Salon manages to bash atheists while interviewing Ann Druyan about “Cosmos”

June 22, 2014 • 7:32 am

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 SACRED

1
a :  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>
2
a :  worthy of religious veneration :  holyb :  entitled to reverence and respect
3
:  of or relating to religion :  not secular or profane <sacredmusic>
It’s only when you reach the fifth definition (“highly valued and important”) that you get close to the way scientists regard their work. But few of us would ever use the word “sacred” to describe it!
O’Hehir’s belief in belief is also seen in his passive-agressive dissing of science: “But what we now know, or think we know, is always a matter for humility and doubt.” Message to O’Hehir: everyone already knows that science’s results are provisional, though how much “doubt” do we have that a regular water molecule has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, or that the structure of normal DNA is a double helix? He’s merely knocking science around a bit. And when he uses the word “humility,” you know he’s read too much theology. It is the scientists, not the theologians or theists, who are the humble ones. Theists, with their claim to absolute truth and to “knowledge” that a rational person could never profess (e.g., “God is good”), who need lessons in humility.
But enough of O’Hehir’s mush-brained lucubrations. What Druyan has to say is much more interesting. For one thing, although she says nice things about Tyson, you get the distinct impression that she feels that he got far more credit than he deserved:

[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.

Ann Druyan, executive producer/writer of "Cosmos", participates in Fox Broadcasting Company's part of the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter 2014 presentations in Pasadena,
From the Salon piece: “Ann Druyan, the writer and executive producer of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”(Credit: Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)”

h/t: Marella

 

 

 

 

62 thoughts on “Salon manages to bash atheists while interviewing Ann Druyan about “Cosmos”

  1. Basically if you accommodate or refrain from criticizing religion you are a good atheist, if not you are an intolerant egotistical know it all bad atheist. Having read many of these authors, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. and your truly – Jerry – I can say none of them are even close the stupid stereotypes expressed by the interviewer. Essentially they are just offended that anyone has the audacity to call out their myths. Also more often that not, they don’t read much, you know, actual science.

  2. She describes herself as an agnostic rather than an atheist – based on the premise that science must withhold judgment on questions it cannot answer – but she has also described religious faith as “antithetical to the values of science” and religion in general as “a statement of contempt for nature and reality.”

    Pace her self-identification, that sounds quite gnu atheist to me.

    /@

  3. I am not sure this qualifies as a theistic counterpart to Mr. Boghossian’s excellent book, but it is at least an indication that Christians are taking notice:
    Tom Gilson: Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician: A Preliminary Response To “A Manual For Creating Atheists”
    goo.gl/kO20Np

  4. Excellent entry, Jerry. Someone has to do the disagreeable work of being on the front lines, directly challenging the status quo and taking the direct fire. It sets the terms of the debate. And it get’s people very angry that they can’t be complacent anymore – on both sides of the issue.

    Think Larry Kramer and Act-Up. Terrible job but it had to be done – in your face. They are going to be maligned – it’s part of shifting the terms of the debate, it means people are being engaged.

    Each part of the effort is indespensible. It’s like good cop, bad cop. O’Heir is upset because someone else is setting the terms of the narrative. Yawn. The important thing is that the terms of the narrative are changing along with the status quo. O’Heir is probably not a “believer” – but doesn’t like being “outed” – lots of gays were like that in the 1980’s and 90’s – it didn’t stop the movement.

    1. i’m eager for the marriage issue to be finally settled. that will free up a lot of lgbt activists and allies to channel their energy and passion more directly into the cause of ending religious/christian privilege.

      1. In the email I get from the Human Rights Campaign they seem quite eager to work with (liberal) religion.

  5. “…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.”
    Very nicely put.

    Although it is interesting to learn that NDT did not write his dialogue, one must bear in mind that he has a full time gig as a director of a major planetarium, and what appears to be a very heavy schedule for public appearances and interviews. Todays’ universe of 24/7 news and entertainment demands that from one of the leading spokespersons for science.
    I am sure that he could have done a great deal more of his dialogue, if time allowed for that creative process. We can see from interviews, etc. that he is quite capable of providing eloquent explanations about the cosmos.

  6. “Strangely, their jeremiads urging the sheeple to wake from their God-haunted torpor haven’t won many converts.”
    Maybe Andrew should take a look at Converts Corner on the RDFRS website, also The Clergy Project. And what exactly does he think is “the domain of religion”? Sounds like an off-limits domain where reason, science, and criticism are not allowed to intrude.

  7. I was struck by how brilliant the “screenplay” for Cosmos was — for example, the whole episode that dealt with climate change. My hat’s off to Ann, who I presume is the primary architect of the series and author of the words that came out of Neil’s mouth. I suppose it was right to put the words in Neil’s mouth rather than someone else’s mouth. Neil is a bit of an old-time evangelist preacher in his passion for his subject.

  8. “…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.”

    Man, I’d really like an example for that accusation, like a link to an article or video. When I read that I was like, really? I’d hate to intellectually align myself with someone who thinks that way. Am I supposed to just take O’Hehir’s word for it?

  9. “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.” I do too; it’s the mythic birth of the self. Not easy to take by a narcissistic despot such as god is described.

  10. “Their ahistorical or anti-historical depiction of religion is every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s.”

    Well at least he’s noticed that Ken Ham’s ideas are stupid. But beyond that, anyone who makes such a statement does not belong in journalism.

  11. 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.

    So close, and yet so far….

    Sean Carroll speaks to this most eloquently.

    First, as I am fond of quoting him, as he is fond of pointing out, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. And as a result, reality is effectively hermetically sealed from divine intrusion.

    But, at the same time, physics itself beyond the realm of everyday life is in a phase of near-constant discovery and questioning. We don’t fully understand the Big Bang and only have speculations about what led to it. We do’t know how to reconcile Quantum Mechanics with Relativistic Mechanics. We don’t know the full story about black holes. We don’t know what dark matter nor dark energy are. We suspect there’s an entire zoo of particles beyond the Standard Model but haven’t been able to find any of them yet. And more and more and more.

    And, again, as exciting as those questions and the prospect of discovering their answers are, none of them even have the slightest chance of altering our perception of the mostly Newtonian-scal physics of everyday life. Rather, think of a Spanish cartographer of the fourteenth century thrilled with Columbus’s discovery of an entirely new continent. How much would that discovery cause him to revise his map of Madrid?

    We see a similar pattern in all the sciences. in biology, Darwin gave us the mechanism to completely understand the mechanism by which species originate, yet there remain exciting questions about abiogenesis, the evolution of microbes, taxonomy both extant and historical — and, most excitingly, genetic engineering and exobiology…none of which changes the fact that chimpanzees are our close cousins and blackberries our distant cousins.

    When Mendeleev published his periodic table, we had (a fuzzy version of) the fundamental answer to chemistry…but does that mean that there’s nothing new for chemists to discover? Ha!

    And so it is in all the sciences. We know the fundamental principles, at least at scales relevant to everyday life…

    …which has laid the foundation for the really exciting part, where we both get to fill in the details and push the boundaries far beyond anything that could ever even remotely theoretically be apparent to us without the tools of science. After all, it’s the everyday world that we understand, meaning it’s the exotic worlds we’re now exploring — and aren’t they so much more fun to learn about?

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. I’ve never been happy with that conclusion.

      Suppose our universe were a simulation, intended to simulate precisely the laws we have discovered. It would still be possible for the operators of the simulation, acting from outside it, to create or destroy or change the properties of objects within it. This would appear to us as a violation of the laws of nature, but it would not violate the laws of the larger system in which the simulation is run.

      You may say, all the evidence is that such violations don’t happen. But only a tiny fraction of our spacetime is under continual, accurate scientific observation.

      1. I, on the other hand, have never been happy with the “simulation” idea.

        1. There is no mechanism where there should be a mechanism. Or rather, it isn’t sufficient to simulate a universe with the resources of a universe, too few bits. And we do see an observable universe in explicit detail as a global system, or relativity isn’t valid.

        2. There is hidden variables where there should be no hidden variables. Or rather, it isn’t sufficient to simulate a universe with the physics of a universe, too many (“hidden”) variables. And we do see an observable universe in intricate detail as a local system, or quantum mechanics isn’t valid.

        I think the idea isn’t testable due to 1.

        Or if one insists we already live in a simulation, we should be able to stress it, or possibly already should have stressed it, to the breaking point. Such as relativity breaking (it didn’t, CMB covers the entire universe) or quantum mechanics breaking (it didn’t, Bell tests show no hidden variables).

        1. I used the simulation idea as a substitute for the God idea. It has the advantage that we think we understand simulations, and that the existence of some simulations is not controversial. But I think a similar argument shows that if a God created the universe to run on a specific set of laws, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for him to violate those laws.

        2. You’re assuming that the simulation is honest. If, instead, you’re the proverbial brain in a vat then all bets are off. Remember, the simulation doesn’t have to actually be real; it just needs to convince you and only you that it’s real. Or, if you prefer, invent any other conspiracy theory you like: aliens controlling your thoughts with mind rays, a giant Star Trek-style holodeck, Alice’s Red King’s Dream, whatever.

          b&

          1. Last night I had a dream that I went to sleep after taking sleeping meds as part of an experiment. That’s just silly.

            1. The time at ASU when in retrospect I think I probably had Valley Fever, I “woke up” an half a dozen times or so only to realize I was still dreaming. That is, I first realized I was dreaming, was able to wake myself up…only to discover that I had simply awoken into a different dream. Lather, rinse, repeat. Probably the worst nightmare of my life, though there wasn’t anything specific about any of the dreams themselves I kept waking into that were in any way frightening or memorable or even unusual.

              b&

              1. That happens to me a lot. It’s probably indicative of lesions on my brain. I’m convinced I’m growing them with every migraine!

      2. By the way, the absence of explicit mechanism, evidence that one can simulate what we see in enough detail or that a population of such simulated entities can be harbored in a practical machine, it looks to me like a “gap argument”. Not solely religious, I think, since it is used to “wedge open” statistics over infinite universes to impute difficulties where perhaps no one exist.

        [I’m not even sure the Boltzmann Brain complement idea makes sense. But Carroll seems to consider it.]

      3. It’s logically impossible to rule out simulation hypotheses, just as it’s logically impossible to rule out any other type of conspiracy theory. Rather than us living in the Matrix, it could be that our tinfoil hats have slipped and the aliens are again controlling our thoughts with their mind rays. Or you could be living on a giant soundstage and everybody around you is an actor in on the gag. The possibilities are infinite.

        However…quite literally, that way madness lies. Unless you’ve got solid evidence supporting such a conspiracy theory — actually supporting it, not merely not inconsistent with it — then there’s no point wasting your time further on it. After all, what if that particular conspiracy doesn’t pan out and instead some other conspiracy is the “real” truth?

        There’s another point, however, and that that’s even the conspirators are themselves unable to know if they’re subject to some even bigger conspiracy. Sure, we could be simulations in the Matrix, but the Matrix itself could just be part of Alice’s Red King’s Dream, and he himself a player on an even larger stage.

        And if even the gods themselves can’t rule out the possibility that they’re being deceived about the true nature of reality, of what sense does it make to call them gods?

        Cheers,

        b&

    2. Oops. I meant, of course, the conclusion that reality is effectively hermetically sealed from divine intrusion, but I forgot to quote it.

    3. “We do’t know how to reconcile Quantum Mechanics with Relativistic Mechanics.”

      That is, we don’t know how to fully reconcile them.

      – We do know that gravity can be quantized, there is a complete quantization of the low energy, large scale linearized field equations.

      – A graviton plays nicely with the Standard Model of quantum field theory, and with string theory that encompass all fields.

      -_If_ BICEP2 is correct, the mere observation of primordial gravity waves (PGWs) specifically is an observation of their innate quantization. (Krauss’s et al dimensional analysis, on arxiv.)

      More intriguingly, the putative strong PGW signal hints at field unification on one side (GUT vs gravity), and string theory unification on the other (trans-Planckian energies).

      [Also, the high energy inflation scale gives little elbow room for inflation/GUT finetuning of an effective inflaton field theory. While the simplest model (Linde’s chaotic inflation) is very constrained according to Steinhardt. [The World Science Fair seminar.] I’m layman handwaving here, but to me the contradiction suggests that Weinberg’s anthropic paper on the inflaton field current value, the cosmological constant, may have been spot on.]

      So we do not know how to do proceed to quantize gravity to high energies/small scales, but we may soon have quite a few leads.

      1. Absolutely correct, of course. Or, an even simpler way to put it is that we’ve known from the beginning how to crudely reconcile the two, since both are completely reconciled with Newtonian Mechanics. What we’ve done over time is resolve more and more of the discrepancies, to the point that there’s now good reason to be optimistic about a completely unified theory in the not too terribly distant future.

        …but we’re still not there yet. (Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?)

        b&

  12. Did I miss the Dawkins book where he said we are “a few blanks” away from understanding everything in the universe?

    This is just a pathetic recall to what I like to call the “we don’t know everything, therefore we don’t know anything” canard religious apologists like to trot out. We may never have a 100% complete working knowledge of everything there is to know about the cosmos, and therefore, religious views are just as plausible as anything else.

    It’s the worst kind of reasoning imaginable.

    1. It’s not just that they are supposedly just as plausible. They are absolutely right and all of the other infinite unfounded possibilities are wrong. And what we know with high certainty in science is lumped in with the rest of the unfounded possibilities. An honest admission of lack of true certainty has somehow come to be labeled arrogance where the opposite is humility. If that’s not the mark of a con game, then nothing is.

  13. This is always true with *filmed works*. Remember what Cary Grant said in that movie – that’s how we always ask that question. We don’t ask what the character said, let alone what the writer did. It’s only when you’re as huge as Shakespeare that you get the credit … and I’m not sure that would be true if he’d started writing for movies or tv.

  14. Dear Mr. O’Hehir

    “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.”

    Of course religion exists. We see it’s damage in the news and our lives every day. Dead children, dead women and women living in servitude as chattel, just one part of the damage religion does to human societies.

    What really gets me is this blind faith that there must be something besides our material world. Perhaps there is, but since we can’t test it, since it doesn’t effect us, we can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, how exactly do we determine what is true about this place we’re told exists and what is false? Or which version of heaven is true? Or is reincarnation true rather then going to heaven? How can we possibly know which if any of all the myriad of beliefs are true if there is no way to know anything about them through testing or our senses?

    If we can’t determine what is true about it, if we can’t test it, if we can’t effect it the smallest amount, how can we possibly know anything about it? It’s all guessing or base conjecture. One man’s thoughts on the subject are equally valid as any others without facts and evidence.

    When there is no evidence required, elves and leprechauns are just as viable as the God Ra, Jupiter, Poseidon and angels. Ghosts and banshees are real, as are demons and sirens that pull sailors to their death at sea.
    In a world without evidence all things are equally as real, and any boy or girl, man or woman can be named a witch or sorcerer then be executed by a superstitious ignorant mob.

    But somehow we are the radical ones when we don’t take this unseen, unheard, unknown, untouchable place into account as we live our lives. Pardon me if I think that is not just absurd but a dangerous and idiotic view.

    The radical ones are the ones who accept whatever anyone says about these places, forces or divine beings and creatures without the slightest shred of evidence, since there is no way to separate fact from fantasy.

    Science is the best way we have found to determine how our world works, and with it we have created global communications systems on which sites like Salon can operate to spread nonsense and vitriol.

    So I suppose we must take the bad with the good.

    “Strangely, their jeremiads urging the sheeple to wake from their God-haunted torpor haven’t won many converts.”

    We have gained many converts and more every day. I’ve seen far more religious call us derogatory terms then the other way around.
    We’re used to the ad hominem attacks from the pulpit and the press. It’s what they do when they have no real argument.

    And tell Oprah that we have “sensuous, symbolic and communal” aspects to our lives. Wonder too. After all, were also human.
    It seems the truth of the message has yet to sink in.

    1. ‘we’re’

      And I need to add, if we can’t tell fact from fiction and fantasy in the realm of the supernatural, we can’t tell if any supernatural claims have any merit at all. So far their record is abysmal, so why believe any of them?

      I’ve never had any desire to register at Salon and put up with the added spam. The trash to decent articles ratio is simply too high.

    2. “If we can’t determine what is true about it, if we can’t test it, if we can’t effect it the smallest amount, how can we possibly know anything about it?”

      That is the meat of the matter. At base, the position makes no sense. There may be lots we can never know through science – but it is pure speculation what that is.

  15. Andrew O’Hehir needs a short course in The Relativity of Wrong, where Isaac Asimov pointed out that “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    1. This is the layman’s introduction to Bunge’s point that a good theory of partial truth is an antidote to subjectivism. It is also a good motiviation for why someone with scientific mindset would might think we *need* a theory of partial truth. (Lots of philosophers, including some very good ones like Haack, don’t seem to get it.)

  16. [I see that I have a slightly different take than Ben:]

    a sensuous, symbolic and communal aspect that religion has channeled and accessed in a way no other social practice ever has

    O’Hehir makes a false claim, of course.

    The wording triggered me to look up the background to the Kama Sutra, “a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life.” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kama_Sutra ] It is historically transitional between Vedic and Classical Sanskrit, meaning its root is learned discourse. [Wikipedia]

    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.

    But they also point out what we _do_ know, such as when Carroll notes that we have robustly discovered the laws of everyday physics or Dawkins notes that a creationist magic agency is robustly less likely than the universe’s simple beginnings independently of the dualist difficulty. We may not have constrained fully the once in a decade or so collision between a dark matter particle and a nuclei of our body. But we know the basics of everyday life.

    Similarly we haven’t constrained 95 % of the universe energy content very well.

    But we do know, within those bounds, more than 100 % of the history of the universe, we know it since before it was born as the Hot Big Bang. Planck probes the history tightly back some 6 e-folds of inflation, I believe.

    The next generation of space based CMB observatories (akin to PRISM) could extend that to 17 e-folds, IIRC. Or if BICEP2 is correct we accept the relic thermal and gravity probes of at least 50 e-folds. A cosmology trek where no man has gone before.

    To take another idiom of Star Trek, that science doesn’t cover IDIC of course, Infinite Diversity in Infinte Combination, and it will never do that. Or simply the rest of the history, potentially an infinite period vs the known 14 billion years.

    Hence the puzzles of not enough signal, not enough resolution, remaining uncertainty, remaining competing theories even! O’Hehir doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

  17. “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.”

    I don’t think he means “the domain of religion” as in “religious practice and beliefs”. I think he meant the things religion usually claims authority in, such as ethics, relationships, cosmology, philosophy, and spirituality. He’s basically ridiculing atheists as “reductionistic deterministic materialist” stereotypes who can tout physics and chemistry (the “material”) but are clueless when it comes to mental faculties, philosophy, or ethics (the “spiritual”).

    Doesn’t make his straw man any less straw, but I do think you mistook what kind of straw it was made of.

    1. Well, O’Hehir is a writer isn’t he?
      I trust that he can make himself clear, so we should take him at his words.
      Is it not his job to make sure we understand what he writes.

      1. Yes, but the bit about how atheists dismiss any non-empirical claim as non-existent and blindly assume rational inquiry will reveal everything does suggest he’s talking about those “spiritual” things. It seems a bit unlikely he’s saying we think religious practice doesn’t exist.

        On rereading Jerry’s OP, I think Jerry might have already thought this when he asked what Dawkins was writing about in The God Delusion, but it seemed ambiguous to me.

      2. I think his implication is that new atheism is primarily populated by positivists who either dismiss non-empirical aspects of reality like ethics or think those things can be solved via purely scientific processes.

        To be fair to his point I have met a number of atheists who seem to think this way, but there are also a number of active atheists who reject positivist thinking by and large, and while I disagree with Dawkins on many things I haven’t read anything that would make me conclude he is a positivist.

      3. I think what he is implying is that new atheists are largely positivists, who either deny the existence of non-empirical things, like ethics or logic, or claim that those things can be understood using only the scientific method.

        To be fair to his argument I have met atheists who seem to think this way, but there are a fair number of active atheists, myself included, who reject positivism.

        Also, while I disagree with Dawkins on many things, I haven’t heard him say anything which would cause me to conclude he was a positivist either.

    2. I had the same thought. O’Hehir is annoyed that New Atheists disdain religion’s pretensions so he goes off on a broad exaggeration. Now materialism thinks the concerns of religion “don’t exist!”. Well, in some sense they don’t, if you think of them as based on the the existence of a non-existent God. It is a case of sloppy writing by a fellow payed to write clearly.

  18. Andrew O’hehir is a perfect example of someone who’s about a tenth as smart as he thinks he is.

    He asks : “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?”

    I get the impression he’s not a fraud – just that he asks these types of questions without any apparent awareness that there’s simple and straightforward “answers”. Like the fact that purpose is just a product of our brains and that it’s existence in our mind has nothing to do with the the origins of the universe or evidence for a supernatural entity.

    So not a fraud – just an idiot. He should actually read anything the new atheists have written or spend 2 hours on youtube. All of these ignorant “I-think-I’m-the-first-to-ever-ask-these-types-of-questions” have been answered in spades.

    1. Indeed, science itself is little more than an exercise in uncovering the patterns of the Universe. Patterns like, “Force equals mass times acceleration.” Or, “All life on Earth (outside of Craig Venter’s labs) shares a common ancestor.” Or even, “The sum of the areas of the squares of the legs of a right triangle equal the area of the square of the hypotenuse.”

      …and he has the nerve to dis those who devote their lives to better understanding those patterns….

      b&

  19. Cosmos, the series, is done now. No word was given about possible reruns on TV (although they may happen). However, the entire series is currently available on Blu Ray and DVD. Those of you knowledgeable about such matters may know how to obtain them (that wasn’t mentioned in the announcement). I watched the entire series, some episodes twice, and thought it was marvelous.

    Tyson has done another series on Netflix called “The Inexplicable Universe.” Much shorter, only six episodes, each about a half hour in length. Here, the format is more like a lecture (in Cosmos, Tyson was more one-on-one conversational and casual in dress). No lectern or blackboard. The set somewhat resembles a comfortable apartment with furniture to lean on. In the background are two large video screens on which he can call up anything from a formula to an exploding star. The man is an absolutely compelling lecturer. I found myself hanging on his every word. Here, he is dressed more formally. In episode five, he is wearing a black tie with galaxies depicted thereon. In episode six, the tie is yellow (signifying light) while under his open suit jacket you see a black vest with galaxies depicted. Stunning. I also highly recommend this series.

  20. “I can’t tell you how nauseous I become when I read stuff like this.”

    Count me in that category as well. This is the feeling I get with many Salon pieces. If I had to venture a guess, it seems O’Hehir may have a projection problem. The brand of liberalism pushed at Salon is too often the mirror image of the brand of conservatism pushed by science-denying lunatics. It just so happens that at this moment in history, the ones on the right are far outnumbering the ones on the left.

  21. “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.”

    While I disagree with the interviewer’s perspective (as has been discussed by others already), I’m also troubled by Druyan’s answer. I’d buy the argument that half (or more) of cutting edge science will turn out to be wrong, and since cutting edge stuff holds a disproportionately large amount of new published papers, one might possibly argue that much of current science will be wrong. BUT that’s very, very different than saying most of what we believe now will be wrong or a product of our age (postmodernism?). We understand many things so well that they can and should be called ‘fact’. Just see Jerry’s book. Evolution is true and while there may be discoveries about mechanisms or exceptions, I don’t see an easy way for the core even the bulk to be dismissed.

    For instance, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Einstein showed that Newton’s Gravity was wrong so much that it’s incomplete. It’s not a product of his age, it’s something that will be used well into the future.

    While Druyan sounds humble, I feel she’s taken it too far and makes it seem like any piece of scientific knowledge can be discarded or ignored if it’s inconvenient with the idea that some future researcher will prove it wrong. (The inverse of the typical alt-med gambit, that future research will prove it right.)

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