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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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BenYachov - #34001

October 9th 2010

(Red-Dwarf junkie too)

I reply: You Smegging Rock!  BOHYZ FROM THE DWARF!!!!!  You may Read my RD RPG page:

>The fact is many churches, and even Christian universities like Liberty University DO teach young earth creationism and similar scientifically untenable positions.

I reply: Hey guy!  In the Conservative Episcopal Private School I attended from 6 to 12th grade we where taught Evolution in science classes by a Bio teacher who was a Jewish Deist &  Creationism in a religous class alone by the untra-conservative Priest( II am Catholic but my Parents liked the School).
Ironically I disbelieved in Creationism & held too Theistic Evolution.  In the Secular College I attended I flirted with Creationism(but of course as a Catholic there is no Dogma requiring YEC).  It is only later in life I believe YEC is very very unlikely but I also found the Ancient Christians where not of one mind on the subject.  Still philosophically I can’t prove God didn’t ready make the Universe 15 minutes ago.  If I deny God & believe the Cosmos came into existence uncaused I still can’t disprove the world came into existence ready made without God.

BenYachov - #34002

October 9th 2010

Just some thoughts carry on.

David Evans - #34036

October 9th 2010

Your analogy fails because no mainstream scientific organisation is supporting astrology, alien abduction or dowsing. By contrast pastors of mainstream churches can be found talking as if Adam and Eve were real people, attacking contraception and stem cell research, and denouncing the use of condoms even to prevent the transmission of HIV within marriage (to look only at the tip of the iceberg)

Tim Harris - #34039

October 9th 2010

One can only suggest that Dr Giberson should begin to acquaint himself with the work of anthropologists and students of religion such as Pascal Boyer, Harvey Whitehouse, Todd Tremlin, Scott Atran, David Eller, David Lewis-Williams, Robert McCauley, Justin Barret, Matthew Day, Illka Pyysiainen, E. Thomas Lawson et al before penning such a pig-ignorant and disingenuously argued piece such as this. They have put the debate on a completely new footing, and a person like Dr Giberson who supposes himself to be an intellectual has the responsibility to be aware of this. He would discover from reading them that religious belief is not such a simple thing as he supposes, and that the truly important thing in religion is not the lucubrations of theologians but the pre-intellectual beliefs of the religious. If he seriously believes that theology ranks intellectually and in terms of what it says about the world and humanity with the sciences, I can only pity him.

steve oberski - #34042

October 9th 2010

They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible.

Got it in one Karl.

Engineers and scientists actually use the methodology of science to make testable predictions that quite often result in the development of new technology, like iPhones and that thing called the internet that you use with great enthusiasm to promulgate you brand of mystical thinking.

When did a theologian ever do anything comparable ?

Perhaps in your next screed you can explain how the peer review process helped refine the concept of original sin and what applications we can expect to see derived from it.

Jonathan V - #34048

October 9th 2010

There is a major error in this argument in that he is equating religion with science, which are not equal in how they relate to the public and knowledge in general.

Religion is supposedly populist. Science is definitely elitist. Most religions agree that god wants to reach everyone, not just the most intellectually gifted, and most religions talk about how the humble are the ones who get the truth, not those puffed up with pride. If the average preacher, evangelist, or christian is incapable of understanding what god wants, who he is, and what he did, and god only reveals his ways to a very select few elite intellectuals with degrees in philosophy and theology (which we will get to them next), isn’t that contradictory to the notion of this theist god?

Science on the other hand is incredibly elitist. It by virtue of it’s nature keeps the non scientist on it’s far borders, years and years and years of intensive study and training are required to even scratch the surface of a single field. The layman is not expected to have a knowledge of science, science does not require it, nor does one expect it too.

Jonathan V - #34049

October 9th 2010


When it comes to science and religion, the layman should be far better versed in what a theistic god wants and who he is, and what he has done that the layman should know about relativity. God should give a damn what people know, scientists aren’t required to.

Furthermore on the topic of experts. if you take a hundred physicists and ask them the explain relativity you will get one hundred answers that are roughly the same. They will have the same equations, the same predictions, the same applications. There might be some variation on cutting edge theoretical physics, but over all you’re going to get almost the exact same answers. Same for most fields of science asking about relevant theories they are versed in.

Now get 100 theologians together and ask them who god is. Ask them what he wants from mankind. Ask them what god is. Ask them about the history of life on earth, and a general timeline of events. You are going to get 100 wildly different answers on all of these. It’s going to depend entirely on which religion they are a theologian of, and what denomination are they within that religion.

Jonathan V - #34050

October 9th 2010


Layman may not understand science, but obviously the scientists do. They will give consistent and thorough answers, unlike the layman. When asking a layman and a theologian about religion though, there is going to be far less difference between them. Neither the layman nor the theologian is going to be able to give consistent, thorough, sensible answers.

If science was as developed as religion then the only thing scientists could agree on is that we exist physically and experience things. Everything else would be debatable. Theologians can only seem to agree that there is some sort of higher power, and that we have some kind of abstract notion of something called “spirituality”. And that last bit is so vague it’s hard to say that it matters that they agree on it. So why go to the theology major rather than the baptist preacher? There is little difference between the two, unlike layman and scientist.


Richard - #34053

October 9th 2010

Just once I would hope to see the stalwart defenders of theologians bring to bear the authoritative arguments made by the “elite” in specific religions.
Go ahead Karl, choose a religion and have the cajones to bring to the table for debate those arguements made by “learned” people and not the masses and allow us to see just how devastatingly structured in logic and reasoning they are so that we may be sufficiently humbled to crawl back into our caves of ignorance.
Short of such a presentation I submit that you are defending a house of wax incapable of bearing itself with dignity upon the application of a little heat.

oriole - #34060

October 9th 2010

You’re making a silly argument, Karl.  No one cares what the “true” definition of religion is, we atheists care about what the people we’re arguing with - ie, the people who issue fatwas, discriminate against gays, vote against stem-cell research, etc - do in fact believe.  They call what they believe religion, and considering that (a) their ilk were around and using the term long before the theologians came along and (b) no one really cares what theologians think except, occasionally, other theologians, the religion of theologians is a crashing irrelevancy.  Science, on the other hand, was in fact invented by scientists, and the fact that lots of stupid people are sufficiently clever to note that their cell phones let them talk to their far-away friends and that airplanes reliably fly them over the ocean doesn’t mean we have a class of “science believers” who are equivalent to the faithful.  The faithful are the ones actually doing religion; the theologians are an effete excrescence.  The scientists are the ones actually doing science; the folks who can just barely be taught to turn on their computer are just fortunate free-riders.  They are not participants in this debate, and they are also almost certainly not atheists.

merv - #34061

October 9th 2010

Ben, after being told that I “smegging rock” (and visiting your web page) I see that I mis-spoke and do not actually have junkie status.  So back-pedaling,—I did enjoy the early seasons’ episodes but didn’t get to the later seasons (or other forms of it?).  It was a refreshingly different blend of sci.fi, though. 

—-hoping I can still kind of “smegging rock”

Rieux - #34067

October 9th 2010

Why should anyone accept that “the intellectual leaders of the religious community” are the slightest bit relevant?

Whereas scientists actually study reality, “sophisticated” theologians don’t have anything more meaningful to say than the unwashed masses that Giberson demands we all ignore. The theologians are just smarter, sneakier, and better at avoiding blatant howlers that directly contradict observable fact. They’re simply better at running away from the crushing grip of reason than the rank-and-file are; how does that make them the slightest bit deserving of attention?

As Coyne points out (and Giberson conveniently ignores), the ignorant religious masses actually do things that affect all of our lives. Theologians, shut up in their ivory towers where few but other theologians care about them, don’t.

The in-comments observation that theologians engage in something they call “peer review” is just hilarious. Scientific peer review ensures that one scientist’s work takes into account other work—other examination of reality—that has gone before. How exactly does “review” of one person’s flights of meaningless fancy against someone else’s bring anyone closer to truth about anything?

BenYachov - #34070

October 9th 2010

>Whereas scientists actually study reality, “sophisticated” theologians don’t have anything more meaningful to say than the unwashed masses that Giberson demands we all ignore.

I reply: That is factually incorrect.  Scientists study

.  The study of reality is the study of metaphysics and philosophy not empirical science.  That is done by philosophers not scientists.  The claim that reality is only physical, material and natural(sans the supernatural) is not a scientific claim it is a philosophical claim.  The claim that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science is not a scientific claim it is a philosophical claim called Scientism.

Scientism is a self-refuting philosophical claim that at best is trivially true. 
See here
part 2

The inability to make distinctions between Philosophical claims vs Scientific ones or Philosophical claims vs Theological ones or conflating philosophy with theology is one of the intellectual problems with the so called New Atheism.  It’s a poor successor to the old atheism.

Rieux - #34071

October 9th 2010

If Giberson’s attacks on science actually depend, as BenYachov would have us believe, on the notion that the things scientists study are not themselves reality, then his case is even more laughable and nonsensical than it previously appeared.

I did not claim “that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge”; that’s simply BY being disingenuous. I said nothing about “metaphysics and philosophy,” for example. The notion, however, that theology has anything to contribute to “real knowledge” remains utterly devoid of support. The burden of proof to show that theology has any value at all remains on its advocates, and you guys are doing a rather poor job of ponying up the evidence.

Attempting to divert attention from the nudity of theology’s emperor by sliming the kid in the crowd with the epithet “scientism” doesn’t actually work. The emperor is still naked; theology is still empty navel-gazing.

And if anyone here is “conflating philosophy with theology,” BY, it’s you. I have far too much respect for philosophy to insult it that way.

BenYachov - #34076

October 9th 2010


You haven’t really interacted with or answered anything that I have said.  You have merely dismissed it.  Like the YEC who shouts “@nd Law of Thermodynamics refutes Evolution” & thinks he undone the findings of Biology.  Not very convincing.

>on the notion that the things scientists study are not themselves reality, then his case is even more laughable…..

I reply: Nice slight of hand.  I never said or implied physical, scientific or material realities where not real.  That would be illogical.  I said the study of reality was the realm of philosophy.  That is just a brute fact regardless if God exists or not.  It’s not hard buddy.  The logical problems of scientism & related derivative Logical Positivist philosophies aren’t just disputed by Theistic Philosophers.  Agnostic Philosophers like Mary Migdley(Dawkins chief foil) and Atheist Philosopher David Stove tackle them.  It’s not hard.

PSAn Atheist has a burden of proof to prove his Metaphysics (i.e only matter & Nature are real).  Even then he has to make a philosophical argument.  It can’t be proven scientifically.  But if you choose to believe otherwise as Dawkins says you can’t argue with a die in the wood Faithhead.  Even an Atheist one I would add.

BenYachov - #34078

October 9th 2010

>I did not claim “that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge”; that’s simply BY being disingenuous. I said nothing about “metaphysics and philosophy,” for example

I reply: You said “scientists actually study reality” & as I explained that is incorrect.  They study an aspect of reality namely the physical and the physical but nothing more.  God is not a scientific hypothesis.  God is a rational philosophical question. Richard Dawkins & his fellows like Coyne are simply wrong.  Even of God doesn’t exist they are still wrong and no amount of crabbing about it can make them right.

So my advice to all the New Atheism is to abandon New Atheism for the Old Atheism and look at God & attack him from a philosophical point of view.  Because the implicit Scientism fallacy that dominated the philosophy of the current New Atheist movement is just silly.

BenYachov - #34079

October 9th 2010

edit:the physical and the material.

PS: Philosophy is not to be conflated with Theology.  Some philosophical ideas may have strong theological implications but they are not the same.  Philosophy has a primacy even over science since the interpretation & meaning of scientific findings must be determined there.

Start with Philosophy and a Good Philosophy of Science.

Cheers I’m going to go watch some movies.

Tim Harris - #34081

October 9th 2010

But scientists do not, I think, start, as you seem to suppose, BY, from the assumption that there is only material nature and then build the scientific edifice upon that questionable assumption, as a theologian might start from an assumption as to a First Cause and then build his airy edifices on that. They try to explain why reality is what it is, and when you do try to genuinely explain what reality is, God is, as that Old Atheist Laplace (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) famously remarked, an unnecessary hypothesis. What scientists like Dawkins and Coyne are first of all doing is pointing out that explanations along the lines of ‘GODDIDIT!’  are not explanations at all, or, rather, that they are not explanations that can be shown to be true by any appeal to evidence.

Tim Harris - #34082

October 9th 2010

And, yes, I have read Keith Ward rabbiting smugly on about the ‘rational philosophical question’ of God, which he says Dawkins doesn’t understand, as well as McGrath and some other theologian whose name escapes me, and all I can say that is that they were thoroughly unconvincing and that their lucubrations struck me as wholly sterile: yes, there may be a god, but Ward and McGrath certainly don’t get you any closer to what he, she or it might be - particularly when having asserted that there must be a prime mover, a first cause or whatever, they at once leap happily and irrationally into the slough of Christian despond and, as they sink, wave their hands about and talk about the witness provided by the scriptures and by the lives of the devout. I note your touching faith in philosophy (or theology?) as the queen of the sciences, and in her being in a position to put the unruly sciences in their place, but unsupported assertions of faith don’t convince me either.

Jonathan V - #34085

October 9th 2010

There is science, and the natural, and then there is imagination. The fact that it takes a certain degree of rationalism to come up with science, does not mean that the door is open for supernaturalism. If there is evidence for something, or a means of finding evidence it is natural, empirical and scientific. If there is no means of ever obtaining evidence for it, it is as Hume said “sophistry and illusion”. If there is a theistic God (capital “G”) that interacts with our universe, then there is something natural going on to find evidence of. If there is a deist god (lowercase “g”) that does not have anything to do with our universe, he is unimportant, and impossible to ever know if exists or not. Metaphysics and the supernatural can only make completely unverifiable claims, giving it as much credibility as the “muppet babies”.

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