Robert Wright blames creationism on atheists

One can always count on Robert Wright, a nonbeliever, to defend religion and exculpate it from any evils in the world.  Suicide bombers? Mere politics and dispossession. Major Nidal Hassan’s murder spree in Texas? An unfortunate byproduct of America’s own war on terrorism (see Christopher Hitchens’s take on that piece). As Hitchens said, Wright “is now emerging as the leading liberal apologist for the faith-based.”

He does it again in this week’s Atlantic, this time about America’s non-acceptance of evolution. In his piece, “Creationists vs. evolutonists: an American story,” Wright bemoans our failure to embrace Darwin and blames—guess who? Not the religious people who reject the theory of evolution because it violates their beliefs, their scripture, or simply roils their gut. No, he blame (as the Brits say, “wait for it”)—the New Atheists.

Here are the data confronting Wright, from a Gallup poll I’ve written about before:

What we see is pretty much stasis for young-earth creationism (YEC; top line) and theistic evolution (God-guided change; middle line), with a 6% increase in YEC in the last year matched by a 6% decrease in theistic evolutionists. There appears, however, to be a slow, long-term increase in the acceptance of naturalistic evolution (bottom line; see my post on this here), though it’s been very slow.  But Wright concentrates on that 6% increase in YEC, and proffers a theory:

My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country–south-central Texas–and I don’t remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn’t an issue.

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn't to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader–that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

I’m not saying that the new, militant Darwinian atheists are the only cause of what is called (with perhaps some hyperbole) “science denialism.” But I do think that if somebody wants to convince a fundamentalist Christian that climate scientists aren’t to be trusted, the Christian’s prior association of scientists like Dawkins with evil makes that job easier. . .

. . . Meanwhile, some data to keep your eye on: Check out the extreme right of the graph above. Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion.

This is madness. First of all, the data on YEC and theistic evolutionism have fluctuated over the years:  although its adherents were 46% this year and 40% last year, they were 47% in 1993 and 2000.  There is no evidence that an uptick like this is sociologically meaningful, and I’m not even sure whether it differs significantly (in a statistical sense) from the previous survey’s 40%.  And acceptance of straight naturalistic evolution has risen 6% since 2000.  Why does Wright pay attention to a single year’s results and not address the long-term pattern, which is stasis with a slight increase in the good stuff?

What is more maddening is Wright’s blaming this uptick on the New Atheists.  If that were true we’d see an upturn in YEC, and a downturn in theistic evolution, beginning well before this year.  P. Z. has been writing Pharyngula for almost a decade (according to Wikipedia, its inception was on June 19, 2002).  And both Sam Harris and Hitchens have supported evolution against creationism in their own books; Dawkins isn’t the only one who should be blamed. But when were their “big” books published? 2004, 2007, and 2006 respectively.  Why, then, did the uptick occur only this year? Was there such a delayed reaction in the faithful getting the message?

And the dumbest thing of all is Wright’s statement that “A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone.”  Is Wright unaware of the many court cases in which creationists didn’t let Darwinians reign in biology class?  The National Center for Science Education lists ten major court cases in which creationists tried to insinuate their filthy camel noses into the public-school tent. All of those took place between 1968 and 2005.  And there was a major revision of textbooks in the 1960s (the BSCS series; see Joseph McInerney’s comment on this below), which was motivated in part by the disappearance of material on evolution from public school texts.  I barely learned about it in high school, and that was in the late 60s.  Some truce!

As always on this topic, Wright is talking out of his nether parts. Every bit of evidence we have suggests that the flatlining of evolution-acceptance in the U.S. is due to the entrenchment of religion in our country. And I’ll point out again that there is not a bit of convincing evidence that atheist biologists have turned Americans away from evolution and toward creationism.  In contrast to the many people who have claimed that Dawkins, for instance, has actually turned them on to evolution as well as helping them purge their religious belief (see his Converts’ Corner), we have almost no people saying that they once accepted evolution but reverted to straight creationism because they couldn’t stomach Dawkins’s atheism. And there’s the palpable failure of the BioLogos Foundation  to get evangelical Christians to accept evolution by trying to show that it comports with their faith.

The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It’s because their faith tells them they have to make that choice.

h/t: Dom

106 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    http://bit.ly/MDO9Oy

    • gbjames
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      Huh?

    • lamacher
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      I agree – huh?

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      The relevant part seems to be at the end of paragraph five. A hint would have been helpful, Domingo.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      You need to do more than just post a link in the future. A link is not a comment.

      –mgmt.

  2. Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Hey, William Jennings Bryan was just pushing back against Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, et. al.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Good call.

  3. Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    “Hey guys! If we just give the bullies our lunch money, they’ll stop hitting us! … Mostly.”

    The idea that people might take this guy seriously thoroughly depresses me.

  4. Tulse
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    It’s appalling that Wright, and The Atlantic, isn’t ashamed of his intellectual dishonesty (or at least intellectual laziness).

    • onkelbob
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      As for the Atlantic, understand they had Megan McArdle as the Business and Economics editor for years. (She recently moved to Newsweek operations) Intellectual dishonesty (or disingenuousness) and laziness are not factors they select against.

  5. Pete Moulton
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    “My theory is highly conjectural…” It is indeed, Mr Wright. I might almost say ‘rectally generated.’

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      His theory isn’t, although he will misuse the word because “my unsupported hunch” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  6. TJR
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Ye gods, this is a guy who really doesn’t understand error bars.

    The top line is almost flatlining at 45 plus or minus 2, with only the slightly surprising value of 40 last year outside this.

    As you say, the only pattern is the agonisingly slow, but almost certain genuine, increase in the bottom graph.

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Yeah, and according to the Gallup poll the sampling error is maximum +/- 4 percentage points, so there may have been no variation at all.

      Just a wild thought though: if the survey is accurate, I wonder how many people pulled their children out of high school due to the recession starting in 2007 and home schooled them or the just dropped out before learning about evolution. This class of people would be turning 18 at about 2011 and would then be included in the sample. Unfortunately there are very poor statistics on home schooling attendance, so consider this just made-up conjecture.

      • Larry Gay
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Wright has put himself out on a very weak branch. I have not read the full Gallup report, but it describes how the pollsters divided calls among cell phones and land-lines. This was almost certainly not done in 1982. So there is a possibility of systematic bias as well as the 4% random error mentioned above.

      • Kevin
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Why would people pull their kids out of schools where they get free education and give them a home-school education that costs them money (books, curriculum guides, everything else)?

        Sorry, doesn’t track. The whole point of public education is that it’s free.

        Plus, the economy was never that bad.

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I’ve been noting this point for a while, in various discussions on this latest datum. Nonetheless, once more…

        The particular Gallup poll in question was taken over the four days immediately after President Obama’s announcement of his latest stance on gay marriage. As gay marriage is a highly religiously charged issue, this almost certainly provided an environmental prime to more religious thinking. It’s been experimentally shown that even fairly subtle primes to religious or rational thinking have an impact on what reasoning people will use and beliefs people will express. It’s not clear that such primes are responsible for all six points of shift from TE/ID to YEC/OEC support, but it’s at least got some underlying rigorous experiment associated rather than just anecdata.

        As far as I know, study of reaction to the Gnu Atheist movement is only in the anecdata-gathering stage.

  7. newenglandbob
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Let’s start a rumor that Robert Wright is the cause of cancer. It isn’t any more stupid than the things Wright has been saying for years now.

  8. darrelle
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Listening, or reading, Robert Wright makes my teeth ache.

    Also, I just don’t understand the man’s motivations. Is he simply a tone troll writ large, or is there more to it?

    • L Delaney
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Is he angling for a Templeton grant?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      I have a highly conjectural theory that reading Robert Wright leads to dental disease.

  9. stevehayes13
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    ‘My theory is highly conjectural..’ Not even that – it is mere apologetics.

  10. Albatross
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    > “The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It’s because their faith tells them they have to make that choice.”

    While I think your commentary on Wright’s perspective accurately illustrates how his conclusions are wrong, I don’t think you provided enough information to make this point.

    The idea that this could be fully turned around doesn’t really make sense.

    If we are see sociologically significant trends, one of the factor is that a perceived conflict is being publicized. It doesn’t matter which party advocates a need to make a choice and historically it has been both — we have limited ability to say with any certainty who has the most blame in the (possibly false) dichotomy of theistic creation vs evolution.

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Religion says you have to believe “correctly” or be damned. Religion is losing its influence in the US and the world because of its constant failures. The desperation to cling to their myths is all they have as a bulwark against that. This type of theist has all of their self-worth wrapped up in such nonsense. This seems to explain the entrenchment of religious nonsense.

    • rhetoric
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      “I don’t think you provided enough information to make this point.”

      In this post.

      I would look into Jerry’s archives if you want to see where he has gone into more detail on the subject.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Are you joking? Coyne just published a peer reviewed paper making this point, resistance to evolution is highly correlated to religion and not to atheism.

      Besides that, the post itself makes another important point. I went to the Convert’s Corner, and it is a massive self-reporting going on there (as opposed to mere anecdote).
      Granted it is not collected statistically, but the reference group would be self-reporting how Dawkins put them out of their atheist misery and none (well, I hear _one_ purported, somewhere) such self report is on the web.

      40 pp with ~ 30 reports/p means ~ 1 200 reports. IIRC the statistical weight scales as sgrt(n), so it means out of a population of ~ 1 million we should have statistical significance.

      “As it happens, I have just been sent some recent figures for sales of The God Delusion in English:-
      North America 907,161
      Rest of World 1,179,241
      Total English language 2,086,402″.

      Dawkins, 2010.

      So it is perhaps touch and go, but a reasonable guess would be that Dawkins’ openness hasn’t hurt evolution but supported it. At the very least we would have “limited ability” to say that “we have limited ability to say with any certainty who has the most blame in the (possibly false) dichotomy of theistic creation vs evolution”.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

        Oops. _45_ pp, so ~ 1 500. (I used rough-and-bad sampling for the ~ 30/p observation.)

        Maybe not so much touch and go, if TGD sold mostly before 2010. But I don’t know that.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Sigh. ~ 1 300. But who’s counting? =D

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    How much do you suppose he was paid for such tripe?

  12. saguhh00
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I think Robert Wright is right on this one, it really is the fault of atheists.
    For example, I’m an atheist and every week I pick my Bible and start preaching about creationism and how much better it is than EVILution.

  13. SimonSays
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but your use of the statement ‘mere politics and dispossession’ is profoundly out of touch with reality. There is nothing mere about politics. People’s lives can be ruined by politics. Is the dispossession mere as well?

    All of this is not to say that religion is meaningless. However don’t marginalize non-religious factors.

    I grew up in Greece, and “politics” is largely to blame for the current mess that the whole of Europe faces, the work of what are probably the most secular and technocratic bureaucrats the world has ever seen.

    • Frank
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Yes, but the bigger problem remains in the tendency to discount the clear role of religion in motivating Islamic terrorism. The “mere” is introduced by those who want to discount the role of religious leaders and their absurd teachings about “paradise” in spurring people (who are not dispossessed) to do blatantly wicked things.

      • SimonSays
        Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        What you’re saying sounds very much like whataboutery.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      “Mere” in the way Jerrry used it means “nothing other than” and does not carry a connotation of triviality. That’s the primary meaning of “mere” or “merely.” “Simply” or “solely” would be rough synonyms. No trivialization of politics or dispossession is implied.

      • Andy Dufresne
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        Nicely explained. C.S. Lewis titled his (silly) tome Mere Christianity not to indicate that Christianity was trivial, rather, it was in reference to his purpose, which was to explore the religion’s core tenets on which all its denominations could agree—his use of “mere” would be synonymous with “unadorned.” (Or, indeed, “nothing other than.”)

      • SimonSays
        Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. But wouldn’t the term ‘solely’ be more appropriate in order to avoid this confusion?

        • truthspeaker
          Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          Jerry seems to assume most readers have at least a 12th grade (US) literacy level. This can through you off if you’re used to reading American newspapers, which are geared toward 8th or even 6th grade reading levels.

          • SimonSays
            Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            I have a college degree for crying out loud.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

              And yet you don’t know what “mere” means?

              • SimonSays
                Posted June 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                One definition of mere:

                3. Small; slight: could detect only the merest whisper.

                Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/mere

              • Posted June 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Yes, and what are the first two?

                I have a college degree as well FWIW, and I still have to look up words every few days reading this website.

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      In addition to your criticism being totally off the mark, as explained by The Boss, aka Mr. Springsteen, let’s ask ourselves what force exerts profound influence on both politics and the way various groups are disenfranchised?

      Could it be…religion?

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        You can hardly call politics and dispossession “nonreligious” factors.

        At least not in the US of A.

      • SimonSays
        Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        It could, and it does. But not always.

  14. ArizonaJones
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    That’s right! Those damned rationalist
    have been promoting the idea that believers
    need to make a choice between:

    alchemy and chemistry
    medical science and homeopathy
    astrology and astronomy
    intelligent design and evolution

    Those bastards!

  15. ForCarl
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Wright would fit in just fine with the liberal Protestants over at the separation of church and state site called “Talk2Action”. Fred Clarkson, blog owner, went on several rants against the “New Atheists” Dawkins, Hitchen, Harris blaming them for “giving comfort” to the enemy religious right by being… well, you can read his arguments online (See Clarkson’s “Gimme that Old Time Religion Bashing” and “Please Don’t Drink the New Atheist Kool Aid”. Then there is another writer on that blog named Max Blumenthal who wrote “The Contrarian Delusion: How Hitchens Poisons Everything”.) Fred Clarkson has called Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins “illiterate” in his comments there too. People like Clarkson (the liberal Protestant anti-religious right group) don’t seem to realize that they provide the ultimate cover for the religious right just by hanging to the same set of texts and considering them special (holy whatever…), and by disallowing any reasoned criticism of any religious groups, ideas, opinions or institutions. I saw Fred ban someone as a “troll” (his favorite activity, especially with atheist commenters) for suggesting that the only way to stop the Catholic Church’s hold over politics and government was for Catholics to walk out and start their own churches. Apparantly you don’t call a duck a duck on that site, no matter how reasonable the idea is because you might offend someone’s religious sentiments. However, it’s no problem for Fred to use several post columns to bash atheists for being well… atheists.

    So the major figures in atheism have certainly become the convenient whipping posts for many different groups. Wright adds to the mess with this view and seems to totally miss the point that the religious groups getting the most media is the fundamentalists and the most active group (even though a minority) is the fundamentalists in the US. AND, they have achieved their power over years of starting with school boards and working their way up to Congress while the rest of us were asleep as voters. Just look at 2010- that was a huge rush of creationists into power both nationally and at the state levels.

    There was a wane in creationist views and in church attendance in the years after the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee because these views sounded so ridiculous to people reading the papers and listening on the radios. It waned because of ridicule and the application of reason. Dawkins is on the right track with this in my view and Wrights accomodation of religion is off the track and into the woods.

    PS- I guess I forgot to sign the “nonaggression pact” too.

  16. Joseph D. McInerney
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I worked at BSCS from 1977-1999 and was director for my last 14 years there. Jerry has the time frame essentially correct: BSCS was founded in 1958, and the first editions of the three major textbooks appeared in 1963. They were solidly evolution based — a reaction to the virtual disappearance of evolution from textbooks after the Scopes trial. Biologists such as Hermann Muller, Th. Dobzhansky, and Bentley Glass — early advisors to BSCS — ensured that evolution would have a prominent place in our programs. Anyone who thinks there was a “truce” between evolution and creationism for any period of time did not have to deal with the nonsense we encountered constantly in the form of complaints and formal protests from parents, school boards, students (often prompted by their preachers), and clueless and cowardly administrators. My favorite was a school administrator who called to complain that there was no creationism to counter the evolution content in on our textbooks. His solution was to direct his biology teachers to “teach both sides” and then have the students vote on which one was correct. In response, I wrote a guest editorial for The American Biology Teacher titled, “Raise Your Hands If You Want Humans to Have 48 Chromosomes.” BSCS is still in business and still fighting the good fight. It’s the only one of the curriculum-reform groups from the late 1950s that still exists in its original form.

    • ForCarl
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I tried to find a copy online of your article and couldn’t, but I did get to read some of a letter to you by a Gary Kukis who made quite a valiant effort to take you to task on evolution. It was both amazing and amusing.

      • Joseph D. McInerney
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Hi Carl: I coauthored that piece with Randy Moore,then the editor of ABT. Perhaps if you search under his name you will find it.
        Best wishes — Joe

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      BSCS transformed American biology education. I’m likely a biologist on account of it. Thanks.

      • Joseph D. McInerney
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        Dear Dr. Pidcock: Thanks for your kind comment. It’s amazing how often we have heard that BSCS influenced high school students to pursue careers in biology or medicine. A prominent genetics colleague told me that when he saw the genetics chapters in Blue Version he asked his teacher if he could help teach that content. He’s now a pediatrician and clinical geneticist. Best — Joe

  17. Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    well, I guess Wright goes to show that not believeing in any god doesn’t make you more intelligent or more truthful. Amazing the lengths he goes to falsely accuse people and ignore the actual facts. What is it with Wright and people like him? Are they simply unable to admit that something that they’ve been taught is “good” isn’t, no matter what? Are they that indoctrinated still, perhaps unwilling to admit that they were also taken in and responisible for such nonsense? I would love to see if those who were formerly theists are much likelier to claim such nonsense than people who were never theists.

    “non agression pact”? what unsupported delusional bullshit.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      ‘What is it with Wright and people like him? Are they simply unable to admit that something that they’ve been taught is “good” isn’t, no matter what?’

      I suspect that’s it. I see the same thing in apologists for American foreign policy.

  18. eric
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Lots of others have commented on the many & deep flaws in Wright’s “theory.” I want to comment on one assumption i think is bigoted, or at least highly discriminatory:

    “A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact…I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing…”

    Get the implication? To Wright, peaceful co-existence is when religious people can proselytize their beliefs publically – basically, whenever they want, wherever they want, as offensively as they want, outside of the classroom. But if TWO atheists dare to proselytize on a web page or through books, that is an act of aggression.

    In Wright’s world, the proper role of the atheist at society’s table is seen but not heard; they should not speak unless spoken to. Let the normal adults have whatever conversations they want, but YOU don’t join in.

    • Sajanas
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      And he’s also forgetting that Carl Sagan was writing clear, scientifically atheist books years and years before the New Atheists. I can only imagine what a Sagan’s Converts Corner would look like.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I have been infuriated by this double-standard ever since I came to the full realization that religion is BS.

  19. Schenck
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    It’s pretty silly to pin this on PZ Meyers, I remember Meyers being on the Talk.Origins long before Pharyngula was a popular blog. And there was /never/ anything at all like the ‘non aggression’ pact Wright talks about, fundamentalist christians were always aggressively asserting their creationist nonesense.
    And as far as Dawkin’s being the source, do you really think these yahoos care, or even really know, about some British researcher, much less are strongly influenced by him, in either direction?!

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      Who is PZ Meyers?

      Now, PZ Myers – he’s a cat I could get along with.

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

        (no offense intended. PZ regularly makes a “light-hearted big deal” out of how his name is spelled)

  20. Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Wright even has the causality backwards. The reason that the New Atheists exist as some sort of pseudo-movement is exactly because of the push of the religious into political events including creationists pushing their way into the biology classroom.

    Atheists only congregate for the purpose of defense. In a secular world there is nothing for an atheist to gain by convincing others to lose their beliefs. We aphilatelists don’t congregate to convince stamp collectors that their hobby is boring. But we sure would if they forced it on us.

    He’s wrong about the statistics and he’s wrong about the direction of causality. Perhaps two wrongs don’t make a right, but a Wright clearly makes two wrongs.

  21. Curt Cameron
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    To Wright, the desirable groups are the naturalistic evolution and the theistic evolution lines in the graph, and the YECs are the undesirable. He sees an uptick in the undesirables and is looking to explain it.

    To me and Jerry, the desirable line is just the naturalistic evolution one, and both the top lines are the ones we want to reduce. To us, the desirable group has been very slowly increasing, and the undesirables have been very slowly decreasing.

    Telling people that their religious faith and evolution are compatible may help increase the middle line, and Wright would see that as a Good Thing. I’m not so sure that effect actually happens, given the data we have.

    On the other hand, helping people understand that what we know about evolution is incompatible with traditional religious views, should help increase the bottom line. Maybe it will also lead to an uptick in the YEC line, but that’s OK. I think in the long term, the YECers are better candidates to have their religious faith shattered on the hard facts.

    • Jer
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Telling people that their religious faith and evolution are compatible may help increase the middle line

      The thing that Wright and other accomodationists don’t get is that atheists telling religious people anyhing at all about how evolution and their faith are or are not compatible is utterly meaningless except in the cases where it causes them to re-evaluate their faith.

      Religious people don’t listen to anyone outside of their own religion to tell them what their religion is. In fact it is utterly condescending for a person who is not of the same faith to say “you’re wrong – your faith doesn’t say that, it says this other thing instead“.

      It’s very valuable for people who are believing Christians who also believe in evolution and science and empiricism to push back against their fellow Christians who do not believe in those things. It helps the believers in the middle who don’t know what to believe to see that there is disagreement on interpretation and they don’t have to toe the anti-science line to be a Christian.

      But it does absolutely nothing for condescending non-believers such as Wright to tell them what their religion actually says. And that’s why I find all of these non-religious accomodationists to be the most harmful elements of the whole debate. At least the religious accomodationists are part of the community and can be involved in an active way to push their community in the right direction (though they spend far too much time directing their critiques outward and not enough time pushing against the fundamentalists in my mind) – the non-religious accomodationists serve no purpose whatsoever other than to look like condescending assholes.

      • Marta
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        +1

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t pass the smell test:

    ‘I’m not saying that the old, militant creationist religionists are the only cause of what is called (with perhaps some hyperbole) “religious evilhood.” But I do think that if somebody wants to convince an ardent atheist that religious moderates aren’t to be trusted, the atheist’s prior association of religionists like Ratzinger with evil makes that job easier. . .’

  23. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Wright: My fear is that the damage is broader–that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

    “Starting to see” ???

    These people you speak of, Mr. Wright, couldn’t differentiate f(x) = 1.

    And Wright saith unto them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of Templeton prizes.

  24. R. Lee Bays
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    What non-aggression pact is Wright talking about?!

    There’s nothing new here. Science and human knowledge continue to make the previously literal stuff in religion metaphorical and therefore less defensible.

    I’m sure Galileo would remind Wright there was no non-aggression pact when he debunked Aristotelian (i.e., Church) cosmology and was charged with and convicted of heresy.

    Hey, but the Church did finally eat crow…359 years later.

  25. Andrew
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    “talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing.”

    Reasons are given for the view that religion IS “inherently pernicious”, not least of which are the political implications of authority being granted to institutions and leaders on the basis that they speak for God.

    Where is Wright’s evidence that religion ISN’T “inherently pernicious”?

  26. Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn't to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

    According to the graph, Dawkins and Myers must have started antagonizing the religious back in 1982.

  27. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Wright fails to see that sometimes when you are pushed you need to push back. He’s against scapegoating religion, but then scapegoat’s atheism in what seems like a dishonest critique. (I only read the excerpts here.) I read parts of his book “The Evolution of God” and found it (as Brits say) “dodgy”. It has a lot of what Dan Dennett calls “use-mention” errors and “deepities” and rather questionable generalizations in comparative religion, broadly an apologetic for maintaining a transformed religion as a convenient fiction, that’s two hairs better than Karen Armstrong.

    I’d like to think there are !*better*! (or at least more honest) critiques of the “new” atheism about. One of the posters above (Comment 15 by ForCarl) mentioned Max Blumenthal. MB wrote a terrific and penetrating critique of the religious right (his book “Republican Gomorrah”), so I’m prepared to believe that his criticism of the new atheism may be worth reading (though ForCarl evidently did not think so.)

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Caveat-
      I spoke at the end of my post the potential greater credibility of Max Blumenthal as a critic of atheists because of his terrific critiques of the religious right.

      I now recall that Max’s father, Sid Blumenthal, and Chris Hitchens had some sort of major blowup/feud/altercation (my memory is dim) just before the former’s death. This may or may not make Max’s critique of Hitchens less objective.

  28. Sigmund
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Why blame New Atheists, why not BioLogos? or Wrights own Bloggingheads? Both of those organizations have been active during the recent (apparent) rise in support for creationism whereas there haven’t been any new major gnu atheist books for years.
    And why the hell did nobody tell us there is a non-aggression pact in place?
    Robert Wright, stop giving the word “theory” a bad name.

  29. DrBrydon
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I thought of this topic when the story about creationism in South Korea came out. Does new atheism get much play there? Dunno. But Christians are certainly pushing for creationism in textbooks.

    • eric
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Good point. Dawkins and PZ must also be responsible for the resurgence of creationism in Turkey and other muslim countries. Clearly, Saudi Arabia only banned the teaching of evolution in schools in 2007 because Dawrkins had the socially unacceptable effrontery to publish The God Delusion 2006. Who could think otherwise?

  30. Diego
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I can understand someone making dumb causal claims–those can be hard to verify and can be subject to interpretation. It’s even possible to see misrepresenting the current survey numbers. But how can someone make such sweeping and easily falsifiable claims about the past? From Scopes to Dover there has never been a truce on the part of creationists. Madness!

  31. Ougaseon
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Considering the Gallup survey has a margin of error of 4%, it seems to me that most plausible explanation for the ‘uptick’ is that the previous survey’s 40% was a mildly large fluctuation from an average of approximately 44%.

    In other words, nothing has changed in 30 years (with the possible exception that some theistic evolutionists or “I don’t knows” have been ‘converted’ to non-theistic ones).

  32. matt
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    in the words of daniel plainview, robert wright is a “sniveling ass.”

  33. Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Wright is a sniveling sycophant for ecumenical masochism. His voice is like a stryker reciprocating saw grating back and forth over the hard-won bridge of cultural critique in an attempt to send the suspension cables of reason into a sputtering sea of apologetic banality.

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      ah, lovely multi-syllable words that elegantly convey what Wright is. +1 and a marriage proposal if I wasn’t married ;)

  34. Andy Dufresne
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    It seems gnu bashers will always be hitching their accommodationist wagon to the “you’re turning people off to science” argument. But okay, let’s say there are people who have heard Dawkins or Harris go to town on religion and said “Wow, look how mean scientists and atheists are—no way am I accepting evolution!” If the rap on new atheism is true, then when it comes to the wider community of scientists and skeptics NA’s are the worst of the worst, the meanest of the mean. Normally, wouldn’t the attitude of progressive-minded people (like Mr. Wright) be to admonish the those who are judging an entire group based on the “worst” members of that group? Suppose someone saw a short clip of a particularly controversial Jeremiah Wright sermon and said “Ugh, I’m now turned off to African American churches altogether because look at how mean that man is!” Would Bob Wright’s first move be to instruct Rev. Wright and his ilk that they are “turning people off” to their cause with all the meanness? Somehow I doubt it. I think more likely he’d point out that it’s totally unfair and simpleminded to dismiss the entire African American church by its most loudmouthed and strident personalities. But these supposed people who are summarily deciding to resist science simply because P.Z. abused a wafer (or whatever)—how much time does Bob Wright spend chastising them for their illiberal flinging of babies out with bathwater? If new atheists really are rhetorically reckless extremists—as Wright and others contend—then don’t sophisticated persons like Wright normally lay the blame at the door of those who would dismiss a whole based on its extremists? What would cause him to do otherwise? Could it be a bias against atheists who speak out?

  35. truthspeaker
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    In other news, the reason your husband beats you is because you called the police and accused him of assault.

  36. Ken Pidcock
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I happen to enjoy Robert Wright. He’s an entertaining show host (not and easy thing to pull off) and an excellent writer. I recommend The Evolution of God just so long as you stop reading the moment you encounter the name of Steven Weinberg.

    But this piece is inexcusable. We’re going to blame climate change denial on the rational? The thesis seems to be that it is counterproductive to confront ideologies, a position I’m certain Wright would not endorse. The difference, you see, is that these ideologies are special ideologies.

    • Occam
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      We’re going to blame climate change denial on the rational?

      Wright explicitly does so.

      In an update appended to his original article (6/12, 10:30 a.m.), he writes:

      Still, my main points are (1) even if this is what provoked Dawkins, Myers, et. al., their gratuitously insulting reaction (IMHO) was still counter-productive, fueling the anti-evolutionism fires; (2) their reaction may well have abetted anti-scientism in areas unrelated to evolution, such as climate change.]

      (emphasis mine)

      If polar bears, Kiribati, Vanuatu, and the Netherlands are all going to take the plunge, we now know, according to the lights of Robert Wright, who’s to blame: Dawkins, PZ, and JAC.

      • eric
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        So NC’s legislature adopted laws to prevent accurate reporting of expected sea level rises because of the insulting nature of the Pharyngula web side or The God Delusion.

        Wow.

        I’m surprised theists don’t see this for the backhanded compliment it is. He’s implying that they respond to theological arguments by atheists in basically insane ways. ‘You are an atheist and a scientist? Then I will oppose science’ is about as rational as ‘you are a surgeon and a Dallas Cowboys fan? Then I won’t get the appendectomy you recommend.’

      • Andy Dufresne
        Posted June 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        The quote is pure scapegoating. Amazing because, if I’m understanding (W)right, when he says “the new atheism,” he’s not even talking about the wider community of gnus so much as a handful of prominent figures who’ve been criticizing religion since around 2003, so less than 10 years. Also, (as Wright asks us to consider stats on the entire U.S. population) it’s worth remembering that jaw-dropping numbers of U.S. citizens still can’t identify basic historical facts (Who fought in WWII? What was the Magna Carta? etc.) and can’t name their own senators. So, despite new atheism’s series of N.Y. Times bestsellers, you must remember that sizable swaths of the citizenry are simply in the dark. Dawkins and the late Hitch remain, I think, probably the only NA’s famous enough that, if you stopped the average person on the streets of (say) Nashville or Boise, you’d get a fair number who’d know who those men are and what they’re about. But a great many Americans just aren’t being affected by these debates—because (like the identity of their congressperson) it’s not on their radar. Wright forgets that the new atheism’s “public figures” are altogether unknown to a great many people. Now religion, on the other hand, has a firm hold on the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens…

        It’s delicious how Wright warns us of counter-productive behaviors as he simultaneously declares that downward statistical trends in public acceptance of climate science “may well” be caused by the (I guess?) rudeness of the four horsemen. “May well” be. Well that really pushes the ball down the field, doesn’t it? I can understand raising that point if he actually believes such as causal relationship exists. (BTW, if it did, would it be to a statistically significant degree?—how many citizens, when polled, would cite The God Delusion—or anything related to new atheism—as the catalyst for their rejection climate science?). But such insinuation is totally unproductive for a guy obsessed with being productive. But no matter—it tars NA’s with yet another baseless accusation. For people constantly telling NA’s to work on their image, accommodationists sure do spend a lot of bandwidth depicting NA’s negatively.

        • Occam
          Posted June 14, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

          The kind of aberrant inversion of responsibilities, as perpetrated here by Wright, was excoriated by the great French satirist Pierre Desproges in an unforgettably grim sketch:

          …On the other hand, we have to concede that, during World War II, a large number of Jews displayed a squarely hostile attitude towards the Nazi régime.”

      • Posted June 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        their gratuitously insulting reaction

        That’s an interesting accusation from someone who is arguing that those same people are so irrational and neurotically brittle that they will change their whole belief structure by thousands because some scientists wrote a few books disagreeing with their religion. Is there anyone Wright is not gratuitously insulting?

      • Posted June 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        Oh, right. He’s not insulting existing young-Earth creationists.

        At least someone is safe from Wright’s rhetorical wrath.

  37. Jose
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Not sure how the Arkansas trial fits in the non aggression pact idea.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      PZ and Dawkins are so obnoxious, they can send their insults back in time.

    • jose
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Oh darn, I hadn’t noticed Coyne had already mentioned this via link. My bad.

  38. Mandrellian
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Non-aggression pact? What is this delusional Templeton-wannabe smoking? Even without the cases of relatively recent creationist legal idiocy Jerry cites, religious opposition to evolution, while itself relatviely recent, isn’t a separate phenomenon from the centuries-old tradition of Church vs. Facts. Opposing inconvenient knowledge has been standard operating procedure since the Dark Ages; opposing evolution is simply another front the fundies have opened up. It’s got more support than say, flat-earthism, but only because (a) we have sent people to space and they’ve seen how round our planet is and (b) people like feeling like God’s special little meat-puppets. In fact I think you could solve every scientific puzzle there is, to a degree of absolute certainty, and still have people muttering to themselves “I aint no dang monkey.”

    It’s a piece of blinding obviousness to say so, but Wright’s putting the cart before the bloody horse – it’s religious opposition to evolution (and, broadly, to progress, knowledge and freedom in general) that inspired Dawkins, Myers et al to begin writing as they did. To then BLAME them for putting people off evolution is staggeringly ignorant.

    Also, his reading of graphs is so embarrassingly incompetent that if I were his Stats lecturer, I’d make him take the damn topic again. 6% shift with a +-4% margin of error? That’s significance of an almost homeopathic nature.

  39. Posted June 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if it’s statistically significant, but the graph looks to me as though there is a long slow rise of non-theistic evolution at the expense of anything theistic, but a short-term exchange between evolutionless and evolutionary goddism. Whenever one flicks up a little, the other flicks down. This figures, because presumably theists know less about evolution than non-theists, and can be more easily swayed by high-profile argumentation about it.

  40. Tim Harris
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Might Mr Wright be persuaded to reply to his critics, and in particular to Jerry, here?

    • gbjames
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Don’t hold your breath.

    • Mandrellian
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      The first rule of Attacking a New Atheist is “Don’t talk to a New Atheist”.

      • Posted June 14, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        Wright Club!

        /@

  41. George Higinbotham
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    No one has mentioned Philip Johnson or the wedge document, or the extensive statements by Johnson that explain why Darwinism was the key target of religious agression – but that the problem with science is not evolution per se, it is materialism and reductionist philosophy.

    Johnson wanted to cast “creationism” in “scientific” terms – so he could challenge “science” itself on philosophical grounds.

  42. Posted June 14, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Btw, is accomodationism anything like accommodationism? ;-)

    /@

    • Caroline52
      Posted June 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Oy, easy there! Some of us are very sensitive about our long history of that particular oops, cured only by the eventual discovery of the miracle drug, spellcheck.

  43. Caroline52
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    The evidence Robert Wright adduces for his conjecture that there used to be a Creationist-evolutionary biologist “nonaggression pact” is that no one at the South Texas high school he attended in the 1970s complained about his sophomore biology teacher telling them about natural selection. That is such an egregious non sequitur that I don’t know how he lives with himself as a supposed “science journalist.” No journalist who can do that with a straight face has any business writing about science in any capacity. He should be ashamed of himself. Of course, if his goal is merely to sell books, he should be proud: saying provocative things sells, even wor maybe especially patently ridiculous things. In the entertainment business, some say, no publicity, not even negative publicity, is bad.

  44. Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I doubt anyone could reject evolution because the/she disliked Dawkins’ personality. That’s like saying they would give up gravity because Newton said some crazy things later in his life.

  45. Posted June 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The only comment I have to add is that when the 40% number came out last year, some of us — and I include myself in that group — were a bit too eager to say, “Neener neener, what’s all this about New Atheists creating a backlash in favor of Creationism?” One could argue that we are reaping what we have sown now that the random fluctuations have fluctuated the other way.

    OTOH, I have every confidence that Wright would be making this same argument no matter how guarded we had been over the encouraging numbers from last year.

  46. Posted June 17, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Every creationist I have debated has at some point said/written something along the lines of, “Science must be wrong because _________ says that evolution means there is no God.” Sometimes the blank is filled with Dawkins, sometimes Sagan, sometimes Krauss, and on and on. It’s an ad hoc rationalization at best, and just mindless blathering at worst.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Atheists don’t much like this hypothesis. Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, expectedly has gone ballistic. Using terms usually reserved for me, we learn that Wright’s thinking is “madness.” He is [...]

  2. [...] maybe because I like blowing up dumb arguments myself.  Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) performs the devastation on Robert Wright’s spectacularly lame speculation about the effect of angry atheism  on the [...]

  3. [...] Jerry Coyne’s response over at Why Evolution Is True effectively debunks Wright’s distressingly poor thesis, especially the part where we were supposed to have been in the middle of a truce between science and superstition until extremely rude people like Richard Dawkins forced people to choose. I can add very little to Coyne’s remarks. [...]

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