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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 3

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October 8, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 3

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the third installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The second straw man I want to dismantle is the naïve “believer” that Coyne insists represents religion. Like Dawkins in The God Delusion and other New Atheists in their various screeds Coyne seems to think that the “majority view” held by uninformed believers with a haphazard collection of ideas from Sunday School is the true definition of religion. The religious ideas of these believers are then contrasted with the scientific beliefs of well-educated scientists. And—big surprise—they don’t fare too well in the comparison.

Coyne speaks dismissively of "theologians with a deistic bent" who he thinks have no business speaking for religious believers in general, for they do not share the naïve theology of the “faithful," who pray for nice weather for their picnics, or parking spots when they are in a hurry. The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration.

This is a straw man comparison for several reasons. Rank-and-file believers are not one-dimensional caricatures whose entire existence is summed up in their religious commitments. They are also bankers, teachers, lawyers, carpenters, and Wal-Mart clerks who hold a variety of beliefs on many subjects. Only a small fraction of their time has been spent learning about religion and only a small part of their lives is focused on their religion.

Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer” to everyone who passes the standard roster of science courses in high school and affirms that, in general, they accepted what was taught in those courses. Now we have a group that is genuinely analogous to “religious believers.” Suppose now that a well-educated theologian was describing the beliefs of these “science believers,” and using the results to evaluate the credibility of science. The theologian would note that these people really were “believers.” They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible. They are excited about space travel and encountering aliens some day. When they get sick, they look to medical science for help. Sometimes they watch the Discovery Channel and they all loved Avatar.

But what would "science" look like, were it defined by these "believers"? From actual polls and other sources we know that the physics would be an incoherent mix of Aristotelian and Newtonian ideas; most of them would accept astrology and think that a “dowser” with a stick should be consulted before you drilled a well. UFOs and aliens would be accepted as real; some would report having been abducted by aliens. General Relativity, the most important theory in cosmology, would be completely unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind and the scientific proof of free will.

Suppose that Keith Ward or Alister McGrath critiqued the scientific community for the collection of irresponsible things accepted by their followers, the “science believers.” Suppose they wrote books with titles like “The Science Delusion,” “Science is Not Great,” and “How Science Ruins Everything”? Coyne and company would cry foul immediately and say that the “science believers” were not authentic representatives of science, because they didn’t understand it very well.

And yet all of the “science believers” would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals like Coyne and Dawkins.

When the intellectual leaders of the religious community complain that the New Atheists are working with caricatures, their concerns are dismissed. Watch the video of my USA Today conversation with Coyne and you will see exactly what I mean. But this is because they prefer to do battle against an army of straw men, rather than real soldiers.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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conrad - #33765

October 8th 2010

What? You don’t think God can arrange a parking spot?

I think He can.

Barry - #33771

October 8th 2010

Dr Giberson

It is really quite sad to see these “strawman” accusations against Coyne being delivered with, well, strawman arguments of your own. Coyne clearly references poll data to indicate the nature and extent of religious belief, so whilst it might be an embarassment for you to see what many people actually believe, he is describing what they actually report believing. Is he wrong or are the polled individuals wrong? On what basis?

But in attacking Coyne’s lack of acknowledgment of more “sophisticated” theologians, you completely fail to describe what qualifies a person in this way. As such, your ridiculous analogy with what the general population thinks about science doesn’t count for anything - what if the majority voted that gravity was, indeed, caused by invisible fairies? Science has clear corrective mechanisms rooted in testable methodology to show why such claims are either untestable or disproved. What is the equivalent calibration point for religion? What is the religious equivalent of “peer review” which clearly weeds out the wondrous and the whacky from the genuine and the sophisticated? And what qualifies a person to do this? Do you qualify?

merv - #33786

October 8th 2010

Granted, I’m not looking up poll data either to verify any of this, but in an anecdotal sense I have no doubt that Giberson is correct in thinking that the rank & file folks of our society do entertain many wacky ideas in science as well as religion.  As a high school science (physics) teacher it isn’t uncommon for me to encounter students who intuitively guess or “know” wrong things that Galileo and later Newtonian mechanics were to finally correct from the tradition of Aristotle.  And older folks who are more removed from their high school science years, if they aren’t in a profession that requires them to keep using or thinking about such things will often re-learn the basics as their own children are going through school.  While I haven’t read Coyne specifically, what Giberson writes here is a plausible critique of how religion and science are often mis-compared.

If one wants some sort of equivalency definition for “official” religion, I suppose one could speak of those who have had formal theological training with accompanying degree.  But the whole enterprise of trying to match up religion and science as if one was an apple and the other an orange is naive.


Jon Garvey - #33792

October 8th 2010

@Barry - #33771

Science is not the antithesis of theism. Atheism is.

As multiple posts on this site show, many atheists get their science on the authority of atheist scientists and are not familiar with, or necessarily understanding of, either scientific literature or, come to that, the philosophy of atheism (as Ray, a well-informed atheist, agreed on another thread.)

Evidence for this is the 40% or so of scientists who are neither atheists nor non-religious in the latest surveys, whereas you’d be hard put to it to find 40% of atheists who are theists or broadly religious.

Were one to accept your false premise, then a more correct antithesis to the atheist scientific community would be:
(a) Theologically trained church leaders and laymen
(b) academic theologians (subject to peer review in their own sphere)
(c) academic philosophers of religion (subject to peer review in their own sphere)
(d) Church councils for the last 2 millennia

One would also have to restrict the contribution of atheists to those with equivalent expertise in the field of atheism, which would exclude some of the more prominent spokesmen. Karl would appear to have qualifications to PhD level in physics and theology. Yourself?

Jon Garvey - #33793

October 8th 2010

Or 40% of theists who are atheists or non-religious.

Jon Garvey - #33794

October 8th 2010

I can’t see from his biography that Jerry Coyne has any academic qualifications in any subject related to atheism or religion, nor that he has any peer-reviewed publications outside the biological field.

merv - #33797

October 8th 2010

As further anecdotal evidence, one has only to enjoy various science fiction (and more general) movies or TV series to get the idea that the public so-entertained is not extremely fluent in general scientific or mathematical principles although we enjoy vicarious association with the beauty-models in episodes who spout sophisticated-sounding jargon to solve crimes or invent new theories, apply them AND build the corresponding mechanism all in the minutes of time available to save their star-ship from its ever-so-patient & hovering catastrophe.  Other than the quasi-realistic vocabulary bestowed upon our witty pretty heroes, the actual science or math is often less than veneer deep or else just plain wrong.  But maybe Hollywood shouldn’t be considered a reflection of any real science knowledge of the surrounding culture.  If it is for religion or Christianity in particular, then that would also seem to confirm Coyne’s perception of the popularity of a variety of religious ideas.


beaglelady - #33798

October 8th 2010

As further anecdotal evidence, one has only to enjoy various science fiction (and more general) movies or TV series to get the idea that the public so-entertained is not extremely fluent in general scientific or mathematical principles although we enjoy vicarious association with the beauty-models in episodes who spout sophisticated-sounding jargon to solve crimes or invent new theories, apply them AND build the corresponding mechanism all in the minutes of time available to save their star-ship from its ever-so-patient & hovering catastrophe.

You mean like,

“Captain, using lithium crystals, anti-matter and tomato juice,  I have reconfigured my hairdryer to emit tachyon particles, which should save the universe within the last 10 minutes of this episode.”

David Barker - #33804

October 8th 2010

A straw man waving at us from the comments above is the view that religion, like science, is really nothing more than an epistemological methodology.  Even in the case of those religious believers who appear to adopt this view (e.g. Young Earthers, Creationists & ID proponents) by directing all their energies at explanation, it is plausible to suppose that something else is going on quite apart from the desire to understand the way the universe works and our place in it. For example, such energies may be motivated by a need for belonging and to affirm identity. The demand that members of such groups make unsupportable claims can be likened to students at a frat house rush. But there are many who identify as religious who would eschew the label “believer” on the grounds that religion has little or nothing to do with belief - or more generally with the quest to develop an epistemology.  The challenge of atheism is that, as implied by its own label, it confines itself to a narrow (not in a pejorative sense) issue which has little to do with what it means to be religious.

merv - #33809

October 8th 2010

Beaglelady, which episode was that one?    I’m sure Scotty gave the captain a more realistic appraisal of 30 minutes to get all that done, though. 

I understand that lawyers lament what they call the “CSI” effect among jurors in today’s courtrooms.  After years of seeing scientists whip up amazing evidence on TV, they stare incredulously at real prosecuting attorneys in real courtrooms and ask “What!?—that was the best you could do?”

I’m betting there is a similar effect on science.  Or on astronomy (where we have a diet of full-colorized glossy wonders or artists depictions such as could make an actual view through an actual telescope rather anticlimactic.)

But I guess I’m migrating off-topic as to how well our society actually thinks scientifically.  But if our entertainment diet is any indicator, it can’t be very well at all.


Barry - #33812

October 8th 2010

Jon Garvey - #33792

“Science is not the antithesis of theism. Atheism is.”

I thought this was a “religion and “science” blog…you know…in the accommodationist sense? Giberson references science as his antithesis, e.g. “Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer”

Maybe you should keep on topic.

beaglelady - #33819

October 8th 2010

I’m sure Scotty gave the captain a more realistic appraisal of 30 minutes to get all that done, though.

Of course, after he factored in time for commercials.

Chris Massey - #33825

October 8th 2010

I agree. Compare the tactics of Bill Maher in Religulous to those of Ray Comfort in his man-on-the-street evolution interviews. I can’t see much difference.

BenYachov - #33831

October 8th 2010

>Beaglelady, which episode was that one?

I reply: Every one!  (Of course I’m a Star Wars/Red Dwarf Nerd who rags on Star Trek but secretly has always liked it so I’m bias).

merv - #33853

October 8th 2010

Ben & BeagleLady, I don’t imply that everyone who enjoys such things is scientifically illiterate.  Or at least I hope not because our family is quite the bunch of sci-fi nerds as well.  But if you’re willing to laugh at the scientific peculiarities (like those gravity generators that never give out even when everything else has—they should build their entire star-ship out of whatever those are). 

Maybe the popular sci. fi is the “potato-chips” part of our science-education diet.  Okay to enjoy, but we’d better get some real nutrition meanwhile.

(Red-Dwarf junkie too)

merv - #33856

October 8th 2010

David B. (33804),  are you suggesting that most religious folks overtly think of themselves as just in it for the social club aspect?  This may apply to far too many Christians, but I’d be surprised if many would admit to it since they should at least have the head-knowledge that it isn’t *supposed* to be about just that.


beaglelady - #33883

October 8th 2010

I don’t imply that everyone who enjoys such things is scientifically illiterate.

Of course not. Technical people love science fiction.

conrad - #33910

October 8th 2010

Lord spare me from “sophisticated theologians”.
I’ll take the praying kind any day.

Why are we interested in pleasing Jerry Conehead anyway?

I have very little respect for the guy.

GodsOwnDNA - #33945

October 8th 2010

I think Coyne should just stick to writing about his cat-travelogues. I envy all his students. I wonder if my professor would allow cats in the lab.

Ray - #33974

October 8th 2010

Well. I still don’t think this quite fits the definition of a straw man (after all, Coyne does not misattribute the views of naive believers to the likes of Giberson) but it’s a fair point. Perhaps a better comparison is religion as taught in church vs science as taught in school. The fact is many churches, and even Christian universities like Liberty University DO teach young earth creationism and similar scientifically untenable positions. I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find a science teacher at or above the high school level who teaches anything resembling Aristotelian Physics.

Further, it’s certainly fair to assert, as Coyne has, that people like Al Mohler have at least as legitimate a claim to be the representatives of religion as does Dr. Giberson. Even then, this would be a charitable choice compared to other plausible representatives of religion like Pat Robertson and Rick Warren.

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