Politicians and Critics

By Sean Carroll | March 23, 2008 6:21 pm

Bit of a kerfuffle over at DramaBlogs ScienceBlogs, in the wake of PZ Myers’s visit to a screening of Ben Stein’s new anti-evolution movie, Expelled. PZ apparently signed up online for tickets to a screening (under his own name), but upon arrival he was recognized by the organizers, and asked to leave. Expelled from Expelled! It’s the 21st century, we all have to re-calibrate our irony meters. Adding to the fun was the fact that the rest of PZ’s party was allowed to continue in to see the movie — and among the friends he had dragged along was Richard Dawkins, who was apparently not recognized. This is too delicious a story to pass up, and it’s already been reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.

But not everyone is amused, even on the pro-science side. Chris Mooney complains that the controversy gives a huge boost, in the form of priceless publicity, to Expelled and its supporters. People who never would have heard of the movie will now be curious to see it; the filmmakers are already gloating about all the attention.

I think that Chris is right: this is publicity for the movie that they couldn’t possibly have received any other way, and PZ and Dawkins are basically doing exactly what the filmmakers were hoping for all along.

And they should keep right on doing it.

To understand why, consider the much more intemperate response by Matt Nisbet, Chris’s partner in the Framing Science game. They have been exhorting scientists to communicate more effectively by framing issues in a way that resonate with their audiences. This sounds like very good advice, and in fact kind of obvious and uncontroversial. But when ask to give examples, Chris and Matt often choose Richard Dawkins as their poster boy for what not to do. Personally I think that Dawkins has been very good for the cultural discourse overall, but Matt and Chris fear that his avowed atheism will turn people against science, making things easier for folks who want to fight against evolution in public schools.

In his post, Matt is perfectly blatant: PZ and Dawkins are hurting the cause, and should just shut up. When called up by the media, they should decline to speak, instead suggesting that the reporter contact someone who can give the pro-evolution message in a way that is friendlier to religion.

As you might expect, neither PZ, nor Dawkins, nor any of their ilk (and I count myself among them) are likely to follow this undoubtedly well-intentioned advice, as this pithy rejoinder demonstrates. The heart of the difference in approaches is evident in the analogies that Matt brings up, namely to political campaigns:

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

When Chris and Matt talk to the PZ/Dawkins crowd, they do a really bad job of understanding and working within the presuppositions of their audience — exactly what framing is supposed to be all about. To the Framers, what’s going on is an essentially political battle; a public-relations contest, pitting pro-science vs. anti-science, where the goal is to sway more people to your side. And there is no doubt that such a contest is going on. But it’s not all that is going on, and it’s not the only motivation one might have for wading into discussions of science and religion.

There is a more basic motivation: telling the truth.

What Matt and Chris (seemingly) fail to understand is that PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are not trying to be successful politicians, persuading the largest number of people to come over to their side. They have no interest in being politicians. They are critics, and their goal is to say correct things about the world and argue against incorrect statements. Of course, they would certainly like to see evolution rather than creationism taught in schools, and ultimately they would be very happy if all of humanity were persuaded of the correctness of their views. But their books and blogs about science and religion are not strategic documents designed to bring about some desired outcome; they are attempts to say true things about issues they care about. Telling them “Shut up! You’ll offend the sensibilities of people we are trying to persuade!” is like talking to a brick wall, or at least in an alien language. You will have to frame things much better than that.

Politicians and critics often don’t get along. And the choice to be one or the other usually comes down more to the personality of the individual rather than some careful cost-benefit analysis. (You know that PZ will be regaling youngsters with the story of how he was expelled from Expelled for decades to come.) I’m very much in the mold of a critic; one of my first ever blog posts was why I could never be a politician. It’s easy enough to tell the difference: even if a critic knew for a fact that a certain true statement would harm their cause politically, they would still insist on saying it.

But one stance or the other is not better nor worse; society very much needs both politicians and critics. The job of a critic sounds very lofty — speaking truth to power, heedless of extraordinary social pressures and the hooting condemnation of a benighted populace. But if everyone were a critic, it would be a disaster. We need politicians to actually things done, and (in the rare instances where it is carried out with integrity) the role of a politician should be one of the most honored in society. A gifted politician will understand the contours of what is possible, and work within the constraints posed by the real world to move society in a better direction.

However, we also need critics. If everyone were a politician, it would be equally disastrous. In Bernard Shaw’s famous phrasing, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The perfect can be the enemy of the good, but if we don’t have a loud and persistent chorus of voices reminding us of how far short we fall of perfection, we won’t work as hard as we can to get there.

And we should hardly be surprised that bloggers and polemicists tend to be critics rather than politicians. We should have people out there selling evolution to skeptical listeners who might be committed to religion and suspicious of science. But that doesn’t mean that sincere voices who believe that thinking scientifically sends you down the path to atheism should be told to shut up. Without stubborn critics who refuse to compromise on their vision of the truth, our discourse would be an enormously poorer place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
  • http://xeny.net Jason Grossman

    Well said!

  • http://www.canicula.com/wp/ Ian Robinson

    Hear! Hear!

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    After that criticism I stopped reading The Intersection, I honestly can’t remember whether it’s Mooney’s or Nisbet’s or someone else’s blog, but I’ve gotten fed up with them. It’s so utterly obvious that this isn’t going to help them more than it hurts them, and that they would think that it’s some unmitigated disaster is just beyond me.

    But what I really wanted to say is that the comparison you quoted is so ridiculously unapt for one specific reason, scientists don’t have PR people. Sure, there are groups like the NCSE, but they’re small and relatively powerless, especially compared to the monsters like AiG and the DI. Bloggers like PZ and authors like Dawkins are pretty much all we’ve got, and if they stop trying to tell people what’s good science and why then we’d pretty much be reduced to silence. And sure, there are people like Mooney and Nisbet who want to take up the cause and would love to be mouthpieces for Science, but it doesn’t work that way. Granted their efforts are doubtless useful, but their desire to silence scientist-atheists from talking about anything is just idiotic.

    And someone should probably remind Mooney that a book called, “The Republican War on Science” probably shouldn’t be talking about alienating large swathes of people.

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    A sociologist who hangs out at Pharyngula sums up the essential irony better than I can:

    What Nisbet doesn’t seem to understand is that PZ and Dawkins are framing all of this quite successfully–and they have opponents who are helping them out.

    Throughout, they have been focusing on the dishonesty of the folks who’ve made the movie–in the contracts, in their attaching of Darwin to Fascism/Nazism/Comunism, in their “reportage” of the situation involving ID in the academy, on their use of “Big Science” conspiricism. Consistent in his response to these folks, PZ has focused on their dishonesty. It’s almost as though he’s strategically selecting one particular aspect of all the things that are happening and using them in a strategic fashion in order to discredit the folks who made the film as dishonest…..

    The wonderful thing is that by focusing on this particular aspect, is that they just keep on reinforcing this particular “the producers are liars” frame…He could focus on the minutiae of the science, as Nisbet would have him, but framing his opponents as liars who are not to be trusted undermines their entire message, which also happens to be mostly lies.

    Read the full comment here.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    Mooney and Nisbet are understandably nervous: they really do care about this issue, and it kills them inside to read little old ladies shocked about how obnoxious those nasty atheists are when they come across PZ and Dawkins. I see that as sincere enough.

    And PZ in particular is, indeed, more than just an outspoken atheist: he really can be obnoxious. But the thing is: that’s his charm in the first place, and that’s why he has one of, if not the most popular scienceblogs on the planet. People come en masse out to hear Chris Rock, not some polite dude rambling on about zebrafish.

    That success and publicity may or may not offend some little old lady somewhere, and it may even turn a person near to coming over to our side off somewhat. But there’s no denying that it has its place, and that it has been successful in gaining far more attention to the cause of science, as well as firing up people to care more about the issue, than Mooney or Nisbet have achieved.

    The thing is: the only way out is through. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Atheists are out now, and we’re going to be rousing rabble regardless of cautions. I certainly have plenty of opinions about the best ways to talk and not to talk to religious people about science issues. But “hide the atheists” just isn’t a viable strategic option, even if it WOULD help.

    It might be a bit messier, but we’re going to win these debates WITH Dawkins and PZ and Harris and all the rest riding shotgun, and that’s just the way it is. Nisbet and Mooney need to just get over it, and maybe put their minds to ways to talk to religious people that’s going to include trying to educate them about atheism too.

  • Pingback: Success and Failure « PowerUp

  • observer

    Probably the most offensive thing Richard Dawkins is capable of doing is to offer someone a cup of tea. Why all the criticism?

    The problem is that many people are (or display themselves as being) offended by the facts themselves. It is these (staged?) displays of outrage and indignation that stifle free speech and silence critics (directly, and also via pressure from people who tell them to shut up and stop “offending” people).

    These displays of outrage and indignation should not be taken at face value, but instead should be viewed as a ploy to silence critics.

  • Pingback: Expelled! Producers So Busy Expelling PZ Myers that They Missed Richard Dawkins « The Bad Idea Blog

  • SLC

    The sad part of all of this is that Mr. Mooney used to be an OK guy. Then he met Prof.Nisbet and was brainwashed by him. Too bad he didn’t join Prof. Carroll in Los Angeles, where he now lives, 2 years ago.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    I definitely agree about the difference between critics and politicians….

    Unfortunately, Dawkins makes a bad critic of religion, even if he is a good spokesperson for science. If he were half as informed about the history and development of the atheism/materialism that he believes in, as he is about evolutionary biology, then perhaps he might be more effective. As it stands, he’s about as well-educated in atheism as many extremist/fundamentalist Christians are regarding the roots of their own belief systems–that is to say, not very. He seems to be an expert in his particular field of scientific study, but when he strays into philosophy, it’s bound to be a botched job; he simply is not very familiar with the vast and complicated philosophical underpinnings of the modern views which he takes for granted (assumptions tracing their origins back to Descartes’ arbitrary division between matter and mind, and sometimes even further). Amusingly, these very same modern biases are at the heart of much of those fundamentalist religious movements today that some scientists (and other reasonable people) find so objectionable. For those with more background in philosophy and its development, listening to Dawkins argue against extremist religiousness is like listening to Pepsi and Coke attack one another over nutritional content. Philosophically speaking, they’re made up of much the same stuff, and both tend to be myopic, tone-deaf and stubborn in their critiques of the other.

    He’s entitled to his personal atheistic beliefs, of course, but other “pro-science” people definitely have a right and a reason to complain that his personal beliefs sometimes obscure the real issues at stake. This is not politics; it’s just pointing out that if you’re going to be a social critic, it helps to be informed about that which you are criticizing, rather than assuming that having a great deal of information in one field inherently qualifies you to talk authoritatively in all others. On the other hand, his works do offer insight into the personal journey one man may take from scientific facts into the realm of philosophical/(anti-)religious belief systems. It’s a shame Dawkins himself seems so unclear about the difference between the two.

  • http://www.tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    While the idea that the war on science is partly a function of the conservative/theoratic stronghold on the Republican party, I wonder why Chris Mooney can’t see the irony in his position on atheists versus religious scientists.

    I don’t see that the moderates have been successful yet at gaining ground through “Evolution Sundays.”

  • jeff

    Speaking up is fine, and Dawkins can be very articulate and persuasive. But low-life vulgarity (PZ) isn’t going to help your cause much, except perhaps with a small crowd of mindless sycophants. It’s not clear that we need a Howard Stern of science.

  • observer

    Ali #10

    Everything you are saying is completely irrelevant.

  • Bob Carroll

    terrific essay, Sean. I’m a bit worried about the rift in “Our Side” due to tactical disputes. Unity is an utopian goal, but still… Looks like PZ done good, and the laughs are all favorable. The spinmeisters have a tough row to hoe.

    Bob (no relation, dammit,) Carroll

    Oh did you know that the formidable Barbara Forrest was originally Barbara Carroll?

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/intersection/ Chris Mooney

    Thank you, Sean, for the most balanced, sane, and thoughtful thing I’ve read yet about this whole dispute.

    I agree that Nisbet and I are operating in the “politician” mode right now, though I have also operated in the “critic” mode in the past, and certainly will again.

    You’re also right that science doesn’t currently operate as a political campaign–but, if it ever wants to succeed on these hard fought political issues, like evolution, it had better think hard about the lessons that political expertise and communications strategy can impart. And those lessons definitely don’t cut in favor of the Dawkins-PZ approach.

  • Josh

    No, Chris, it appears the facts don’t cut in favor of yours and Nisbet’s hobby horse. For the first time in my memory, we rationalists and atheists are having a significant impact on public discourse. This didn’t happen because of your handwringing, or Nisbet’s simpering, but because Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett (and a lot of us formerly “nice” atheists) finally took the gloves off. It’s gotten to the point that I think you’re deliberately denying these facts. I’m sorry, I can’t think of any other explanation but rank dishonesty when you refuse to accept the good that candid public discourse has done. Just where did all the decades of “don’t offend them” get us, Chris? You know the answer. . . you wouldn’t even be discussing this right now if it weren’t true that the rationalist and atheist point of view finally – finally – has a smidgen of a place in the public conversation.

    Your refusal to countenance this is supremely irritating to a lot of people, myself included, who really genuinely admired your work, especially The Republican War on Science. It’s not just that I disagree with your current triangulations – I think you’re being consciously dishonest, and it’s beneath you.

    I think Carroll is spot on describing the necessity of critics and politicians. I’m a critic by nature, but I know I’m just one piece of a puzzle, and I need my politician compatriots if good work is going to get done. Your problem, and Nisbet’s too, is that you don’t acknowledge the value of critics. You insult them, and you stick your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la whenever anyone points out they’ve made progress. You make nice noises – “Thank you, Sean, for the most balanced, sane, and thoughtful thing I’ve read yet about this whole dispute.” – but they’re empty. You don’t mean what you say; it’s the silver tongue of the politician. And not a very skilled one – the rest of your post lays out your true position quite clearly. There’s a danger in being too much of a politician Chris – you start to look like a liar. And you’re losing a lot of potential allies in the process. Framer, heal thyself.

  • Wes

    Chris,

    Your book The Republican War on Science is one of my favorite books, and I completely agree with you that the Dawkins approach is not at all going to succeed politically. He won’t be winning people to science.

    But your tone and your blog have really changed over the past year or so. I’m still going to read Storm World, but I stopped reading your blog several months ago. I just can’t stand it any more–it’s just become so insipid. You’ve gotten so wrapped up in the framing aspect of science communication that you’re neglecting the fact that it’s also important for people to speak their minds–even when what’s on their minds is offensive and politically dangerous.

    I don’t foresee Dawkins achieving any political success, but the badgering against him from you and Nisbet will see even less success. The framing attack on the “new atheists” is misguided. He’s going to speak his mind even though it might be inconvenient for those who see this as a matter of promoting our “side”. People will say controversial things, and that’s good. It’s good even if it’s inconvenient. Dawkins isn’t going to shut up, he doesn’t need to shut up, and there’s no point to trying to tell him to shut up. He’s not a framer. And it’s not necessary that everybody be a framer.

    I hope you get over this phase you’re in. You really are a brilliant writer, and I miss the old Mooney.

  • AK47

    Very nice post.

    Caltech, eh? Maybe I’ll run into you on campus someday.

  • observer

    It seems that these creationists are much more sly and sophisticated than we give them credit for. Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney have every appearance of being creationism’s latest trojan horse. ;)

  • both neither

    What is to stop anyone from speaking truth, clearly, fearlessly, and assertively, while refraining from the sleazy and intellectually bankrupt ad hominem that some of the New Atheists resort to?

    Avoid false dichotomies. We have enough “politicians” and “critics.” Find us a spokesperson who will neither whitewash the truth nor wield it as a hostility.

  • craig

    Ali #10,

    History of atheism? You have to know the history of atheism to be a credible atheist?

    Here’s my full and complete history and understanding of atheism. In October 1965 I was born, like all infants are, without a belief in a deity. That lack of belief in a deity remained unspoiled until the present.

    Do I have to know about the history of the lack of belief in alien abductions to be a credible critic of abduction assertions?

    Do I have to know the complete history of the lack of every mythological belief?
    Do I have to know of the history of Lakota heretics who didn’t believe in Canotila for me to be credible in my own disbelief of Canotila?

    Nonsense. The history of atheism may be interesting, but it has nothing to do with being an atheist.

    As the saying goes, “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.” Given that, you need not study the history of not collecting stamps to be a fully successful, reasonable and credible non-collector of stamps.

  • craig

    “Just where did all the decades of “don’t offend them” get us, Chris?”

    Decades? You mean centuries. You clearly don’t know your history of atheism! (j/k)

  • Gregory Earl

    An excellent assessment, Sean. To those commenters calling PZ Myers “obnoxious”, prone to “low-life vulgarity” and the like — yes, but at least he is our obnoxious, vulgar low-life! He may not be very likeable, but as a scientist, he doesn’t have to be. All he needs to be is truthful, and that he is always. And Jeff (#12), us scientists absolutely need our own Howard Stern unless we want to become an even more boring bunch than the christians.

  • John Ramsden

    Excellent post, Sean. They say one has understood something only when convinced one could have thought of it oneself, and it’s the same with well expressed articles (“Yes, that’s just the way I’d have put it!”).

    Seriously, one obvious problem rationalists operating even in “political” one-step-at-a-time mode confront is that fundamentalist religion is an all or nothing construct – Adherents can’t pick and choose what to believe and what can be quietly sidelined, as more accomodating branches such as anglicans are content to allow.

    I guess that’s something only time will solve, assuming human progress does not falter or even take steps back what with rising populations and declining natural reserves – Atheists tend to forget that self-delusion can have real advantages trying circumstances, if it gives people hope, and determination, and a personal and social “moral compass”.

    The ironic part of all this, in relation to creationism especially, is that there’s little doubt the Man Himself would have eagerly embraced evolution if the idea had been known in his time – The “from little acorns” and “selection” concepts were a recurring strand of Christ’s teaching, expressed several times and even in biological terms (albeit to make different points, about the Kingdom of God or the souls of the righteous and so forth).

    For example there was the parable of the mustard seed (Luke ch 13 v 18-19)
    “Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.”

    The parallel with evolution may seem slightly elusive there, although one could perhaps compare it with the evolution of multi-celled life. But how about the parable of the wedding? (Matthew ch 22 v 14) “.. For many are called, but few are chosen”

    And of course there’s the classic example – the parable of the sower (Matthew ch 13, 3-5) “Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, …Some fell upon stony places, … And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, … ”

    Well, here endeth the lesson for today ;-)

  • Jud

    I’m more than a little bemused at the seeming agreement among several posters that PZ and Dawkins are exemplars of nastiness and discourtesy.

    I frequently read PZ’s blog, and though I don’t agree in general with the idea that the way to rationalism is via atheism (I think the wonders of science are a more positive and thus more effective reinforcement than direct criticism of religious beliefs), I would certainly not describe the predominant tone of his writing as either obnoxious or vulgar. I also think that many of the criticisms I’ve seen of Dawkins must have been written by people who didn’t bother to read The God Delusion, because I was very surprised by what I consider the rather gentle and reasonable tone of the book after reading what people were saying about it.

    I don’t think it’s PZ’s and Dawkins’ manner or tone that’s bringing them in for criticism, but rather the very substance of what they’re saying. In today’s predominant global cultures, saying there is a God is considered a normal and polite thing to do, while saying there isn’t is considered loud and impolitic, no matter how the no-God message is actually delivered.

  • Stephen

    Ali:

    Unfortunately, Dawkins makes a bad critic of religion …

    You’re the umpteenth person I’ve seen make a complaint like this. And just like the previous umpteen-1 complainers, you give us scarcely any clue as to what exactly you think it is that Dawkins is missing, let alone why it is important.

    If you have something useful to contribute to the debate – maybe you have, but it certainly isn’t obvious from your comment – put it on your blog and give us a link.

    For those with more background in philosophy and its development, listening to Dawkins argue against extremist religiousness is like listening to Pepsi and Coke attack one another over nutritional content.

    And I’m afraid that comments such as yours are like a complaint over a broken clock being met by a supercilious reply that the complainer is insufficiently familiar with the history of clepsydras.

  • Gregory Earl

    @Jud (#25):

    I’m more than a little bemused at the seeming agreement among several posters that PZ and Dawkins are exemplars of nastiness and discourtesy.

    Dawkins certainly isn’t, but Myers throws around things like “demented f*ckwit”, “f*ck you” and “f*ck off” quite a bit. Never without good reason, mind you…

  • Doctor T

    Just to let you know where my point of view is coming from, I’m a biologist, and I explained evolution to my own children when they were in elementary school to give them a more balanced view than they were getting in school. They don’t argue with others about evolution, they just logically explain points that can’t be denied. The way they do it gets others to think. It’s not an “in your face you idiot” approach, its a “well this just makes sense” approach.

    I think your “DramaBlogs” makes a good point. Right now this looks more like a football game than science. PZ scored one for the team and then was given a penalty for “excessive celebration” by some other blogs.

    I don’t know PZ personally but I have read his blog and comments from him on other peoples blogs. I can’t help but wonder if he was actually recognized when he was at the screening. Could, perhaps, they instead have noticed his behavior and language? Might he have been making disparaging comments about the other people there or religion in general? I honestly don’t know the answers to this. Only he and those with him could say. However, the thought popped in my head based on his posts.

    Why is this important for me to know? Because, if they didn’t recognize him and ask him to leave because of who he was, but instead because of how he behaved, all of this will make scientists who are enraged that he was “expelled” look very silly indeed.

  • Stephen

    Could, perhaps, they instead have noticed his behavior and language? Might he have been making disparaging comments about the other people there or religion in general?

    In a word: no. I gather you haven’t seen any of PZ’s videos or heard his radio talks. He is in person a very mild-mannered and quietly-spoken person. He is also, when addressing a general audience, almost as gentlemanly as Dawkins. It’s only on his blog that he sometimes plays the incendiary dragon, because he knows that much of his audience there appreciates it.

  • Anon

    I can hardly believe that we are still having this discussion. Exactly which century did you people in the U.S. get left behind in?

  • John Ramsden

    Jud wrote (#25):
    >
    > I don’t think it’s PZ’s and Dawkins’ manner or tone that’s bringing them in for criticism, but rather the very substance of what they’re saying.

    In Britain it may be precisely Dawkins’ tone that detracts from his message. G B Shaw, quoted by Sean, also famously said “In England it is impossible for a person to open their mouth without someone else despising their accent”, and that holds true to some extent even today.

    In his TV appearances Dawkins comes over to many as supercilious and superior, not just in the content of his speech but in his very tone of voice and precise clipped accent and his sour faced demeanour.

    Dawkins also seems to “try too hard”, and to many especially in Britain this shrill insistence, and dwelling so long on something he disdains, is suspect(shades of philosopher Sir Francis Bacon’s quip to the effect that if atheists care so little for religion then why should it trouble them?)

    Hitchens has a different image problem: We all (even rational scientists)pigeonhole people, sometimes unfairly, and where Dawkins is marked down by many as a “smug git” Hitchens is widely seen as the archetype of a “grumpy git” and as a result his impassioned outbursts taken with a large pinch of salt!

    Mind you, their TV appearances have at least got them noticed and their names recognized, and their books have thus been more influential.

  • mathandphysics1

    Here is an excellent introduction on why it is difficult to correct society’s incorrect understanding of evolution

    http://www.newcomensengine.com/2008/03/why-it-takes-long-time-for-society-to.html

  • chuko

    I have a college-age friend who is recovering from a religious education and still very unsure about God, atheism, and all that. She is currently reading Hitchens’ God is not Great. While she doesn’t agree with all of it (who does?), she’s really enjoying it and finding it very enlightening. She thinks it’s very straightforward and honest, in comparison with her schooling.

    In the end, people who are truly blinded by their faith aren’t going to be persuaded by much of anything, and for people who are ready to think a bit, there’s nothing very offensive in these books, even Hitchens, who is somewhat more acerbic than Dawkins.

    And, of course, Hitchens, Dawkins, PZ, and all are framing; they’re asking their readers whether they want to be counted with the backward dupes or with the enlightened rationals. Maybe it’s not as nice, but I’ll be damned if it’s less effective.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Just a quick summary of some good points made by folks above: I agree that “shrill” and contemptuous activists mostly harm whatever good could otherwise come from their cause. If you care about a cause, you know that your first responsibility is to make a good case in a mature way, and above all appeal to moderate, wavering observers. Your major responsibility is not about entertaining and throwing red meat to your most rabid supporters in the manner of Rush, Ann Coulter, etc. Dawkins, PZ, et al must come across to many in “the audience” somewhat like Rev. Wright when unleashing as he sometimes did. (BTW, critics of him avoid the issue of how often he sounded like that, likely not much but I wouldn’t know…)

  • Jud

    Replying to a couple of the comments re my comment above (#25 unless things get rearranged):

    Gregory Earl mentions that PZ sometimes uses profanity on his blog. True, but profanity doesn’t strike me as a predominant note in his posts. (Not that I would describe his written tone as mild, though Stephen (#29) is quite correct that you’ll find him surprisingly soft-spoken and courteous if you listen to or watch audios/videos of him.)

    John Ramsden says Dawkins’ manner comes across as superior in Britain. I can certainly see that possibility, as his accent and manner strikes even this American as upper-class. I would not, however, describe his demeanor as “sour faced.” Those interested may want to check out on YouTube a very funny exchange Dawkins had with Neil de Grasse Tyson over the issue of how science education might best be done (or more accurately, Tyson’s polite criticism of Dawkins that the latter wasn’t going about it the right way).

    I continue to adhere to my main point – that the characterizations of PZ and Dawkins are more negative than their manners strictly deserve due to the contents of their messages.

  • bob

    Since 2009 will be the sesquicentenary of the publication of Origin of Species (and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth), this discussion reminded me of the Origin’s centenary, the major conference for which was held at the University of Chicago (anthropologist Sol Tax had started planning for it in 1955, and had the bright idea of courting Sir Julian Huxley; a retired academic, Huxley was feeling neglected and was glad to be courted. And he knew everyone.)
    As a kid in Chicago at the time, I avidly read the press coverage of the conference. Especially highlighted were remarks by Huxley — I wish I had ready access to the Chicago Daily News, where I read about it, but that paper hasn’t been digitized. However, quotations taken from the Chicago Tribune (Nov. 27, 1959) may serve:
    “In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for supernatural beings capable of affecting the course of events” Huxley said.
    “The earth was not created. It evolved. So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body.
    “So did religion. Religions are organs of psycho-social man concerned with human destiny and with experiences of sacredness and transcendence.
    “In their evolution some, but by no means all, have given birth to the concept of gods as supernatural beings endowed with mental and spriitual properties and capable of intervening in the affairs of nature, including man.
    “They are organizations of human thought in its interaction with the puzzling, complex world with which it has to contend – the outer world of nature and the inner world of man’s own nature.
    “In this, they resemble other early organizations of human thought confronted with nature, like the doctrine of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, or the eastern concept of birth and reincarnation.
    “Like these, they are destined to disappear in competition with other, truer, and more embracing thought organizations which are handling the same range of raw or processed experience.
    “Evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from his lonliness by creeping for shelter into the arms of a divinized father figure whom he has himself created, nor escape from the responsibility of making decisions by sheltering under the umbrella of divine authority, nor absolve himself from the hard task of meeting his present problems and planning his future by relying on the will of an omniscent, but unfortunately inscrutable, Providence.”

    Naturally, Huxley’s speech was assailed in letters and columns; most of the opposition suggested that Huxley’s concepts of theology were uninformed, much as many of Dawkins’s opponents do. Obviously Huxley was speaking not as a politician, but as a critic, and thus offended many.
    But the impact, at least on me as a 13-year-old, was liberating and exhilerating.
    I suspect, and hope, that Dawkins, Myers, and others have similar impacts on kids today.

  • craig

    The only reason people are upset with what Wright had to say is simply because nothing outrages some people more than to have the truth stated to them bluntly.

    There’s no cure for that. You either live in the truth and live with a certain percentage of people being intolerable in the face of it, or you give in to the lie and help spread it to please them while enduring their complaints that you arent thankful enough for the privilege.

    You cannot use reason to bring to the side of reason those who have rejected reason. You just have to ignore their whining and forge forward.

  • jeff

    I think your “DramaBlogs” makes a good point. Right now this looks more like a football game than science. PZ scored one for the team and then was given a penalty for “excessive celebration” by some other blogs.

    PZ and Dawkins definiitely did score one for the team, but that may be balanced them both looking a little silly for having been duped to appear in the film in the first place. If they had been more careful, there might not be much of a film to talk about.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Sean, I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks for the analysis.

    Jud, Dawkins’ accent is neither upper class (nor lower class, as you can probably guess ;-) ). You would recognize upper class if you heard it; it is much more exaggerated.

    jeff, both PZ and Dawkins were misled about the purpose of the film. It was sold to them as Crossroads, even though the producers already knew it was going to be called Expelled…

  • Michael T.

    This all sounds eerily familiar.

    This is exactly of what happened to to Dr. David Albert and other esteemed scientists in the making of “What the Bleep do We Know”. Take them out of context, promote the film and in the end no one is the wiser. These people don’t care about the truth or understanding anything. Pick your battlegrounds because this is one you will not win.

  • ike

    The two great scientific-religious conflicts of the past 500 years both resulted in the diminished power of the religious authorities of the day.

    The study of astronomy first took the Earth from the center of the Universe, to a secondary position around the sun, which itself became just one star in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars, and that galaxy, in the 20th century, just became one among another 100 billion galaxies in our known universe. So much for the special role for human beings in Creation, and for the authority of God’s special agents on Earth.

    The study of evolution, i.e. the inheritance of genetic information (as pioneered by Gregor Mendel), also reduced the authority of religious powers. Evidence showed that creatures had evolved slowly, over millions of years, not suddenly. In the 20th century, radioactive dating (based on physical laws and quantum mechanics) and DNA sequencing and other molecular studies proved conclusively that all life on Earth is related, shares a basic biochemistry (more or less), and evolved from common single-celled ancestors that lived on the planet over 3 billion years ago. Personally, I think that’s a more glorious and remarkable ancestry than to be popped out of a hat overnight.

    As a result of all that (and nuclear weapons), in some sense the public now tends to view scientific authority with the same kind of awe (or doubt) that medieval citizens had for The Church. Just as with the priests, some scientists have misused their mantle of authority in order to enrich themselves, or to support some ideology or other. However, science has a good record of exposing any frauds pretty quickly (unlike religion).

    Perhaps Dawkins and Myers should spend more time explaining science to the public – such as going over radioactive decay, how we can use it to date objects. We also just had a uniquely large gamma ray burst from 7.5 billion years ago, which is hard to fit in with a six thousand year old universe. There are hundreds of examples of biological evolution in action as well: Snakes Versus Newts In The Evolutionary Arms Race (of course, Myers and Dawkins do discuss such things)

    The fear of the religious theologians is that Dawkins and friends are arguing for Social Darwinism in human affairs, i.e. the Darwin-inspired concept of eugenics that was so popular in the U.S., Britain and Germany in the early 20th century, and which inspired “racial purification”. It’s a valid concern, and scientists should make a point of repudiating eugenics.

    However, that’s all 19th century mentality. Science makes no claims about what the best form of human society is – that’s up to everyone to decide. As far as the issue of evolution, the scientific evidence is itself the best argument.

  • Jud

    ike wrote: Perhaps Dawkins and Myers should spend more time explaining science to the public – such as going over radioactive decay, how we can use it to date objects.

    Why? They’re biologists, not experts in radiocarbon dating; supporters of young-Earth creationism deny the validity of radiocarbon dating; and the old-Earth variety of Intelligent Design adherents have no argument with radiocarbon dating.

    The fear of the religious theologians is that Dawkins and friends are arguing for Social Darwinism in human affairs, i.e. the Darwin-inspired concept of eugenics that was so popular in the U.S., Britain and Germany in the early 20th century, and which inspired “racial purification”. It’s a valid concern, and scientists should make a point of repudiating eugenics.

    Social Darwinism != eugenics. Eugenics was not “Darwin-inspired.” It is not a “valid concern.” Rather it’s propaganda that evolution denialists continue to use (apparently they do so again in “Expelled”) despite scientists repeatedly pointing out that neither historically nor currently does support for the science of evolution equal support for eugenics.

  • Pingback: Why I rarely go Scienceblogs.com anymore « Clastic Detritus

  • Aaron Baker

    Well, I’m of two minds about this or that brawl in which P.Z. Myers happens to find himself. As an unbeliever, and an American unbeliever rather tired of the free pass religion so often gets in this country, I want to hear and see more criticism of religion–and not just in the print media.

    Nonetheless, I’m not convinced that religion is so consistently contemptible as Myers evidently thinks it is. Convinced as he is (or striking the pose that he does), he mostly approaches the subject with a sneer–and this can get very tiresome after a while. Nor, while he is sneering, insulting, and ridiculing, am I entirely convinced that I’m witnessing nothing but your high-minded critic, rigorously demanding the truth.

  • Anon

    Why do some scientists insist on continuing to get involved in these useless debates with the anti-science types? As any physicist who has made the mistake (which usually happens only once) of responding to a crank’s email expounding on his great new Theory of Everything based on Helices (to give one example) can confirm, the more you engage someone like that, the more you give them validation. Some blame for the current mess surely must lie with the scientists who continue to agree to appear in public debates with anti-science types. I am thinking in particular of the common U.S. media device of pairing each proponent of a reasonable view with a proponent of the diametrically opposite view, no matter how rabidly wrong, as if they were comparable.

    By debating them, you are acting as if their views mattered. By acting as if they mattered, you are making them matter.

    It is so much more difficult, but would be so much more productive, to just ignore the bastards.

  • Elliot

    Anon,

    I totally agree. Our dog starts ripping up newspapers when my wife is on the phone. The behaviorist said it is nothing more than attention getting behavior and any response positive or negative is going to reinforce that behavior. The thing to do is ignore it and when he gets no response, he will eventually stop.

    Seems like this might be applicable here as well.

    e.

  • http://sandlinjohn.blogspot.com/ John B. Sandlin

    Anon in #45: Please note that the handful of cranks spouting their theories of everything and perpetual motion power devices are not the same as mainstream religion. Cranks have little influence on the rest of our lives, usually. Each of the mainstream religions, however, can mobilize large populations of people and change laws that do affect us. That is a good reason to counter their messages early and often.

    That’s my take, anyway.

    JBS

  • http://www.robinlionheart.com/ Robin Lionheart
  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I worked in astrodynamics for a number of years, in particular with how to get a spacecraft from Earth to say mars. Imagine a scenario where a program manager is hiring up some engineers to send a $250 million probe to a Lagrange point (tricky navigation and the WMAP was placed at one) or to rendevous with a comet. Some candidates are interviewed for the job of astronavigation, and it turns out that one of them is a geocentrist. This person thinks that the Earth is at the center of the solar system, and there is a small community of people who adhere to this! Should this person be hired? Similarly, should a person who thinks the Earth is flat be hired as an air traffic controller?

    The thesis of the Expelled movie is that Creationism is expelled from the scientific community. Fortunately the geocentric crowd is not big enough to make a fuss against physics & astronomy departments, but if they were big they would make the same cry of discrimination. Evolution is the central backbone of biology. It is with the recent development of genetic cladistic measures of evolutionary distance become a tool. The isozymes of different proteins and their genes are being mapped and used to research so called designer drugs. Evolution is becoming an applied science! Genesis is a mytho-poetic framing of the world in a mystical context and what truth there is in this is not of a scientific nature, it is not a matter of scientific research.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • defectiverobot

    Sagan was a respected and famous best sellingvoice for science and reason. Gould was a respected and (somewhat less famous) best selling voice for science and reason. Need I point out that Dawkins himself is a respected and famous best selling voice for science reason? All three were also famous athiests, combative with religion in their own ways, and at least as far as Sagan and Gould were concerned, their athiesm did nothing to hurt their credibility with the mainstream. Dawkins may be better known as a rabble-rouser than as a scientist, but that does nothing to change the fact that he has written best-selling scientific defenses of athiesm. That he and PZ should not be considered acceptable candidates to carry on the tradition that Sagan and Gould started is completely ridiculous.

    The simple fact of the matter is this: before this weekend, I had heard of neither Chris Mooney nor Matt Nisbet. Myers and Dawkins, however, were well known to me. In light of this, I’m not entirely sure that Mr. Mooney or Mr. Nisbet are particularly capable of becoming popularizers of science. Drs. Myers and Dawkins are already famous. I see no reason why they shouldn’t continue to use their fame.

  • Rick Schauer

    Wow, what great comments, all. Very well said. Pz’s and Dawkin’s rhetorical skills do leave something to be desired but that said, it’s a pity that they even have to say them at all. All I know is that the whole creo/evo mess leaves me stupified and wondering WTF happened here?

    Religions have grouped their shits on the population for so long that we now find ourselves here wondering about how to “frame” the rhetoric of religion’s critics…the supporters of observable, peer reviewed science? Holy shit, we all need to find voices half as clear as PZ and Dawkins and have at it right with them…screw the framing bit…it’s time to get busy and active in support of what we can observe, now! We’ll figure out to do it more clearly later!

    It’s almost as though the shit is so deep the methane is beginning to affect our ability to think clearly…since history hasn’t been here before who knows what “framing buttons” to push so I say, push them all! And Dawkins and PZ are doing a great job at that. There’s time for an assessment down the road in order to make adjustments for what works and what doesn’t but until we get more voices crying from the wilderness we have but little to test and critique. IMHO.

  • ike

    Carl Sagan: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”

    Richard Dawkins: “The God Delusion”

    Carl Sagan, when dealing with people who have no knowledge of or experience with science, would treat them the same way he would treat a child who was scared of the dark. Dawkins might rap them on the knuckles and send them off to bed with no supper, metaphorically speaking. (Hint: it’s never that productive to tell people they’re deluded)

    Note: Unfortunately, some people really did use Darwin’s ideas as the basis of their eugenics programs, most notably Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term. Galton believed in selective breeding to create “a highly gifted race of men” which he called “positive” eugenics. Getting rid of the “genetic undesirables” was subsequently termed “negative” eugenics, and that inspired various unpleasant events in 20th century history, didn’t it?

    Scientifically, eugenics was nonsense – but that doesn’t stop it from being used by creationists as a straw man in their sad & curious attempts to disprove the evolutionary history of life. Scientists should just admit what happened and note that scientific theories, just like religious beliefs, can sometimes be misused for political purposes.

  • Jud

    Ike wrote:

    Note: Unfortunately, some people really did use Darwin’s ideas as the basis of their eugenics programs, most notably Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term. Galton believed in selective breeding to create “a highly gifted race of men” which he called “positive” eugenics. Getting rid of the “genetic undesirables” was subsequently termed “negative” eugenics, and that inspired various unpleasant events in 20th century history, didn’t it?

    The modern synthesis that occurred in the early 20th century demonstrated that maintaining variation was one key to maintaining fitness. Any marginal validity notions of racial purity might have gathered from an evolutionary perspective was gone prior to the “unpleasant events” you speak of. Thus as you say below, scientifically, eugenics was nonsense. And of course, killing of the Other motivated by notions of racial, ethnic, or indeed religious purity goes back as far as recorded history, predating evolutionary theory by millenia.

    Scientifically, eugenics was nonsense – but that doesn’t stop it from being used by creationists as a straw man in their sad & curious attempts to disprove the evolutionary history of life. Scientists should just admit what happened and note that scientific theories, just like religious beliefs, can sometimes be misused for political purposes.

    That’s already happened, repeatedly (scientists admitting that scientific theories, including those involving genetics and evolution, can be and have been misused). It hasn’t stopped the propaganda. But of course this is consistent with the history of evangelical protest against other misuses of genetics, such as biological weapons research – oh, wait….

  • http://nlightnmnt.tumblr.com/ nlightnmnt

    Re: #45 and #46

    Ignoring the creationists isn’t an option. They’ve been gaining ground and will do so quicker if left unopposed. Nisbett and Mooney have made little impact on them so far (but by all means let them keep trying!), whereas Dawkins et al. have got them on the defensive.

    Plus, misleading the public about science (‘framing’) is morally wrong in addition to likely being a poor strategic move.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    Jeff (#12): It was firebrands like PZ that got me passionate, and out of a sort of helpless cynicism. He’s the sort of person who convinced me it was possible for science to make more progress on hearts and minds.

    Quite frankly, I’m currently having a hard time believing that the same person doing these really bad examples of framing is the one who wrote on the Republican War on Science. PZ and Dawkins scored as complete a victory as was possible. All these people can think to do is to blindly chant that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

  • JimV

    Personally, I find some of PZ Myers’ and Hitchens’ writing stylistically reminescent of Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” – hilarious if you agree with the sentiments or don’t much care either way, but abrasively hurtful if you disagree. The best of their writings are wonderfully good – see the Myers piece Brad DeLong linked to recently, comparing cell chemical reactions with a casino. So I am willing to take the rough with the smooth, but what bothers me about the Pharyngula blog is the lack of moderation of comments. With 1000-comment posts, PZ probably doesn’t have time to moderate them thoroughly, but it has been a very long time since I have seen him try to curb the hostility and verbal excesses of those commenters who often attack any dissenting comment, turning some threads into feeding frenzies. (On the other hand, many of his commenters are among the best in the business.)

  • Pingback: Booberfish.com » Evolution and the Holocaust

  • Jud

    Jim V wrote:

    Personally, I find some of PZ Myers’ and Hitchens’ writing stylistically reminescent of Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism”

    First line of Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:” We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

    Find me a line from The God Delusion reminiscent of that.

  • AtheistAcolyte

    Eliot #46:

    The fundamental difference in the analogy is that your dog is trying to get attention in general. Creationists are doing it to get attention from people other than you. Your ignoring the creationists would be like ignoring the dog while your 5-year-old (if you have one) squeals with glee as he watches the paper get shredded.

    Ignoring cranks works. Ignoring well-oiled, funded and supported machines of misinformation does not.

  • Melusine

    Anon said:

    By debating them, you are acting as if their views mattered. By acting as if they mattered, you are making them matter.

    It is so much more difficult, but would be so much more productive, to just ignore the bastards.

    You can’t ignore them. It’s part of a bigger political problem. What a lot of media pundits, authors, preachers of fundamentalist churches, etc. are doing is lumping in this way:

    liberals/theory of evolution/atheists/uppity academics/socialism/fascists…

    When the President of the United States says in public that we “should teach the controversy,” there’s a problem. Either he is willfully ignorant or pandering to religious fundamentalists, but either way it is not leadership in regards to science education.

    When candidates like Huckabee tell a student in a forum that the Bible is right and he believes it when said student asked about teaching evolution, there’s a problem. These people are not perpetual motion cranks – they have access to political figures and affect legislation.

    Failure to see this problem is at our peril. Bush & Co. may need scientists to build bombs, but the general public they don’t seem to care much about in regards to science education. Then science ultimately has less supporters who would advocate for research, etc. Looking to the future – Bill Gates recently went before Congress to emphasize the future of science and technology education.

  • Clammy

    bah, I vote for drafting a couple of critics against their wills. Krugman and Carroll ’08!

  • Doctor T

    “Stephen on Mar 24th, 2008 at 7:31 am

    Could, perhaps, they instead have noticed his behavior and language? Might he have been making disparaging comments about the other people there or religion in general?

    In a word: no. I gather you haven’t seen any of PZ’s videos or heard his radio talks. He is in person a very mild-mannered and quietly-spoken person. He is also, when addressing a general audience, almost as gentlemanly as Dawkins. It’s only on his blog that he sometimes plays the incendiary dragon, because he knows that much of his audience there appreciates it.”

    Thanks for this explanation. You’re correct, my only exposure to his character was from his blog and his comments on other people’s blogs. It obviously created a false impression for me of his actual character. I see what happened at the “Expelled” showing in an entirely different light now.

  • Daniel de França MTd2

    Why not appeal to the chinese method? If it goes against the progress and the governament, shut them down. Your economy grows faster.

  • John R Ramsden

    Elliot (#46) wrote:
    >
    > Our dog starts ripping up newspapers when my wife is on the phone.
    > The behaviorist said it is nothing more than attention getting behavior

    Going off on a tangent somewhat (but this is a scientific blog, right?), the behaviorist may be anthropomorphising your dog’s behaviour.

    It’s doubtful a dog seeing you on the phone understands that you are communicating with another person, even if it can hear a muffled voice at the other end.

    When it sees you holding an object to your mouth and mumbling, it can only interpret this as you “worrying” at the phone as if it were a bone or some morsel, and the dog wants to imitate you and join in with whatever comes to hand.

  • Cynthia

    I’m not sure why Mooney sees PZ being expelled from “Expelled” as positive publicity for IDers. If anything, this oughta serve as negative publicity for them. After all, I can’t think of anything more hypocritical than expelling someone from something entitled “Expelled”.

    And even though the public was awfully stupid to elect GW Bush not once, but twice, I don’t think, unlike Mooney does, that the public is stupid enough not to see Ben Stein as nothing more than a flaming hypocrite!

  • craig

    Carl Sagan wouldn’t even get on TV these days, except maybe PBS the way Neil Degrasse Tyson does.

    When Sagan was on TV, news was Walter Cronkite and science was PBS. Now Republicans run PBS and have turned it into mostly cooking shows and infomercials and very “balanced” flag-waiving documentaries… and the “news” is Hannity and Colmes, Hardball, etc.

    They might put Carl Sagan on once against Bill Donohue from the Catholic League on Hardball, but they’d never put him on again because he wouldn’t work in the shout-everyone-down format.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    On science, certainly, there are few that can beat PZ Myers. No culturally aware person would want to read PZ Myers on atheism.

  • Janus

    Arun wrote:

    On science, certainly, there are few that can beat PZ Myers. No culturally aware person would want to read PZ Myers on atheism.

    Really? And whom exactly do you, as a culturally aware person, read on atheism?

  • moioci

    To amplify something I think was already pointed out above, the correct arena here is not really framing, but negotiation. Having atheist scientists remain silent allows the extreme of discourse (on ‘our’ side, at least) to be defined by moderate adherents of evolutionary theory, which does not properly counterbalance the willful ignorance of the fundamentalist side of the scales. By having Dawkins et al. stake out a position in favor of evangelical atheism, the centrist position, say theistic evolution, or simple secularism, is seen to be less extreme. In the political arena, the Republicans have mastered the art of asking for the moon in so-called negotiation and then settling for a mere 98% of their demands, while the Democrats lose again and again by their very reasonableness.

  • Elliot

    apples and oranges. science and religion.

    I understand the desire to characterize them as opposites but they really aren’t in my view and doing so skews the discussion in ways that I feel are unfavorable to encouraging public support for science, including research and education.

    So I suggest taking a step back and putting each in it’s appropriate plane of human activity rather than assuming there is no ground for co-existence..

    e

  • craig

    They ARE opposites.
    One is the search to understand the universe as it is, regardless of whether or not the truth is comforting. Many, of course do find it comforting by changing their emotions to accept that reality.

    The other is an attempt at self-gratification or at least self-comforting through willful delusion, by trying to force the universe into serving one’s own emotional needs. Hiding truth, obscuring or ignoring fact. Even the most liberal religionists who accept science still have simply found little nooks and crannies where science hasn’t gone yet in which to hide their imagined realities.

    They cannot coexist in the sense of being intermingled. Science kills superstition, and superstition can kill science. Matter and anti-matter. They can only “coexist” if they are kept far apart.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Religion is “an attempt at self-gratification or at least self-comforting through willful delusion, by trying to force the universe into serving one’s own emotional needs”.

    This is wonderful! We can understand, for instance, the Romans and the early Christians as a competition between competing needs for self-gratification. A breakthrough in historical and religious studies!

    This is precisely why Dawkins and Myers are deadly bores on the subject of religion.

  • Cynthia

    “No culturally aware person would want to read PZ Myers on atheism.”

    But PZ is the Michael Moore of the atheist movement. And no movement is complete without such a figure — minus Moore’s waistline, of course. ;~)

  • Cynthia

    “apples and oranges, science and religion”

    Since I firmly believe in separation of church and state, I firmly believe in keeping science and religion separate, too. And while there’s nothing wrong with government sponoring science, there’s everything wrong with government sponoring religion!

  • blanton

    I normally simply lurk on this site and
    enjoy reading the banter, but in this case
    feel the need to speak up.

    I can’t tolerate either the intelligent designers
    or the “scientific atheists”, and for each of those
    groups I am bothered by precisely the same
    tendency: they try to make science say something
    that it cannot say.

    Scientific research is an extraordinarily
    reliable way of producing new knowledge about
    the world around us, and it works because
    research needs to be peer-reviewed, based
    ultimately on reproducible experiments,
    and quantifiable at some level of precision.
    Hackneyed though the idea is, the basic model
    of theory -> hypothesis -> experimental test
    actually does play a role in the scientific process
    (despite the messiness that inevitably accompanies
    all human activity).

    This process of truth-seeking has proven its
    value over centuries, but both intelligent design
    advocates and many atheists who claim the
    support of science do not use this process to
    come to their conclusions about the existence
    of God (or a “designer”, or what have you),
    which therefore lack the reliability of standard
    scientific results.

    Both sets of advocates suffer from the fact that
    there is no “theory of God” which makes specific
    hypotheses we can agree on (the way, say,
    general relativity or plate tectonics or the theory
    of evolution do). They therefore spend their
    time arguing about what the appropriate set of
    hypotheses is rather than the experimental
    tests of them. That is, both sides are left arguing,
    “No, really, what *would* Jesus do?”

    For either side to apply a veneer of science
    onto these ideas, then to put it on the shelf next to
    peer-reviewed and reproducible scientific results,
    and finally to sell it at the same price and as the
    same product, is disingenuous at best and furthermore
    reveals imprecision and lack of rigor in thought.

    It makes them all look like “politicians” to me —
    they’re not actually doing science and hewing to
    its path towards truth, but using science as a rhetorical
    stick against their opponents in debate. Perhaps
    this approach is an effective short term tactic, perhaps
    not, but as a scientist I’d be loath to place in these
    people (and here I speak of the atheists who make
    such arguments) my long term hopes for a public that
    understands and believes in the results and the
    methods of science.

    Better to have an advocate that defends those truths
    we have attained which are now nearly certain (the
    laws of physics, evolution, etc), that acknowledges
    the uncertainties in our knowledge (which is, after all,
    science’s *strength*, not its weakness), and that
    admits that there are limits to the questions we can
    address with this approach.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    #13 observer: Umm…. ditto?

    #21 craig: I will assume that you, like everyone else, were not born into a cultural vacuum. Most forms of atheism are negative or rejectionist in nature; that is, they are rejections of particular forms of theism or religious belief (they are “a-theisms”). Your comparison of atheism to not-believing in alien abductions or not-collecting stamps illustrates this point exactly but also belies their uselessness as appropriate examples of your point. In both cases, you have identified a very particular belief or activity and then equated atheism to its rejection or lack. Sadly, a belief in God is not so clearly defined or identified. Therefore, it’s fair to argue that, (a) you cannot be an atheist without knowing the religious system or set of beliefs that you are actively rejecting, and (b) because knowing these systems and beliefs is a complicated process of exploring cultural and historical context, the extent of a person’s atheism is correlated to the depth of their knowledge and understanding of those rejected systems.

    Many fundamentalist Christians would label me an atheist, for instance, because I reject their particular notion of God; however, I do not refer to myself as an atheist because I have, by studying philosophy and theology, developed working definition of deity to describe what I do believe in. Likewise, in the early development of Christianity, Christians were labeled atheists because they believed in only one deity instead of many. Buddhists today are rarely described as atheists because they are “spiritual” or “religious,” even though the core tenants of Buddhism are entirely silent on the idea of deity in any form. Furthermore, this is the first time in history that self-labeled atheists conceive of themselves as a particular cultural group with its own community identity and socio-political aims (you wouldn’t know this, of course, if you hadn’t studied the history of atheism).

    So you see, being an atheist has a lot to do with the cultural context of one’s atheism, even if one is born into it and takes that context for granted. You are, of course, free to declare that you know definitively what deity is and that, therefore, you do not believe in it. But this declaration of definitive knowledge is precisely the same kind of certainty professed by religious fundamentalists. Which brings me back to my original point, that dogmatic atheists and religious fundamentalists actually share a great deal of their assumptions in common, as much as they might disagree about what conclusions to draw from them.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    #26 Stephen: Good point, I didn’t go into detail about what I think Dawkins is missing (though I did give “clues” when I referred to Descartes’ duality, for instance, and the objectionable nature of dogmatic certainty in any form, etc.). On the other hand, this was a brief reply to someone else’s blog post, and to go into detail about this issue would require not just a blog post of my own, but an entire book. I have other things to do, so I’m not planning on writing such a book. But if you’re truly interested in reading this kind of book, I would recommend Mary Midgley’s Science and Poetry. (Forgive me if I’m skeptical about most readers of this blog taking the time to read a book entirely devoted to a viewpoint they disagree with. It’s much easier to watch a movie, or complain about not being allowed to watch it, than it is to seek out the number of well-written and intelligent books already published on the topic.)

    I’d also like to point out that when Sean writes:

    “There is a more basic motivation: telling the truth. [...] PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are not trying to be successful politicians, persuading the largest number of people to come over to their side. They have no interest in being politicians. They are critics, and their goal is to say correct things about the world and argue against incorrect statements.”

    …he doesn’t bother to give any support for why he thinks Dawkins (and others) are “telling the truth” and making correct statements, but this assertion is left largely unchallenged. I felt the need to point out that one form of expertise does not necessarily translate to all others, and it’s perfectly possible that Dawkins’ statements about society are not inherently correct just because he is knowledgeable in evolutionary biology. To be perfectly obstinate about it, I could point out that proposing this possibility doesn’t require me to prove that Dawkins is incorrect; the burden of proof lies with Dawkins’ supporters, in demonstrating exactly why his scientific expertise qualifies him as a well-informed social critic.

    #48 Robin: Very amusing, and a wonderful illustration of exactly the kind of modern bias I’m talking about! Thank you!

    This notion that the “nonmaterial” is equated to the imaginary/unreal–and, therefore, that any subtlety in exploring the nonmaterial realm is laughable and irrelevant–is an entirely modern idea, unique in the history of humankind. It stems largely from the Cartesian duality I mentioned in my first response (#10). Modern materialists, of course, claim that the nonmaterial has always been an illusion and that we have only just now “seen the light” and come to our senses about its meaninglessness. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that something supposedly so obvious and true could have escaped our notice for so many thousands of years, and to claim so seems a bit arrogant, bordering on willful cultural amnesia. But again, I happen to be interested in the history and development of ideas (philosophical and religious), and studying such things tends to leave a person a bit humbled in the face of millennia of diverse thinkers.

  • craig

    Ali, you are making a very common mistake.
    You are thinking that atheism is believing that there is NOT a god. That it is a rejection of the idea. If that were the case, you might indeed assert that you would have to understand all of the possible forms or ideas of deity to make that rejection.

    Many atheists may have a belief that there is no god… but its not necessary. I don’t believe there is no god (though I think its incredibly unlikely). I simply don’t have a belief in a god. I am an atheist. A non-theist. I don’t have a belief in a god.

    There are an infinite number of things I don’t have a belief in. Some few of these things I will someday have a belief in when evidence of them is presented. Before 1980 I didn’t have a belief in the existence of Rubik’s Cube, for example.

    If you go to godchecker.com, you’ll find a list of close to 3000 different deities that people have believed in at one time or another. I don’t know the whole list, haven’t read through it… yet I can state that I don’t have a belief in any of them. I don’t have to reject them all – if I haven’t heard of something, how can I possibly believe in it?

    I was born without a belief in any gods. I still have no belief in any gods. I have no belief in anything that would ever remotely be defined by the word deity. To say that this is a fundamentalist attitude presumes that I am REJECTING all possible concepts of deity. It suggests that I feel that I KNOW something that rationally I can’t hope to know, in the manner of faith there is no god.

    Wrong. I am open to anything. Give me a concept of a deity and provide some evidence for it, and if the evidence is strong enough, I’ll accept it and then be a theist.
    If the evidence is not enough, I’ll remain unconvinced unless or until further evidence comes along, and I’ll remain an atheist. I have no belief in life on Mars. Find some, and I’ll be a convert. The fact that the possibility of life on mars is much greater than the possibility of a god makes no difference, its the same kind of situation.

  • Laurence

    Ali:

    The central question Dawkins attempts to address is whether God exists. The history of atheism has nothing to do with whether God exists or not. Perhaps if you didn’t jump immediately to snobbery you would have realized that.

  • craig

    “This is wonderful! We can understand, for instance, the Romans and the early Christians as a competition between competing needs for self-gratification. A breakthrough in historical and religious studies!

    This is precisely why Dawkins and Myers are deadly bores on the subject of religion.”

    Religion tries to explain the universe. Why it exists, how it came into being.

    There are certain things you always hear from the religious. Sometimes in reaction to being confronted with atheism, or science that refutes some of their religious beliefs, sometimes in their own stories of how they came to their religion.

    “Without a belief in God, how do you have any moral guidance?”
    “How can you belief that when you’re dead there’s nothing else? How can you live with that?”
    “You really think we came from monkeys?”
    “I was searching for some deeper meaning in my life.”
    “My faith comforts me”

    on and on and on.

    All the same thing. Choosing their belief about how the universe works not based on evidence or what makes sense, but instead based on their own emotional needs. “I choose this ‘truth’ because it makes me happy.”

    Always the same thing. Trying to force reality to serve them. Pure narcissism. The universe MUST be this way, because I want it to be! I couldn’t possibly be tiny and insignificant and unimportant and mortal.

    The Christians/Romans thing doesn’t have to be fully explained by that – the infantile, narcissistic nature of religion makes it work very well to support other human vices – greed, lust for power, hatred, prejudice, fear of the outsider, etc.

    Yes, it is boring. Fucking deadly boring. Enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Billions of people showing the same boring human failings, repeating the same self-centered crap endlessly as if it means something.

    Snark all you want… but reality is reality. The truth behind religion is very simple, tedious and boring. Ignorance mixed with wishful thinking. The unlimited capacity of the human brain to self-deceive.

    If you can’t accept that, go have fun with your make-believe.

  • http://sciencenotes.wordpress.com Monado, FCD

    Co-incidentally or not, I Can Has Cheezburger has a picture about Constructive Criticism.

  • John Merryman

    craig,

    By conventional definition you are agnostic, not atheist.

    The problem with the monotheistic concept is that the absolute, the universal state, is basis, as in zero. Not an apex, as in a singular entity. So the spiritual absolute, should you care to consider one, wouldn’t be an ideal form or model of conscious, intellectual perfection from which we fell, but the raw source of awareness out of which living form arises. Both theism and atheism make the same general assumption, that awareness equates with intelligence. Theism assumes they are the property of a meta-being, while atheism assumes they develop together and one is only aware to the extent one is intelligent. I would say this isn’t true, that there are many forms of life which are extremely aware, but are not terribly intelligent. Awareness is a bottom up emergent phenomena and intelligence is a top down ordering of experience. The fact is that consciousness is a function of process and connections, whether it is between neurons or individual beings. Not just a function of the nodes creating the network, but the network creating the nodes. Given a reasonably wholistic understanding of biology, it’s is possible to argue that life on this planet exists as one large meta-organism, of which we are individual cells. That our consciousness is individuated is as much an evolutionary adaptation as the individuation of the fingers on our hands. It doesn’t take much perspective to see the extent to which most, if not all people are susceptible to herd behavior.

    Here is an interesting examination of brain function, based on a neuroscientist’s personal experience with having a stroke;

    http://blog.ted.com/2008/03/jill_bolte_tayl.php#more

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    #78, craig: I think you are still missing my point, though I don’t think it’s intentional. Your argument makes complete sense (and doesn’t really contradict anything I have written, as far as I can see) up until the point where you ask for “evidence” of deity. My point (and I don’t know how many different ways I can say this, but I’ll keep trying) is that the very idea of such an approach to the nonmaterial is an aspect of the modern, highly dualistic mindset, and this mindset directly influences the very nature of what you do and do not consider “evidence” (whether you realize it or not). The kind of noncommittal non-theism you describe would not have been conceivable as a social identity marker only a few hundred years ago, not because people didn’t leave themselves open to such uncertainty before (there have always been such individuals), but because the lack of commitment to one particular concept of deity was not defined as a kind of atheism until more recently. This in itself is a new development in the history of religious and philosophical belief, and it says something about the nature of modern Western thought (though exactly what it says, and all its implications, is still something that needs a lot of exploration).

    All of this seems to be besides the point, though. To me, it’s fascinating, because it has to do with the way mythologies (and the self- and community-identities they shape) have developed in different cultures. It’s not so strange that modern Western secularists reject the notion that they have a cultural mythology of their own through which they define even the possibility of things like identity, truth, meaning and evidence. After all, almost all societies have defined myth as What Other People Have, whereas we have the Actual Truth. Your response is exactly in this vein–”I’ll believe it when you prove it to me as Actual Truth”–without considering that the mythologies within which we live set the boundaries on what counts as “proof” and “truth” and what is just so much noise in the background.

    #79 Laurence, says:

    Perhaps if you didn’t jump immediately to snobbery you would have realized that.

    Wow! Talk about anti-intellectualism! If I’m educated in science, apparently I’m allowed to have my say here, but if I’m educated in the field actually under discussion (political philosophy, theology and social criticism) apparently I’m being a “snob”?

    You’ll have to explain to me sometime how the question of the existence of deity has “nothing to do with” atheism. That is certainly a surprising assertion.

  • Laurence

    Ali:
    Existence of God indeed has nothing to do with the history of atheism (by the way, I noticed you altered my assertion by taking out the word “history” in your reply). The entire history of atheism could have gone completely different and it would not have the slightest bearing on whether God actually exists. Though the history of atheism may indeed be very interesting in and of itself, elucidating on it adds little value to the question of whether God exists. Just because Dawkins refused to talk about your favourite subject in the world does not mean his arguments are ineffective.

    Now I shall simply display again your previous comment. If snobbery is not the correct word to use I don’t know what is.

    Unfortunately, Dawkins makes a bad critic of religion, even if he is a good spokesperson for science. If he were half as informed about the history and development of the atheism/materialism that he believes in, as he is about evolutionary biology, then perhaps he might be more effective. As it stands, he’s about as well-educated in atheism as many extremist/fundamentalist Christians are regarding the roots of their own belief systems–that is to say, not very. He seems to be an expert in his particular field of scientific study, but when he strays into philosophy, it’s bound to be a botched job; he simply is not very familiar with the vast and complicated philosophical underpinnings of the modern views which he takes for granted (assumptions tracing their origins back to Descartes’ arbitrary division between matter and mind, and sometimes even further). Amusingly, these very same modern biases are at the heart of much of those fundamentalist religious movements today that some scientists (and other reasonable people) find so objectionable. For those with more background in philosophy and its development, listening to Dawkins argue against extremist religiousness is like listening to Pepsi and Coke attack one another over nutritional content. Philosophically speaking, they’re made up of much the same stuff, and both tend to be myopic, tone-deaf and stubborn in their critiques of the other.

  • John Merryman

    The sad fact is that science is inherently tactical and religion is inherently strategic. So science ends up building better weapons for the politicians as they feed off the mythic yearnings of the masses, looking for narrative finality.

    http://www.juancole.com/2008/03/iran-danger-and-opportunity-polk-guest.html

    * Religious fundamentalists – Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus – share an eschatological vision. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that each faith includes groups who actually yearn for apocalypse during which time the world is destroyed to be reborn as a messiah or mahdi appears. To the “true believers,” hurrying toward the end of the world is a race not toward horror but a fulfilling spiritual experience in which it is only the enemies of the true faith who will suffer (as St. John so graphically portrays in The Revelation). In their version of messianism, the Shiis believe that the righteous will be delivered from the tyranny of the corrupt, the Shiis believe, and the earth will be filled with justice and happiness.

    Thus, one need not fear but actually should embrace actions that lead toward “the end.” We know this eschatology is the mind-set of Christian fundamentalists; less well known is that it is also the mind-set of Shia fundamentalists. What we think of as fatalism, is not just acceptance of destiny but often is proactive. This may shape at least some Iranian attitudes toward the terrible destruction that would come from an American attack. My impression is that the Iranian Shia fundamentalists, presumably including their mujtahid leadership, believe that the ensuing war would hasten the way toward the Last Day when the Twelth Imam, The Mahdi, would reappear to cleanse the world of evil.

  • chris mullen

    Much of the debate within these comments could be avoided with a simple statement: Science does not privilege atheism. Atheists privilege science.

    Confuse this at your own expense.

  • Anon

    When I advocated ignoring the anti-scientific types, I did not mean that we should not at the same time promote science. Of course scientists should promote science agressively and confidently, and be proactive in teaching science to the public. But it is a mistake for scientists to engage and debate the anti-scientific people, when not forced to do so because of political necessaity, as if their ideas were not beneath contempt. These regressive ideas would not find fertile ground were it not for the current state of ignorance of the U.S. public, which is a direct consequence of the quality of the educational system and of the U.S. media that treats supernatural phenomena as fact. It should be clear that the U.S. needs an educational Marshall Plan. It is clear, at least to me, that validating these people by creating a scene at one of their movies, which otherwise would have received little attention, will accomplish exactly nothing.

  • No. 9

    Not to detract from the usual boring theist/atheist never-ending argument or anything like that, but the post was about politicians and critics. There is a third class of persons: critics that actually try to do something. Washington state’s Darcy Burner, for instance, is a strong opponent of the Iraqi war, and ran for Congress on that basis in 2006. She lost. In 2008 she’s running again, and has joined together with about 50 other congressional candidates across the nation to create a plan for withdrawal from Iraq. The group has (fortunately or unfortunately) been given almost no publicity by America’s media. Darcy Burner and her associates may lose again–but she, and they, are critics actually doing something.

    Other critics throughout the world are also attempting to do something. Osama bin Laden is obviously one of these. Another Arab example is in Kuwait, where the U.S. re-established government also has it’s critics; some of them actually want to create an electoral process! Eight such activist critics were recently arrested, and a protest march was tear-gassed (from http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/564F7174-6225-443F-815B-8BD59ADE7DFB.htm)
    One might expect that the U.S. government, which calls for democracy in the Middle East, would provide support to those organizing elections, and that the American new media would publicize such attempts, but there is no evidence for that currently available.

    We now return you to the interminable discussion of theism enjoyed by America’s educated elite. How many fairies really can dance on the head of a pin? Inquiring minds want to know!

  • Melusine

    Ali is not totally incorrect with one statement. Simply, if I may:

    View 1: I am an atheist who does not believe in gods/deities.

    View 2: I also think that gods/deities are human mind-constructs. This is based on 3,000 or so myths/tales/dreams/delusions (whether psychological or chemical or optical in nature)/cultural history of the previous stated/observation of the nature of man over centuries and the present, and so on.

    This does not mean I do not have an appreciation for the cultural myths, or the sociological, psychological and sociopolitical nature of the above, nor why some maintain faith in the supernatural.

    View 3: View 2 led to the thinking of View 1.

    View 4: Science has informed us that there is a good amount of unassailable evidence that conflicts (and outright knocks out) with much of religious doctrine and mythical tales.

    View 5: I agree with PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins about most of their views. Cultural awareness? Ha! Dawkins understands that quite well, and I think PZ does too. So I read them for both science and atheistic views regardless of what they personally assert about their atheism.

    View 6: Philosophy is for a rainy day when one can’t go outside and look at the birds and bees flitting around. Yay, for naturalism!

    Sorry, if I’m an annoyingly simpleminded lurker. (-:

  • Melusine

    I forgot to say that I’d change View 1 if shown evidence to the contrary.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    I don’t think that the decline of traditional religion can be ascribed to the advent of Darwinism, and most historians and sociologist of religion seem to agree with me. Other factors were and are in play. On the other hand, it surely made a difference that science has provided so little support for Christianity. Circa 1800, most natural historians may not have thought that the world was 6,000 years old or that Genesis was literally true; but most of ‘em expected science to reveal a world obviously guided by intelligence, a world congenial to faith. That dog did not bark. Evolution is certainly consistent with theism, especially granted the license believers give themselves for special pleading; but it doesn’t bolster the notion of providence, either. Reason enough to hate it.

  • John Merryman

    The mystery isn’t intelligence, which is simply a reasonable model of physical reality, but the essential fact of awareness. Because we equate intelligence with awarensss, we assume any form of primordial beingness is intentional, when it is quite evidently aspirational. Life doesn’t know where it’s going, it functions as a parrallel processor; Lots of units blindly expanding perception and perspective. The brain moves into the future, as the mind records the receding past.
    So we have these cycles of expansion and consolidation, where the old view hardens and controls future growth, until such point as it totally constrains growth and must be shed like dead skin, in order for progress to continue.

  • Pingback: Commentary « Twisted One 151’s Weblog

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Reproduced without permission: Jakob de Roover, emphasis added by me.

    In a memorable passage, Dawkins discusses the problem of Trinitarianism in Christianity and extends it to other forms of “polytheism,” such as the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints in Roman-Catholicism. “What impresses me about Catholic mythology,” he shares with the reader, “is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented” (Dawkins 2006: 35).

    As a reader, try to bracket away all presuppositions about religion and reread the sentences. If you succeed in doing so, the impact of Dawkins’ claim dissolves. So what, if certain details of Roman-Catholicism are human inventions? What is the problem in aspects of religion being “shamelessly invented”?

    From a non-Christian, neutral point of view, it is unclear why Dawkins bothers to mention this. However, anyone with a basic understanding of the history of
    Christianity will note where his claim comes from: Dawkins himself reproduces a piece of theology in this sentence (apparently without knowing it). From its earliest beginnings, Christianity claimed that it was the original and pure revelation of God, first given to Adam. This original revelation had been corrupted by sinful idolaters, seduced by the Devil into the worship of the false god and his minions. This corruption, according to Christian theology, took the
    form of human additions to the pure divine revelation: rites and myths, fabricated by priests and prelates.

    During the Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin and their followers began to accuse the Roman-Catholic Church of the same sin of idolatry. They cried that the pope and his priests had invented a plethora of dogmas and rituals and imposed these on the believer as though they were part of God’s revelation and necessary to salvation. In this sense, the worst accusation one could make against Roman- Catholicism was that it consisted of “shameless human inventions.”

    The Enlightenment philosophies extended such charges of idolatry to all of Christianity and to all “religions” of humanity. All of these, including the notion of God itself, were human fabrications, the atheists among them claimed. Ironically, Enlightenment atheism thus presupposed and built on the claims of Christian theology. Without the background belief that there is something intrinsically wrong in religion being a human invention—very much a Christian belief—the impact of such charges simply disappears into thin air.

    At this first level, Dawkins reproduces Christian theology, even though he masks it as an atheistic insight that is supposed to liberate humanity from religion.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    A second point: (and this exposition is why I find Myers, Dawkins and even Sean on this subject so poor reading):

    “Discussing the theological difficulties that polytheism allegedly creates, Dawkins continues:

    “How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply `God’” (Dawkins 2006: 35-6).

    The first issue to point out is that Greek and Roman followers of the “pagan” traditions were not in the least bothered by such “theological conundrums.” This was the case, because to them the stories about Aphrodite, Venus, Zeus and Jupiter were just that: traditional stories, instead of theological doctrines (Balagangadhara 1994; Feeney 1998). To the Greeks and Romans, the stories were not subjects to truth claims; that is, the predicates “true” and “false” were simply not applicable to the many stories about the deities. Hence, many such apparently “contradictory” stories could co-exist without conflict.

    It was only when the church fathers tried to show that the Greeks and Romans had “false religion” that suddenly these stories became bearers of truth value and that the so-called “contradictions” appeared. Like the Christian ancestors who shaped their thought, the Enlightenment philosophers failed to grasp that the Roman and Greek stories were not meant to be doctrines or descriptions of the world. Hence, they ridiculed these stories as “mythologies,” fictionalized and embellished accounts of human history (Hazard 1935). The difficulties that Dawkins notices are those created by Christians and Enlightenment philosophers, who tried to make sense of the traditional stories of Greece and Rome as
    mythological doctrines.”

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Arun – you make interesting and clearly informed points. To get a handle on it, here’s what I think Dawkins was getting at: as time goes on, believers decide to think that such and such is so about Mary the mother of Jesus, etc, and it is taken as being a doctrine worth believing in. Well, we can ask, why should anyone believe this or that about her just because various Church scholars and leaders thought it so? Sure, but we can ask that about the original core beliefs as well. I think what is suspect about specific “kitsch” type doctrines is not their being innovations upon an original revelation, but that they are detailed “peculiar” claims that aren’t as amenable to *philosophical* investigation and appreciation as say, basic and foundational ideas such as there must be an unmoved Prime Mover or Original Cause. Now I must disagree with where I think you are going, for philosophical theologians take the latter very seriously (I sure do) and certainly don’t consider them the equivalent of mere “stories.” They are about the fundamental cause and meaning of the universe and our existence.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Monotheistic systems are based upon the Abrahamist covenentism and on the Mosaic system of law. By being based on law there is the implicit notion of the system being true. After all in a court of law the purpose is to assertain the truth or falsity of a case and guilt and innocense as a result. Although now I think the legal system is set up so lawyers can make more boat payments. So this implies much more of a notion of truth than what existed in polytheistic systems. It might also be argued that this lead to a sense that if God was a king of the universe (melech) then the universe must be ordered in a lawful fashion.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Belizean

    I saw Expelled yesterday. It is inaccurate to call it an “anti-evolution movie”. It points out that Darwinism has well-known problems in explaining the origin of life. [The simplest conceivable form of life (of the sort we know) seems to be far too complicated to have appeared by chance]. It argues that scientists who suggest intelligent design in an attempt to address Darwinism’s shortcomings should be free to do so without losing their jobs.

    It’s most controversial part is its argument that in the absence of exceedingly powerful cultural programming to respect human life, human life will be less respected. Such programming is not to be found within Darwinism. On the contrary, the “survival of the fittest” motif taken as an ethical imperative have lead to eugenics movements and attempts to exterminate races deemed inferior.

    It’s most startling bit is near the end during an interview with Richard Dawkins. Dr. Dawkins seems to agree with Francis Crick that a naturalistic version of intelligent design is a reasonable solution to the origin-of-life problem.

    Why I liked the movie:

    It exposed me to a new idea, which is pretty rare for a movie. The idea is that for any set of physical laws there exists a most probable scheme by which life could have evolved. Highly evolved versions of that most probable scheme could have designed new schemes for life (which are presumably better than the original scheme in some way) and could have seeded other planets with these.

    What I did not like about the movie:

    It didn’t explicitly state that the controversy is not about evolution but about naturalism. Intelligent Design proponents are anti-naturalists in that they believe that certain aspects of reality are fundamentally unintelligible to the human mind. That is the source of the intolerance from the scientific establishment. Anti-naturalism conflicts with a tacit metaphysical assumption behind science — that we can in principle understand the whole of reality.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Oh fun. I can have talk.origins flashbacks now….

  • Pingback: Framing « Transient Reporter

  • Pingback: I love evolution!! « Overcoat Pocket

  • Pingback: Science vs Religion, part one million « The United States of Jamerica

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »