Though I read the Guardian only when I’m in the UK, I’d always thought it was a bastion of liberalism. And I was heartened when its coverage of the Templeton Prize wasn’t all worshipful: it included an announcement that characterized the Prize as “controversial,” an interview with winner Martin Rees that showed him up as a reticent accommodationist, and even allowed me a fairly long critique of Rees and the Prize.
But I shouldn’t have been so sanguine. After all, the paper regularly publishes the mushy, anti-atheist rants of editor Andrew Brown. And, indeed, the Guardian has struck back.
When the cultural history of our times comes to be written, Templeton 2011 could be mentioned, at least in a footnote, as marking a turning point in the “God wars”. The power of voices like that of Dawkins and Sam Harris – who will be on the British stage next week – may actually have peaked, and now be on the wane. Science could be said, in effect, to have rejected their advocacy. Rees brings a preferable attitude to the debate.
And then assistant editor Michael White angrily defended Rees. Referring to critics, he used the word “abuse” three times in the first four paragraphs; I would have thought “criticism” was more accurate. And White, as well as the editorial I mention below, completely missed the serious point about Templeton’s attempt to mingle science and woo:
As far as I can see, there’s no suggestion [Rees] made his money as a crack dealer or a trader in sex slaves. What upsets part of the scientific community – needless to say, Oxford’s most militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, is part of the chorus – is their belief that Templeton, an enthusiastic Presbyterian, tries to blur the boundary between science and religion, making a virtue of belief without evidence.
Well, well, that’s pretty serious. Belief without evidence, eh? I was having a drink only last night with a chap who left the pub early to go home and catch the Manchester United v Chelsea game. He did so in the evidence-free (and misplaced) belief that Chelsea would win. We all do things like that, don’t we?
Yes, but we don’t force the rest of the world to bow down before Chelsea, or stone them if they support Man United, or tell them that they’ll go to hell if they’re Chelsea fans. White goes on to accuse atheists of the same sort of intolerance that once (no longer?) characterized the faithful:
If that wasn’t enough, you might think that heavyweight scientists might remember the intolerance that marked the history of their own trade in the modern era.
From the 17th century until the 20th, they had to be wary of publishing conclusions which explicitly challenged the existence of a deity. You could lose your livelihood, or worse, if you were suspected of atheism. Surely we are not now so arrogant that we are tempted to reverse the proof?
Well, nobody is suggesting that Rees lose his job or his life; we’re talking about public discussion and criticism here, for crying out loud. Are a few editorials and website critiques equivalent to the Inquisition, which is what religion does when it has the power? Has any atheist shown Rees the instruments of torture?
Finally, today the Official Guardian “Comment is Free” Editorial on the matter appeared. It’s so lame, and so poorly written, that I suspect it was penned by Andrew Brown. But never mind: it’s characterized by several quacking canards. First, an implicit attack on scientism:
There are evolutionary theorists who describe scorpion flies as rapists, and Nobel laureate economists who insist that affairs of the human heart are best grasped through cost-benefit analysis. Clever people are, if anything, especially prone to intellectual tunnel vision—recasting every discussion in terms of the one discipline they have mastered, with no regard for how ideas that enlighten in one context often make no sense elsewhere.
I was one of the biggest opponents of the rape-as-an adaptation hypothesis, but the editor is going beyond mere criticism of evolutionary psychology; he/she is making a general accusation of scientism, calling it “intellectual tunnel vision.” There’s no mention, of course, of whether religion has an even narrower view, or whether its methods have had anything like the success of science.
The next canard is the implicit claim that no religion sees scripture as anything other than metaphorical:
[Dawkins] has made quite a career of treating religious doctrines as scientific hypotheses and then demonstrating that they are wanting in this regard.
Of course they are. Words can be used to joke or emote as well as inform, and neither scripture nor indeed poetry can be understood by mistaking it for something else. Metaphors ought not be metamorphosed into literal claims, while the test for moral edicts is reflective introspection and not the weight of the evidence that defines the scientific domain.
Umm. . . tell that to the howling mobs of Muslims who behead people on behalf of literal belief in scripture, or the Catholics who terrorize kids with the idea of a literal hell, or the millions of Christians whose beliefs absolutely rest on the scientific truth of the Resurrection. This editor needs to get out more.
Like White, the editor has no idea of what Templeton is up to, or the insidious way it enables faith by sneaking it into science:
Faith is a professional problem for scientists only where it demands that they close their minds to the facts. Neither Newton’s religion nor Einstein’s God of sorts (who refused to play dice) got in the way of their work. Conversely, the occasional book-promoting blathering of Stephen Hawking, about how with physics we can variously know the mind of God or prove he is fiction, is utterly wide of the mark. The question with Templeton is not whether it funds some wacky endeavours, but whether it does anything to undermine the core requirement of good science, namely falsification through the experimental method.
Tell that to Francis Collins, who gives lectures showing that the Moral Law scientifically proves God! Or Kenneth Miller, who suggests that “fine tuning” shows the same thing. Or Simon Conway Morris, who argues for Jesus on the basis of evolutionary convergence.
Yes, Templeton does undermine the core requirement of good science, which is that you don’t pollute it with untestable superstition. And it does this by throwing its funding towards those endeavors that are likely to buttress belief in God or its coded alternative, “spirituality.” And about Hawking: if we can explain the origin of the universe through pure physics, without invoking a god, then we’ve removed one of the biggest props of religion, which would suggest that many people’s conception of god is a fiction. (The “mind of god” remark was, I admit, a bit over the top, but I’m pretty sure Hawking was being metaphorical there.)
And finally, the Guardian‘s Big Quack: science and faith are buddies because many scientists used to be religious!
In any case, many of our greatest scientists—Darwin, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton—were men of faith. If Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind in history, could reconcile faith and reason (“Gravity is God”) Rees should be able to sleep soundly, cheque in hand.
Darwin? Really? Somebody hasn’t done their homework here. And of course scientists were religious then because nearly everyone was religious. Check out the religious views of modern scientists!
But even though I’m disappointed with these examples of sloppy thinking (and poor writing), I’m heartened overall. As some commenters have noted, the very fact that papers like the Guardian, and journals like Science, characterize the Templeton Prize as “controversial,” or highlight its critics without dismissing them, shows that atheism is making real inroads in society. It’s clearly gaining respectability—or at least less disapprobation. I can’t imagine that twenty years ago I would have been allowed to write a Guardian piece criticizing Templeton, or that the announcement of the Prize would have called it “controversial”, mentioning and quoting its opponents.
Regardless of the wish-thinking of Mark Vernon, these are our victories, pure and simple. We must keep the pressure on, and keep fighting against the privilege that religion—and its lackeys like Templeton—claim for themselves in our world.