Simple answers to stupid questions

PZ asks “Am I to be the next enemy of the NCSE?“:

No.

This has been your April 13, 2010 edition of simple answers to stupid questions.

Most of the rest of the piece is not really worth addressing, but I’ll note a rather serious error in PZ’s opening paragraph:

I’m a little worried. Jason Rosenhouse wrote about this new paper by Peter Hess, the Faith Project Director (I’m already rolling my eyes) of the NCSE, and I learn that the first failing of Intelligent Design creationism is that it is blasphemous.

No. Hess asks, “What are the central theological failings of intelligent design?” and answers that the first theological failing is that it is blasphemous. PZ’s ponderings over whether he would be considered blasphemous are rather different than an assessment of ID’s theological status. ID advocates offer their ideas not only as science, but as theology, and as such it is as relevant to ask whether it is good theology as whether it’s good science.

PZ does not present his ideas as theology. Hess describes theology as “reasoned discourse about God and about God‘s relationship with creation,” which PZ would (I suspect) regard as meaningless. Not only does he not think God exists (thus leaving no room for a relationship with creation), but PZ has made it clear that he thinks reasoned discourse about God is impossible – that the idea of God is inherently unreasonable.

Which is fine as far as it goes. If he were a theology professor, the charge of blasphemy might well be relevant, but as it stands, one presumes PZ doesn’t care about the theological merits of his views. IDolators do care about the theological merits of ID, and that’s an important difference.

It is why I find PZ’s post in its entirety so odd. If he doesn’t care about theology, why does he spend so much time on it? For what it’s worth, the Catholic Encyclopedia describes blasphemy as “gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem.” By that meaning, someone who doesn’t believe God exists cannot blaspheme, so PZ’s occasional efforts to perform blasphemy (e.g., Crackergate) only serve to undermine his claim to have no regard for theological or theistic beliefs. Sticking a nail through a consecrated host is only blasphemous if you think that the cracker in question is more than a “fracking cracker”: if you think it was meaningfully consecrated and is thus truly “host” to something worthy of worshipping.

As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

Comments

  1. #1 Marion Delgado
    April 12, 2010

    By my standards, PZ’s one of the most sensible TruSkeptix™ out there. He’s not pushing market fundamentalism, like about half of them do, he’s not a backdoor Crusader like Harris, Hitchens, etc. due to an allegedly secular Zionism, and while he does echo the rather brain-dead take on animal welfare (which take is an ironic mirror image of the more rabid PETA-ism or even ALF-ism), it’s not a big deal to him. Conversely, his liberal politics don’t incline him to give liberal anti-vaxxers any slack, which is also commendable.

    Moreover, when he was pointing out that Nisbett was over the top in his criticisms of PZ, as was Kwok, I agreed with him on both of them.

    Nonetheless, the post in question does seem to stem from groupthink.

    What kind of tunnel vision does it take to think the NCSE is your biggest problem as a secular humanist, atheist, or scientist? I don’t think PZ’s there, but his most frequent commenters really are there, and so is some of his collegial skeptics circle.

  2. #2 DaleP
    April 12, 2010

    You wrote:
    For what it’s worth, the Catholic Encyclopedia describes blasphemy as “gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem.” By that meaning, someone who doesn’t believe God exists cannot blaspheme…

    Not necessarily. The definition doesn’t say that the person asserting worthiness is the same as the person blaspheming. I think PZ is playing off other people’s sense that he is showing lack of respect. I think he was responding to what he sees as others’ inappropriate actions (university penalties for a student taking a cracker) with ridicule, by performing an act _they_ would see as blasphemous.

  3. #3 Orac
    April 12, 2010

    PZ asks “Am I to be the next enemy of the NCSE?”:

    No.

    This has been your April 13, 2010 edition of simple answers to stupid questions.

    Heh. Stupid question indeed. And, you’re right. It was an odd post that left me scratching my head.

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    April 12, 2010

    So…if I can’t possibly blaspheme, what was with all those devout Catholics accusing me of blasphemy, jesus-killing, and torture of a deity? It’s all very nice to say that atheists are exempt from committing offenses against god, but it rather ignores the reality of what people actually think.

    I understand you got stuck on the title question, but you should have gone farther. There were other concerns.

    Why does the NCSE have a Faith Projects Director? Why is he taking sides and saying what is and isn’t blasphemy? I thought you fellows were going to be neutral. It also wasn’t a stupid question: if the NCSE is going to pretend to be a theological authority that can declare an idea blasphemous, there’s no reason to assume you don’t believe you have the power to declare my ideas blasphemous.

    What about this claim that gods are excluded from science? Isn’t that simply saying that nothing gods do can be detectable?

    Now, you say “IDolators do care about the theological merits of ID” — I would agree. Do you think they sit there working over the one true theology and are now all slapping their foreheads and noticing that they were blaspheming? Or is it more likely that they’re smirking at Hess and thinking that they aren’t blasphemous at all in their theology, but Hess is?

    I’ll also mention again Jason Rosenhouse’s point: the same problems that Hess claims ID theology faces are still there for theistic evolution. Can we look forward to the defrocking of TE by the NCSE in the near future?

  5. #5 heddle
    April 13, 2010

    PZ can certainly blaspheme. A more accurate statement is probably: PZ cannot blaspheme any more than any non-believer.

    Read Rom 1:18. The word translated as ‘wrath’ suggests intense fury. God is furious with those who suppress the truth—i.e., unbelievers. God is not going to be “a wee bit more furious” because PZ (after a week-long drum roll) put a nail through a cracker.

    As for PZ’s post, it didn’t surprise me at all. Of the new atheist writers, PZ is the best and certainly the funniest. (Contrast PZ with Coyne, who gives no indication of having a sense of humor.) PZ’s flaw is an extreme “hey look at me” syndrome. Hey look at me on the dino! Hey look at me desecrating a cracker! Hey look at me the next enemy of the NCSE!

  6. #6 Phillip IV
    April 13, 2010

    Simple answers to stupid questions:

    If he doesn’t care about theology, why does he spend so much time on it?

    Because it’s responsible for so much of what’s wrong with this world.

    Seriously, if somebody wants to enjoy their delusions in peace, they can rent a nice, padded room in a lovely little lunatic asylum and rant and rave to their heart’s content. But if they drag their delusions into discussions on public policy issue, said delusions are a legitimate concern of everybody, including people who don’t suffer from the same.

    Otherwise, the matter would be a little one-sided – Religious people could bash atheism, because that is arguably a legitimate theological concern, but atheists couldn’t bash religion because they have no business being part of a “theological discussion”. A bit unfair, methinks.

  7. #7 csrster
    April 13, 2010

    “Hess describes theology as “reasoned discourse about God and about God‘s relationship with creation,” which PZ would (I suspect) regard as meaningless. Not only does he not think God exists (thus leaving no room for a relationship with creation), but PZ has made it clear that he thinks reasoned discourse about God is impossible – that the idea of God is inherently unreasonable.”

    One could still have a reasoned discussion about God which comes to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.

  8. #8 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    April 13, 2010

    Can we look forward to the defrocking of TE by the NCSE in the near future?

    Are TEs actively working to promote ID/creationism in public schools? If not, why attempt to ‘defrock’ them?

  9. #9 Wayne Hollyoak
    April 13, 2010

    Claiming that God doesn’t exist doesn’t change the fact that His existence is more profound then our own. Darwinism and his “evolution” are classic denial and self-justification. Blasphemy is the extreme expression of that denial.

    The scientific establishment is the worst offender, since they see the Creator’s engineering excellence and beauty every day, but attribute it to genetic errors and such!

    Wayne Hollyoak

  10. #10 RickK
    April 13, 2010

    PZ’s position seems clear to me. Whether fundamentalist or secular “bridge builder”, any acknowledgement of a supernatural supreme being for which there is no evidence is just silly.

    Personally, while guilty of bridge-building myself, I am sympathetic to PZ. There’s no more reason to believe in the actual existence of a personal god than there is to believe in the existence of a Toyota Prius orbiting Alpha Centauri.

    But there are targets much more deserving of scorn than NCSE.

    As for “why does PZ spend so much time on religion/theology”, that’s just a silly question. 99.9% of the assault on science and rationality comes from religious/spiritual circles. When what you value (science, rationality, the wonders of the REAL world) is attacked daily by a well-funded, highly organized enemy, you can’t be expected to be indifferent.

  11. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    April 13, 2010

    When the Roman emperor Constantine first summoned a council of Christian leaders, expecting an exalted session of high-minded philosophy and ethics, he was rather taken aback that their first priority was denouncing their rivals as heretics and demanding expulsions and executions.

    Following this noble tradition, what else could the Nat’l Ctr for “Science” Education’s official doctrinist do but declare what is acceptably orthodox and what is guaranteed to provoke the unbearable Wrath of Heaven?

    I for one eagerly await the Prophet Peter Hess’s next fatwa!

  12. #12 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 13, 2010

    It is why I find PZ’s post in its entirety so odd. If he doesn’t care about theology, why does he spend so much time on it?

    Dude, you’ve really jumped the shark with this one. What’s next? “I know you are but what am I?”

    C’mon, man. You’re smarter than this.

  13. #13 Deepak Shetty
    April 13, 2010

    Simple answers to stupid questions – Part 2
    “If he doesn’t care about theology, why does he spend so much time on it?”
    Since you seem to be adept at answering stupid questions , how about an attempt on this one?

  14. #14 Matti K
    April 13, 2010

    This is what one finds at the FAQ of NCSE:

    ————————-
    What is NCSE’s religious position?

    None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious.
    ——————————–

    I thought the job of Hess and other employees of NCSE was to sell science (softly) to the religious by convincing them that science is fully compatible with their religion.

    Now it seems that Hess has shifted to “hard sell”-tactics by branding non-combatibilist believers as blasphemers. How is this a win for science education

    Using theological arguments in order to promote scientific thinking sounds crazy in the ears of an atheist. I’m quite convinced this “hard sell”-method will not work among the true believers. So what is the point?

  15. #15 'Tis Himself, OM
    April 13, 2010

    As an atheist I have no particular interest in theology. I don’t care if angels dancing on the heads of pins are waltzing or doing the macarena. However, and this is a major however, I am affected by theology. When goddists use theological arguments to replace science with mythology in schools and who may or may not get married, then theology becomes important to me.

    It surprises me that a supposedly intelligent person like Josh fails to understand this concept.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    April 13, 2010

    Matti K.: “Now it seems that Hess has shifted to ‘hard sell’-tactics by branding non-combatibilist believers as blasphemers. How is this a win for science education”

    The non-compatibilist believers are IDers, and calling the IDers blasphemers is a way to discourage people from accepting ID. More people rejecting ID == Win for science education. Come on, that’s not rocket science.

  17. #17 Josh Rosenau
    April 13, 2010

    PZ: “what was with all those devout Catholics accusing me of blasphemy, jesus-killing, and torture of a deity?”

    I’m inclined to think they were all douchebags who were talking out of their asses.

    “it rather ignores the reality of what people actually think.”

    So, I would argue, does the claim that science and religion are incompatible.

    “Why does the NCSE have a Faith Projects Director?”

    It’s actually “Faith Project Director.” As in, the person who directs the Faith Project. Why have a faith project at all? Because religious communities can play a powerful role in defending evolution in public schools, which is NCSE’s mission. More discussion here: http://ncse.com/rncse/22/1-2/why-ncse-should-be-involved-science-religion-dialog and here: http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2010/03/ncse_science_education_and_rel.php

    But I’ll also quote one of the other posters here, who writes (in your support, PZ):

    As for “why does PZ spend so much time on religion/theology”, that’s just a silly question. 99.9% of the assault on science and rationality comes from religious/spiritual circles. When what you value (science, rationality, the wonders of the REAL world) is attacked daily by a well-funded, highly organized enemy, you can’t be expected to be indifferent.

    NCSE is neutral toward religion per se, but for the same reasons put so eloquently by RickK, NCSE cannot be indifferent to the particular claims which attack evolution. As many of those claims come not from science but theology, it’s handy to have someone around who is trained in theology.

    “Why is he taking sides and saying what is and isn’t blasphemy?”

    Because he’s a trained theologian, and that’s part of what theologians do.

    “I thought you fellows were going to be neutral.”

    NCSE is institutionally neutral toward religion. Peter is Catholic, I’m agnostic, Genie’s an atheist. Other people have their own personal views. In saying that ID is blasphemous, he’s not issuing a fatwa or encyclical against ID based on his own authority within the religious community or his own private line to a deity, he’s reporting the view of the many theologians who’ve considered the issue. Just the same as a philosopher who writes that ID seeks to redefine science is not issuing a fatwa or relying on personal authority, but is applying his subject expertise to the question and reporting his own findings and the consensus of his professional field. And just as a scientist who says that ID claims are scientifically inaccurate is not relying on personal authority, but examination of the claims and application of personal expertise and a knowledge of the consensus within his or her community.

    “…if the NCSE is going to pretend to be a theological authority…”

    Which it isn’t. NCSE has got a theological expert on staff, who is certainly entitled to write about his field and express and interpret the considered views of the academic theological community. But his saying that compels no one else to agree with him. That’s the difference between being an expert and being an authority.

    “What about this claim that gods are excluded from science? Isn’t that simply saying that nothing gods do can be detectable?”

    No, it’s the claim that gods can do things which are not detectable. An omnipotent god could choose to do detectable things, or choose not to. Thus, the absence of detectable evidence is not detectable evidence of absence. Not a question of theology so much as a question of philosophy of science and philosophy of religion.

    “Now, you say ‘IDolators do care about the theological merits of ID’ — I would agree. Do you think they sit there working over the one true theology and are now all slapping their foreheads and noticing that they were blaspheming?”

    No, I think they’re upset that the community of theologians, including Hess, has judged their idea to be bad theology on top of bad science. They are no more convinced by those theological results than they are by the results of philosophers and scientists who found ID to be bad philosophy and bad science. They are likely to be upset because they need external support of scientists and philosophers and theologians to wedge their ideas into classrooms. Articles like Hess’s make that harder. As do articles like mine, in the same issue of that law review.

    Furthermore, as the Dover trial shows, such articles are frustrating to the legal hopes of ID. If ID can claim to be either not religious at all, or to have theological implications so vague as to be no more religious than, say, the Pledge of Allegiance, then they might stand a chance of surviving court challenges. But theologians coming forward in court and observing the widely-held theological view that ID is a religious view that is antithetical to most mainstream Christian theologies makes it a sectarian view, which the government can’t promote. Hence the relevance of this article to a law review.

    “I’ll also mention again Jason Rosenhouse’s point: the same problems that Hess claims ID theology faces are still there for theistic evolution. Can we look forward to the defrocking of TE by the NCSE in the near future?”

    I’ll work up a reply to Jason’s post anon. I’ve even asked Peter if he’d like to write a guest post addressing some of the points raised by you and Jason. I hope you don’t mind a short delay before that full reply. But to give a hint, I’ll be making reference to the doctrine of double effect, among other things.

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 13, 2010

    In employing the principle of double effect I hope you will come up with something better than Ayala’s “Evolution is exciting,” argument. I am eager to hear what compensating good could possibly justify unleashing the horror of the evolutionary process.

    One of the raps I always hear about creationists is that they act as if theirs is the only valid approach to religion. It’s pretty galling that now our side is doing the same thing.

  19. #19 Matti K.
    April 14, 2010

    JR: “In saying that ID is blasphemous, he’s (Hess) not issuing a fatwa or encyclical against ID based on his own authority within the religious community or his own private line to a deity, he’s reporting the view of the many theologians who’ve considered the issue.”

    I have the impression that amongst theologicans there are much deeper differences of views than amongst scientists working within natural sciences. That is quite expected, since the former have far less possibilities to confirm and falsify statements objectively.

    Do you really expect non-compatibilist theologicans to accept science as their saviour, when compatibilist theologicans tell them that they are blasphemists? There certainly are enough theologicans around who think that following the literal word of God is not blasphemy. I think there is a nil chance of getting such argument to be discussed in court.