The Guardian strikes back: Templeton and Rees are wonderful, Gnu Atheism is dead

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.

First there was a piece by ex-Anglican-priest Mark Vernon (remember his “holy rabbit“?), triumphantly declaring that the award to Martin Rees marked the beginning of New Atheism’s decline:

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.

121 Comments

  1. Sigmund
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    “the editor has no idea of what Templeton is up to”
    Well if its Andrew Brown then he, just like fellow Templeton Cambridge fellows Mark Vernon and Mad Bunting, can’t be entirely unconscious about the motives of his grateful trough masters.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      V good point. I keep forgetting that Brown is a Temp “fellow.” Must never forget that.

  2. Dominic
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I assure you that you are not alone in your irritation & frustration, particularly when it comes to the lazy reactionary guff that these editorials have come out with. They are frightened, terrified of reality, of nothingness, of slipping into the pit unknowing, of non-existence.

    And whenever I hear the phrase ‘men of faith’ I want to throw up! As if they all thought each other equally worthy & were all going to their fantasy heaven. Do these editors never stop to think how ridiculous religion actually IS???

  3. helen
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    ‘Our world’ (last two words) does not include the UK.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Eh? With the prize given in the UK this year, to a UK scientist?

      • Marella
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Everyone knows that most Americans don’t really believe that the rest of the world exists, except maybe Canada. ;-)

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

          I thought it was, “especially Canada.” ;D

  4. Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    “As far as I can see, there’s no suggestion [Rees] made his money as a crack dealer or a trader in sex slaves.”

    Shouldn’t that be [Templeton], not [Rees]? Not that it makes much difference to the point.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      If a “respectable” organization is compared to such sleazy/criminal practice, isn’t that setting the bar pretty low?

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

        You have to set it below just tax-dodging…

  5. Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I propose a $2 million dollar annual “Michael White Award”, that will be presented to a scientist who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming Chelsea’s superiority to Man. United, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”.

    • GraemeL
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      It would be more fitting for it to promote Melchester Rovers superiority over Manchester United.

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        Because, after all, who could possible argue that Roy Race’s “rocket” isn’t the most devastating shot in football? It’s right there in black, white, red and yellow!

  6. Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Brown (assuming it is him) is not entirely wrong about the “tunnel vision” thing. (We engineers typically refer to it as the “Golden Hammer effect”) If a person with expertise in discipline A, no matter how well-respected, attacks the conventional wisdom of discipline B, we ought to treat that with a healthy dollop of skepticism.

    But this misses the point. This is not scientists telling theologians “Ur doin it rong.” This is scientists (and others) saying that theology is pointless to begin with.

    We are not saying, “You’re traditional methods of doing theology are dumb. Why don’t you try evolutionary biology/cosmology/whatever to do theology?” We are saying, “Stop doing theology. At all.” That’s not the same thing.

    • SLC
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      A point first made by Martin Gardner in his seminal work, “Fads and Fallacies in Science.” A couple of perfect examples:

      1. Linus Paulings’ advocacy of vitamin C based on no evidence;

      2. William Shockleys’ advocacy of racial differences in intelligence, based on shaky studies such as the identical twins study of Sir Cyril Burt, now known to be spurious.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

        Well, to be fair, Pauling did not base his vitamin C advocacy on “no” evidence. He just over-reached with his conclusions.

        And he was a pretty fair chemist, so any claim that this wasn’t his area of expertise is … well, just flat-out wrong.

        I had the distinct pleasure to meet Dr. Pauling during his “C” days. The hotel sent up a BIG basket of oranges for him.

        Any scientist who isn’t wrong on occasion isn’t much of a scientist.

        • SLC
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          Excuse me, the late Prof. Pauling claimed that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer, among other ailments. There is not a jot or a tittle of evidence to support such a claim. Furthermore, Prof. Paulings’ expertise in chemistry in no way, shape, form, or regard, provides any expertise in medicine.

          • Kevin
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            From his bio:

            The subjects of the papers he published reflect his great scientific versatility: about 350 publications in the fields of experimental determination of the structure of crystals by the diffraction of X-rays and the interpretation of these structures in terms of the radii and other properties of atoms; the application of quantum mechanics to physical and chemical problems, including dielectric constants, X-ray doublets, momentum distribution of electrons in atoms, rotational motion of molecules in crystals, Van der Waals forces, etc.; the structure of metals and intermetallic compounds, the theory of ferromagnetism; the nature of the chemical bond, including the resonance phenomenon in chemistry; the experimental determination of the structure of gas molecules by the diffraction of electrons; the structure of proteins; the structure of antibodies and the nature of serological reactions; the structure and properties of hemoglobin and related substances; abnormal hemoglobin molecules in relation to the hereditary hemolytic anemias; the molecular theory of general anesthesia; an instrument for determining the partial pressure of oxygen in a gas; and other subjects.

            I think you owe him an apology.

            No kidding — Pauling was MORE than qualified to discuss the subject.

            • SLC
              Posted April 8, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

              I don’t see that any of those publications qualifies the late Prof. Pauling as someone who is an expert on, for instance, cancer. Yet he made claims about vitamin C being a treatment for cancer which are considered to be rubbish, without any foundation in fact by real cancer researchers.

            • SLC
              Posted April 8, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              Here’s what a real cancer researcher, surgical oncologist Dr. Orac has to say about Linus Pauling and his total incompetence in medical research. The money quote:

              Unfortunately, as experimental clinical protocols go, this study was a complete mess. Linus Pauling was not a clinician and had no experience in clinical trial design, and it really showed. Even as a retrospective analysis, the paper was a total embarrassment. There was no standardization, no good matching of controls by age, stage of cancer, or performance status; given the terrible design, there was clearly serious selection bias going on at a minimum. The study’s flaws, which were too numerous to mention, rendered its results essentially meaningless.

              http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/02/vitamin_c_and_cancer_has_linus_pauling_b.php

              • Kevin
                Posted April 9, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

                So, in an argument from authority, I’m to take the side of a blogger against one of the all-time great scientific minds of the century?

                No kidding, he almost beat Watson and Crick to the punch, more than deserved his Nobel, was PLENTY involved in clinical medicine (see above), and was mistaken about this one thing.

                This isn’t Newton looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s a well-qualified scientist who stumbled.

              • SLC
                Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                Excuse me, Dr. Orac is a lot more then a blogger. He is research surgical oncologist who has a number of publications in the field and holds a research grant from the NIH on the subject. Given his background and education in medical research, I would, indeed, accept his analysis of the late Prof. Paulings’ incompetence in medical research.

                By the way, even someone with expertise in medical research can go off the rails. Case in point, Prof. Peter Duesberg, who was a strong candidate for a Nobel Prize in medicine back in the 1960s for his groundbreaking research on ERVs. Unfortunately, Prof. Duesberg trashed his own reputation by his increasingly whackjob views on the relationship between HIV and AIDS.

        • SLC
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          I would also add that I am in complete agreement with Enrico Fermis’ comment that a scientist who has never been wrong is a scientist who has accomplished little. However, there is a difference between being wrong about a hypothesis within ones field of expertise and being wrong about a hypothesis outside ones field of expertise.

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

            Nonetheless, it would be a shame if all one remembered about Pauling were the late-in-the-day vitamin C claims. See Kevin’s bio post above; and let us never forget the activities that won him the Peace Prize.

            • SLC
              Posted April 9, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

              I completely agree that Prof. Pauling should not be judged solely on his crackpot claims for vitamin C and that he well merited the Nobel Prize in chemistry. However, as Dr. Orac and others have opined, his scientific reputation was heavily damaged due to his fatuous claims about vitamin C.

              In fairness, he is not the only one. There is also physics Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson who has promoted such dubious notions as PK, ESP, and cold fusion. I would also cite Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, one time president of the American Astronomical Society, who came to believe in extraterrestrial visitations and abductions.

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

                Not to mention Kary Mullis…:D

                Compared to your kooks and mine, I think Pauling’s stumble looks more & more minor…

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        the identical twins study of Sir Cyril Burt, now known to be spurious.

        When did “spurious” become a euphemism for fraudulent?

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

          Synonyms from Dictionary.com:

          1. false, sham, bogus, mock, feigned, phony; meretricious, deceitful.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Agree 100%…and yet, everyone seems to miss that fundamental point entirely.

      Gnu/New atheism isn’t about reconciling religion with science. How do you reconcile imaginary creatures with superpowers with the real universe in which we live?

      Impossible.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Not completely different though. Not opposite.

      It’s possible, at least in principle, for people with expertise in discipline A or B or etc to say that discipline Z is crap and everyone should stop doing it, and be dead wrong.

    • Stephen P
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      If a person with expertise in discipline A, no matter how well-respected, attacks the conventional wisdom of discipline B, we ought to treat that with a healthy dollop of skepticism.

      Certainly. But if we then observe that the comments of the former seem well-founded, while the responses from the community of discipline B are evasive or contain obvious flaws, then we temper our skepticism accordingly.

  7. BradW
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Circulation is GAWD!

  8. Tim Martin
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    triumphantly declaring that the award to Martin Rees marked the beginning of New Atheism’s decline

    Ugh! Someone start taking count of how many “beginnings of declines” New Atheism has. I bet you this is going to become the new “imminent demise of evolution” canard.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      ‘New atheism’ is dead!
      Long live ‘gnu atheism’!

      • Rieux
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        I can get on board with that.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      I think you could organize a nice challenge in finding the oldest “imminent demise of atheism” claim. I fully expect some to be dug up that predate Christianity.

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t doubt it if we could find the same applied toward early Christians.

        “This marks the beginning of the end for those atheists [actually Christians]!”

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Mooney has hailed the beginning of the end at least once, hasn’t he? I’m vague on the details…

      • SLC
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        We must not forget that Mr. Mooney has also been the recipient of a Templeton fellowship.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I think “New Atheism” has “declined” almost as many times as rock n’ roll has “died”.

    • Sili
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      To quote that eminent scientist dr dr Dumbski:

      WATERLOOOOoOoOooooo!!!

  9. Kevin
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    When I worked in newspapers, the editorial writers were the ossified remains of reporters who could no longer get the job done in the field, but were pals of the publisher.

    If there is any other qualification for that job, I don’t know what it might be.

    While the editorial might reflect the views of the Guardian publisher and whomever was assigned to write the piece, I wouldn’t let it bother you.

    Just consider the source.

  10. GraemeL
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I find it interesting that criticism of individuals by the Gnu atheists is raised to “abuse” by exactly the same media outlets that reduce the rape of children by priests to the same “abuse”.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      …media outlets that reduce the rape of children by priests to the same “abuse”.
      If even that. Sometimes, you’d almost think it’s the poor old church that is the victim.

  11. Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    He did so in the evidence-free (and misplaced) belief that Chelsea would win.

    At least there is evidence that Chelsea exists and is a football team. It’s the usual equivocation with the word ‘faith’.

    I also have to note that White doesn’t actually bothers to deny that Templeton is trying to blur the lines between science and faith. Instead, he’s trying to distract us with his claim that faith isn’t really all that bad.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      As I understand the central claim of Christianity: everything Rees and every other scientist has done will count for nothing, as this world and all its works will be consumed in the fire to come.

      All that will matter, according to Christianity, is how many people that Rees has led to Christ, which, since he’s a churchgoing agnostic Anglican, I would estimate to be “zero”.

      Still, I cannot see any conflict between the aims of faith and the work of science. Can you?

  12. Kevin
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Of course, Newton only assigned to god the problem that he could not solve regarding to the orbits of planets.

    Laplace solved Newton’s problem, and famously told Napoleon that he had no need of the god hypothesis in his equations.

    So, if Newton had been alive at the time of Laplace, one might expect that he wouldn’t have a need for god, either.

    • SLC
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Newton was an Arian, which belief was considered heresy by both the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church in Newtons’ day. Had his views become known during his lifetime, he would have been in serious trouble with the authorities.

      • Sigmund
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        “Newton was an Arian”
        What’s his star sign got to do with anything? ;)

      • Kevin
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        Quite right. Whatever the flavor of his god-belief, it certainly was only invoked in those instances where he himself could not suss out the problem.

        He was perhaps the originator of the God of the Gaps argument.

        • yesmyliege
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Not true. Newton squandered a large part of his scientific career in a quixotic quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone – a distilled essence of God’s essence in nature – through his life-long obsession with alchemy. His view of the world, like all scientists of his day, was distorted by the lens of Christian theology.

          He is a poster child for the pernicious influence of Christianity on scientific thinking and far from the editorial claim of iconic scientific independence.

          • Helen Wise
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            Well, for heaven’s sake, a person has to have a hobby.

          • SLC
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

            I think that criticism of Newtons’ researches into alchemy have tended to go somewhat over the top. Newton thought that elements, like lead could be transmuted into other elements like gold through chemical processes. Given the state of knowledge at the time, this was not an off the wall hypothesis as there was no knowledge of the existence much less the structure of atoms or the atomic nucleus. It would be 200 years before the periodic table was discovered. Newton was wrong but it is hard to see how he could have gotten it right, given the almost total ignorance at that time.

            • yesmyliege
              Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

              Newton was looking for God, not gold.

          • Marella
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            Newton was also a certifiable nut case and a very nasty piece of work. He spent most of his time on bizarre bullshit and too much of the rest persecuting less well placed scientists he didn’t like, and making their lives a misery. Anyone who cites Newton as a model needs to study their history more. He was an asshole.

            • SLC
              Posted April 9, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

              Agreed. However, many geniuses are assholes. Example, the composer Richard Wagner who was even more obnoxious then Newton.

              However, we must not let Newtons’ assholery detract from his monumental accomplishments as there is little question that he was one of the three most important scientists who ever lived (the others being Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein)

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                I’ve been told that the main hall of the Royal Observatory has a statue of Newton on one side, of Darwin on the other. Nice scientific heritage…

  13. Adam K Fetterman
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    “Metaphors ought not be metamorphosed into literal claims”

    Actually, I, and many other social psychologists, have begun to study the literal grounds of metaphors. I have found that when angry, people think they are “seeing red”. My colleague shows that people judge things as “better” when in a higher vertical position, etc. etc.

    I’m probably missing the point, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      Sounds like you’re talking about embodied cognition.

      It’s a fascinating field, but there’s still a stark difference between saying, for example, that Adam and Eve were actual people who lived together in a garden paradise, versus saying that the Genesis story is a metaphor for something.

      Many religious people are guilty of thinking it’s literally true. Dawkins meanwhile is being criticized for not realizing “it’s just a metaphor,” when clearly to many people it is not.

      • Adam K Fetterman
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Indeed, embodied cognition is my main field of research.

        I get what you are saying and I certainly missed the point. I think I was being defensive or self-promoting (or both).

        Actually, I would say the majority of religious people that I come across DO NOT think that the genesis story is “just a metaphor”.

        • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          The Archbishop of Canterbury certainly says that he does not. He’s rather emphatic on the point (perhaps not surprisingly).

  14. Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    White’s screed almost makes me wish one could sue over the misuse of “militant”. And oh, poor baby Rees being told he shouldn’t take a million pounds of hush money–it’s like losing his job and having his life’s work being trashed by his peers! Not.

    • Rob
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Guardian is UK. You could probably sue under the libel laws until they get (a much needed) reform.

  15. Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Rees should be able to sleep soundly, cheque in hand.

    One would hope that with a million in the bank that one could afford the most comfortable bed in the most comfortable room possible. Talk about tunnel vision! Rees may have done many things worthy of that much money in his life, but he won that prize for an unworthy reason.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      It really depends on what he does next. I get the feeling that the money is not always simply a way of paying off semi religious scientists for saying religion and science are the best of friends. It is also a way of buying the silence of those scientists who might be inclined to say the opposite – or to encourage them to become active in criticising the opponents of science-religion entwinement.
      Rees is a big name that the Templetons can put on their roster but he will only be worth the money if he sings the song they have written. If he simply sticks to saying he’s an atheist with a chrisian cultural background and he likes visiting churches for their architecture and serenity then there whats the difference between him and Dawkins or Hitchens who have both said pretty much the same in the past. I expect he will soon start down the usual accomodationist path and begin applying the courtiers reply to the brash criticisers of religion.

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        I get the feeling that the money is not always simply a way of paying off semi religious scientists for saying religion and science are the best of friends. It is also a way of buying the silence of those scientists who might be inclined to say the opposite…

        I do agree with that which is why I characterized the prize as “hush money” in a previous comment. :) I suppose Rees could look at it as a scientist finally getting the money all his efforts deserve and carry on as if there was nothing obligatory about it, but I doubt he will, like you say.

        Having recently begun reading Dawkins’ gnu book, I am continually amazed at how many of these “angry birds” with ruffled feathers he talks about. Rees is mentioned several times for making fatuous statements, but even an unknown like Berlinerblau gets mentioned. If only I had thought to consult The GOD Delusion for a Templeton pick!

        • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

          It would be very, very nice to know, wouldn’t it – does Templeton apply actual overt pressure on prize-winners?

          This may be the first time there has been any apparent or potential need to.

          • Tim Martin
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

            Did someone say Angry Birds?! :D

            …Sorry, got a little excited there.

            Seriously though, that’s one of the problems of accepting an award like this. Will receiving money from Templeton cause Rees to modify slightly his future actions or statements to be more in line with the Templeton message? A conflict of interest is created, and the seed of suspicion is planted.

  16. Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    oh goog, and thank god — a mud-wrestling event….we check all brit pubs everyday thru twitter and a chrome extension…

  17. NickMatzke
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Agree with much of this, but on this point:

    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.

    …but when it came to Francis Collins, there were a lot of calls for his job from the Gnu camp. Another example was Michael Reiss at the Royal Society. A tendency towards failure to keep these discussions purely scholarly and academic is a large part of why I, and others, have problems with the New Atheism movement.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Actually the calls were not for his job, but for him to not get the job in the first place. There is a difference. The concern was that if granted the position, he would use his position as director of NIH to promote his flavor of Christianity, luckily we were wrong on that account…

      • Tulse
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        We were wrong? Since taking over the NIH, Francis Collins has published two books on faith: Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, and The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (with Karl Giberson).

        • SLC
          Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          The relevant question is whether Dr. Collins’ religious beliefs have affected his decision making at Director of NIH. I have seen no evidence of any such actions thus far.

          • Tulse
            Posted April 8, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

            The relevant question is whether Dr. Collins is an appropriate leader of one of the largest government-run science organizations in the US. The criteria to evaluate this shouldn’t be limited to the day-to-day decisions he makes, but also to how he represents science to the general public.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      You can’t help yourself, can you Nick? You’re simply unable to respond directly to the issue without dragging something else in to justify your displeasure with Gnus. This post by Jerry is about the condemnation of critics of the Templeton prize. It’s about the disproportionate reaction to mere criticism. It is not about Martin Reiss or anyone else.

      How can insert a “but this” when Jerry is talking about this specific instance which has nothing to do with anyone calling for anyone to be fired? There’s no “but” about it. What is it with you?

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Is this really Nick Matzke, a former NAS member? Some have suggested it is just a troll pretending to be him.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      Nick, if I address what you wrote at face value, then I agree with Lorax, that the calls were not about ousting Collins from the job of NIH director once he had it — the calls were about Collins being appointed, and how our society would have been within its rights to ask Collins about his religious beliefs being incompatible with science. As one historical reference, Jerry keeps a copy of Steven Pinker’s opinion on the Francis Collins appointment to NIH posted here. As Pinker wrote,

      Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the Institute and his efforts on the behalf of the scientific enterprise in Congress and in public. [emphasis mine]

      You say you want “to keep these discussions purely scholarly and academic” — then fine, we can discuss (in a “purely scholarly and academic” way) the incompatibility between Collins’ view that “moral law” was given to humans by an interventionist god versus scientific investigation into intelligence, morality, and religious belief being products of evolution. Because to me, evolution always comes back to whether the hand of an interventionist god pushes the Earth around the Sun. And if your answer is, “Don’t be stupid, it’s F=ma,” then how far will will you go to set aside a special question-free zone for people who actively deny the F=ma of Earth’s orbit and insert an interventionist god instead? If the New Atheism means anything (as a movement, or a change in the weather), it’s that this taboo is broken, and we can ask people what they think. Not as a religious litmus test, but exactly as you said — “to keep these discussions purely scholarly and academic” — we can ask how their interventionist god relates to science.

      Anyway, Josh Slocum is right, this thread is really about media reaction against criticism of Templeton. Like Tim Harris says below in #29, the reaction against one piece by Jerry seems disproportionate, like the Dirty Fork Sketch.

    • Adam K Fetterman
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      OH! Don’t get me started on Jonathan Haidt and positive psychology. Both are total accomodationists (if a theory can have values).

      • Adam
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        That was a bit harsh. My main criticism is of positive psychology. Though I have disagreements with Haidt, I didn’t mean to attack him. Too much coffee this morning. They need a delete button here.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      So ironic how the Templeton Foundation’s one foray into direct research on religious prayer only served to debunk religion, which is reason enough for them to not go at it so directly anymore.

      Dan Jones seems to skirt what I think is the main issue, which is that the Templeton Foundation has an agenda to conflate religious thinking with scientific thinking and is trying to lend its agenda credibility by pouring money into scientific research for scientists willing to support its agenda. I can’t wait for Dr. Coyne to answer this one…

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        I like how this Jones pretty much accuses Coyne of lying and hyperbole. Pretty serious accusations I’d say…which I strongly suspect the writer hasn’t got a shred of evidence for. I posted this link in question, in the hope that someone, maybe Coyne, rips this guy a well deserved new (or gnu) one.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Grr. Dan Jones cherry-picked his examples. There are plenty of others!

  18. Pagey
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Next time you’re in the UK Dr Coyne, buy a copy of The Independent. I’ve always found it a more enjoyable read than the Guardian which on occasion can come across as self congratulatory and smug.
    For a paper that likes to play up to it’s left wing credentials and oppose dogmatism, some of it’s columnists appear to like a bit of woo. Not to say the Indy doesn’t have this too, it’s just less smug.

  19. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Metaphors ought not be metamorphosed into literal claims … Neither … nor Einstein’s God of sorts (who refused to play dice) got in the way of their work.

    Oopsy, did someone just do what they said ought not be done?

    • SLC
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      For what it’s worth, Einstein has been quoted as saying that he believed in Spinozas’ god and Richard Dawkins has said that he believes in Einsteins’ god.

  20. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    The enjoyably funny part of all this is that Rees himself admits to being a non-believer, albeit one who sometimes goes to church and has a good time there.

    Know what I found enjoyably funny? Getting to read this fine example of malicious amusement right after reading Rabbit is the Question.

    (I find this so amusing, I must say. How could that which is the only path to meaning and which I have described in such a clear, lucid manner, possibly be nonsense?)

    • SLC
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Does Prof. Rees, like George Washington, also decline to take communion?

      • Marella
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Interesting question.

  21. Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    “Metaphors ought not be metamorphosed into literal claims”
    Ok, let’s say the first chapters of Genesis are a (long) metaphor, and not the accounts of events. A metaphor of what? Of how a god created the world and its inhabitants.
    What’s the difference?

    • Marella
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I reckon it’s a metaphor for the invention of agriculture.

  22. Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I left a comment on Dan Jones’s article. I’ll share it here, because it’s relevant.

    Again, I say to Coyne: “Show me the money!” – where is the evidence that the mere existence of Templeton, and the facts of its funding activities, have corrupted science in any sense?

    Take a good close look at Templeton-funded BioLogos, for a start. Or the Templeton-funded “Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion,” which is “part of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford.” Or the Templeton-funded and created “Faraday Institute for Science and Religion” which is based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

    Templeton money has done a lot to create a pretend “discipline” of “Science & Religion” (never Religion & Science, because that would give the game away) which in turn has done a lot to create new dogma about how compatible the two have been through history and still are today. Check out The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison, director of the aforementioned Ian Ramsey Centre. Harrison says in the intro that the book is about the compatability of the two and that incompatibility won’t even be addressed in the book, because that notion has been so thoroughly rejected.

    • Andrew B.
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      “Take a good close look at Templeton-funded BioLogos, for a start. Or the Templeton-funded “Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion,” which is “part of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford.” Or the Templeton-funded and created “Faraday Institute for Science and Religion” which is based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.”

      So it’s a more expensive kind of sock-puppetry?

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Well spotted. Yes. This business of creating important-sounding organizations and “fellowships” within prestige universities is indeed a kind of sock-puppetry. The point is to make these Templeton creations sound purely academic and scholarly when they’re more like PR outfits that employ academics and scholars.

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Wow. I think you win, as they say, the Internets!

  23. Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    You know…if Andrew Brown did write that editorial, I think it borders on ethical violation. He’s an interested party. He’s a Templeton Fellow. The editorial, being anonymous, naturally doesn’t make that full disclosure. If he did write it – well really.

    • Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      It does read like his other articles, doesn’t it?

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Yes…at least in terms of its take. The style is a bit more “editorial” than his usual style – as befits an unsigned editorial. I hope it’s not Andrew, because if it is, it’s truly sleazy.

    • Sili
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      It shouldn’t be to hard to run the text through some analysis software to find how it compares with Brown’s style.

      Ask a forensic linguist.

  24. Josh
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne,

    In case you hadn’t heard, Martin Rees will be speaking near campus on Monday:

    https://news.uchicago.edu/article/2011/04/06/astronomer-royal-martin-rees-lecture-mysteries-universe-april-11

    Just thought you might be interested

    • SLC
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Hopefully Prof. Coyne will show up at the presentation and give Prof. Rees a hard time.

  25. Sastra
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    [Dawkins] has made quite a career of treating religious doctrines as scientific hypotheses and then demonstrating that they are wanting in this regard… Metaphors ought not be metamorphosed into literal claims …

    Is “God” a metaphor, then? For what?

    This idea that the moderate religious understand poetry and metaphor while the atheists — like the fundamentalists — are stuck in childish literalism falls apart when you consider that it’s the atheists who believe in the most non-literal version of God of all.

    Once examined as a hypothesis, God turns out to be nothing more than a symbol, a human creation which represents human longings and tendencies. It doesn’t actually exist — not as a Being, an entity, a Force, an Energy, an Intelligence, a Creative Principle Working Through Nature, a Transcendence, or whatever.

    The term for ‘refusing to metamorphize God into a literal claim’ is atheism.

    • Marella
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      God is code for ‘give me your money’.

    • yesmyliege
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      “It doesn’t actually exist — not as a Being, an entity, a Force, an Energy, an Intelligence, a Creative Principle Working Through Nature, a Transcendence, or whatever.”

      Aha! I see you have cleverly left room for a wafeur-theen numinousness. ;)

      Seriously, tho, well played.

  26. Saikat Biswas
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m wondering why Richard Dawkins is being so conspicuously silent on this matter? Even his website has no links or forums on Martin Rees and his winning the Templeton Prize.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 8, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      I suspect it’s because Richard thinks that we shouldn’t give any publicity to a prize that is awarded for reconciling science and faith: that it’s a non-prize in any real sense.

      But that’s just a guess.

      • Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        No it’s because he’s persuaded by the powerful arguments of Andrew Brown and Mark Vernon.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        No, it’s because he wants to annoy Andrew Brown and Mark Vernon. Nothing is more infuriating than a ranting, raving, strident militant who just sits there.

        • Sili
          Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Forgive you enemies.

          Nothing pisses them off more.

      • Saikat Biswas
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        That sounds reasonable indeed. Although I must say that your piece was splendid.

      • Marella
        Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Maybe he’s on holidays. Even the antichrist must need a few days off occasionally.

  27. Saikat Biswas
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I was responding to Jerry’s comment.

  28. Tim Harris
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    One thing that struck me: why all the kerfuffle in the Grauniad? One good piece by JC, and then – so far – four articles praising Rees and screaming and yelling about gnasty gnus… not to mention Andrew Brown in the Comments.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink

      Well the main editor of it’s CIF ‘Belief’ section is militant accomodationist Andrew Brown.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        “militant accomodationist”

        I like. :D

  29. Egbert
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Templeton has ‘corrupted’ the Guardian. Although, I think most of us already realize long ago that there was really very little left in the Guardian to be corrupted.

  30. Posted April 10, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Any time you’re Templ’ton way,
    Any evening, any day,
    You’ll find us all
    Doin’ the Templ’ton Walk. Oi!

    Every little Templ’ton gal,
    With her little Astron’mer pal,
    You’ll find ‘em all
    Doin’ the Templ’ton Walk. Oi!


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/the-guardian-strikes-back-templeton-and-rees-are-… [...]

  2. [...] The Guardian strikes back: Templeton and Rees are wonderful, Gnu … And, indeed, the Guardian has struck back First there was a piece by ex-Anglican-priest Mark Vernon (remember his “holy rabbit“ ), triumphantly declaring that the award to Martin Rees marked the beginning of New Atheism's decline: . [...]

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