Stranger Fruit

As I see it …

There is a flamefest going on at the moment regarding atheism, agnosticism and creationism and it strikes me that many of us are missing the wood for the trees. I hope most of us can agree on the following:

  • It has been claimed that there are two broad groups within the pro-science movement: those that see the issue in terms of science versus anti-science within the classroom and those that see that issue as being part of a larger cultural battle between science (identified with “rationalism”) and religion (identified with “superstition”). Clearly, this broad-stroke characterization is a little simplistic, but it has received support from both groups. Talk of the “Neville Chamberlain ‘apeasement’ [sic] school” of evolutionists only strengthens the apparent divide.
  • Both sides are committed to scientific thinking as a way of knowing about the natural world. Individuals may differ in their commitment to the existence of anything outside the natural world, or for that matter, their interest in such a question.
  • While some in the first pro-science group are theists (e.g. Ken Miller), none are advocating teaching non-scientific ideas in science classrooms or, for that matter, any injection of religion into public school classrooms. They remain strong supporters of the separation of church and state and thus broadly support the second group in the cultural battle with respect to attempts to inject (private) religious beliefs into the public sphere. They may however differ with the second group in the possible value (positive or negative) of these private beliefs.
  • Members of the second pro-science group tend to be atheists, and despite rhetorical flourishes adopted from Dawkins’ ‘muscular atheism’, none are advocating “stoning, disembowlment [sic], burning at the stake, or other forms of auto de fe” (source) of theists, or for that matter rounding them up and putting them into camps.
  • Both sides have, on occasion, indulged in excessive sniping, mischaracterizing of the others, and perhaps excessive certainty of their own correctness.

 I’ll just repeat what I said on November 20th:

What worries me here is that infighting among people who share a common cause (good science education) will prevent the effective championing of that cause.

Note what I’m saying – I’m not worried whether PZ or Moran being vocal atheists is preventing the effective championing of the cause. I am worried that infighting within the community is making us perhaps less effective.

I may, of course, have this totally wrong.


  1. #1 PZ Myers
    November 24, 2006

    It’s all well and good to set yourself up as an impartial moderator here, but I’ll remind you that in your previous post on this subject you did a little labeling yourself: “it is also a form of intellectual fundamentalism, a mindset that exactly mirrors that of Gish, Ham and fellow travelers. ”

    You’ve taken sides already. You think the “Neville Chamberlain school of appeasement” is a phrase that strengthens the divide, but comparing others to Ham and Gish and calling them fundamentalists is helping things?

  2. #2 John Lynch
    November 24, 2006

    Oh for fark sake. I give up!

    Yes, I’ve taken sides and now I’m trying to establish some common ground so that we can try and work together. It’s called attempted diplomacy.

    You didn’t even make a single attempt to agree with (or refute) the points I made. I’m beginning to think you and Moran don’t want any common ground. You want it to be the brave underdog atheists versus “The Rest”.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    November 24, 2006

    No, quite the opposite. I want us brave underdog atheists merely recognized as a respectable part of our grand strategy. There is this reflexive, unthinking prejudice that you exercised in your previous post, that Hayes and Brayton have gone further and made the centerpiece of their arguments, that says that the atheist element on the evolution side is the domain of “fundamentalists”, and worse, that the only good contributors to the debate are the theistic evolutionists and the unbelievers who will quietly avoid challenging the religious component of creationism. There is a palpable appeasement strategy in effect; I agree with you that putting it in terms of schools or camps or teams is divisive, but there is really an argument of some substance under it all.

    That’s why I responded to Hayes. Sure, we both think theistic evolution is a crock, but if your concern is mending bridges, why do you wait until I wrote something protesting that Brayton’s separation into “Ed’s Team” vs. everyone else is obnoxious and offensive to complain? You read the blatant division he was promoting and agreed with it! You cheerfully joined in the accusations of fundamentalism!

    You were strongly advocating the division and were clearly a member of that “other side” — you have to recognize that you can’t now play the credible middleman, especially when the best olive branch you have to offer is the admission that we fundamentalists weren’t really planning to burn anyone at the stake. Woo hoo! Thanks! I feel so much better now that you really understand me!

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    November 24, 2006

    Nobody advocating good science education has any problem with atheists. PZ, you imply that atheists are being suppressed by those who support the idea that even the religious can be in favor of good science education. That’s simply not the case.

    What many of us have a problem with is those who are consistently and stridently rude and insulting to those who aren’t atheists, and those who claim a moral and intellectual authority in their views on religion simply because they are atheists.

    It’s not the atheism that’s the problem. It’s not the declaration of atheism that’s the problem. It’s the antisocial behavior that’s the problem.

    Many of what you like to call the “Neville Chamberlain” set are atheists, and I suspect (but don’t have evidence) that most of them are either atheists or agnostics. And the very vast majority of them strongly believe that atheists can be moral, and are entirely in support of the underdog atheists. What they reject is the notion that you have to be an atheist to really be somebody who is fully fighting the good fight.


  5. #5 Jim Lippard
    November 24, 2006

    I’d just like to cast a vote in favor of a diversity of approaches and viewpoints and in favor of constructive in-fighting.

    And I’m also in favor of misanthropes and curmudgeons, so long as they’re witty.

    (I don’t favor a ban on admitting students into biology programs because they don’t believe in evolution, however.)

  6. #6 Larry Moran
    November 24, 2006

    After years of keeping quiet, I was prompted to enter this debate after attending a meeting organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The title of the symposium was “Teaching the Science of Evolution under the Threat of Alternative Views”. You can see the video by following the link.

    Now, it seemed to me entirely inappropriate to emphasize Miller’s religion when introducing him at a scientific conference. It seemed inappropriate to invite Rev. Ted Peters to give one of the talks. It seemed inappropriate for Eugenie Scott to praise Miller but take a swipe at Dawkins.

    For me that was the tipping point. Now, I know it sounds childish to say “they started it” but it’s important to keep it in mind. Atheists have kept their mouths shut for years but the attack on atheistic views–and the praise of religious scientists–have escalated in recent years.

    I was getting tired of being told that atheists were not welcome but religious scientists were.

  7. #7 Chris Ho-Stuart
    November 24, 2006

    Don’t give up John. And Paul; stop being so stupid.

    We have views on matters, and there are points on which we disagree. This is not a bad thing, in itself. In fact it would be massively ironic for a bunch of smart people involved in the sciences to be in lock stop on everything!

    Some disagreements are reasonable. Some are pretty clearly a case where one side or the other is weak. And we may disagree on which one are which.

    In my opinion, much of the bad feeling in recent months goes back to some posts at Pharyngula in relation to Ken Miller. Paul had a few reasonable points; and some that were utterly idiotic. I still don’t think he recognizes just how stupid they were. He’s retracted some; and continued in others. In particular; Paul spoke of repression and censorship and of blaming atheists for creationism. Miller advocated none of those.

    That’s set a context for a lot of what has followed.

    On the other side of the coin, Paul is a tremendous asset to science education. His blog is best of the web (sorry John; you’re up there but Paul is my absolute favourite). He makes good science fun, and he is great at ripping into creationist nonsense. His open atheism is — in my opinion — very welcome indeed. This is not about hiding atheism, or about being silent about disagreements over God’s existence.

    The down side is that Paul gets mean-spirited from time to time against those of us who are happy to get along with theists in the sciences. Note that getting along with is not the same as being silent about disagreements over God. I think Miller’s style of theistic evolution is a God of the quantum gaps; its not remotely credible. But it doesn’t mean he’s damaging science education. I don’t think he is; and I don’t mind if we disagree on that… which brings us to:

    There is a secondary issue of some genuine disagreements. Paul (I think?) considers all religion to be antithetical to science. I don’t. I don’t think puts us on different sides; it just means we have a point of disagreement. And that is no problem to me at all. Neither is it a problem to me if Paul speaks up to defend his views.

    But I think it is entirely legitimate to identify Paul’s position as an extreme (not in being an atheist, but in thinking anyone who ISN’T an atheist is soft in the head and is part of a problem facing science education — and if that is not a fair paraphase of your point don’t rip my head off for it. I’m really trying here.) And I think “fundamentalist atheist” is a fair description. It’s not meant to be nasty.

    Several people are trying to speak a bit of sense here, and identify a way to get a more healthy climate in which we can disagree without all the invective. John Wilkins, and John Lynch especially. Paul — you need to take a hard look at yourself and try to recognize you are part of a problem here, and that others are trying to help us all fix it up. You’re not helping in that effort; not at all.

    John — keep it up. It doesn’t matter if Paul never gets it; your trying to speak up and think through matters like this is very welcome indeed. Paul — you’re still best blog of the web for making good science accessible and laying bare creationist foolishness. Keep it up.

    Cheers Chris

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    November 25, 2006

    Chris, I think you might be right to seome degree about the cause being PZ’s posts about Kent Miller, but I thought that PZ’s reading of what Miller said was pretty reasonable. It might not be what Miller ment, but it was what it sounded like to some of us. Miller clearified, and PZ did so as well.

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