Posts Tagged ‘New Atheists’

Sunday Sermon: Mind those gaps

Reza Aslan has a particularly clueless article in today’s WashingtonPost.com. A few points:

The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.

First, I don’t know of any “New Atheists” claiming sole possession of the truth — and pointing out that science has a really good track record isn’t tantamount to doing so. It’s not Dawkins’ fault that creationists strongly resemble Holocaust deniers, and it’s not the fault of any atheist that even most fundamentalists back off from taking the Bible as literally as they claim to. And it’s not a “belief” that atheists have been oppressed and marginalized, it’s just an observation of fact.

Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did?

If it did, then you’d begin to have a point. As soon as you have evidence that it does, bring it forth for discussion. But don’t berate people for dismissing that which does not appear to exist.

The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics.

Sorry, no. “X is evil” does not equal or imply “X is the only evil.” And while Nazism was “Socialist” in name only, nationalism certainly shares blame for fascism, and communism for Stalinism. The “science” used to justify eugenics was generally an afterthought generated by the desire for eugenics (see Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent “The Mismeasure of Man”), so I’d be hesitant to place blame in that instance. But I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that science may have had some unwholesome fruits here and there, and I don’t know of anyone refusing to acknowledge that possibility.

The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

Really? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Dawkins and others acknowledge that there are religious people — even fundamentalist 6-day creationists — with high intelligence.

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science.

Well, now, is the efficacy of prayer a metaphysical claim? Is that untestable by science? Perhaps there are areas that science can’t reach (and yes, I’m aware that some “New Atheists” would dispute that), but science can reduce, and has reduced, the “gap” in which the god of such arguments resides.

(pic via AtheistKiwi)

Yet another science-vs.-religion post

Mano Singham’s “New Atheist” vs. Accommodationist article is worth a read, no matter which side you’re on.

While the headline “The New War Between Science and Religion” seems overblown, the article itself is much more restrained and  certainly (given that it’s a “New Atheist” writing it) less fear-mongering than the headline sounds.

Personally, I take the opposite of the “plague on both their houses” approach — I think that both those who favor respect for religion and those who favor strident contempt both have valid points to make, and both deserve a place at the table.

The mere existence of religious scientists doesn’t mean religion isn’t silly (anyone can be wrong, especially when their judgment is clouded), but it does mean that a deep understanding of science can, in fact, co-exist with a belief in a supernatural realm that science can’t prove, disprove or even study.

Who’s helping who?

atheist_extremistsExtremists are useful to accommodationists, but not vice versa.

In a political struggle, i.e. to get a law passed or struck down, extremists need moderates, because even if there are some extremists in the body of lawmakers, there usually won’t be enough to pass the legislation on their own.

But in a purely social struggle, or even (especially) a more personal struggle (e.g. one person trying to figure out how to deal with the rest of the world), extremists don’t need moderates at all, and indeed the moderates aren’t generally very useful to them.

On the other hand, extremists can be very useful to moderates, by highlighting how moderate the moderates are. As long as there are extremists, moderates can say “hey, I’m not one of those extremists,” and distance themselves from others who basically share the same outlook.

The key concept here is the Overton window , based on the observation that newcomers to a debate will gravitate toward what’s seen as the “center,” with fewer and fewer of them agreeing with positions that are further and further from what’s perceived as the center.

Therefore, if you’re trying to “move the window,” it helps to have extremists on your side, since if the “window” ranges from an extreme position on one side (call it “X”) to a moderate position on the other (“Y”), the “center” appears to be roughly in the “moderate X” range.

Likewise, if you can paint moderates on the other side as extremists, and extremists on your own side as moderates, you can “move the window” much further toward your own side of the spectrum. And it’s a lot easier to do that when the other side’s moderates can’t point to prominent and visible examples of people on their side who are more extreme.

So when we look at the ongoing intra-atheist struggle between the “New Atheists” (some of them, anyway) and the “accommodationists,” we can see that the latter group benefits from the existence of the former, and their struggle against the former, than the “New Atheists” benefit from the existence of the latter, or from any squabbling with them.

What does that mean, in the grand scheme of things? I’m not sure. But for some reason I think it’s interesting.

(cartoon via Atheist Cartoons)