On the wicked ‘new atheists’

I half-promised to stop disputing the claims of Chris Mooney yesterday, but then Jerry Coyne sent me the SEED summary of Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s new book, and I realized I had been premature.

Following up on his The Republican War on Science. science journalist Chris Mooney joins Sheril Kirshenbaum in explaining the disconnect between scientists and the public. This time the onus is on not just on obfuscating and interfering conservatives, but largely on scientists themselves. By talking down to the misinformed – and outright insulting the religious – scientists, they argue, do more harm than good in their quest to enshrine reason in American politics and culture. While the authors’ call for more friendly and magnanimous champions of science is far from a radical conclusion, it duly highlights the Sagan-and Gould-shaped holes we have in our current scientific discourse.

Oh, thought I, I’ll have to look into that. So I did. I read chapter 8, which is titled ‘Bruising Their Religion.’ It starts with two pages scolding PZ Myers for the eucharist incident, mentioning the death threats against Webster Cook (the student who removed a communion wafer) but not mentioning the campaign to get Cook expelled. It says it’s a good thing that Myers wasn’t fired or disciplined, but…

Nevertheless, Myers’s actions were incredibly destructive and unnecessary. He’s a very public figure. His blog often draws over 2 million page views per month. It was dubbed the top science blog by Nature magazine in 2006…Yet Myers’s assault on religious symbols considered sacred by a great many Americans and people around the world does nothing to promote scientific literacy; rather, it sets the cause backward [sic] by exacerbating tensions between the scientific community and many American Christians. [Unscientific America p. 96]

After some more scolding in this vein, we get to the nub of the matter.

Myers is certainly not alone. In recent years a large number of ‘New Atheist’ voices have arisen…The writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett are generally considered the ‘big four’ (or if you prefer, the ‘four horsemen’) of new atheism. [p 97]

Note, before we go further, the silly vulgarity of all that. There are scare quotes on the first mention of ‘new atheism,’ but that is the only distancing there is; after that the term is simply taken for granted without ever being explained or itemized or pinned down in any way. But it’s a stupid term. We all know that. There is no such thing – it’s just that some existing atheists have written some books which did well, and they and other existing atheists have done other writing and speaking, and atheism has belatedly managed to get a little more public attention than it was able to get ten years ago. That’s all. That’s not such a coherent or organized or sinister phenomenon that it deserves its very own label, but CM and SK give it one anyway, and treat it as established and self-evident. The nonsense about the ‘big four’ or (why would we prefer?) the ‘four horsemen’ is just dopy journalistic jargon; it should be beneath them.

They’re hardly a monolithic group…But the broad tenor of the movement they’ve impelled is clear: It is confrontational. It believes religious faith should not be benignly tolerated but, rather, should be countered, exposed, and intellectually devastated.

The most outspoken New Atheists [sic] publicly eviscerate believers…If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheism is strongly counterproductive. [p 97]

And so on and so on, for another eleven pages.

America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning…A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction…[pp 97-98]

Yes of course, but the issue is whether there is in fact a contradiction, not whether or not people have an internal sense of such a contradiction. The chapter never comes to grips with that distinction but instead relies on pointing out the brute fact that many people have combined science and religion in their own heads. The fact that this is fundamentally beside the point never gets a look in.

That’s about halfway; I’ll let you digest that and me take a breather, before I continue.

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