Accommodationism returns, this time with a nasty streak

October 5, 2020 • 9:00 am

There seems to be a resurgence of accommodationism this week, with people arguing that science and religion are perfectly compatible. The argument goes further, and along familiar lines: scientists like Dawkins and me are deemed “arrogant loudmouthed jerks” because our our vociferous atheism supposedly turns people away from science.  And so we encounter the familiar old arguments for compatibility that I thought had disappeared outside of theology: religious laypeople can love science, scientists can be religious, science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, and so on. I tackled all these in Faith Versus Fact, but people either didn’t read it, or did read it but would rather repeat the old tropes rather than answer the arguments for science/religion incompatibility.

I have to admit that perhaps I’m a bit responsible for this pushback, as I (and others) engaged in a Twitter dispute with rapper MC Hammer last week. Hammer, trying to cover all bases, basically said that he was down with Intelligent Design (citing the old canard of the eye’s complexity), but also was down with God and with creationism as well. Well, you can’t be down with all of those at once without some vigorous scientific and theological tap-dancing. Here are some tweets by and exchanges with Hammer, including Matthew’s and mine.

Osculation of ID. Let the IDers propagandize Hammer, for they’d love to have a famous rapper on their side:

Unfortunately, I lost my cool at one point in the Twitter exchange and called Hammer an “ignoramus,” violating my own dictum to refrain from name-calling. For that I apologize, and I deleted the tweet. Hammer is, I’m sure, a nice person, although he’s confused about religion and science, and I feel bad that I insulted him. I would be delighted to discuss evolution and God with him, but that will never happen. Besides, Stephen Meyer is busy convincing Hammer of the truth of Intelligent Design.

But the exchanges between Hammer and others have brought other accommodationists out of the woodwork again, toting their old, tired arguments. You may remember Sheril Kirshenbaum, for instance, co-author with Chris Mooney of the book Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, which had a strong accommodationist streak. In 2009 I reviewed that book for Science; here are two excerpts from my review:

In Unscientific America, a book slight in both length and substance, science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America’s future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public. According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, atheistic scientists such as Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers [who runs the immensely popular science blog Pharyngula] drive people away from science by forcing them to choose between the facts and their faith. Further, most scientists are neither trained nor deeply interested in selling their work to the public, Congress, or Hollywood. This disconnect could be fixed, say the authors, if scientists would just keep quiet about their atheism and if universities would train a new generation of scientists in public outreach, producing more “[h]ip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers.”

. . . Unscientific America prescribes just the opposite: science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins would just keep quiet about religion, a sanction that the authors don’t impose on publicly religious scientists such as Francis Collins. Unfortunately, Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide no evidence that this prescription would work. Do they really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion, Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and finally recognize the threat of global warming?

Apparently Kirshenbaum hasn’t changed a bit, for she issued a rude tweet.

I refrain from being rude back.

Apparently not having read my argument for the incompatibility of religion and science, Kirshenbaum asserts “Science neither proves nor disproves religion.” Well, no, Dr. Kirshenbaum, that’s not the case.

First, many tenets of religion have been disproven by science. One of those is, of course, the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2, as well as creation stories of Islam and other religions. Other claims refuted by empirical work are those of the Jewish Exodus and the Roman census of Herod the Great.  And don’t get me started on Mormonism, the golden plates, and the Mormons’ claim that Jesus visited America. The fact is this: although, as Kirshenbaum argues that “religion seeks to understand our world,” it hasn’t provided any understanding, at least of factual claims like is there a God?; was Jesus his divine prophet/son?; did Gabriel dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad and Moroni tell Joseph Smith where the golden plates were?. And so on. The many religions on this planet make hundreds of factual but conflicting claims. Which are right? We don’t and usually can’t know.

“Understanding of our world”, if it means knowing how the cosmos works and what is true, cannot be gained by religion. It can be gained by science, though, and it is this disparity that I describe in Faith Versus Fact as the incompatibility between science and religion. Sure, religious people can be down with science, and scientists can be religious, but there’s the indubitable fact that both religion and science make factual claims—existence claims—and have different ways to adjudicate those claims. Science uses empirical methods (observation, hypothesis formation, testing, falsification, and so on), while religion uses scripture, authority, and revelation. Only one set of these methods—the empirical set—can really tell us what’s true. That’s why there’s only one brand of science, practiced by people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, while there are a gazillion religions, each claiming that it’s right and all the others are wrong. You can find ways to figure out if there are gravity waves, but no way to figure out if you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior.

Science, Dr. Kirshenbaum, doesn’t prove anything—it just gives us more or less confidence in various propositions about the world. And, as Victor Stenger noted, there’s an absence of evidence for any of the claims of religion. Importantly, he added that that absence of evidence could indeed be taken as evidence of absence if the evidence should have been there. And it isn’t—not for gods. That’s why more than half of scientists are atheists—and nearly all of them at the top of their profession. Kirshenbaum’s claim that “science neither proves nor disproves religion” could also be stated a “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of leprechauns and fairies.” But I doubt that Kirshenbaum would defend those who believe in fairies and leprechauns.

The statement “science and religion aren’t incompatible; they both seek to understand our world” covers a multitude of sins and misunderstandings. That’s why I wrote my book.

Now a young scientist at the site shown below (click on screenshot) has expanded another old argument, claiming that we loudmouth atheist scientists are “massive jerks”.  We should, they say, just keep our big mouths shut because being a vociferous atheist and antitheist keeps people of faith from accepting science.

It’s tiresome to have to go through all these arguments again—though none of these critics addressed my own claims in Faith Versus Fact—but I’ll do so briefly. First, excerpts from the Small Pond Science piece, written by Terry McGlynn, one of the three scientists who run the site. (I note in passing that McGlynn has closed the comments on this post.)

Science has an atheism problem

An alternative title for this post might be: Atheism has a jerk problem.

Our scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith. As I’ve said before, this is a problem, and it actively hinders our efforts for equity and inclusion.

You can be a great scientist and still be religious. You can fully accept an empirical worldview for the laws and theories that govern life and matter as we know it, but also be part of a religious tradition.

I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the choice that people make to have faith, and that’s not for a shortage of study, inquiry and contemplation. Just because I don’t understand why some people have chosen religious faith, that doesn’t mean I’m going to claim that they’re delusional because they have different perspective on the world than I do.

. . . When technology and theory advance far beyond our current capabilities, will there remain some questions about the nature of existence and reality that are best addressed by faith? Well. I dunno. There aren’t for me. But clearly others might see things differently. Why would that be a problem for any one of us?

Yes, some questions can be addressed by faith, but they can’t be answered by faith. 

The piece goes on, telling us to shut up because “science needs everybody; that includes people of faith.” Presumably we need flat-earthers and anti-vaxers, too, even though they accept their delusions on religious grounds. I’ve put McGlynn’s “data” in bold.

The most visible New Atheists try to win over converts by being loudmouth arrogant jerks. It might work for some, but it looks to me like it’s hardened the hearts of many more against reason and science in general. Clearly, it’s put atheism in an adversarial posture. Which is bad marketing for science, considering how many of us are atheists, or at least not religious.

Folks who don’t hang out with scientists on the regular might mistake the New Atheists for widely recognized representatives of science. They might see Bill Maher on TV, and read a blog post by Jerry Coyne, and catch a quote from Michael Shermer in a facebook meme. What do all these guys have in common? They’re anti-religious jerks, who are unfortunately the public face of contemporary atheism. Which in the eyes of many religious people might as well be the face of science too. You and I know that science is much more than bunch of old white jerky dudes who judge religious people. But we’re not doing so well in the marketing department.

Oy, I’m an old white jerky dude! But what does my age and race have to do with my arguments?

But wait! There’s more!

We need a cohort of people in the public eye who identify as atheists, but also are not massive jerks about it. We could use folks from all backgrounds, writing op-eds and appearing on TV, who make a point to say that they don’t have a problem with Muslims and Christians and other people of faith. Who can describe atheism as a rational choice but not as a judgement of other people.

I really don’t want to run through all the arguments why atheist/scientists shouldn’t shut up; they’re covered in my book, in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and in other books like Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

I’ll just list a few relevant points:

1.) Accepting science is not the only issue here: the other is the harms of religion. It may not kill you to reject evolution, but if you reject Islam in places like Iran and Afghanistan, your life is in peril. And even if you’re not killed, the tenets of several faiths (including Catholicism) deem homosexuality immoral and women second-class citizens. Are we then supposed to shut up about the harmful tenets of Islam, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity?  Must one harm (ignorance of science) take precedence over all others?

2.) Much religious dogma has led people to reject science. This includes the rejection of evolution, vaccination, global warming, and wearing masks during the pandemic (“God will save us”), as well as advocacy of spiritual healing, theocracy, and the demonization of abortion. Are we supposed to shut up about these issues, too, lest “science lose people of faith”? Give me a break. There are many issues in the world, and scientists are not required to shut up about politics or religion. We are citizens as well as scientists.

3.) Religion is generally a malign influence. The countries that are the happiest, most well off, and most progressive on this planet are the most atheistic countries, like those in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Religion in these cases acts as a stultifying placebo, inhibiting social progress because people can turn to god rather than to their governments.

4.) There is no evidence that the atheism of scientists like Dawkins and others has kept people from accepting science. As I’ve said repeatedly, if you go to “Converts Corner” on the old Dawkins site, you’ll see dozens of people saying that Richard’s atheism and scientific status helped weaned them from religion and brought them to evolution and science. In contrast, I’ve never heard a single person say, “Well, if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism, I’d gladly embrace evolution.” It’s the combination of science and atheism that has done wonders for many people, leading them to reject delusion (yes, religion is a delusion) and embrace science. I know, because I’ve met many of them, and Richard’s site describes hundreds more.

5.) Religion is a more malign force in getting people to reject science than is ignorance itself. A lack of knowledge can be remedied by education, but it’s much harder to overcome religious indoctrination. Which do you think would be the best way to get Americans and Middle Easterners to accept evolution: a) waving your wand and getting rid of religious belief completely, as if it never existed? or b) Giving every evangelical Christian and Muslim a course in evolution and a copy of Why Evolution is True?  The answer, of course, is (a). For virtually all opposition to evolution, and much other opposition to science, comes from religion. I know of only one anti-evolutionist who isn’t motivated by religious belief. That would be David Berlinski, but I suspect he’s secretly at lest a deist.

So there’s no reason why a scientist shouldn’t wear two hats: that of science and that of atheism. Sure, you shouldn’t mix your messages too immiscibly in lectures: I don’t rail against religion when I give talks on the evidence for evolution. That just confuses people. But I do give lectures that show why science and religion are incompatible, and that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I’m not going to shut up, but I don’t demand that other scientist-atheists be as vocal as I. To each their own. That’s true even for religion—so long as your beliefs don’t harm the community of humans. And there are precious few religions that are innocuous in that way.

As for Dr. McGlynn calling me and people like Richard “loudmouth arrogant jerks,” and an “old white jerky dude”,  well, I’ll restrain myself this time and not respond with namecalling. Those names reflect poorly on McGlynn. All I’ll say is that there are cogent arguments for the incompatibility of science and religion and good reasons for scientists to criticize the tenets of religion. Dr. McGlynn might want to read those arguments and answer them instead of making unsupported assertions that Richard Dawkins’s atheism has, on the whole, been bad for the public understanding of science.  (Hint: finding one or two people who say that happened to them is not data.)

And here’s a final source on both incompatibility and the absence of evidence that atheism impedes the acceptance of science (click on the screenshot):

Once again: Why atheism is toxic—this time by Chris Stedman

November 8, 2017 • 9:30 am

I don’t want to write too much about this, since this new Washington Post piece by Chris Stedman, formerly a humanist chaplain at Harvard but now a “freelance humanist”, is pretty much a clone of all the articles in Vox, Salon, and BuzzFeed claiming that atheism (or New Atheism) is toxic and moribund: it’s sexist, racist, and xenophobic. Atheism, it’s said, makes fun of religious people, thus not fostering “dialogue” and driving away possible converts.

So your assignment this morning is the short piece, “I’m an atheist, but I had to walk away from the toxic side of online atheism”, and I ask for your reactions in the comments. I’ll put a few of mine here:

1.) Note that the title is “online atheism”.  Well, yes, many people—and not just atheists—tend to turn nasty when they can post anonymously online.  Some atheist websites are cesspools, which is why I try to keep the atmosphere civil around here. That said, there’s no evidence that atheist websites are worse than other secular websites.  Further, when Stedman raises the usual victim trope about all the nasty names he’s been called (and I do deplore those who made fun of his sexual orientation, appearance, and so on), it’s not clear that all of it, or even much of it, came from atheists. He gives several examples of online name-calling, but how many of those were from the faithful, or people who weren’t atheists at all?

2.) While online trolls may make some atheist sites unpleasant, my own experience giving talks and attendng many humanist and atheist meetings is not one of pervasive sexism, racism, or bigotry. Yes, I’m a man and not subject to sexual harassment, but all I can say is that I haven’t ever seen it—not once. It is true that there’s a paucity of minorities at these meetings, and in the community as a whole, but I’m not convinced it’s because “movement atheism” is racist. Rather, blacks and Hispanics, for instance, tend to be more religious than other groups, which may make them less likely to join atheist organizations. We need to do better in welcoming minorities, but I think nearly all atheist groups now make a conscious effort to include women in the program. While some people may have left atheism because of its so-called toxicity, I haven’t seen the egress that Stedman has, nor does he give any data supporting that. If so many people are leaving atheism, why is it growing?

3.) To repeat, the data in fact show that nonbelief is increasing in the U.S., and not just among men. If atheism has failed, why this growth? (Granted, many “nones” are “spiritual”, or accept a god but don’t affiliate with a Church, but pure nonbelievers are also becoming more common.) If you simply look at the data, atheism is winning, regardless of whether a few individuals leave “the movement.”

4.) Contra Stedman, I have talked to many people who have been exposed to atheism (and converted to it) by the Internet. In fact, that’s the main way atheists found each other, and found support, over the last two decades. Many people have been converted by listening to videos of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, regardless of any statements they’ve made that have caused them to be demonized.  Not everyone can afford to travel to meetings, but the Internet is free. And even if some website commenters were nasty and ad hominem, those talks (and their books) will remain as eloquent critiques of faith, and will continue to deconvert the faithful as the years pass.

5.) Personal note: Right at the beginning of his piece, Stedman includes me along with the Blog That Shall not be Named as one of his nasty critics after he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show. But I reject his implication that I was unfair. Here’s what he wrote:

A number of prominent atheist bloggers criticized my interview, saying I was awful and suggesting I was allying with O’Reilly. The comments were worse. Anonymous posters ridiculed me, saying I should decline future television invitations because I was too “effeminate,” my physical appearance made atheists seem “like freaks” and my “obvious homosexuality” made me an ineffectual voice for atheists.

Well, check the second link for yourself. I maintain that my post was constructively critical, did not make fun of Stedman, and, in fact, neither did my commenters. Since Stedman says he welcomes constructive criticism, what’s he beefing about here? (I’ve added the O’Reilly/Stedman clip to the original post, and you can see it here.)

6.) Stedman argues that the nastiness of online discourse impedes the course of mutual understanding:

My experiences helping people better understand atheists have been deeply rewarding, and so has working to support atheists struggling with life’s challenges or with families that don’t accept them. I can say without hesitation that my shift from blogging about atheism to community-building was the right decision.

h/t: Diane G

The race is on for Atheist Butter of the Year

January 7, 2016 • 12:30 pm

It’s only January 7, yet already the oleaginous atheist-butters* are pontificating in the newspapers. And we have a good candidate in the form of nonbeliever Joe Humphreys, whose article in yesterday’s Irish Times, “Why Irish atheists still need the Catholic Church,” is sure to piss off Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland, and all the Irish nonbelievers who’ve fought hard to efface the damage that the Church has done to their country. You name it and the Church has done it: raped children, sent unmarried pregnant women to workhouses and taken away their children, lobbied for blasphemy laws and against gay marriage, helped squelch the possibility of abortion for Irish women, and generally insinuated itself into Irish politics so far that government policy is barely distinguishable from the Church’s.

So why on earth do Irish atheists need the Church? For community, of course!:

For all its faults, the Catholic Church is one of the only institutions in Irish society that talks about fundamental values, meaning and human purpose.

On top of that, it promotes an egalitarian ethic that is highly commendable in both ambition and scope. The command to “love your neighbour as yourself” sets a moral benchmark for Christians that, despite bordering on the unattainable, is nonetheless capable of inspiring benevolence in its adherents.

What’s not to like about Jesus’s anti-capitalism? Or Pope Francis’s social conscience? Secular humanists may baulk at the theological reasoning behind the claim that “everyone is equal in the eyes of God” but they must surely observe its sentiment.

The Catholic Church also serves a particular purpose in Ireland by providing the basic unit of community. For historical reasons, the parish remains a key identifier around which sports clubs, fundraising efforts, political campaigning and educational activities typically revolve. It is also the place towards which many people gravitate to commemorate important events like birth, marriage and death.

He goes on to cite accommodationist biologist David Sloan Wilson, who argues that religion promotes good behavior (Wilson obviously doesn’t work with ISIS.) But is Catholic doctrine true? Does it even matter to Humphreys? It sure matters to the Church, which, I think, wouldn’t want nonbelievers or once-a-year Catholics buzzing around the church to meet their social needs. And what does it mean to argue that people should accept false or unproven doctrine so they can have a place to dunk their infant—for social reasons?

Besides, says Humphreys, religion is no worse than capitalism:

Secular communities can similarly have their blind spots. In the debate over religious patronage, for instance, it is curious as to why reformers describe “the baptism rule” as an unfair barrier to education while ignoring the manner in which private schooling in Ireland skews the playing field.

Surely economic segregation is at least as bad as religious segregation?

Could it be that we’re happy to knock the church but afraid to challenge the values of the free market? If so, it strengthens the case for a Christian voice – in the mould of Pope Francis – in Irish educational reform.

It’s odd, as Nick Cohen has pointed out, that comparing secular organizations with religion—like saying “science is just a religion”—never redounds to religion’s credit. It’s like saying, “See—you’re just as bad as we are!”

And no, criticizing religion and not free markets does not strengthen the case for a Christian voice in educational reform. That depends on what Humphreys means by “a Christian voice”, and I don’t think he’s referring to a voice devoid of religious overtones.

I won’t beleaguer the poor Humphreys further, because he hasn’t thought overly hard about the issue. Surely if Scandinavia can live without a strong Church—with Danes and Swedes finding their social needs met in an atheistic society—then surely Ireland can, too.  Or do the Irish need to cling to their traditions more strongly? We’re not told.

Humphreys ends on an unwarranted note of comity:

Given the reality of religious difference, our only choice is to work together. That calls for a form of dialogue that is more respectful and realistic than the current slagging match between people with religious faith and those with none.

Sure, Mr. Humphreys, let the Catholic Church work together with secularists to promote liberalized abortion for Irish women, eliminate blasphemy laws, prevent religious indoctrination of children in Church-run government schools, and eliminate discrimination against gays. (The Church, of course, opposed Ireland’s legalization of gay marriage.) It’ll be a cold day in Hell when that happens!

As for “respectful and realistic dialogue,” I’m willing to be realistic about the views of the Catholic Church, but certainly not respectful. Among all forms of Christianity, Catholicism is the most harmful in today’s world, and its doctrine deserves not respect, but criticism and mockery. Catholicism has done enormous damage to Ireland, something that Humphreys somehow ignores.

*I’m not sure who coined this term, though Richard Dawkins has somewhere revealed the source. It refers to those who say, “I’ve an atheist, but . . . “, then saying something about how we should respect religion, not be vociferous, and so on.