I don’t want to complain too much about this article, as it’s actually pretty good. I just want to point out how, in the middle of a perfectly good magazine piece on creationism, an author will take time out to show he’s a Good Guy by bashing atheism and its Dear Leader, Richard Dawkins.
The author is Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for Atlantic (previously for the New Yorker) and a guy with a lot of journalistic experience. His article, in the new Atlantic, is called “Were there dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark?“, is about his trip to the Kentucky Creation Museum and interview with Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, a “scientist” on the staff.
While most of us know about the Creation Museum (I’ve never visited), Goldberg notes that it has bigger aims than just teaching Biblical literalist creationism:
What I didn’t understand until I visited Ken Ham is that his museum, which is devoted to a literal, historical reading of the first book of the Bible, is in itself a forward operating base in the conservative war against legalized abortion, gay marriage, and the belief that man is at least partially responsible for climate change (the creationists’ retort being that God will not allow man to destroy a world that he created).
In fact, the people at the Museum seem especially exercised by gay marriage:
Mortenson stayed on the subject of gay marriage. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man. If other parts of Genesis aren’t true, then how could this idea of marriage be true? If there were no Adam and Eve and we’re all evolved from apelike ancestors and there’s homosexuality in the animal world and if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.” I found this preoccupation with gay marriage significant, because it suggests that perhaps at least some of those who profess a belief in creationism might simply be signaling their preference for a more traditional social order, rather than a rejection of modern science and free intellectual inquiry.
What’s important is more than just a traditional social order, though: it’s a divinely-grounded morality. “Traditional” marriage is part of that, of course, but note Mortenson’s statement, “if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.” This is the crux of their ideology, and what we as secularists should be spending more time on. The Euthyphro argument is not hard to get across, and perhaps we should, in our attempts to spread rationality, be putting more pressure on the idea that morality comes from God.
Goldberg is good at reporting the facts which, without his having to editorialize too much, discredit Ham and his odious venture. Here’s a funny bit:
How could dinosaurs have coexisted with other animals within the teeming confines of Noah’s Ark? Because, you see, Noah’s Ark, in Ken Ham’s understanding of the world, was crammed stem to stern with dinosaurs. The cleverest creationists don’t deny the historicity of dinosaurs; they simply argue that they were alive at the start of the Flood, which, by their calculation, occurred approximately 4,350 years ago. (What happened to the dinosaurs after the waters receded is another story.) One sign of Ham’s genius—and he is, at the very least, a marketing genius—is his ability to shape a conversation on his terms, which is why I heard myself arguing against the possibility of a dinosaur-laden ark, rather than arguing against the notion that the ark itself was an actual thing that existed. My argument, in case you were wondering, is that the Tyrannosauruses would have eaten the sheep. QED, right? Except, no. “Many dinosaurs,” Ham says, “were smaller than chickens.”
Now that’s pretty damn funny. What about the ones that weren’t smaller than chickens? At any rate, if I were Ham I suppose I’d claim that the big ones didn’t get aboard and drowned in the Flood, but that may contravene the Bible’s description of every “kind” on Earth (pairs of some, sevens of others) boarding the big ship.
So far so good. But then, right in the middle of the article, you will find this:
My sympathies, by the way, do not lie entirely where you might think. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons (“Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity … of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”), and because, in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” Like Ken Ham, I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Really, even if I weren’t a heathen I’d say that this is a superfluous insertion in an otherwise good piece, a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author’s status as “not one of those damn atheists.” Why else would it be there?
What Goldberg’s saying is that he’s “dismayed” by atheism because he doesn’t like the implications of there being no God. Well, I don’t like the implications of being dead, either, but I’m not pretending I’ll be immortal. And, of course, religion DOESN’T answer those questions that every reflective person asks, for different religions give different answers. If you’re a Muslim you’re going to get a different answer to “How shall I live?” than if you’re a Jew. (I have no idea whether Goldberg, though bearing a Jewish name and referring to a rabbi, is Jewish.) And if he’s appalled by the idea that there’s no divinely-ordained purpose to the universe, well, that’s simply what the data tell us. I haven’t seen God spell out “I am who I am” in the stars lately.
What Goldberg is saying, then, is that he doesn’t like what science seems to say and so is sympathetic toward religion. That’s a pretty lousy reason to like religion. As Voltaire said:
The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists. (“De plus, l’intérêt que j’ai à croire une chose n’est pas une preuve de l’existence de cette chose.”)
And so we have another good piece of journalism, by a good author, spoiled by an atheist-bashing superfluity, one based on simple dislike of what science tells us. Goldberg can get away with this because it’s currently fashionable to diss atheism—something, a reader pointed out, that is actually heartening, for it’s showing that we’re making headway.
But Goldberg needs a better editor.