UPDATE: This thread has grown bloated and full of unproductive back and forth, so please post ONLY if you want to sign the letter. I am deleting all other comments after this announcment. Thanks for your indulgence.
When is The Chronicle of Higher Education going to put the kibosh on the irrelevant and incoherent tirades of Gnu-Bashers like Michael Ruse and Jacques Berlinerblau, whose continual attacks on atheists don’t do the journal any good? But in the meantime, one person still mans the Gnu Barricades: David Barash. Barash, a biologist at the University of Washington, has posted his latest on Tuesday, “The emperor’s new nakedness.” Taking his fellow Chronicle “bloggers” to task, he points out what’s really new in New Atheists: their popularity and their unwillingness to respect religious claims (on a related note, read Jason Rosenhouse’s epic new post on atheist “incivility”)
We have a curious compact of silence here in the United States, or at least we did prior to the arising of the New Atheists. Were someone to announce a blatant absurdity (the Earth is flat, she has been abducted and inseminated by space aliens, etc.), she would be subjected to extreme doubt, often scorn. But claim that Mohammed ascended to heaven on the back of a winged horse, or that Jesus did so without a comparable equine assist, and you must be respected. Why? Because it’s your religion. That settles it.
How impertinent of those New Atheists to treat such claims with skepticism! How disrespectful to suggest that religious claims can and should be scrutinized just like any other pronouncements! How uncouth to speak of these things in anything other than a knowing and admiring whisper!
Thus, it is somehow naïve to point out that there is no evidence whatever for the existence of a soul, immortal or otherwise, that nearly every supposed factual claim in the Bible is either unverifiable or verifiably ridiculous, on a par with the Tibetan Buddhist insistence that the head of the embalmed body of the 13th Dalai Lama, which had been facing south-east, had suddenly and mysteriously turned to face the northeast, thereby pointing to the direction in which his successor (the 14th and current Dalai Lama) would be found. And so forth.
To point out such absurdities is, once again, to be “naïve,” crass, or ill-bred. Such people, we are told, should leave high-falutin’ theologically meaningful analyses to those who best understand them, who know the Magic Abracadabra and have plumbed the Mysteries. They should join the crowd, speak only in hushed tones, and, if they cannot bring themselves to admire the Emperor’s finery, at least have the good manners to keep quiet.
On the big “Nick Matzke = Tom Johnson” thread the other day, a fellow named Roger Stanyard came over to complain. He is spokesperson for the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), the UK equivalent of our National Center for Science Education (NCSE); both organizations are worthy endeavors. But Stanyard immediately alienated everyone by telling us to lay off not only Nick Matzke (who accused Richard Dawkins of playing the “Nazi card”), but religion in general. It’s the usual argument that any vociferous atheism turns people away from science. I responded to Stanyard, saying in part (I put the identical post on the Dawkins website, where Stanyard is trolling as well):
So are you asking the rest of us atheists, who oppose creationism as well, to just shut up about religion?
Or do you think the battle against creationism is so much more important than the one against the pernicious effects of religion that we should concentrate on the former and simply keep our mouths shut about the latter? You realize, of course, that creationism will never go away until religion does. I know of only a single creationist (David Berlinski) who isn’t motivated by religious faith.
If you’d read my popular book promoting evolution (WEIT), you’ll see that I say virtually nothing about religion.
I’d suggest, then, that you lay off telling us what to do until you’ve read about our goals. The fact is that we’ll always be fighting creationism until religion goes away, and when it does the fight will be over, as it is in Scandinavia.
Stanyard has not responded, preferring instead to yammer on endlessly about somebody who compared Matzke to “vermin”. That was an unfortunate remark—the kind of name calling I don’t like on this site, but Stanyard glommed onto it like white on rice, or Kwok on a Leica. Like Matzke and others, Stanyard prefers to drone about tone, and won’t engage the worthy argument that creationism is one battle and religion another, that the two battles are connected, and you won’t win the first until you win the second.
The strangest thing in all this, though, is Stanyard’s claim that we should lay off religion because “You’ll lose a pile of allies.” Yet that’s exactly what he’s done with his own invective on this site and Richard’s. So let me just pen this:
Open letter to the NCSE and BCSE
Although we may diverge in our philosophies and actions toward religion, we share a common goal: the promulgation of good science education in Britain and America—indeed, throughout the world. Many of us, like myself and Richard Dawkins, spend a lot of time teaching evolution to the general public. There’s little doubt, in fact, that Dawkins is the preeminent teacher of evolution in the world. He has not only turned many people on to modern evolutionary biology, but has converted many evolution-deniers (most of them religious) to evolution-accepters.
Nevertheless, your employees, present and former, have chosen to spend much of their time battling not creationists, but evolutionists who happen to be atheists. This apparently comes from your idea that if evolutionists also espouse atheism, it will hurt the cause of science education and turn people away from evolution. I think this is misguided for several reasons, including a complete lack of evidence that your idea is true, but also your apparent failure to recognize that creationism is a symptom of religion (and not just fundamentalist religion), and will be with us until faith disappears. That is one reason—and, given the pernicious effect of religion, a minor one—for the fact that we choose to fight on both fronts.
The official policy of your organizations—certainly of the NCSE—is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.
We will continue to answer the misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks. I don’t expect them to abate, but I’d like your organizations to recognize this: you have lost many allies, including some prominent ones, in your attacks on atheism. And I doubt that those attacks have converted many Christians or Muslims to the cause of evolution. This is a shame, because we all recognize that the NCSE has done some great things in the past and, I hope, will—like the new BCSE—continue do great things in the future.
There is a double irony in this situation. First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.
Feel free to “cosign” this letter by giving your real name in the comments. And any reader who has advice for the NCSE or BCSE, please add it in the comments below. Please be constructive. History tells me that they’re not going to listen to us, but it’s worth a try.