Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Whatever you do, don’t call them militant

Blimey, it’s a lot worse than I thought. I had worried somewhat that I had unfairly prejudged the Reason Project in my Nature Muse, suggesting (mildly, I thought) that this might be the same old line of seeking out the worst in religion to expose the urgent need for its destruction and then imagining that this can be done by simply telling people the facts, so far as we currently know them, about the origins of humanity and the universe. But on current showing, that is precisely what it seems to be.

As a firm atheist, I don’t particularly object to that. I just find it a bit over-optimistic, and a tad intellectually lame. It reminds me of the old deficit model that used to motivate the Public Understanding of Science movement: just give people the right facts, and then they’ll agree with us. I am in favour of any movement that campaigns to kick out of schools the invidious misinformation of creationism, intelligent design and the rest of the shoddy fundamentalist agenda. I am very much in favour of a movement that aims to denounce religious intolerance and that attacks the kind of harmful and ignorant nonsense that seems increasingly to be coming from the Vatican. And I believe I said that in my article.

But what depresses me is that the Reason Project and many of its supporters are so sure of the battle-lines that they have lost the ability of basic English comprehension. It is this that has earned me the delightful honour of a place in the Reason Project’s Hall of Shame, no less – because it has decided that I am placing the irenic BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and other apologists, on a pedestal, making them the nice, friendly good guys who only want us all to get along. Does my article say that? No, it simply quotes from the BioLogos mission statement (just as it quotes from the Reason Project mission statement). That this is taken as registering approval is a bit disturbing. The fact that I suggest the Reason Project in some respects ‘should be applauded’, and say no such thing about the BioLogos Foundation, doesn’t seem to be noticed. (The fact is that I’m utterly indifferent to the BioLogos Foundation. I find its aims uninspiring and its current statements about the relation of science and religion somewhat shallow.)

Did I say (as most of the comments on the Reason Project page imply) that science and religion are compatible? No. They are systems of thought that seem to me to stem from quite different axioms, and are bound to run into logical contradictions. But humans seem remarkably good at living with contradictions. We all do it. It is not a particularly laudable attribute, but it is what we are like (most of us). Many people (not me) are apparently able to reconcile religious belief with a deep trust in science. I’m not sure how, but they do. I suspect they just take the bits they like and ignore the bits that clash. On current evidence, this seems to offend a lot of people associated with the Reason Project.

There doesn’t seem to be much to be gained from responding to the various comments on the Reason Project site, since they are so lamentable. (A sample: ‘It is sad to see that, in their desperation to recapitalize, a journal with the prestige of Nature is whoring around looking for some of that Tempelton prize money. Go write and editorialize for a religious newspaper or magazine if you want to espouse religious viewpoints.’ ‘Dr Ball essentially states that while religion, admittedly, wrongly picks on certain aspects of science, religion and science can coexist, and thus we should not eliminate religion.’ ‘I find it particularly disturbing that this article [sic] was in a science magazine. Once again we have a document declairing [sic] ignorance as a right of passage.’ ‘I found this part objectionable, “atheistic absolutism works as long as it ignores what people are like.” I feel it misses the point that people are not like anything. It is the memes that make people believe in sky fairies and all the other wishful thinking crap.’ ‘Philip Ball says it himself—“religion is a social construct.” Science is not. In defending faith without evidence, does he really not see the irony in this statement?!’ [Oh yes, the irony!] ‘Philip Ball presents Francis Collins as a happy peacemaker vs the “militant atheists.”’ Stop now, it’s too depressing.)

But hey, that’s the blogosphere for you. If I was Sam Harris, however, I’d be worried. And what truly depresses me is that this may actually reflect the level of comprehension and reflection found ‘at the top’ of the Reason Project. I think we haven’t heard the last of this yet.

9 comments:

JimmyGiro said...

"Hitchens is not God"

I bumped into a little god-squaddy in the town the other day; and before he could get his spiel out, I found myself preaching to him about the virtues of science. Then he told me he was an engineering student from San Diego, who enjoyed physics.

The encounter caused the reflection of how different the main branches of science are to each other; they evolved differently, each to their function. And similarly, since protestantism, the Christian church has evolved many sects according to the needs of their respective communities.

In a way, the Reason Project risks undoing this evolution, as the natural response to the challenge is for disparate opponents to re-form alliances. Strength through unity, is the illiberal cry of fascism.

Another thought was how the best creative research science is occasioned with the least 'rationality'. The snobby name is hypothesising; where to 'think outside the box' means that 95% of your ideas on Monday are rubbished by Wednesday. You spend Thursday and Friday trying to encourage your 'rational' colleagues, with firsts from Durham, how to have original thought. So I guess what I'm saying is that you can be a little too rational sometimes, at the detriment of creativity.

Not that creativity is all its made up to be; remember the cry of the punk rockers in the late seventies: "We want to be different". After a few months, they all looked the same.

And finally; even though religion is irrational, in most schools it barely compromises a couple of lessons a week. The real menace is surely the disaster of education itself; what's the point of changing the bath water if the baby is long dead.

unkle e said...

"Many people (not me) are apparently able to reconcile religious belief with a deep trust in science. I’m not sure how, but they do. I suspect they just take the bits they like and ignore the bits that clash."I am one such person, a christian who has studied both engineering and theology, and worked as an environmental manager for many years. I enjoyed your blog and your "Nature Muse", because I too believe that some atheists have become so militant as to effectively be fundamentalists. And as a christian, I find militant fundamentalism of both belief and disbelief scary.

But I wanted to comment on the above statement. Have you considered that christians like me, deeply concerned to be as truthful as possible, might not "take the bits they like", but rather take the bits we think are true?

And could it not be possible that we don't "ignore the bits that clash", but rather continue to grapple with the difficulties?

That's what I thought I have been doing most of my life. Just like scientists do with the facts and observations before them.

You don't have to agree with us to understand that many of us think about our faith just like we think about life.

Thanks, and best wishes.

Archduke Chocula said...

"might not [A]'take the bits they like', but rather [B]take the bits we think are true?"

The idea seems to be: A will influence, if not sometimes outright determine, B. The human brain conflates "ought" with "is" all the time - I don't think it cares much for cognitive dissonance.

unkle e said...

"The idea seems to be: A will influence, if not sometimes outright determine, B. The human brain conflates "ought" with "is" all the time - I don't think it cares much for cognitive dissonance."It's an interesting way to try to denigrate a view one doesn't agree with, but doesn't it work both ways? Cannot a believer argue, with similar (or perhaps more?) evidence, that non-believers fall prey to the same processes?

For example, the logical consequence of naturalism seems to be determinism, but few like to think they lack freewill (and our society, and even this discussion, depend on us having freewill), so few believe it. And Daniel Dennett writes complex books trying to show how we can have freeewill of a sort despite being determined. Sounds like cognitive dissonance to me.

Same can be said for our practical belief in some things being truly right and wrong, even though evolutionary theory suggests otherwise.

Philip Ball said...

Thanks unkle e, I appreciate these thoughtful comments. And I stand corrected - I'm wrong to assume that people like you just ignore any inconvenient contradictions. Yes, I know others who think about them deeply too. That seems to me to be an intellectual position that is entirely respectable.
In any event, this debate will continue - watch the Reason Project site...

unkle e said...

Philip

You cannot know how much I appreciate your comment. I always try to discuss issues courteously and reasonably, and to treat the opposing viewpoint with respect, but I rarely find anyone on the internet prepared to recognise that.

Thank you.

unkle e said...

Philip

You cannot know how much I appreciate your comment. I always try to discuss issues courteously and reasonably, and to treat the opposing viewpoint with respect, but I rarely find anyone on the internet prepared to recognise that.

Thank you.

Robin Edgar said...

Why call them militant when you can quite justifiably call them Atheist Supremacists? :-)

In fact, the very reason that I do call Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al Atheist Supremnacists or fundamentalist atheists (a justifiable description that such militant atheists don't deal with well) is to distinguish these dogmatic and intolerant, to say nothing of evangelical, atheists from the more moderate atheists who seek know quarrel with believers or at least prefer civil and respectful debate. Oh for the days when Carl Sagan was the face of Public Understanding of Science.

Robin Edgar said...

Correction - atheists who seek *no* quarrel with believers.