Questionable Motives

May 25, 2010

The moral high ground: Is this how you teach atheists to play Nice?

Dr. Karl Giberson, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and co-president of the BioLogos Foundation, tells us in his article published in USA Today that New Atheists need to learn how to play well with others.  His main argument here is that because some well-respected scientists are christian, christianity is compatible with science. Supposedly he’s just as fine with the same logic that because some catholic priests are pedophiles, pedophilia is compatible with catholicism. Setting aside the main thrust of this very stupid argument, he admonishes the New Atheists for countering such very stupid arguments and pretends to take the moral high ground to do so, and reminds us that Nothing is gained by loud, self-promoting and mean-spirited assaults on the beliefs of fellow citizens. In addition, he tells us that it appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

Mean-spirited assaults. Boorish bullies. Yes, those New Atheists are a mean and boorish bunch and they are loud because they wish to promote themselves. Terrible people, really. How do we know this? We know this because people like Giberson keep telling us it is so. It’s the standard ‘tone’ argument; religious apologists keep telling atheists that they need to change the tone of their arguments to be more effective countering very stupid arguments offered up by religious believers that in turn counter the claim that science and religion are compatible ways to know what’s true. ‘Tone’ is often code for ‘Just shut the fuck up and keep your filthy mouth closed because what you are saying is disrespectful of my very stupid arguments and therefore disrespectful of my god.’ As evidence for this mean-spirited assault, Giberson tells us that New Atheist Jerry Coyne raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and him  over the coals in The New Republic for their claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science. Now isn’t that mean-spirited? Downright boorish and bullying, too.

What did Coyne actually write in The New Republic?

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

See how mean-spirited that is? Why the boorishness and intellectual bullying almost leaps off the page, doesn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that it is liars like Giberson, who paint New Atheists inaccurately and then have the gall and temerity and lack of moral integrity and intellectual honesty to deal with legitimate criticism against their religious ideas like grown-ups, resort instead to name calling and spreading false rumors. In religious terminology, I think it is relevant to call what Giberson does bearing false witness.  And it is offensive because it undermines exactly the supposed point of why the article was published in the first place: that playing nicely results in more respect for compatibility.

As Ophelia Benson writes about the mean-spirited and boorish bullying accusation,

That’s a really offensive claim. Not offensive in the frivolous sense the word is so often used to convey, but genuinely offensive, because it is untrue. Coyne doesn’t rake Miller and Giberson over any coals; he says good things about both of them in that long review in The New Republic; he also disagrees with much of what they claim in their respective books. He does it honestly, and carefully, and with detailed argument. That is not the same thing as raking people over the coals! It is offensive for Karl Giberson to make that accusation in a large-circulation national newspaper. Yet here he is telling other people how to play nicely. It’s so typical – say things about atheists that are not true, in the very act of telling atheists to be Nicer.

Giberson is not alone. Typical criticisms by religious apologists against the New Atheists – for daring to criticize religious beliefs by pointing out the incompatibility between science and religion – can’t win on intellectual merit. Nor can Giberson and his religiously apologetic ilk win the argument on honest moral grounds; what we do see is that the New Atheists have to be demonized first by mean-spirited and boorishly bullying methods even if it requires blatant unapologetic lying to do so. You see, by hook or by crook, any method to inaccurately portray New Atheists poorly and get the false message out there that they are terrible people to the broadest audience possible is really all that matters to people like Giberson. Playing nice, as you can plainly see, has nothing to do with the point of his article and is just another example of duplicity by the faithful to support the maligning of atheists themselves rather than deal honestly, openly, and fairly with their legitimate criticisms. Such people as Giberson who prefer to believe the worst about atheists in spite of contrary evidence and those who prefer to agree with their boorish and bullying tactics are really nothing more and nothing less than intellectual cowards.

April 22, 2010

Are scientific and supernatural claims compatible?

Over at ButterfliesandWheels, Ophelia Benson has posted her argument why the supposed wall of separation between science and the supernatural that allows them to be compatible is a “crock of shit.” She writes:

(T)here’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute.

Now consider astronomer Dave Chernoff’s response on “Ask an astronomer” about whether or not astronomers believe in astrology:

“No, astronomers do not believe in astrology. It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science, “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Clear, concise, and definitive: The burden of proof for people who claim that astrology is true lies on those who make that claim. Yet when it comes to claims that the supernatural is true under the heading of religious belief, let’s watch the wheels fall of this skeptical bus. Chernoff tells us that modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of god and that people who believe in god can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating contradictions. After giving a couple of examples of how this might be possible – the Big Bang does not contradict a Genesis equivalent (whatever that means) – Chernoff concludes that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of god and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t have anything to do with scientific reasoning. (Tip to commentator #4 Kenneth.Pidcock)

So what happened to skepticism as the default position – a very useful and beneficial guideline for examining any and all truth claims – when the truth claim fell under the category of religion? How can reasonable people like Chernoff suddenly have their reasoning faculties shut down and allow themselves to pile up banal excuses on behalf of favouring religious claims to be exempt from legitimate skepticism? Some may claim that god works in mysterious ways, but so too does the mind of religious apologists… very mysterious indeed.

I agree with Benson that this skeptical exemption for religious claims about the supernatural, which is necessary for the claim of compatibility with science to remain true, is a crock of shit. And it’s full of shit because the skeptical constraints are changed. That’s not compatibility: that’s an abdication of fair play, a failure to keep the rules of inquiry the same for both categories, resulting in an intellectual capitulation by those who merely want to believe that science and the supernatural are compatible when an honest investigation is subverted right from the start.

January 22, 2010

Does god hate women?

“The control of women is dual. The goal is to deny access to woman’s genitals to all men in the world minus one and to guarantee access to one.”

In the chapter of your book called Holy Groupthink, you explore the idea that religions “…often declare some kinds of people subordinate to other kinds of people, and they also often deny the right of humans to contradict such claims.” You then give an example of a UN meeting in 2008 where a delegate was giving a statement in regard to rights of women and was interrupted twenty seconds in by delegates from Egypt and Pakistan who insisted the delegate had no right to discuss Sharia law in the UN council and that “Islam would not be crucified” in such a manner. You go on to say that this sort of thing amounts to “protecting an abstraction, a particular religion,” and “specious protection for a social construct at the expense of real people.”

“Some people are reluctant to criticize Islam because Muslims in the West are a vulnerable minority. This is true, and well worth keeping in mind, but it’s short of a conversation-stopper. Just for one thing it falls foul of the blindness about groups mentioned above. ‘Muslims in the West’ are not just people who want to live by the most conservative possible versions of Islam, nor are they all men who want to impose the conservative versions on ‘their’ women. Some Muslims in the West are women and girls who want to get out from under those rules, so being all politely respectful of Islam no matter what is not automatically doing all Muslims in the West a favor.”

Maia Caron interviews one of my favourite atheists, Ophelia Benson, here.

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