before we … endorse Coyne’s self-congratulation for never having “criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner,” it’s worth taking a quick glance at his blog, where it’s hard to find a post that doesn’t devolve into ad hom (unless it’s about kittens). Starting with the most recent example, earlier this week Coyne called Deepak Chopra (not someone I particularly admire, but a writer nonetheless) “Deepity Chopra,” whose significant wealth he calls “an indictment of America.”
Prior to this he suggests that the critiques (“tripe”) of Phil Zuckerman–writer and scholar–are motivated mainly by jealousy of the New Atheists’ book sales. Thomas Jackson writes “babble,” Mary Midgley is “dumb” and “superannuated” (Coyne loves the 10 cent words Hitchens and Grayling teach him). Elaine Ecklund is a “disingenuous” “Templeton-funded automaton,” (regular readers of Coyne’s blog will learn that everyone funded by Templeton has been horribly corrupted), Laurie Lebo has “lost neurons,” Rob Knop is “mushbrained,” and Josh Rosenau has been taken over by a demon. That’s just in the last 3 weeks.
Jeremy Strangroom (co-author of several books with prominent gnu atheist Ophelia Benson):
According to Russell Blackford, the New Atheists are not, generally speaking, uncivil.…
I thought I’d very quickly check out Blackford’s claim of civility. I typed “Colgate” into his search box. The first post it returned included these gems from the polite professor:
“For those who haven’t seen it, more stupidity from the Colgate Twins”
(Note: The term ‘Colgate Twins’ is a comment on the appearance of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. This is the way many of the New Atheists took to referring to them. An indication of how widespread it was is the fact that Blackford doesn’t actually have to name them in this piece. Likely, the New Atheists will claim that their use of the term is a satirical criticism of Mooney’s self-promotion, blah, blah… which, of course, is bollocks: it’s just a cheap, classless attack on their appearance).
“here’s the latest nonsensical rant from the twins. Enjoy. Or not. Yawn.”
“It will take more than these two privileged nitwits with bright, toothy smiles to get us to shut up.”…
This is how New Atheists will defend this sort of thing…:
1. They deserved it. Of course, we’re against incivility. But, you know, sometimes it’s required. Happily we’re the arbiters of when it’s required. Hurrah!
2. Ah no, this is taken out of context. In context, this is actually quite mild. Because Chris Mooney is a threat to civilisation as we know it. Oh yes, and to our free speech. And that’s much worse.
3. They started it.
4. Their abuse is worse than ours.
5. Yes, but we like kittens; and we’re adorable. Srsly. Lolz!
Strangroom doesn’t mention the other insulting nickname given to Mooney and Kirshenbaum: “Mooneytits and Cockenbaum,” a far more problematic phrase which popped up on various gnu blogs, and that I never recall seeing called out by the regulars (though I don’t spend tons of time in the comment sections). And while we’re adding to this particular bonfire, I’ll note that the term “faitheist” was invented by gnus for the sole purpose of giving their opponents within the non-theist community an insulting name. They already had “accommodationist” – as ill-defined and divisive as that phrase often is – but had to invent a new term to further express their derision. Again, I don’t recall anyone among the gnus objecting to the idea of coyning this phrase.
Both of the quotations above are reactions to Russell Blackford’s reply to Jean Kazez’s thoughtful post on The Emperor’s Gnu Clothes. I reproduced much of Strangroom’s post, but Schoen covers a lot of other ground, including a nice critique of the “emperor’s clothes” gambit in criticism of religion, a gambit Kazez turns around in an interesting way.
Kazez starts out by saying:
I’m always trying to figure out how it could be that I liked the first books of the new atheists so much, but I’m so thoroughly not on board with the so-called “gnus”–the contingent that makes fun of the way new atheists are criticized for militancy by adopting a militant name. (Think gays calling themselves “queer.”) Finally, a moment of clarity. Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have posts today that make it crystal clear why I’ve gotten off the train.
After using the emperor to make a general point, she returns to the particular cases that got her thinking, and explains what bugs her about them in particular, and how they illustrate the broader problem.
By contrast, I can’t say that I liked the first books of the new atheists. When I was offered a review copy of The End of Faith, I took it because I was and am basically sympathetic to atheism and wanted to see the latest arguments, and because I’m definitely excited about standing up against authoritarian religion. But the book appalled me. The premise that religion per se was responsible for the various evils attributed to it simply didn’t hang together (as Harris’s own footnotes made clear at times), the idea that moderate or liberal theists validate fundamentalism is absurd and readily falsified within 5 minutes of talking to a moderate theist, and the notion that Muslims can’t be deterred by a nuclear threat, and thus we must consider a genocidal pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran, was too much to stomach.
I was excited to get a review copy of The God Delusion, because Dawkins is generally great and I was curious to see him work through a broad defense of his atheism. But I found it unserious and lacking in the depth of thought I’ve come to expect from him. The gratuitously insulting treatment of NCSE (this was before I was working at NCSE, by the way), of Stephen Jay Gould, and of other non-theists who happen to disagree with Dawkins just turned me off. The whole “Neville Chamberlain appeaser” meme remains a low point in an often low debate. There was a troubling anti-intellectualism to his handling of ideas that bugged me, as discussed here.
But when Russell claims in the post linked above that I “wish that the Gnus would go away,” he’s wrong. I wish they’d make better arguments, ones which engage the peer reviewed literature in the relevant fields, including philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, science/religion studies, metaethics, and even theology. I wish they cited that literature more, and I wish they published their arguments there and engaged with the relevant communities of scholars that way, rather than just through blogs, and TED talks, and mass-market books and magazines. I wish they’d study the literature of social movement theory, and take what lessons can be learned from past efforts to change society and apply that research to their own efforts. I wish they’d lay out some sort of consensus platform, including both big principles and practical changes to be made. I wish they’d work with, rather than against, their most likely allies. I wish they wouldn’t drive wedges within the pro-science movement, and would focus their righteous ire on the religious authoritarians who deserve it, or who at least we all agree deserve it most. I don’t want them to go away, I want them to be better at what they’re trying to do.
None of the foregoing is meant to set myself up as a perfect role model. I’ve been divisive. I’ve responded in kind to attacks on myself and my colleagues, not always with proportionate responses, and sometimes with too little provocation (not that two wrongs would make a right anyway). But it’s the internet, and the flamewar is a time-honored tradition, and taking part in one – even starting one – is not inherently discrediting. In my defense, I’ve made an effort to root my claims in the relevant research literature, in polling and philosophy, and referring to consensus statements where possible, and not cherry-picking. I think I’ve focused my criticism on the ideas and forms of argument rather than individuals, though I’m sure I could be better about that. I’m not a saint, and I don’t expect anyone else to be, either, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect self-proclaimed protectors of a “scientific worldview” based on “facts” and “science and reason” to behave according to the norms of scientific behavior, to avoid logical errors (including the fundamental attribution error), to focus on ideas not namecalling, on evidence not personal taste, and on ideas not personalities. It won’t always work out that way, but it’s a fair expectation. It’s a standard I hold myself to, as well.