The hopeless inanity of Egnor

Michael Egnor, that neurosurgeon whose tenuous grip on rationality makes him so popular with the creationists, thinks he has a gotcha moment with some notorious atheist. That rude godless fellow, who is me, said this, which is accurate:

…greater science literacy, which is going to lead to the erosion of religion, and then we’ll get this nice positive feedback mechanism going where as religion slowly fades away we’ll get more and more science to replace it and that will displace more and more religion which will allow more and more science in and we’ll eventually get to the point where religion has taken that appropriate place as a side dish rather than the main course. And if you separate out the ethical message from religion — what have you got left — you got — you got a bunch of fairy tales, right?

Here’s Egnor’s foolish interpretation of that comment — and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of dogmatic Christians interpret it the same way.

In the midst of a furious national debate about intelligent design, Darwinism, and metaphysical bias and indoctrination in science education, one has to wonder why Dr. Myers would state plainly that the agenda of Darwinists is to advance atheism in the classroom. Why would Dr. Myers state unequivocally on film that a fundamental goal of science education is the suppression of religious belief?

The most parsimonious explanation is that he means it.

What nonsense. I did not “state unequivocally on film that a fundamental goal of science education is the suppression of religious belief.” I do not peddle atheism in the classroom, and am actually very careful, since I am a vocal atheist in the blogosphere, to reassure my students that apostasy is not required to get an “A” in my classes, and that they are free to hold whatever religious beliefs they want — the biology classroom is about evidence, not belief, and explanations supported by logic, not revelation.

I do think science erodes faith, but not because I hammer students with doctrinaire atheism; I don’t need to. Here’s a little anecdote I’ve told a few people that illustrates my attitude.

I was once in an argument with a staunch creationist (a not uncommon experience) in which he berated me, among a multitude of godless liberal college professors, for atheist indoctrination in the classroom…just like Michael Egnor. He was upset because, not unreasonably, people with his beliefs fear to send their children to those reputable colleges because they’ll come home changed and in doubt, and questioning the faith that they work so hard to instill. He thought the same thing, that our classes were places where we actively suppress religion.

I told him that I never criticize his religion in the classroom, nor do I push atheism. Instead, it’s like this: what he does with his religion is the equivalent of telling his kids that the sky is green, and worse, assuring them that this is a fundamental tenet of their religion and that the whole structure comes crashing down if they question it. They get in my classroom, and I don’t tell them their religion is wrong — I tell them to open their eyes and look up.*

That’s where science hurts religion. We have ideals of skepticism and empiricism that do conflict with most religions — I know, a bunch of you will tell me that your religion allows for those values, too, and I’ll argue with you a different time — and that’s where the antagonism arises. I don’t claim the fundamental goal of science education is the suppression of religious belief — the fundamental goal of science education is to question everything. It’s merely a side effect and their own damn fault that religion fares poorly when subjected to criticism.

*I wish I could claim that my crushing reply silenced my opponent and he rethought everything he claimed about science, but of course it didn’t — intransigent creationists never think. Instead, he tried to argue, “well, what if the sky is green, and your unspiritual eyes simply can’t see it?” Etc., etc., etc. And so it goes.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 31, 2008

    @ lroot:

    I’m on my way to becoming a scientist and I think it’s ridiculous when people say it takes more faith to believe in God than science. Ever tried understanding plate tectonics or string theory?

    First, I assume you are referring to science theories rather than science at large, but you still seem to be confusing them. We can trust the process itself, as long as we get results. There is no reason to trust developing theories such as string theory when they haven’t made touch with experiments yet.

    Second, the status of plate tectonics are different, as plate tectonics has been validated science for a long time. One can measure the plate drift directly now, IIRC a few cm/year or so depending on the plate, which is pretty awesome. I found papers from 1974 doing it astronomically, and a 1979 student project discussing how this can be done.

    Btw, string theory isn’t the best example of a potentially inviable theory. It is at the very least a useful area of math, it has provided fruitful ideas in both math and physics and it has made touch with other areas of theoretical physics. (AFAIU provided independent calculation of black hole entropy.) Seems to me it has been useful so far, but the question is if it is the correct description.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 31, 2008

    @ wnelson:

    You can’t displace something like ID without having something to put in it’s place — an equivalent philosophy — and “shut the fuck up” or wrecking careers doesn’t cut it.

    You are chasing the wrong game here. It is ID that is the career wrecker. Or rather it is suspected to be, but there is only an observable correlation. If you look at the publication record of guys like Dembski and Gonzales, it drops off around the time they publicly adopt ID creationism.

    Looking closer at say Dembski, it is quite possible that he wouldn’t made a mathematician anyway. It seems he is only capable of mediocre math at the level of math grad students. But it is claimed that his unrelated PhD work is fairly robust if not inspired, consistent with ID putting his mind on the fritz.

    And why shouldn’t it? ID has no bearing on the world as long as it isn’t used to derive testable predictions but as a cloak for making contra-factual claims on diverse sciences. So it can only serve to confuse and detract from a science career. Why did you expect otherwise?

    And as for the mistake about arguing philosophy and religion instead of science, it is already covered here.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 31, 2008

    Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that all three are overrepresented in the population of scientists relative to their repreentation in the general population?

    Sounds interesting. Do you have numbers on this?

    I’m on my way to becoming a scientist and I think it’s ridiculous when people say it takes more faith to believe in God than science. Ever tried understanding plate tectonics or string theory?

    I’m not a geophysicist, only a humble paleobiologist… but I still don’t see where the problem with plate tectonics is. I find it easy to understand. Where exactly is your problem?

    String theory is also not a matter of faith — it’s a matter of math. I don’t understand it, but that’s because I don’t have l33t math sgillz. There are, I’m told, superhumans out there who understand that math and consequently understand string theory.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    April 2, 2008

    I also have faith in the scientific method. I, in short, have faith in science in that the scientific method properly applied produces results that can be verified or disproved.

    If you have faith in the scientific method, you haven’t understood it — as is suggested by your use of “verified”. Or what have I missed? What exactly do you mean by “faith” and “verified”?

  5. #7 Kenny P
    July 15, 2008

    I would imagine that doubts of a young Christian could start as early as the 3rd grade math class.

    I mean, that triune God, one is three and three is one.

    One times three equals one? The new Christian math?

    I suppose a kind patriarchal father would get his “three-in-one” can of oil down from the shelf to help explain the trinity to his doubting Thomas.