Secular hooligans?

I have no idea if the staff at ScienceBlogs anticipated just how popular the religion vs. atheism debate would be on these pages, but it would seem we're not the only home of passionate and often thoughtful argument over the God Question. Over at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, there a fascinating example of what sets a science-oriented forums apart from those that appeal to a more general audience. Jacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor and program director at Georgetown University, recently complained that secularists are boring, and argued that atheists haven't come up with a new idea in more than a century. Really?

That's an argument that I don't think would go down to well in these parts. Seems to me that Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and even Sam Harris (and of course PZ Myers) have made some pretty decent contributions to the debate in the form of applying evolutionary theory to the search for explanations for religiosity. But Berlinerblau, a social scientist, comes to a different conclusion:

Nonbelievers of late have been churning out loud, unsubtle, anti-religious manifestos. The world would be a better place, they all seem to suggest, if religion and all of its associated personnel were simply to disappear. In this regards the new nonbelievers seem stuck in the '90s--and by this I mean the 1890s. This calls attention to one glaring problem with atheism and agnosticism today: it lacks new ideas. The movement abounds in polemicists, but has not produced a thinker of real substance since perhaps the days of Jean-Paul Sartre.

He also refers to "nonbelievers whose best-selling spokespersons are fast becoming the soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse."

The last time I checked, his post had attracted some 307 comments, and many of them were similarly puzzled by this failure to acknowledge the scientific argument.

Others pointed that atheists haven't needed any new ideas, having reached self-evident truth long ago, and pointed out that it's not like defenders of the faith have had anything new to say in oh... the last 1300 years or so.

Claiming the truth is not a particularly scientific notion. But I have to agree that it's not fair to argue atheists are bereft of ideas, especially when those of the theists are so tired and discredited.

I exchanged some email with Berlinerblau, but he didn't really shed any more light on his reasoning. And I have concluded that not only is there is wide chasm between science and faith, but between those who bring a scientific perspective to the debate, and those who do so from a social theory background.

I prefer the former.

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Wait... you prefer those who come from a social theory background?

Are you sure you didn't mean 'former'?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Jul 2007 #permalink

Scientific argument? That's part of the problem. In my experience, most people do not/can not think that way. The scientific arguments don't trump their default modes of thinking, and to them the scientific approach is just another belief.

A simple example: heliocentrism. Why do some large percentage of Americans (I've forgotton the exact #) believe in this? A. it makes no difference in their lives, and b.) they don't understand the methods and data. I've been told that it is only "a mathematical arguement."

Even more fun, ask yourself (without peeking): How you know the earth rotates and how do you know it is in orbit around the sun? Have you done the experiments? Do you even know what experiments would need to be done? After finishing that exercise, ask how the way most people learned about heliocentrism is any different than learning religion from the pulpit.