UPDATE: Rob Knop has found us and left a provocative comment below. Readers may wish to address it!
The blog network Scientopia was started, as I recall, when people from ScienceBlogs wanted an alternative site free from administrative hassle. I don’t look at their sites, but an alert reader called my attention to a post at a site called Galactic Interactions. It’s run by one Rob Knop, an astrophysicist at Quest University in Canada who describes himself as a “Christian.” The post is notable not because its author is a big presence on the internet, but because it’s an attack on atheism by a credentialled scientist: “Why I don’t like the term ‘Gnu atheism’.”
The piece is the usual tiresome tirade about the stridency of Gnus. The words and arguments fall into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:
However, most of those in the movement formerly known as “New Atheism” seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. . . .
. . . Beyond that, a subset of [the Gnus] are strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed “reason”, citing the names of logical fallacies the way fundamentalists cite scripture. They will assert that they know the Truth and that therefore it’s perfectly justified for them to say frankly insulting things, and then say that others shouldn’t be offended by the Truth. They seem to think that non-fundamentalist theists are prevaricators who “pick and choose” from their religion, and thus are somehow misrepresenting their own religious beliefs. I generally think that this is because they’d prefer to argue against fundamentalists, for it’s extremely easy to show how fundamentalists are at odds with science. But, it’s very disheartening to see somebody who wants people to accept science then criticizing a theist for not being a fundamentalist. It is the behavior of this subset that leads me to the conclusion that “fundamentalist atheist” is the best term for this sort of atheist. Most atheists, thankfully, are not like this, but there is the subset that argues that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by reasonable people who accept science— much as fundamentalist Christians argue that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by people who are good and “saved”.
And while Knop spends most of his longish piece attacking a subset of Gnus, does he name any? Nope, he just names the victims of their attacks, linking to sites like The Intersection, Phil Plait’s blog, Josh Rosenau’s blog, and even the “science and religion” section of the National Center for Science Education’s website. Once again we hear a strong critique of Gnu Atheists, listing our horrible traits and behaviors, but without the presence of a single example. Shades of Plait’s DBAD speech! Is it that Plait and Knop don’t have many examples—except, perhaps, from the comments section of Pharyngula? Or could they simply be protecting those Gnefarious Gnus by not naming them? At least when scientist-Gnus go after religious people or accommodationists, we name them and give examples. After all, we’re wedded to data and evidence, not empty assertions.
Knop also asserts that we’re not halping:
In other words, I’m annoyed at the “gnu atheists” in the first place; not just because many are so blinded by their love for their own philosophy that they can’t see that it isn’t necessarily objective truth, and not just because many are frankly rude and insulting while thinking there must be something wrong with me if I find them rude and insulting. I’m annoyed at them also because they’re getting in the way of a cause I care about, mainstream acceptance of good science and scientific reasoning. There are a lot of religious people out there who have no problem with evolution or the Big Bang, and there are a lot more who wouldn’t have any problem with it if they really learned about it and learned how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science. Those people are people we should reach out to. Telling them that religion is idiotic, or intellectually dishonest, and that the real people who accept science must all be atheists, isn’t going to help.
The problem is that people like Knop are getting in the way of a cause that we care about: the inimical effects of religion. I deplore the effects of creationists on diluting biology education in America. But I deplore far more the effects of religion in making the world a worse place to live. A kid in Alabama who doesn’t hear about human evolution is small potatoes next to a Muslim woman who gets her genitals mutilated, an African who gets AIDS because his priest wouldn’t let him use condoms, or an Afghan girl who, seeking an education, gets her face permanently mutilated with acid. Some day people like Knop will realize that The Gnus Have Two Causes (that sounds like the title of a children’s book). Or rather, we have just one cause—the promotion of rationality—that has two facets. One is promoting science; the other is pushing back irrationality, whose most prominent incarnation is religion.
Besides the absence of data, Knop’s piece is notable for his LOLzy attack on the name “Gnu Atheists,” an attack derived solely from his misconception that the name came from the Gnu software project. He sees a dark conspiracy here:
Put it together. You have this movement out there, the subset of atheists whose stated goal is to destroy religion and who assert that complete and intellectual consistent acceptance of science requires a rejection of religion. That is a movement that people who aren’t already atheists are likely to view with suspicion. Now, they’ve taken a name that seems to link them to something that is completely separate, open source and free software. It bugs me already for aesthetic that these guys have hijacked the term “Gnu”. But it can’t help but create a link in some folks’ minds between this crazy hippy dubious philosophy about sharing software you’ve written to attacks on religion. In sort, free software may now be perceived as having something to do with yet another cultural assault that, frankly, has nothing whatsoever to do with free software. “GNU public licence?
LOL! What mushbrainery! We are called “Gnu” atheists not because of the software connection, but because it’s a funny term showing that we don’t take the words “New Atheism” too seriously. I believe Hamilton Jacobi, who coined the term, will vouch for this. Knop would be better off if, as a scientist, he tied his critiques to real data.