Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 3

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October 8, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

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

Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 3

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.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Barry - #34297

October 11th 2010

“For most believers in science and believers in religion, THIS is exactly equivalent”

I disagree. Where is the equivalence? You can say this about the whole of education. Science actually works. The fact that Joe Public can’t explain why doesn’t equate science and religion. Students learn good science from their teachers…they might even believe them…but science changes with new discoveries. It isn’t static. Textbooks change. How does religion compare? Do the “authority figures” of religion say anything different today than they did 1000yrs ago?


Jon Garvey - #34321

October 12th 2010

Barry - #34297

“Do the “authority figures” of religion say anything different today than they did 1000yrs ago?”

That does seem a peculiarly ill-informed question.

Anselm/Karl Barth.
Duns Scotus/Richard Bauckham.

Start by working through those two pairs and then ask the question again.


Papalinton - #34329

October 12th 2010

@ Jon Garvey
“That does seem a peculiarly ill-informed question.

Anselm/Karl Barth.
Duns Scotus/Richard Bauckham.”

Are Barth and Bauckham contributing genuinely new and previously unknown facts at the cutting-edge of theology that builds on existing knowledge?  Or are they mainly reinterpreting afresh the existing corpus of information that forms the body of christian apologetics?  Will the outcome of their investigations contribute to greater cohesion and wider acceptance of aspects of christian doctrine?  Will both catholics and the plethora of protestant variants accept the general premise of the works of Barth and Bauckham and integrate these findings? 

Indeed from your reading,  I would be happy for an overview of their work from you on how they advance christian research and the extent to which these studies contribute to a clearer and less fractious perspective of christian experimental research.  Are the outcomes of their work generally accepted within the academic fraternity as seminal?

Is the likelihood of a Nobel Prize in order?

Cheers


Papalinton - #34354

October 12th 2010

@ Karl
Your analogy of the ‘science believer’ with ‘religious believer’ is precisely how the religious see those who have confidence in the sciences.  There is no “suppose” about it.  And indeed this is the basis that the religious see those who are not ‘of their kind’. The reason? The only reference point, the only basis available to believers to make sense of their world, is through the theist vision.  There are no other backstories available.  Indeed, religious people in the main do not portray worldliness,  given to naiveté, parochialism, narrow-focus and tribalism for, by the very nature of their monitored religious upbringing and communal training, have only experienced the world through the filter of the theist’s lens. 

I note through the range of comments on this thread, a general sense of apprehension, disquiet, particularly in the manner that commenters seem to put information out there, seemingly tentatively, hoping for some form of encouragement from the like-minded to buoy up their argument and boost their confidence.  There is particular ire for those who challenge their beliefs.  Such irritability is indicative of the rather guarded and tenuous nature of their beliefs.


Barry - #34363

October 12th 2010

Jon Garvey - #34321

“Anselm/Karl Barth.
Duns Scotus/Richard Bauckham.

Start by working through those two pairs and then ask the question again”

What new knowledge did they uncover? I’ve read Barth’s dialectic theology. I’ve not read Anselm. Scotus? Oh dear! So, again, what new knowledge?


Dan L. - #34381

October 12th 2010

I love how the vast majority of the human race is religious when you want to crow but those same people are terribly ignorant about religion when you need to backpedal. 

But let’s do a little thought experiment to see whether your comparison makes any sense.  We start with Smith who has a great many misconceptions about current scientific theories and Jones who has a very naive view of religious belief.  We get together a panel of experts on science to help Smith out and a panel of experts on religion to help Jones out.

Smith asks his first question, about the age of the earth.  The only people on science panel to speak up are a geologist, an astronomer, and a nuclear physicist.  They all provide the same answer—that the earth is between 4.5 billion and 5.5 billion years old.  They each give a different explanation of how they got that number, but the accounts are very compatible.

Jones asks about the source of suffering in the world.  The Christian tells him it’s original sin.  The Buddhist tells him it’s desire.  The Muslim tells him it’s disobedience to Allah.  Etc.

Do you really think scientific misconceptions are the same thing as religious “misconceptions”?


Jon Garvey - #34419

October 12th 2010

@Dan L. - #34381

Now let’s ask a sociologist, a neurophysiologist and a behavioural psychologist about
the cause of suffering in the world.


Papalinton - #34427

October 12th 2010

@ Jon Garvey
What’s the difference between a neurotic, psychotic , a psychiatrist, and a believer.

The neurotic dreams of a castle in the air.
The psychotic lives in one.
The psychiatrist collects rent from him.
The believer is the sentry to that gated community.

In respect of the sociologist, neurophysiologist and behavioural psychologist’s notion about
the cause of suffering in the world, not one of them would would claim ‘fallenness’ or ‘original sin’ as a reason.

Cheers


Roger A. Sawtelle - #34550

October 13th 2010

The conflict between science and Christianity is illusionary, because they address two different aspects of life.  Science is about knowledge.  Christianity is about love.  They are not contradictory, but they are different.

Not everyone can be a PhD, a theologian, or even a college graduate.  Everyone can be an expert at loving, although of course we always need more.  I agree with Paul, knowledge is important, but love lasts forever.  For more read 1 Cor 13.


Papalinton - #34678

October 14th 2010

Hi Roger Sawtelle
“The conflict between science and Christianity is illusionary ...”

Absolutely correct.  There is nothing in science, be it evolutionary biology, cosmology, astronomy, physics [you name it]  which can be used to prop up the foundations of the christianities, indeed any religion.  And it is not so much ” .. because they address two different aspects of life ..”, rather science addresses the aspects of life and theology addresses aspects of the afterlife. 

Christianity is about love?  Who are you kidding?  the christianities is about control, religion in general is all about control, acquiescing to the hierarchy with god at the top, while all of humanity is ‘fallen’, with a skinful of ‘original sin’ through no fault of their own.

About love?  Surely you jest?  Ask all those kids about love that were at the mercy of those priests who foisted their love onto them, you know the one’s I’m talking about.  More importantly why did your god just sit there watching and do nothing?  Oh, I get;  tough love.  Pathetic

Sheesh


Roger A. Sawtelle - #34738

October 15th 2010

My Brother Papalinton,

You say that science is about life, however you have not been able to tell me anything about how science or atheism addresses the basic problem of living, which is, Why live at all?

Your argument against Christianity is all smoke and mirrors.  If you can argue that atheism is not about Communism, then you can not claim that Christianity is about pedilfilia. 

If you have a problem with authority, then maybe you are a libertarian or anarchist.  If so, God bless.


Papalinton - #34743

October 15th 2010

Hi Roger

No, no science is not about life; science is a tool, something we can us to improve our lives.  Our search as humans is to discover our meaning in life, to make great use of our cognition and consciousness.  Don’t surrender it to some spectral numen.  That is abrogation of personal responsibility.  Don’t surrender it to some silly old tome about goat-herds and their quest to better their lives.  That is their story, not yours or mine.  To surrender your life to such a book is irresponsibility.

My argument against the raft of christianities is that they are indeed smoke and mirrors. 
It is sad to witness grown men talking to themselves as though they are being heard.

So sad


Dunemeister - #34748

October 15th 2010

@ Barry #34297

“For most believers in science and believers in religion, THIS is exactly equivalent”

“I disagree. Where is the equivalence? You can say this about the whole of education. Science actually works. The fact that Joe Public can’t explain why doesn’t equate science and religion.”

The equivalence is that, for the learner of science, particularly in the earlier stages (say, up until third year university), the learner believes on the basis of authority. Until a person has at least a full university education, they are not even equipped enough to assess things competently. Heck, they may still not even grasp certain essential concepts sufficiently.

So the issue isn’t whether the content of “science” changes or not. The issue of my comment is how the authority of science is generated and maintained. All believers in science became believers because people they regarded as authorities said thus and so. Later, some of these learners come to understand the whys and wherefores. Coming to understand them may justify science’s authority, but that authority had already been established “in the womb” so to speak.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #34766

October 15th 2010

Papalinton - #34743

Hi Roger

....  Our search as humans is to discover our meaning in life, to make great use of our cognition and consciousness.  Don’t surrender it to some spectral numen.  That is abrogation of personal responsibility.  Don’t surrender it to some silly old tome about goat-herds and their quest to better their lives.  That is their story, not yours or mine.  To surrender your life to such a book is irresponsibility.

Papalinton

I am glad that we agree that we are not to surrender our integrity and responsibilty to others.  I reject the notion that the experiences of others, no matter how different they might seem to be, cannot be helpful in discovering who we are and what life is all about.  That is a form of snobism.  Many of them were herders, but of sheep, not goats.

The important question is, where do you start?  Do you start with the ideas of Dawkins and others which do not lead anywhere?  I choose to begin with the world view that affirms that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  I choose to start with the world view that have been the foundation the Civil Rights & other liberation movements.


Barry - #34975

October 16th 2010

Dunemeister - #34748

” the learner of science, particularly in the earlier stages (say, up until third year university), the learner believes on the basis of authority”

But you could substitute “science” for anything in this context, like “Math” or “World History.” My reason for disagreeing is that by specifying equivalence at the subject level it implies a form of equality that doesn’t really exist. I think what you are describing is equivalence in the state of mind of learners as they go through the educational process. This is completely different.


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