I’m a little late to this tea party, since Jason Rosenhouse and Larry Moran have already trampled on the biscuits and kicked over the teakettle, but I have to register my disagreement with this
polite and sincere article by Jake Young. It’s got several elements that bug me badly.
First of all, don’t try to tell the New Atheists (insert obligatory detestation of the term here) what the New Atheists believe unless you’ve actually got some understanding of what the New Atheists believe. This is a mistake I’m seeing repeatedly now.
The New Atheist Camp (for lack of a better term) asserts that science and atheism are one. Religion and science are not internally consistent. Any attempt to recognize religion within a scientific framework is appeasement of superstition and is by extension damaging to the scientific enterprise. We might as well publish statements we know to be lies in scientific journals.
No. Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.
Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different. We also argue that a godless nature is a conclusion more compatible with scientific thinking than that ancient superstitions were accurate in the absence of evidence, but don’t let that confuse you.
We could also make the case that religion is separable into a set of methods (revelation and tradition, for instance) and a conclusion (that god exists). The religious methods are incompatible with the scientific methods. The conclusion could be, if there were evidence. That there isn’t, yet the religious persist in asserting that their conclusion is correct, is a further indication that the methods can’t coexist.
Jake is also much taken with John Dewey’s liberal strategy, and much of his article is taken up with a discussion of an essay by him. I like John Dewey myself, and I think he was an admirable person in a great many ways, but I think his essay was a bit of a dud, and one that has failed the test of time.
Considering that this essay was intended for an intellectual elite, Dewey is arguing for political realism. He says that basically you can either be high-brow and feel happy at your own internal consistency or you can actually win the majority of Americans over to your side and get the policies you want.
Well, science is highbrow, but it’s a mistake to claim that those New Atheists with scientific inclinations are trying to set themselves up as smarter than everyone else — personally, my idea is that anyone can have a basic comprehension of science, and that we are aspiring to more outreach and communication. This is not an elitist movement. We are not trying to win over a few key leaders (in science, we’ve already got ’em) — we’re trying to reach out to everyone.
Dewey’s strategy is one of short-term gain and long-term disaster. We can gain some quick policy advantages by, for instance, appealing to purely practical concerns (“We can make more money/we can cure some diseases if you let us do this research”) or by accommodating our tactics to religious beliefs (“God wants you to save the planet!”) at the price of privileging flawed thinking. And it’s that flawed thinking that will turn around and bite us in the ass. Let’s encourage people to think science is OK as long as it promotes American business and can be wedged into some theological rationale … and also continue to allow people to believe that religion and quick profits are primary over knowledge and truth. That’s precisely what this approach does, and precisely where it leads to catastrophe.
Much as I may admire Dewey’s principles, look at where that influential liberal’s country is today. Have his ideas on education led to generations of Americans with an appreciation for the liberal and progressive tradition? Is the United States a bastion of liberal values? Heck, no.
Here’s where I think we’ve failed. Sometimes the big ideas are worth fighting for. You can’t always compromise on everything — on some things, of course — and you need some people who don’t bend with the wind on everything. There are liberal principles and there are scientific principles, and sometimes you have to stand up for them with a little ferocity. When you’re willing to give a little on your core beliefs, you will find yourself backing away from everything that’s important in no time at all.
Jake definitely doesn’t seem to understand that.
Scientists need to collectively get real. We need to decide what our priorities are. Our priority could be to make ourselves feel good about being smarter than everybody else. In that case, let’s just continue what we are doing. That will likely result in our funding being put into jeopardy and the delay of public acceptance of science for a generation. Or we could decide that science is big enough for everyone and that differences in belief will be settled in the end. We decide that in the end funding the scientific enterprise and conferring a much larger corpus of knowledge on the next generation is more important to us than getting our cultural way.
This isn’t about taking smug satisfaction about being smarter than everyone else — we could step into our academic offices, close the door, and stare into a mirror on the wall and do that well enough. We are talking to people, sharing ideas, trying to get messages across. We are egalitarian.
But we are also scientists, and some of us do have our priorities in order. We believe in the importance of evidence. We see the primacy of the natural world over the speculations of theologians. We seek answers in the universe, not in the imaginations of prophets. That’s where we should stand, and we should move nowhere else. Perhaps compromising with some sanctimonious Republican appointee and cloaking naturalism in some lip service to a nonexistent deity would help get a grant or two in the short run; maybe we could cave in to public ignorance and stop talking about the sufficiency and power of natural forces in shaping life on earth. Where next? When you admit your willingness to surrender there, what makes you think the next generation will see your wisdom, where this one doesn’t?
The public acceptance of science isn’t something we defer in the unfounded hope that the public will be more receptive towards at some vague time in the future. We fight for it now … and not just some small obligingly plastic part of it all, but the whole damn thing.