I love the smell of atheist-bashing in the morning. Well, not really, but it’s an odor that is all too familiar when I open the morning email.
For a long time Salon has been the main online venue for atheist bashing, and one of their more avid bashers is Andrew O’Hehir, a staff writer. We’ve met him before when I reviewed an earlier Salon piece of his bewailing the “unnecessary” conflict, as he saw it, between science and religion. All you need to know about that earlier piece are two things: 1) he praises Terry Eagleton, and 2) he wrote this:
Creationists and other Biblical fundamentalists, needless to say, are having none of it: For them, the empirical realm is always and everywhere subservient to the revealed word of God. Meanwhile “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with their pop-culture sock puppet Bill Maher, espouse a similar view from the other direction. Their ahistorical or anti-historical depiction of religion is every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s. Since there is nothing outside the empirical realm and no questions that can resist rational inquiry, the so-called domain of religion does not even exist. These debased modern-day atheists conflate all religion with its most stereotypical, superstitious and oppressive dogmas – a mistake that Nietzsche, the archangel of atheism, would never have made – and refuse to acknowledge that human life possesses a sensuous, symbolic and communal aspect that religion has channeled and accessed in a way no other social practice ever has. Strangely, their jeremiads urging the sheeple to wake from their God-haunted torpor haven’t won many converts.
Somebody should compile a “Manual for Bashing Atheists” (an analog of Peter Boghossian’s book), containing all these tired old bromides, which often include not only the claim that New Atheists see all religion as fundamentalism, but also fulsome praise for the “old,” “rational” atheists, like Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche. But you get the tenor of O’Hehir’s thoughtless prose from the above. “Sheeple,” indeed! And “the domain of religion” does not even exist? Really? What, then, did Dawkins write about in The God Delusion? And what about the New Atheist depiction of religion as being “every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s”? You have to be a few cards shy of a deck to say something like that.
Oh, and in his earlier piece O’Hehir also criticized an early episode of the new “Cosmos” for its treatment of Giordano Bruno:
Things can’t possibly be as bad on the scientific and rationalist side of the ledger, but they’re still confused and confusing. [Neil deGrasse] Tyson has made diplomatic comments about science and religion not necessarily being enemies, a halfway true statement that was never likely to satisfy anybody. (Meanwhile, “Cosmos” thoroughly botched the fascinating and ambiguous story of Giordano Bruno, a cosmological pioneer and heretical theologian burned by the Inquisition.)
As I said at the time, the depiction of Bruno was not (as O’Hehir interpeted it) a blanket takedown of religion, but of the inimical effects of dogma and superstition on science.
But that makes it all the more curious that OHehir’s just published in Salon a pretty worshipful telephone interview with Ann Druyan, the creator, writer, and producer of the popular new “Cosmos” series, which starred Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s a pretty good interview—on Druyan’s part, not O’Hehir’s, for he insists on turning the conversation to religion, what Druyan thinks about it, and whether she used the show to criticize it. But it’s worth hearing her take because she’s awesome.
First, though, O’Hehir has to get in his licks against New Atheism again—personified, as always, by the Satanic Richard Dawkins. Note that he slaps Dawkins around while pretending to praise Druyan (my emphasis):
One mistake Druyan never makes, either in “Cosmos” or anywhere else, is the arrogant historicism sometimes displayed by Richard Dawkins and other prominent scientific atheists. By that I mean the quasi-religious assumption that we stand at a uniquely privileged position of near-perfect scientific knowledge, with just a few blanks to fill in before we understand everything about the universe. “I’m sure most of what we all hold dearest and cherish most, believing at this very moment,” Druyan has said, “will be revealed at some future time to be merely a product of our age and our history and our understanding of reality.” Science as a process, as “the never-ending search for truth,” is sacred. But what we now know, or think we know, is always a matter for humility and doubt.
That paragraph is completely unnecessary in this interview; it’s there for one reason only: because O’Hehir is for some reason obsessed with New Atheism, which he despises. But notice that he simply misrepresents it by claiming that “prominent scientific atheists” have the “quasi-religious” belief that “we stand at a uniquely privileged position of near-perfect scientific knowledge, with just a few blanks to fill in before we understand everything about the universe.”
That, pardon my French, is complete bullshit. Think of some prominent scientific atheists: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Steve Pinker, Sean Carroll, Steve Weinberg probably come to mind. Do any of them conform to O’Hehir’s stereotype, thinking that science is almost done understanding the Universe? Hell, no! O’Hehir is either clueless, and hasn’t read these people, or, more likely, is deliberately smearing them by pretending that they believe something they don’t. One characteristic of people like Dawkins and Carroll is that they’re constantly emphasizing the puzzles that still beset science: how little we know, and how far we have to go. I can’t tell you how nauseous I become when I read stuff like this.
Note also that O’Hehir characterizes science as “sacred,” which I see as a deliberate choice of words meant to analogize it with religion. Here are the first three definitions of “sacred” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Full Definition of SACRED1a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods>b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
2a : worthy of religious veneration : holyb : entitled to reverence and respect
3: of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacredmusic>
[O’Hehir]: Ann, I know I’m not the first person to bring this up, but you’ve done two versions of this show where, you know, a prominent male scientist was on-screen and you were behind the scenes. The first time around, of course, it was your husband, and this time it’s Neil Tyson. Because he’s standing in front of the cameras, everybody thinks of him as the creator of the show. What’s going on with that?
[Druyan]: That is a funny thing, isn’t that? I am a little bit surprised when critics, who I think are more likely to read the credits with some degree of attention, talk about the show as if Neil has had something to do with its inception or its writing. In the case of Carl it was different. Obviously Carl was the senior partner in conceiving the show with me and [astronomer] Steven Soter. And so, I mean, I am kind of taken aback. But then I look at the brilliance of Neil’s performance, and how unexpectedly he has taken what I wrote and given it its best possible expression on the show. So I love the guy. I guess that’s the plight of the writer. It is coming out of someone else’s mouth; people think it must be theirs. It’s a natural reaction.
This is what one says when one is a decent person but feels she’s been overlooked. And Druyan deserves more credit: she was the driving figure behind the “Cosmos” remake, and the main writer. When she worked with Sagan, they were full partners.
Her religion-dissing is also refreshing:
You’ve been pretty outspoken over the years about your views of religious myth and its relationship to science. You’ve talked at times about the desire to reclaim some of the sense of mystery or daring or even spirituality that could hypothetically be associated with science. Is this show to be considered as part of that struggle, as an attempt to recapture the mystery and power of science in the public imagination?
That’s beautifully said. And you know, I could speak to that. Yes, I mean, what always has surprised me personally is that the revelations about nature and the universe that science has presented to us are not just, you know, more likely to be better approximations of natural reality than we’ve gotten from any other source, but they’re also way more spiritually satisfying than anything we’ve ever been able to make up. You know, our interpretations of nature that are not rooted in nature at all and that are anthropocentric are kind of the infantile idealized visions of us as the center of the universe. As the children of a very disappointed father. [Laughter.]
O’Hehir bores in, determined to make some space for faith:
Well, I think people still look to religion as a zone for certain questions that science has no way to approach. You know, does the universe have some pattern or meaning behind it, even if we cannot discern it? Why is there something instead of nothing at all?
Oh, yes. Yes, that is Leibniz. That’s his favorite question. In “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” [a memoir co-authored by Druyan and Sagan], in the introduction, I wrote about that in the context of a note that I found in Carl’s handwriting. He had taken that paragraph [from Leibniz], summarized it and then written something in the margins. You know, Leibniz goes on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, “What would happen if we did not, you know, stop asking that question? Where would we go? We’d have to say God, because that’s the only place we could stop asking that question.”
So Carl wrote, in his beautiful Brooklyn public school handwriting, “So don’t stop.” I found that after his death, and it was like hearing his voice. And it was like, exactly, I couldn’t agree more. Why is God telling me to stop asking questions? When we defied God by tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that’s how we became ourselves. You know, God may not like that part of us, but I do.
The whole interview is worth reading. Druyan comes off as a thoughtful and talented woman, O’Hehir as a tendentious journalist with a double agenda of dissing New Atheism and sending up some flak at science.