Monday, July 06, 2009

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.


Dr. Athreya said...

...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...

Exactly true about my surroundings here in Mumbai, India Dr. Ball. There has been no debate/ discussion leave alone court room dramas in India in favour of creationism to my knowledge. We are a very deeply religious society as no book about us would fail to inform you, but creationism is simply not considered worth discussing. It never fails to amaze how relevant it is in the US and UK but not so much in say, Germany or Japan. So I venture to point out that it may not just be the religious incompatibility with science, but more of a societal incompatibility at play in your countries.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry to hear you are taking such a beating on the blogs. Although I tend to disagree with you (for reasons earlier discussed) I really do think you held your side of the debate better than Sam did his (which is why I came here to comment instead of commenting over there). Nor do I think they should be throwing around words describing your position as "absurd" and such.

As an interesting side note, I just read that Francis Collins has been nominated to be the director of the National Institute of Health in America. In the picture of him that went with the article he was holding up a copy of "Nature."

JimmyGiro said...

Burn the heretic!

The trouble with you Phil is that you're not atheist enough!?

Martin Luther heralded the end of Christian absolutism, by creating the final schism. It is my belief that all fascist systems are inherently unstable, and that vain identity will naturally seek diversity amongst the congregation.

What holds any self respecting fascist state together - even states of the mind - is heresy; you're either with us or you're a heretic; and as long as you have an enemy, you are distracted from your own independence, and allow the system to persist via your neurotic allegiance.

Bigotry and misrepresentation are the telling symptoms of fascist mind sets, as they create the demarcations about their collective identity. Ants have their pheromones, Nazis have their race, and cults have their absolutism; if you're not in, then you're food, Untermensch, or heretic, respectively.

The 'New Atheism' has all the trimmings of a cult, right down to the use of bigotry and misrepresentation.

I'm such an atheist, I don't even believe in New Atheists.

Now do forgive me, a bunch of reds have moved into the neighbourhood, and I need to rub myself down in puréed ant; I never leave the nest without it.

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Ítalo M. R. Guedes said...

Maybe "fundamentalist atheist" is a better expression for PZ Myers et al.