Monday, April 16, 2007

Appeasers and Other Atheists

Professors are under a lot of pressure. We have certain images that we need to cultivate in order to stay in the club. One of them is the image of a messy, disorganized, eccentric. I've got that one down pat.

I have four piles of reading material. There's the one on my bedside table for reading at night when I should be sleeping. There's a stack of papers and articles in my shoulder bag that I'm supposed to read on the train and subway. There are books on my desk at home and there's a huge pile of things on the desk in my office.

Since I started blogging, none of these piles are getting smaller.

Last night I finally got around to reading an article by Michael Ruse in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer.
Ruse, M. (2007) Fighting the Fundamenalists: Chamberlain or Churchill? Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2007:38-41.
This is one of many articles in this special issue devoted to "Science, God, and (non)Belief."

Perhaps if I'd read the article sooner I might have anticipated the stance that Nisbet and Mooney would take in the framing debate. I actually thought the appeasers had learned their lesson. I thought they discovered last Fall that they can't stifle dissent. I was wrong. Ruse is singing the same old tune. The chorus goes like this, "Why can't we just get along?" The real message is, "Why don't you arrogant atheists just shut up and learn to think like an appeaser?"

The teaser on the Ruse article sets the tone for what's coming. He says,
We who think that biblical literalism has no place in science classrooms should be standing together and fighting ignorance and prejudice. Why then do those of us against creationism live in a house divided?
Well Michael, there are several reasons. One of them is that you are setting up the division yourself by trying to define the problem on behalf of everyone else.

I'm opposed to Biblical literalism, just like you. But I'm not necessarily opposed to keeping it out of the schools at all costs. That's just not a priority for many non-Americans. As a matter of fact, I'd like to bring it into the schools and get students to debate evolution and creationism in the classroom. So, right away you're starting with an assumption. You say I'm supposed to advocate fighting religion in American schools and defending the American Constitution. You also frame the debate in terms of fighting creationism while I prefer to think of the battle as a fight between rationalism and superstition. You've lost me before you even get to the opening paragraph.

(Later on we'll see that your version of "ignorance and prejudice" is differnt than mine so we can't even agree on that.)

Ruse then goes on to describe the problem as he sees it,
... at the moment, those of us against creationism live in a house divided. One group is made up of the ardent, complete atheists. They want no truck with the enemy, which they are inclined to define as any person of religious inclination—from literalist (like a Southern Baptist) to deist (like a Unitarian)—and they think that anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish.
Okay, let's stop here for a moment and ponder how Ruse is defining his opponents. I am one of those people and there's a lot of truth in what Ruse just wrote.

I do indeed think that religion is behind the anti-science movement. I think that religion is the problem, not creationism. Creationism is just one symptom of the anti-science, anti-intellectual, stance of the most fervent believers. Theistic evolution is another symptom of what I think is fuzzy religious thinking about science, albeit not as outrageous as believing in the literal truth of Genesis [Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground].

It's easy to see the silliness of the Young Earth Creationists; however, I find it difficult to see the difference between the Intelligent Design Creationism of a Michael Behe or a Michael Denton and that of Ken Miller, Francis Collins, or Simon Conway-Morris. They look very simlilar to me.

Michael Ruse doesn't have this problem,
The second group is made up of two subgroups. One has as members liberal Christians who think that evolution is God's way of creating .... The second subgroup contains those who have no religious beliefs but who think that one should collaborate with the liberal Christians against a shared enemy, and who are inclined to think that science and religion are compatible.
There's the rub. The appeasers are atheists who think that Theistic Evolution is compatible with science.

Ruse makes it clear that he disagrees with "ardent atheists." To his credit, he raises then dismisses the argument that "ardent atheists" should keep quiet because they provide aid and comfort to the enemy. Instead, he raises anther point. Ruse criticizes the atheists like Dawkins because of their lack of scholarship.
If I thought Dawkins and company were right, I would defend them one hundred percent and let the chips fall where they may. My real problem is one of scholarship, put simply, which is I guess what you would expect of a university professor like myself. I would be a lot more impressed with the ardent atheists if I felt that they were making a genuine effort to engage in dialog with those whom they criticize. I do not mean actual physical dialog, but at the least intense study of the claims of those against whom they fulminate. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and his critiques of the various arguments for the existence of God. Why does he not acknowledge that few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God?
Booooooring. We've heard this whining before. Why doesn't Ruse acknowledge that people like me and PZ have carefully read Finding Darwin's God, Life's Solution, and The Language of God? We've examined the arguments made by the Theistic Evolutionists and found them wanting. What more can we do? I'm not a mind reader. I can't guess what sort of secret "sophisticated" arguments they might have lying in reserve. They haven't told us.

Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway-Morris are among the leading proponents of Theistic Evolution. They're the people Ruse wants to ally with. They've told us exactly why they believe in God and why they think science is compatible with their religion. I'm not buying it. I seriously wonder whether Ruse does either but I guess we'll never know since, as his allies, they are immune to the kind of criticism leveled at Dawkins.

Have you ever thought about why you'll never hear Ruse criticizing Miller and Collins for their lack of scholarship? Can you say "hypocrite"?

Maybe PZ, Dawkins and I are wrong. Maybe there really are rational arguments that reconcile Christianity (and other religions) with science. Maybe the conflict that everyone talks about is imaginary and people like Francis Collins have already found the solution. Maybe, but I doubt it. That's not the point. If Ruse truly believes we are wrong then let him engage in debate instead of just falsely accusing us of sloppy scholarship.

Having ordained that the "ardent atheists" are not scholars, he summarizes his opinion of us like this.
I start to suspect that these people ... in their way are tarred with the same features of which they accuse the creationists. There is a dogmatism, a refusal to listen to others, a contempt for nonbelievers, a feeling that they alone have the truth, that is the mark of so many of the cults and sects that have sprung on American soil since the nation's founding.
Hmmm ... so we're no different than religious cults, eh? What's the solution?
Please God-or non-God—let us quit fighting among ourselves and get on with the real job that faces us.
Wow! For an appeaser you sure have a funny notion of how to stop fighting among ourselves. First you insult and demean us then you say we should get along. That's ridiculous.

When I disagree with someone I don't pull any punches. In that sense I'm no different that Michael Ruse. However, I don't then turn around and ask my opponent to give up the beliefs I've just trashed and join me in fighting another battle—especially one that they're not interested in. That would suggest I wasn't listening to a word they said. But that's exactly what Michael Ruse is doing.

We need to accept the fact that atheists disagree on the mild form of creationism called Theistic Evolution. Some of us oppose it on the grounds that the logic behind it is no different than the logic of Intelligent Design Creationism. Other atheists don't see a problem with Theistic Evolution because, according to them, science and religion are compatible. Fine. We can agree to disagree and have lots of fun debating it at the same time.

But please don't try to shut me up by calling for a big tent strategy against the more extreme creationists. That's the whole point of the Ruse article in spite of the brief disclaimer in the middle. From the opening teaser to the very last sentence, the take-home message is for all atheists to come together. But it's a very special kind of coming together, isn't it? Our side has to give up everything. That sort of coming together usually goes another name. It's called surrender.

So here's my message to the appeaser athiests. If you don't like what we say then by all means speak out. Challenge us. Debate us. Show us why you think Theistic Evolution is very different from Intelligent Design Creationism. Write an article comparing Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton and Life's Solution by Simon Conway-Morris. Tell us why you choose to ally with Conway-Morris but oppose an intelligent design creationist like Denton. Make your case with scholarship. But please, please, stop whining about the fact we disagree. That's not going to change anything.

(Are you listening Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet? This applies to you as well. If you support Theistic Evolution then tell us why. Don't try and confuse the issue with talk of "framing." We all know about frames. It's just a fancy word for spin.)


  1. "We all know about frames. It's just a fancy word for spin"
    Indeed, especially when you see how often M&N and Coturnix use "framing" in comments on other blogs. I just don't want to get framed and I don't want the "leaders" they ask for.
    At least Bora is honest:
    "Framing science is not teaching science. Framing science is persuading voters that a policy (which, in this case, is based on some underlying science) is good. It has little to do with science, and all to do with politics."

  2. What is going on here, of course, is an effort on the part of some to paint others (in this case atheists) as extremists and to proclaim themselves as members of the "reasonable middle".

    We saw this recently on the issue of climate science as well, when some said "I'm in the middle" while at the same time trying to paint people like James Hansen as extremists (albeit at the other end of the extreme from Senator "Global warming is a hoax" Inhofe).

  3. We also see the Washington insider media trying to strike this pose as between the criminals in the Bush administration and the Congressional committees trying to shed light on their activities, or as between Chimpy himself vs. the Congress (and the majority of the public!) who want merely to set a timetable for getting out of Iraq (when really, a genuinely responsible Congress would immediately defund the war.)

    This phony-moderation ploy has become a ubiquitous plague on American intellectual and political life- far too many people think that every decision in life can just be split down the middle, and never what the truth really is.

  4. Here's what Bora says:

    "Once the framing efforts by the two sides cancel each other out, all that remains are facts, and the truth will win."

    Yes indeed, "Balanced frames".

    "Could you move that a little to the left please...and back a bit to the right... Ah, that's perfect."

    Instead of "fight fire with fire", the new mantra is "fight frames with frames".

    Now I've heard it all.

    It can't get any more ridiculous than this, can it?

  5. Well, I think you've covered just about all the points, Larry. Thanks for that.

    I'm getting pretty tired of the appeasement wankers.

  6. Based on an interview that Denton had with the Un. of California Extension Service in 2002, it would appear that he no longer considered himself an ID proponent. Apparently his position, at least as of 2002, was that he accepted speciation by natural selection as the best theory currently available. However, he thought, at that time, that natural selection was only part of the story and that there were probably other mechanisms not currently known that contribute, although he admitted that he had nothing substantive to suggest.

  7. I have to chuckle. So fervent you are in your position, Larry -- so determined to say "my way or the highway" and "no surrender, no retreat, even if it costs us in the greater war." Such a True Believer you are -- no different in your position or tactics than the creationists you oppose. By conflating fundamentalism and religion, you leave people with only two choices: support one group of disagreeable fanatics, or support another group of disagreeable fanatics. What a wonderful way to make allies and influence the undecided.

    The more I see the E side dominated by fanatical atheists like you and Myers and Dawkins, the lower my interest level in the C/E issue goes. Quite frankly, you don't deserve my support. As far as I can see, you and your fellow atheist fanatics are no better than the creationist fanatics. Why should I spend my time and energy to elevate still another bunch of fanatics with whom I generally disagree?

  8. The more I see the E side dominated by fanatical atheists like you and Myers and Dawkins, the lower my interest level in the C/E issue goes. Quite frankly, you don't deserve my support.

    The truth is the truth regardless of your "support", moron. Good riddance, I'm sure you'll be a wonderful addition to the ranks of obscurantism. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

  9. Another perspective ...

    The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who - in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses' - cannot hear the music of the spheres.

    - Einstein

  10. Of course, you do realize that Einstein's "God" was simply Spinoza's "God or Nature", and that he dismissed belief in a God who intervenes in the universe as childish. Right?

  11. Einstein's "God" was simply Spinoza's "God or Nature", and that he dismissed belief in a God who intervenes in the universe as childish.

    Well, it's somewhat more nuanced than that, as I understand it, and I'm not aware that he dismissed belief in a "personal God" as "childish." He did not hold such a belief, but that's not the same thing as dismissing it as "childish."

  12. "The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.” Albert Einstein in a letter to Beatrice Frohlich, December 17, 1952

    "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." (Albert Einstein, The World as I See It)

    "The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously." (Albert Einstein) Letter to Hoffman and Dukas, 1946

    And last but not least, the ACTUAL CONTEXT, ignorantly or dishonestly omitted by Scott, of that remark about atheists: "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth."

    The two of you, do some research next time before making fools of yourselves...

  13. I can not read their mind or speak for them, of course, but it does seem that what Larry Moran, PZ Myers and many others oppose is the same kind of religion that Einstein opposed, one that was meant to control people -- the same religion that tells people what they can and can not accept about science, in particular about how humans arose.

    Here's what Einstein actually had in mind with regard to a religion that would be compatible with science:

    "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

    I wonder, Do Buddhists reject evolution?

  14. Here's wikipedia on budhism:

    "Buddhism is distinctive in that it does not necessarily mandate the belief in a creator god, nor does it traditionally advocate or disparage belief in evolution.

  15. I agree with anonymous. And I would say that E.'s remark about "crusading atheists" was somewhat naive. Living as an old man (who had not himself had to struggle against religious indoctrination in his youth) in the academic bubble of Princeton, it's unlikely he was fully aware of the damage "childlike" religion was even then able to inflict on public understanding of science in the US. Were he alive today I have no doubt that he would be utterly appalled by the creationist movement in its various guises and would at the very least strongly sympathize with the position of fellow scientists like Dawkins and Moran.

  16. Don't flatter yourself, Steve. As long as there are people like Ken Miller and Martha Wise in the debate, I'll stay in it too.

    Martha Wise, for those who don't recognize the name, was an Ohio Board of Education member who led the stand against the IDers in Ohio.

    Martha Wise is also a creationist -- born, bred, faithful, convinced.

    But Martha Wise has the sense to distinguish between her personal beliefs and the greater good for society.

    And though she and I probably disagree on many other things, religion not least among 'em, she's an honest and honorable lady. Whiners and preachers on both sides of the issue would do well to imitate her.

  17. It will not surprise you to learn that I fully agree with Larry about the unacceptable amount of doublethink involved in Ken Miller's position. (If Miller is willing to live with that, that's his lookout, but I don't have to admire it.) As to Martha Wise, as an Ohioan I'm well aware of her; she knows little about science (by her own admission) and should stick to correcting the more flagrant stupidities of her coreligionists (an area where she may be of some actual use, faute de mieux) rather than taking ill-informed potshots at atheists.

  18. OK then: I accuse Francis Collins of bad scholarship. His warmed-over channeling of C.S. Lewis isn't any more convincing than it was the first time around.

  19. wolfwalker: ...As far as I can see, you and your fellow atheist fanatics are no better than the creationist fanatics...

    So you really can't tell that one of those groups is clearly and demonstrably wrong on the facts, and the other isn't? You must have all the perception and reasoning of an ingot of pig iron. Maybe less.

  20. "Since I started blogging, none of these piles are getting smaller."

    I know how that works. But as long as it turns out excellent posts such as this, it is time well spent.

    Combined with theism TE is creationism when it isn't Creationism all by itself. It is at best the same shell game that theology at large provides for religion. But instead of hijacking philosophy it is perverting a perfectly good science, which is why I find it especially appalling.

    The call for theists to show the difference to other creationism is acute. My guess is that they wont do any better than Miller's old arguments.

  21. And last but not least, the ACTUAL CONTEXT, ignorantly or dishonestly omitted by Scott, of that remark about atheists: "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth."

    Different quote than the one I gave, and one I hadn't seen before. "ACTUAL CONTEXT" (since you seem to want to yell) is not the point.

    But that's OK ... I'm not inclined to go around accusing folks of being ignorant or dishonest ...

  22. It's not my fault that you're ignorant. It's a curable condition, you know.

  23. But that's OK ... I'm not inclined to go around accusing folks of being ignorant or dishonest ...

    You're apparently also not the kind to go around citing your sources so that anyone who cared to could check up on the context could do so readily.

    BTW, I'll go on record as stating that Einstein was not infallible.

  24. "I'll go on record as stating that Einstein was not infallible."

    Perhaps not, but if the preliminary results from the Gravity B probe are any indication (confirmation of the space curvature [geodetic] prediction of his General Relativity Theory to within 1%) he might have been as close as humanly possible. :-)

    Don't ya just hate it when Einstein is right?

    It's not fair. God should let someone else be right once in a while.

  25. It's not fair. God should let someone else be right once in a while.

    Maybe at random times, like throwing dice or something.

  26. Check out this interview in which master framer Matthew Nisbet describes an example application:

    On the Media
    Blinded with Science
    April 13, 2007

    BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you have advised Copernicus to advance his highly controversial and unpopular sun-centered theory of the solar system?

    MATTHEW NISBET: Well, again, you know, there are certain ideas that come about in science that clash so strongly against prevailing world views that any type of short-term communication effort is going to run up against a wall.

    What I'm really talking about is on these short-term issues where there needs to be a policy decision made in the next five years, the next ten years, during the presidential election cycle, what's the best way to engage the public by way of the media? And certainly you can't get around the idea that framing is central to that.

    Wowie, what a master communicator! We should all be taking advice from this man.

  27. If I had been Brooke Gladstone interviewing Nisbet, here's what I would have asked:

    "How would you have advised Copernicus to advance his highly controversial and unpopular earth-centered theory of the solar system?"

  28. And over at Uncertain Principles, we learn that 'PZ and Larry Moran are not primarily interested in promoting science.' Wow, they could have fooled me.

  29. Now Nisbet is waving around a letter from Steve Case, assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas and co-chair of the science standards committee for the state of Kansas.

    "OK, here is a from the hip Monday morning rant . I have been reading all the blog stuff and the [Washington] Post response. It is a pretty interesting discussion - that reminds me of the poker game in Flock of Dodos. All of the communication issues, so it is argued, are outside of the scientists control so we cannot do anything about them - we are doing a great job (you can tell by the poll numbers and the level of science illiteracy in society)."

    "The blogs and comments seem to use the same strawman argumentation that the ID folks use - i.e. that Matt and Chris are asking scientists to dumb down or spin science."

    I don't know which blogs Mr. Case was reading that led him to that conclusion, but that seems like a gross mis-characterization of what Larry Moran and PZ Myers have been saying.

  30. Here's an excerpt from that Michael Ruse article in Skeptical Inquirer, pp 40-41:

    My response is in part pragmatic. The creationists and the ID supporters simply love Dawkins and his ilk. They pray that they will say more and more. Every time the atheists open their mouths they win converts to the literalist cause. The creationists have been saying all along that Darwinism equals atheism, and now the Darwinians apparently agree! Americans in the middle - meaning generally, religious Americans in the middle - get the message that science, and Darwinism particularly, threatens their faith. Dembski once wrote to Dawkins: "I know that you personally don't believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent design movement. So please, keep at it!"

    1) If your argument relies on taking Dembski at face value, your argument is in trouble.

    2) That God fellow is one perverse character.