Unscientific America and the ‘New’ Atheists

To return to Unscientific America again, I hardly touched on chapter 8, where they express their dismay at those uppity “New Atheists”. I am not going to address his personal criticisms of me — there’s no point, you obviously know I think he’s completely wrong, and the uncharitable will simply claim my disagreement is the result of a personal animus — so instead I’m only going to address a couple of other general points that Mooney and Kirshenbaum get completely wrong. They plainly do not understand the atheist position, and make claims that demonstrate that either they didn’t read any of the “New Atheist’s” books, or perhaps the simple ideas in them are too far beyond their comprehension.

This is a basic one, from philosophy of science 101. There are several different ways to derive a naturalistic position. Mooney and Kirshenbaum sort of get it right, although I disagree with some of the details.

Modern science relies on the systematic collection of data through observation and experimentation, the development of theories to organize and explain this evidence, and the use of professional institutions and norms such as peer review to subject claims to scrutiny and ultimately (it is hoped) develop reliable knowledge. A core principle underlying this approach is something called “methodological naturalism,” which stipulates that scientific hypotheses are tested and explained solely by reference to natural causes and events. Crucially, methodological naturalism is not the same thing as philosophical naturalism—the idea that all of existence consists of natural causes and laws, period. Methodological naturalism in no way rules out the possibility of entities or causes outside of nature; it simply stipulates that they will not be considered within the framework of scientific inquiry.

Following this, he proceeds to damn the “New Atheists” for “collapsing the distinction” between methodological and philosophical naturalism, and argues that Dawkins is taking a philosophical position and misusing science to claim it “entirely precludes God’s existence.”

One big problem: we don’t. Oddly enough, this is one of the most common canards used by theistic critics, that we’re demanding a kind of philosophical absolutism, yet Mooney is an atheist. The “New Atheist” approach is firmly grounded in methodological naturalism; it’s an extremely pragmatic operational approach to epistemology that leads us to reject religious claims. None of us make an absolute declaration of the impossibility of the existence of a deity, either.

One strand of this view is simple empiricism. Science and reason give us antibiotics, microwave ovens, sanitation, lasers, and rocketships to the moon. What has religion done for us lately? We have become accustomed to objective measures of success, where we can explicitly see that a particular strategy for decision-making and the generation of knowledge has concrete results. I’m sorry, but faith seems to produce mainly wrong answers, and in comparison, it flops badly.

Now, now, I can hear the defenders of religion begin to grumble, there’s more to life than merely material products like microwave ovens — there’s contentment and contemplation and a sort of subjective psychology of ritual and community and all that sort of thing. Sure. Fine. Then stick to it, and stop pretending that religion ought to be a determinant of public policy, that it can inform us about the nature of our existence, or that it provides a good guide to public morality. Get it out of our schools and courthouses and workplaces and governments, take it to your homes and your churches, and use it appropriately as your personal consoling mind-game. And stop pretending that it is universal and necessary, because there are a thousand different religions that all claim the same properties with wildly different details, and there are millions of us with no religion at all who get along just fine without your hallowed quirks.

The other strand is reciprocity. We atheists and scientists have ideas that we are expected to explain and support with evidence, and we are accustomed to being jumped on with sadistic vigor if we fail to provide it. We merely apply the same methodological standards to religion. We do not insist a priori that gods cannot exist, we instead turn to all those people who insist that they do, and ask, “how do you know that?”

Would you believe that for all the fervor of their certainty, none of them have ever adequately answered the question?

There is no philosophical or metaphysical certainty on the part of us “New Atheists”, and we have no problem admitting it. Dawkins wrote it down forthrightly in his book when he scores himself as a 6 on a 7-point scale of atheism: “6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'” It’s genuinely remarkable how many people say they’ve read his book, and then walk away to claim that Dawkins says science “entirely precludes God’s existence.”

I agree entirely with Dawkins’ sentiment. I also turn it around to use an agnostic sentiment on religious interlocuters: “I don’t know for sure, and you don’t either, so why are you being so high-handedly specific in your claims that god was a Jewish carpenter, or his prophet was a polygamist with a flying horse, or that Ragnarok is imminent? Give me a method for evaluating your claims, tell me what rational reason you have to believe that, show me the evidence!” And then they don’t. I’m just supposed to have faith.

It doesn’t even have to be some weirdly specific, quirky bit of historical fiction — even the vague claims fail on epistemological grounds. How often have you been told that “God is love”? How do they know? What does it even mean? It’s just feel-good babble. If it makes you feel good to think it, go ahead…but please, let’s not have this standard of unsubstantiated wishful thinking be regarded as a useful contribution to philosophy, or science, or morality, or poetry, or social cohesiveness, or much of anything other than a trivial activity, like the twiddling of your thumbs that you do in idle moments.

Now notice: Mooney and Kirshenbaum are busily carping at these ghastly “New Atheists” for imagined transgressions against reason and the appropriate application of science, but what do they have to say about Christians who believe that crackers turn into Jesus in their mouths, or that a magical ensoulment occurs at fertilization to turn a zygote into a fully human being, or that children should be kept in ignorance about sex, or that woman’s role is as subservient breeder, or that using condoms to prevent disease is a violation of a divine dictate that the only purpose of sex is to have babies, or that people who love other people of the same sex deserve stoning, or at least to be unable to share insurance policies? Compared to the “New Atheist” insistence that remarkable claims about magic sky fairies ought to be regarded as patent nonsense, those can be rather destructive to society…and also negatively affect the acceptance of science. Rick Warren surely deserves as much condemnation as Richard Dawkins.

But no. The book is silent on the people who directly oppose science politically, culturally, in our classrooms, and on our radio and television. They aren’t the problem, I guess. If only we could clear away the distracting Atheist Noise Machine, train a generation of science journalists to stop bashing religion (as if they do now), and presto, the populace will obligingly stop shaking their angry fists at science and will lie back and accept that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, that the climate is changing and we need to take political action, and oh my yes, gay people can have their civil rights, too.

Oh, wait, I’m over-generalizing. They do say something about those people who believe in talking snakes, angels, and the power of mystic mumblings.

The American scientific community gains nothing from the condescending rhetoric of the New Atheists—and neither does the stature of science in our culture. We should instead adopt a stance of respect towards those who would hold their faith dear, and a sense of humility based on the knowledge that although science can explain a great deal about the way our world functions, the question of God’s existence lies outside its expertise.

Respect faith. Be humble. Pretend that all those beliefs are unquestionable.

Bull…oh, excuse me. Mooney gets rather pearl-clutchey when strong language is used. I shall restrain myself (and you commenters, too, please: I normally trust you all to cope with adult language without too much concern, but apparently a couple of authors with very delicate sensitivities will be reading this and counting your four-letter words).

Look, the only reason “the question of God’s existence” is in any way outside the domain of science is because it is such an amorphous subject that the believers will always rapidly move its definition beyond testability when pressed. However, they also claim that these deities had major material effects on the world — and most also claim ongoing, direct participation by their favorite god on their personal universe. Those are not beyond the realm of science! If absolute knowledge of this superbeing’s existence is out of our reach, we can at least easily push him/her/it/them back into a fairly tenuous connection with the world, to the point where they are irrelevant.

And if science can’t say a thing about the existence of gods, sweet jebus, Mooney, be consistent and admit that the jabbering, sanctimonious priests can’t either! Why we should respect their fairy-tales and complete lack of humility while you castigate godless science for relying on mere evidence is incomprehensible.

The essence of what Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend in their book is that science must cut off its own balls, science must wear her corset cinched tight, science must not dissent from the masses, science must be obliging and polite, because that is the only way the public will accept it.

I rudely disagree.

There is nothing condescending about appreciating that almost every human being, even the most god-soaked, has a functional mind and that maybe they can actually learn about science and a scientific way of thinking that makes their myths untenable. There is nothing condescending about being uncompromising in our expectations and trusting that others can hear and think and express their own ideas. There is something deeply condescending about setting aside a big chunk of people’s experience and telling people that they should not question it.

Science is a sublimely human activity and a central part of the best of Western culture…and of every culture on earth that aspires to be something more than a collection of dirt-grubbing subsistence breeders, propagating for the sake of propagating. It’s what gives us the potential to reach beyond making do, that gives us the leisure and freedom to flower in the arts and explore the diversity of human experience. Even institutionalized religion itself is an incidental byproduct of the first clever dicks who thought to reroute the flow of a river to irrigate fields and led to centralization, urbanization, hierarchies of leadership, accounting, writing, and the whole avalanche of change that followed. It’s important. Mooney and Kirshenbaum know this; it’s what their whole book is about.

In order to be what it is, though, science must live. It’s a process carried out by human beings, and it can’t be gagged and enslaved and shackled to a narrow goal, one that doesn’t rock the boat. Imagine they’d written a book that tried to tell artists that they shouldn’t challenge the culture; we’d laugh ourselves sick and tell them that they were completely missing the point. Why do you think some of us are rolling our eyes at their absurd request that scientists should obliging accommodate themselves to a safe frame that every middle-class American would find cozy? They don’t get it.

Somehow, they think that Carl Sagan’s great magic trick was that he didn’t make Americans feel uncomfortable. I think they’re wrong. Sagan’s great talent was that he showed a passion for science. People made fun of his talk of “billyuns and billyuns”, but it was affectionate, because at the same time he was talking about these strange, abstract, cosmic phenomena, everyone could tell he was sincere — he loved this stuff.

Another example: Feynman. Watch the man, and what is the impression he makes? Absolute joy. He’s laughing at the universe. People love his lectures because he’s cocky and bold and doesn’t hesitate to show you where you’re wrong.

For a less openly abrasive case, how about E.O. Wilson? In his talks, he seems to be a soft-spoken gentleman who’s willing to concede quite a bit of respect to everyone — but read his work, and there’s a steely spine there, too, and if you get him talking about ants, you discover he’s cheerfully obsessive.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s prescription for improving the fate of science in this country is to train young scientists to be more media- and politics-savvy, to build a generation of cautious barometers of the public mood “capable of bridging the divides that have led to science’s declining influence.” And perhaps we could get more support for the arts if young artists were taught to favor bucolic photo-realism, if poetry was required to be in greeting card meter, and if all music was appropriate to elevators? We’d surely have a new renaissance if the NEA only funded art that a conservative senator would find inoffensive!

I recommend something different. Our next generation of great science communicators should be flesh-and-blood people with personalities, every one different and every one with different priorities, all singing out enthusiastically for everything from astronomy to zoology, and they should sometimes be angry and sometimes sorrowful and sometimes deliriously excited. They shouldn’t hesitate to say what they think, even if it might make Joe the Plumber surly. If you want to improve American science and the perception of science by the public, teach science first and foremost, because what you’ll find is that your discipline is then populated with people who are there because they love the ideas. And, by the way, let them know every step of the way that science is also a performing art, and that they have an obligation as a public intellectual to take their hard-earned learning and share it with the world.

Face the fact that some of us (but definitely not all of us) will be so smitten with this wonderful, powerful way of thinking that we’re going to follow our bliss and laugh at the hidebound ritualists who expect us to respect their superstitions, and at the prissy wanna-be moralists who demand bloodless conformity. You will not generate new Sagans by insisting on deference. You will not change a culture with a declining appreciation of science by demanding that scientists respect the beliefs of people who despise science the most. Mooney and Kirshenbaum single out the increasingly vibrant atheist sub-culture as something that needs to be muffled, and that’s symptomatic of the failure of their suggestions: what other ideas should be stifled lest they disturb American complacency? And shouldn’t shaking up that complacency be exactly what scientists do?

This article was first published at Pharyngula and is re-posted here by permission.

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