Sunday, July 29, 2012

In Defense of New Atheism

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”-Thomas Jefferson

By Hos

Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at the Florida State University (and, too his credit, having fought creationist William Dembski), is known for his frequent posts criticizing New Atheists and insisting that accepting evolution is compatible with Christianity (no word on whether it is compatible with Islam.) 
That is not because Ruse is a believer; he has said repeatedly that he is not. As for his actual motive... Well, it is Michael Ruse Number 1 versus Michael Ruse Number 2. Michael Ruse Number 1 tell us it is because is it a problem that is "interesting and challenging". Michael Ruse Number 2 tells us that there is a significant political element in what he does; that living in a christian majority country is in fact why he has found reconciling evolution and Christianity challenging and interesting to him as opposed to, say, astronomy and astrology.
But is this "don't rock the boat" approach honest? If Ruse's reason for looking to harmonize science and a particular faith boils down to political convenience, doesn't that mean that in fact his efforts are directed by an accident of history? And shouldn't accidents of history be irrelevant in search for the truth? Further, if Richard Dawkins reminds him of the Tea Party through his "inflexibility", wouldn't he be saying the exact same thing about Thomas Jefferson? After all, Jefferson was a politician. Compromise and making deals was what he did for a living. Yet he managed to do all that without compromising his principles. And failing to criticize (if need be, through ridicule) ideas he believed were baseless. Dawkins is not bound by any of that.
Here is why I find myself on Dawkins' side. In a nutshell, honesty and truthfulness over political convenience. I feel that the New Atheists (distasteful as I have occasionally found Hitchens and Harris, or even Dawkins himself) are the only ones calling a spade a spade. Ruse's approach smacks to me of hypocrisy.

Then there is the point that while evolution is the flash point in the science/religion conflict, it is not the only area where the two disagree. Michael Ruse, Chris Mooney and others may have made careers out of papering over the inconsistency between faith and evolutionary science. Yet there are a whole lot of other faith/science clashes that can, and likely will, come to a head at some point. The idea of soul/afterlife is the easiest to think of. Belief in afterlife is a pillar of both Christianity and Islam. It relies on the dualistic belief that the mind has an independent existence of the body. There can be no soul and/or afterlife if dualism is false, i.e., if consciousness cannot survive death of the brain. Yet the idea of dualism is overwhelming rejected by neuroscientists. If anything, this cuts even more deeply to the heart of religious faith than evolution. Likely the only reason it hasn't been a bigger issue already is that neuroscience is rather obscure outside scientific circles, compared to evolutionary science.
And that the roots of religion likely are psychological responses that have no divine origin. As opposed to a "God shaped hole in your heart" per C S Lewis, or "fitra" as called by Islam, the alleged human inclination to seek guidance to God.
We have only scratched the surface. As Matthew pointed out recently, the areas where science and faith disagree just keep growing. The accomodationist approach is of questionable integrity, but more importantly, it is also possibly bound to fail.


Thesauros said...

"Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them"

Like Quantum Mechanics or chemical evolution.

Carl said...

I agree when you accommodate one religious belief then you will end up doing the same with others such as Scientology, Mormonism and Islam. So I wonder if Ruse does the same with theses religions? Criticizing is what gets people to think and eventually lose their religion and helps build a better rational society.

Hos said...

Thesauros, that is just a lame attempt at being sarcastic. Quantum physics is actually a very solid idea mathematically, and yes, "distinct". It is only that human experience does not include microscopic objects on a day to day basis. Unlike, says, relationship between a father and his sonown which can't be the same person.

Anonymous said...

Having studied Quantum Mechanics in some depth, yup, it's very solid.

Do we distinguish between 'criticism' and 'ridicule'?

Hos said...

Ridicule is a form of criticism and is used by both religionists and secularists (just see the first comment on this thread.) There is no reason for secularists to unilaterally abandon use of ridicule and no indication that the other side would reciprocate.

KG said...

To even have a conversation with theists you must be able to connect at some level. To come in with ridicule blazing and nothing but criticism will only continue the rift that is building.

Hos said...

But may be a few fence sitters will see the hollow ideas once they receive the ridicule they deserve.
Oh, and you'd never ridicule the idea of 72 virgins? Or is it only some religions need protection and Islam isn't one of them?

Explicit Atheist said...

KG: It is a shallow connection between people that you seeking when a pre-condition is that the differences in beliefs between them must be taken off of the table. When people say religionists are too fragile to discuss whether their beliefs are true or false then that just reinforces the impression that there is something seriously wrong with religious belief.