characterize as boldly bucking a trend. The rest of the review is an exercise in credulity.

Dean briefly touches on Dawkins’ and Dennett’s recent books that are critical of religion—they are called “unsatisfying,” and she even uncritically accepts this absurd canard:

In any event, as Dr. Gingerich argues, in simultaneously defending evolution and insisting upon atheism, Dr. Dawkins probably “single-handedly makes more converts to intelligent design than any of the leading intelligent design theorists.”

Yeah, right. The real danger is that Dawkins is converting fence-sitters to fervid Christianity, but Robertson and Falwell and Haggard and every small-town fundamentalist minister? They can preach anti-intellectual, anti-scientific nonsense all they want, and it’s OK, they’re ineffectual. Dennett’s tent-revival atheist-evolutionist ministry is converting people by the thousands, and Dawkins’ televangical broadcast network is raking in the millions. C’mon, Ms. Dean, think. Does that claim make any sense at all? The people who claim that Dawkins convinced them that evolution is false are poseurs who had their mind made up before—and are merely doing their bit to demonize an effective opponent.

Furthermore, if Dawkins and Dennett are “unsatisfying,” what about this?

In “God’s Universe,” Dr. Gingerich, an emeritus professor of astronomy at Harvard, tells how he is “personally persuaded that a superintelligent Creator exists beyond and within the cosmos.”

This absurd comment does not elicit so much as a raised eyebrow from Ms. Dean, it seems. I should like to see the evidence that Gingerich marshals to support this remarkable conclusion. I have a strong suspicion that if it were viewed by someone not predisposed to believe in gods by tradition, upbringing, indoctrination, and ignorance, it would be…unsatisfying.

As is the conclusion to the article.

This is where the scientific method comes in. If scientists are prepared to state their hypotheses, describe how they tested them, lay out their data, explain how they analyze their data and the conclusions they draw from their analyses — then it should not matter if they pray to Zeus, Jehovah, the Tooth Fairy, or nobody.

Their work will speak for itself.

Exactly. We do not trot out Zeus, Jehovah, or the Tooth Fairy to prop up scientific hypotheses. Science does not use the ideas of religion, period. Religion is a failed paradigm.

Here’s a simple thought experiment, though. If some prominent scientist came out with a book in which he claimed that his keen analytical mind and training in science had led him to support the idea of the existence of Zeus or the Tooth Fairy, how would book reviewers and scientists react?

I think the reviews would be very different than if they wrapped themselves in the mantle of conventional piety, as these scientists have done, and decreed that the heavens rejoice in the love of Christ. A scientist arguing for the existence of the Tooth Fairy would prompt concerns about his mental well-being, and much tut-tutting about a good mind lost to senility, and the book would be remaindered as a sad curiosity. Prop up a different mythical figure, one that is dunned into the populace’s communal brain day by day and hour by hour, though, and very few reviewers and readers will even pause to think, “this is nuts!”

The reviewers might even call the author “brave.”