New sandbox rules

Karl Giberson explains about political science in the US and what it means for how we have to behave:

America has a complex and enduring commitment to pluralism. We want people to be free to act — and believe — as they please. But we must all play in the same sandbox, so we are attentive to the idiosyncrasies of our playmates, especially when they don’t make sense to us.

By “attentive” it turns out he means we don’t disagree with them, and by “idiosyncrasies” it turns out he means beliefs, no matter how unreasonable and arbitrary and evidence-free. So we must all play in the same sandbox, meaning, apparently, that we must all spend our lives three inches from all 300 million of the rest of us, and therefore we must never disagree with any of the beliefs of any of the 300 million.

What a happy and fulfilling life that sounds like! In airless proximity to 300 million people and forbidden to dispute any of their beliefs no matter how demented those beliefs may be. If that’s what pluralism means, I’d better start packing for Antarctica, where there’s a little room to breathe.

Giberson goes on to explain that “informed religious belief can accommodate modern science” and that things are looking good in that department, then he goes on from there to explain that the only problem is, “New Atheists.” Then he goes on to spend the vast bulk of the piece saying what’s so awful about “New Atheists” – thus violating his own rule about how to play in the sandbox, I would have thought, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

Dennet’s brother-in-arms, atheist Jerry Coyne, raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and me over the coals in The New Republic for our claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science.

Enough with the jokes; now I’m serious. 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.

For the sake of argument, let us set aside questions about the truth of religion vs. the truth of science. Suppose there is no such thing as religious truth, as Richard Dawkins argued in The God Delusion. Allow that the “New Atheist Noise Machine,” as American University communications professor Matt Nisbet calls it, has a privileged grasp of the truth. Even with these concessions, it still appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

Does it? Or does it just appear that they are describing reality as they see it, and disputing other descriptions of reality that seem to them to be wrong. That’s how it appears to me. It also appears to me that Karl Giberson is confusing “saying something I don’t like” with “behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies” – while doing some genuine bullying himself.

There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don’t comport with science.

But nobody is “demanding” that – because nobody is in a position to demand that. People are pointing out incompatibilities, in public discussions. It seems to me there is “something profoundly un-American” about treating that as impermissible.

I had thought Giberson was a mistaken but decent guy (I got that impression from Coyne’s review, ironically enough), but now I know better.

38 Responses to “New sandbox rules”