Pharyngula

Oh, no. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have written another loopy op-ed. I’m reading it in complete bafflement: what is their argument? What are they trying to do? Because none of it makes sense. It’s confusing, right from the beginning, in which they sneer at Richard Dawkins for publishing a new book about science.

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins — most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, “The God Delusion” — returns to writing about science. Dawkins’ new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” will inform and regale us with the stunning “evidence for evolution,” as the subtitle says. It will surely be an impressive display, as Dawkins excels at making the case for evolution. But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

Surely not those who need it most: America’s anti-evolutionists. These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they’ll heed.

Hmmm. It looks to be a very good book, and I can practically guarantee it will appear on the NY Times bestseller list in very short order (I think I can also guarantee that its sales will leave Unscientific America in the dust, which may be the prime motivator for this sniping). There will be people who have epiphanies when they read popular science, just as happened to me when I started reading about evolution in my youth, and as I’m sure other people will testify in the comments here, but I think most people write, not for epiphanies, but to inform. Do Mooney and Kirshenbaum seriously believe the new Dawkins book will accomplish absolutely nothing? What an attitude of futility.

That’s a cute trick, though, parlaying a mention of a science book by Dawkins into a condemnation of his existence as a harbinger of total moral depravity. That’s what the leaders of creationism do; I think we can give the rank-and-file a little more credit, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them, after hearing all the hysteria about Evil Old Man Dawkins from people like Ham and Hovind and Mooney, might actually read something by him and realize that he’s a decent fellow after all, and he actually explains evolution clearly. It can’t hurt.

But what do Mooney and Kirshenbaum want now? Is this a plea for Dawkins to stop writing books of any kind, to cancel the print run for The Greatest Show on Earth, or to convert to some conventional piety? This opening makes no sense, unless it’s just that they don’t like the fact that an openly atheist scientist writes without compromise.

It’s not just Dawkins. They really don’t like me at all.

The New Atheists win the battle easily on the Internet. Their most prominent blogger, the University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, runs what is probably the Web’s most popular science blog, Pharyngula, where he and his readers attack and belittle religious believers, sometimes using highly abrasive language. Or as Myers put it to fanatical Catholics at one point: “Don’t confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god.”

Man, I like what I say sometimes. Here’s the full quote, which was a reply to the people complaining about me trashing a cracker.

What effort I put into it was not in response to the reality of your silly deity, but in response to the reality of your dangerous delusions. Those are real, all right, and they need to be belittled and weakened. But don’t confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted, and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god.

Perhaps Mooney and Kirshenbaum would like to suggest some alternative language? It has to communicate (you know, that precious word) my actual intent and feelings and beliefs, though, not their imaginary precious deference to faith. Clarity is a good thing, I would think.

But then, these guys don’t understand anything.

Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science. The atheist biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for instance, has drawn much attention by assaulting the center’s Faith Project, which seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions.

The NCSE is not under attack from us. I love the NCSE, and think it is a valuable institution; when I give science advocacy talks, I tell people to join the organization. That does not mean, however, that we therefore think that we cannot criticize the NCSE. Eugenie Scott isn’t our Pope. We think that they’ve taken a wrong turn and are plainly speaking out in protest, while (at least in my case) still sending in our membership dues, and encouraging others to donate as well.

Our criticism is that promotion of “moderate positions”. The NCSE should not be taking any position on religions at all. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have just berated Dawkins for being openly atheist, claiming that that means no creationist will ever listen to him. Do they think that if the NCSE endorses the Episcopalians and Methodists and Universalists, that that will somehow endear them to the fundamentalists?

Finally, M&K take the low road and dig up the corpse of Darwin and make him waggle his bony finger at us.

Despite the resultant bitterness, however, there is at least one figure both sides respect — the man who started it all: Charles Darwin. What would he have done in this situation?

It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, “Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.”

Darwin and Dawkins differ by much more than a few letters, then — something the New Atheists ought to deeply consider.

Oh, Jebus. What a crock.

Darwin is not our saint. We disagree with Darwin on many things; we can agree that he was a brilliant scientist and entirely admirable person without feeling that we must therefore emulate him in every particular, or obey his every dictum. I also don’t think that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have earned the privilege of hiding behind Darwin’s skirts.

Darwin was a bourgeois Victorian gentleman, living in the 19th century, with fairly conservative social sensibilities. In case they hadn’t yet noticed, we are now living in the 21st century. Our culture is, I hope, a little bit more flexible on matters of religion than his was, and we aim to push a bit more.

Also in case they hadn’t noticed, what Darwin is advocating is the gradual illumination of minds with science by, for instance, publishing books about science for the lay public. Books that, for example, might lay out the evidence for evolution. Books with titles like The Greatest Show on Earth. Books that M&K belittle.

Seriously, try comparing the opening of their essay with its high-minded conclusion. Have we just determined that a 12 paragraph span is far enough that M&K will lose their train of thought and contradict themselves?

Finally, I can quote Charles Darwin, too. I prefer this line, in which he argues how best to defend his theory of evolution. It also applies to any idea anyone might think worthy.

Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for thus only can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

I choose to conscientiously express my convictions. I will laugh at those who think the best way to advance my ideas is by being more mealy-mouthed and by pandering to superstition.