Until yesterday I didn’t know who Keith Kloor was, but I found out when someone called my attention the fact that Kloor, in a post on his Discover blog (yes, it’s a blog), had lumped me together with Dawkins as a “fundamentalist atheist.” I take that as a huge compliment!
Kloor, it turns out, is a science journalist who was once a senior editor at Audubon magazine and now teaches journalism at New York University. And he’s angry.
The aim of Kloor’s post, “The poisoned debates between science, politics, and religion” is to be conciliatory, both between those who support opposite political positions using science (e.g., on questions of climate change or genetically engineered animals) and those who favor or oppose the comity between science and faith. “Why can’t we all get along?” is his theme, and Kloor hopes to position himself as the protagonist of the famous xkcd cartoon: as superior to both sides.
I’ll leave aside the science debates and reiterate what Kloor says about “fundamentalist” atheists. It’s the usual “I’m an atheist, but. . ” argument:
The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.
First of all, we’re not making an enemy of the whole world—only those religious people who cannot tolerate the merest criticism of their faith. I don’t think, for instance, that Karl Giberson, whom I go after repeatedly (and who goes after me in turn) is my “enemy.” We’re both civil enough to know that this is a debate about belief and reason, and we have respect for each other as people. Let us also remember that those who spearheaded the drives for civil rights and for women’s rights were once “making enemies of the whole world.” Presumably Kloor would have cautioned the early suffragettes to stifle themselves, as they were making enemies of almost everyone. Every moral advance in this world begins with a small minority of vocal people.
Further, by saying that people like Dawkins and me are lumping together all religions as equally pernicious, Kloor reveals himself as abysmally ignorant. Neither of us, nor any of the New Atheists, have done that: we all recognize that there are degrees of perniciousness among the faiths. For example, I’ve often said that I have little beef with the Amish and Quakers compared with Muslims or conservative Catholics. I decry faith to the degree that its adherents try to impose their views on the rest of us. Now many of us do criticize the more “moderate” religions for enabling the extremist ones, or for trying to impose their own unsubstantiated views on the rest of us through the political process.
Kloor is creating strawmen here. Has he even read with any care the writings of Dawkins, or what I post on this site? His arguments resemble those of Peter Higgs, which we discussed yesterday. Indeed, Kloor affiliates himself with Higgs.
Further, few of us deny that religion provides consolation or a form of “meaning” for people. It does. It isn’t totally pernicious, and it does inspire charitable works. What I maintain—I can’t speak for Richard here, but believe he’d agree—is that those good acts would occur just as often in societies lacking religion (at least they seem to in atheistic Scandinavia), and, on balance, religion is a harmful thing. Further, the “meaning” derived from faith is a false meaning, consoling as it may be. It is the consolation of the drunkard. What does it mean to spend your whole life working towards heaven, or avoiding hell, when there isn’t any? Wouldn’t it be better to work at making this life better?
Finally, plenty of nonbelievers have no problem in deriving “existential meaning” from a finite existence. If they’re “not yet ready” to do that, as Kloor argues, we’ll help them.
Kloor goes on to make other ridiculous claims about the the “sneering and strident” approach of New Atheists:
This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters is not just bad manners, it is puritanical. That’s what scientist Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) is getting at with his recent sharp criticism of Dawkins.
Really? Kloor does not, of course, give any examples of the sneering and stridency, and that’s par for the course. But puritanical? It is the faithful, not the atheists, who denigrate earthly pleasures and take a ludicrously puritanical attitude toward sex. That’s a serious downside to many faiths. Kloor goes on:
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper that the Guardian reports, Higgs said this:
“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”
This will no doubt incite the equivalent of hockey fights in the various atheist rinks of the blogosphere. Get your popcorn ready. That’s essentially what our big scientific debates amount to these days: Rip roaring entertainment and blood sport.
It’s not entertainment at all, Mr. Kloor. Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion. The stuff about “popcorn” and “hockey fights”—now that is sneering. So often those who decry us for stridency and rudeness are worse than we are in those respects.
In one of his recent broadsides against religious faith, Jerry Coyne wrote:
“Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.“
I think that intolerance may also be considered an enemy of democracy. Fundamentalism, whatever its guise, is certainly the antithesis of science.
Whoa, there’s that accusation of “fundamentalism” again! What, exactly, is fundamentalist about noting the evils of faith? As for my statement being the antithesis of science, I don’t understand that argument at all. What I said about the incompatibility of religion and democracy is not antiscientific in any sense. (If you want antiscientific, look at the real fundamentalists, where the term is correctly used to denote those adhering to the literalism of Scripture.) There are good arguments to be made that the ideology and dogma of religion are truly inimical to democracy, which, ideally, should be based on free argument, open minds, and rationality. To see such an argument in extenso, read Eric MacDonald’s post from Choice in Dying: “The incompatibility of democracy and religion.“
People like Kloor really irritate me in the same way that “moderate” believers irritate me. By sucking up to faith, and decrying those who question its tenets, they are, to paraphrase Sam Harris, “betraying faith and reason equally.” There’s nothing wrong with standing up prominently for what you believe, so long as you keep before you the goal of denigrating ideas and ideologies rather than people. Kloor has chosen to denigrate the people.