Robert Bakker is one of the good guys, a paleontologist who really does an excellent job of communicating enthusiasm for science. I saw him talk at St John’s University a few years ago, and he clearly inspired the kids in attendance — I greatly enjoyed the talk too, even though one of his hooks was to incessantly emphasize the religious backgrounds of famous dinosaur hunters. It’s a strategy, all right? If he can get more kids to follow through on science, more power to him.
However, he also illustrates another unfortunate phenomenon: religion turns even good scientists’ brains to mush. In a recent interview on Laelaps, he said some awesomely stupid things.
We dino-scientists have a great responsibility: our subject matter attracts kids better than any other, except rocket-science. What’s the greatest enemy of science education in the U.S.?
No way. It’s the loud, strident, elitist anti-creationists. The likes of Richard Dawkins and his colleagues.
Right. And the caste system in India would have simply withered away if only those untouchables weren’t so repulsive and disgusting. Homophobes can’t be blamed for beating up gay men, since the queers insist on being non-heterosexual. It’s not rapists fault, we ought to be punishing women for being sexually attractive.
This is the same dumb move Ken Miller pulled a while back, trying to place the blame for a religious movement that promotes ignorance on the backs of a minority group that opposes religious dogma. I assure you, if every atheist in America vanished tomorrow (raptured, perhaps?), the creationists would not go away. They would be stronger. They’d be moving faster to push their dogma into our schools, and to make it the law of the land.
Look, it’s very simple. Creationism is a problem because people are indoctrinated into biblical literalism, and because in this country the proponents have successfully coupled generic “faith” as a virtue with the specific follies of simple-minded Christianity. If you want to find the roots, look to evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic Christianity as it has been exercised in this country — which has not been as a reaction to atheism. People like Bakker would be on less shaky ground if they were to blame it all on a reaction against modernity, but theistic scientists can’t then turn around and damn the modern, because that would make them part of the problem, too.
Bakker continues in a follow-up and makes his position worse. First, he goes on a tirade about the “Brights”. That ham-handed public-relations misstep is not atheism, and it’s ridiculous to dismiss a rationalist view of the world because once upon a time a couple of well-meaning people tried to escape the stigma of the word “atheist” (a stigma that Bakker treats as deserved, symptomatic of the problem) with a new coinage. I do not call myself a Bright, and never did — when I first heard about it, I rejected it — so Bakker’s argument simply sails by me outside the foul line to fall into the bleachers of irrelevance.
The rest of Bakker’s protestation is nothing but a Courtier’s Reply.
Dawkins performs clip-art scholarship with the History of Science and Religion, a field that over the last several decades has matured into a rigorous discipline with fine PhD programs, endowed professorships, well-funded conferences, edited volumes luxuriously printed by Oxford, Harvard, and The Johns Hopkins Press. With footnotes.
Yeah, and Oral Roberts University, Bob Jones University, and Liberty University have huge endowments and churn out degrees — that must make them repositories of Truth.
It’s a smokescreen. Religion is a real, historical, and sociological phenomenon, and of course there is a genuine body of scholarship in those aspects of religion. But those studies have no bearing at all on the reality of the supernatural phenomena creationists endorse. Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, which has Bakker fuming, is an attempt to cut through the layers of apologetics to get right at the central premise: the existence of a guiding intelligence that has ruled the universe. Quoting St Augustine or Martin Luther changes nothing. The key facts are that the history of the world does not correspond to the accounts of the church fathers; the revealed “truths” of the Abrahamic religions are false; biological reality contradicts any assertion of teleology or purpose. The Christian myth is objectively wrong. Those are the issues that have to be addressed, not how many footnotes a theologian can cram into his fantasies.
Bakker is a smart fellow, and I applaud his public outreach efforts. But he’s also a walking, talking demonstration of the fact that religion poisons everything. It takes the minds of logical, rational scientists and scrambles them into defenders of absurdity.