I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers, but…
.. not particularly of what they have to say about my debate with Sam Harris of the Reason Project.
On the Why Evolution Is True website, stemming from Jerry Coyne’s excellent book of that title, we have a mind-boggling claim: “In this corner, representing reason, is Sam Harris; in the other corner, representing faith, is Philip Ball.” Representing faith? An atheist who states that religions accrue a lot of superstitious claptrap, is representing faith? Almost makes me feel sorry for faith. Have the lines of combat, then, been drawn in so tightly around Sam’s position that anyone outside of that is somehow advocating faith and religion?
PZ Myers, in his great blog Pharyngula, takes a view that one can perfectly well understand from someone who daily fights the good fight against the absurdities of creationism. But it’s a little simplistic on this occasion. For example, he says
“It's a weird thing to argue with an atheist who claims religion is unavoidable (Oh? So what's so special about you?) and isn't that bad or is actually beneficial (So why aren't you going to church for your health?), but they're out there and they are irritatingly inconsistent.”
Do I say religion is unavoidable? No, just that it is an example of what seems so often to befall human societies – so perhaps it makes sense to try to understand why it arises so repeatedly. And perhaps there is some reason for that beyond sheer stupidity. Is it inevitable? I have no idea, and neither does PZ, and it would be idle speculation to make a statement one way or the other.
Do I say that religion is universally beneficial to individuals, like vitamins or something? Do I even say it is ‘not that bad’? What could one possibly mean by ‘not that bad’? Isn’t this a bit like saying ‘government is not that bad’, or ‘families are not that bad?’
PZ then goes on to quote, and respond to, other ‘accommodationists’. I guess I should feel pleased that he needed to recruit other targets in order to shoot them down. Well you know, like those Muslims, we’re all the same.
One comment on the blogs, however, did resonate, though I’m not sure if it was meant favourably: one chap in Utah said ‘Ball doesn’t live where I live’. It’s a good point, and Dakobstah and JimmyGiro reiterate it on my blog below. If I was exposed daily to the excesses of US religiosity, it is perfectly possible that my atheism may have hardened into one like Sam’s. I’d like to think that if someone like Sam lived where I live, where religion virtually never comes up as a topic of conversation (unless by mutual consent), where belief in God is never assumed, where religion is not the organizing force of society, where you often don’t even know who among your friends and neighbours is religious and who isn’t, well… who knows? (Doesn’t work for Dawkins, though, I grant you.) This has been pretty much the case in the UK since it became acceptable to call oneself an atheist, and indeed by some measures Christianity here continues to decline. My perspective gives me a conviction that religion need not inevitably undermine science or reason, despite the undoubted contradictions between them. I see proof of that all around me – although we need to patrol the lunatic fringe, and I don’t by any means deny that the lunatic fringe has a disturbing grip on other parts of the world. I can appreciate why Sam and his followers don’t share this optimism, in which case one can understand their concern. JimmyGiro suggests that in the US Christians effectively make law, while in the UK they make tea. Sam gives the impression that making tea over here is merely the preliminaries to the takeover. But if so, they’re being awfully leisurely about it, since they’ve been making tea since Jane Austen’s day.
One final point: ‘militant atheist’ is not a terribly useful term (besides being a cliché). It just makes people angry. I didn’t intend it to be as disparaging as many have assumed, but in any case, I’ll look for something more accurate in future.