Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Neville Chamberlain Atheists

 
There seem to be a lot of people who don't understand the origin of the term "Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists." I've seen it attributed to PZ Myers and even to me.

For the record, it comes from The God Delusion and I'm going to quote from the Dawkins' book below. But before doing that I want to acknowledge that I don't like the term very much even though I used it several times last Fall. I think it does an injustice to Neville Chamberlain. Lately I've been referring to this group as just appeasers but now I prefer to use "accommodationist" to describe them.

If you recognize yourself in the description below and want to offer up a term that fits with your position then please make a comment and we'll see if we can reach an agreement about what to call you.

Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists is the philosopher Michael Ruse. Ruse has been an effective fighter against creationism, both on paper and in court. He claims to be an atheist, but his article in Playboy takes the view that
we who love science must realize that the enemy of our enemies is our friend. Too often evolutionists spend time insulting would-be allies. This is especially true of secular evolutionists. Atheists spend more time running down sympathetic Christians than they do countering creationists. When John Paul II wrote a letter endorsing Darwinism, Richard Dawkins's response was simply that the pope was a hypocrite, that he could not be genuine about science and that Dawkins himself simply preferred an honest fundamentalist.
From a purely tactical viewpoint, I can see the superficial appeal of Ruse's comparison with the fight against Hitler: "Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did not like Stalin and communism. But in fighting Hitler they realized that they had to work with the Soviet Union. Evolutionists of all kinds must likewise work together to fight creationism." But I finally come down on the side of my colleague the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne, who wrote that Ruse
fails to grasp the real nature of the conflict. It's not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson [E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist], the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greatest enemy:religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion.
Dawkins agrees with Coyne, and so do PZ Myers, me, and many others. The real battle is between rationalism and superstition and that's why we have to point out the superstitious beliefs of Theistic Evolutionists just like we point out the superstitious beliefs of Intelligent Design Creationists.

Some of you are only interested in the American struggle to keep Intelligent Design out of the schools—a serious tactical error, as far as I'm concerned. In that battle you may see the Pope as an ally. That's fine. You can be accommodationists if it suits you in order to win that fight. But don't assume that your fight is my fight. That's where you make a mistake in criticizing my position and that of Dawkins etc.

23 comments:

  1. Nope. That is not what it's about.

    I agree this is not only about education of evolution in school...that is obviously a side-effect of a more basic problem. A basic, fundamental epistemological matter, right at the beggining.

    To start out, it is wrong to think this is the problem of "rationalism" vs "superstition"

    "Rationalism" is superfluous.
    "Superstition" is an obvious strawman.


    This is what it's all about: Science will never prove that god exists or does not exist. There are consequences of not understanding this 1) "scientific arguments" that there is a god 2) "scientific arguments" there is no god.

    Notice both appeal to science, and both provide the reasons for conflict over evolution 1) with the scientific community 2) with the religious community

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  2. alipio:

    It seems that you're objecting to a particular way that many people lump together two questions about god.

    1. Whether or not god has any influence on the world.
    2. Whether or not god exists.

    There are scientific arguments for why no god has any influence on the world. Most people then jump from that conclusion to the statement that there are no gods, figuring that if they are impotent, why bother with gods at all?

    As I understand it, it seems you don't really like that jump. But that doesn't mean that the first statement is false, which is really the crux of the rationalism vs. superstition issue. It is superstitious to think that god has some influence on the world; it is merely bland to think that a powerless god exists.

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  3. "There are scientific arguments for why no god has any influence on the world"

    You notice that if you are going to be serious abut that satement you will have to be a bit more explicit about what do you mean by "influence"

    Anyway that argument looks like a mere roundabout.

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  4. It seems to me Dr. Moran that you and the "Neville Chamberlain Atheists" are fighting two different battles.

    The "Neville Chamberlain Atheists" are fighting to keep creationism and ID out of school (and I guess out of the public sphere) and dont seem to care much what other people believe in. While you and Dr. Myers and Richard Dawkins etc. are fighting against religion itself and creationism especially.

    Thus I think a misunderstandings result with (as you observed) the two sides thinking that the other is fighting their fight.

    As for the terminology, I do not know since I dont see myself a part of either group but more of in between. I'd say "accommodationist" sounds fine.

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  5. I think you have it backwards. It's not me that needs the label... it's you.

    The vast majority of advocates for good science – including those like me who are openly atheistic – are able to recognize that there are other advocates for good science who are theists. We disagree on God's existence; and we agree on the content of science education. The proper analogy with Chamberlain would be a treaty whereby we gave up some fragment of the curriculum to teach religion, or creationist pseudoscience, in the hopes that they'd be satisfied and leave science classes alone. That is certainly not what I am advocating.

    So let's put the boot on the other foot, where in my opinion in properly belongs. If anyone needs a label, it is the minority of atheists who can't seem to accept any theists as legitimate advocates for good science education.

    The demand to isolate and denigrate loyal scientists because we distrust their allegiance to science, on the basis of their theism, is analogous to the forced relocation of thousands of American citizens in World War 2, because they had Japanese ancestry. In 1988 at US government recognized that this had been "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". Quite so.

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  6. Duas,

    You started out well ("I think you have it backwards"), but then you say taking a consistent, logical stance against superstition of any stripe is analogous to relocation of the Japanese during WWII?? Hello?? That's quite a hyperbole.

    The fact is, to those of us not under the thrall of religion, it ALL should be seen as belief in a fairy-tale, whether it's the tooth-fairy, Santa Claus, scientology, or catholicism. Those who accept science yet insist on keeping their private corner of the universe to themselves, free from scientific inquiry, are hypocrites, plain and simple.

    And as to whether science can even address the question of whether god exists (assuming we are talking about the Judeo-Christian god), at what point can we finally agree that the question is totally irrelevant? Like it or not, that's what this question is, irrelevant, just like it's irrelevant to examine whether scientologist claims about Xenu and thetans can be approached by science. One is a cult and the other is an established religion going back two millenia, but the age of a mistaken belief makes no difference. It is wrong to fail to see the world as it is just to protect people's religious sensitivities.

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  7. "accommodationist"

    Appealing, since we already have the "apologist" group among theists.

    Duas:

    "If anyone needs a label, it is the minority of atheists who can't seem to accept any theists as legitimate advocates for good science education."

    I think you are making several mistakes here.

    First, the labeling is a description in the discussion of theism as superstition, not about theists secular activities.

    Second, you are discussing theism and science. Since you are elsewhere describes "theistic evolution" not by its common usage as theists interpreting or changing science in some manner based on their beliefs but by "theism and evolution", you are confusing criticism of TE with criticism of advocates for education. [As a side note of, I hope, friendly advice, IMHO it would do the debate good if you adopted established usage of terms. At least in this end it is less confusing if you express your thoughts on that basis.]

    Third, if you really mean atheists that criticizes advocates for education based on their beliefs, I agree that it is a minority. But if you by above confusion are referring to atheists voicing that theism is superstition I don't think that you can find them being in minority among atheists. You would have to support that claim.

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  8. As I have commented on this and other blogs, Prof. Morans' position, along with Myers and Dawkins is that philosophical naturalism is science and therefore science == atheism. Of course the good professors are certainly entitled to make such claims, there being freedom of speech, even in the US, Canada, and Great Britain. However, the problem with this claim is that it is the identical to claim made by the enemy. Thus, the good professors are choosing to fight on the enemys' chosen ground and on the latters' terms. Anyone who has ever studied military history, particularly military strategy, will recognize that this is a bad idea. The object of a good military campaign is to make the enemy fight on our chosen ground and on our terms. Calling those atheists who reject this claim Chamberlainists and rejecting the alliance of the methodological naturalists who are also philosophical theists (e.g. Ken Miller, Francis Collins)is not the way to victory.

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  9. Satoris: I agree that a comparison with the Japanese internment is hyperbole -- but so is the Chamberlain simile. I have never used the relocation simile before; it is intended here as a contrast to the Chamberlain label.

    I think that these kinds of linkages are self-serving rhetorical gambits. It was for me as well. It's not a term I have used before or which I will make a practice of using.

    Personally, I tend to use the term "hardline atheist". I choose this because I don't want to pick a term for the sake of offensive associations, but for the sake of accuracy. I suspect most of the hardline atheists would be happy with that term (let me know if you are not). The other term would be "fundamentalist atheist". I think it is accurate, but the unfortunate associations mean it hinders communication. So my usual choice is "hardline atheists".

    As a label for myself, I like "tolerant atheist".

    The problem with what you call "consistent logical stance" is that I don't think it is any such thing. It seems to me that the hardliners too often are quite illogical in their approach, in particular when it comes to the fight over science education.

    They are also often unable to handle fairly any viewpoint that they don't share. For example, your charge of hypocrisy is ridiculous. You malign people of real integrity, projecting your own metaphysics onto people who don't share it. Blech.

    Torbjörn, I cordially disagree with you about the normal meaning of "theistic evolution". I have always, for many years, use this term of the many many theists who accept conventional evolutionary biology without any distortions applied for the sake of their religion. That's what I think people usually mean by "theistic evolutionist". It's what I have consistently meant by the term. I think this IS well established usage. This is term that is used for and by Christians who DO NOT want to make any change to the science of evolutionary biology, but want to find a way to reconcile their faith with what we know by perfectly conventional science.

    I agree that belief in God is basically a form of superstition.

    The disputes that crop up in the blogsphere are, as far as I can tell, between the hardline "new atheists" who insist as a "fundamental" that any person afflicted with this superstition is untrustworthy on science and ultimately a liability in the fights for science education; and the "tolerant" atheists who recognize that there are people with this supertition about God who nevertheless are tireless and effective and valuable colleagues in the fight for good science untainted by superstition.

    Theism, and superstition more generally, is highly diverse. It's always unscientific; but it is not always opposed to science. For a theist who is also an evolutionist (that is, a theistic evolutionist) or an excellent scientist more generally; they have found a reconcilation of their beliefs with the findings of science which in some way puts their beliefs beyond the scope of science. They do this in various ways -- the point is that they DO do this.

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  10. Duas Quartunciae says,

    So let's put the boot on the other foot, where in my opinion in properly belongs. If anyone needs a label, it is the minority of atheists who can't seem to accept any theists as legitimate advocates for good science education.

    Good point. I don't have any idea how those people would like to identify themselves since I don't know anyone who holds that position. Perhaps you could identify some of them so we can ask them directly what kind of label they prefer?

    For my part, I have long been a defender of publicly funded Roman Catholic schools here in Ontario. As far as I can tell their role in science education is excellent—perhaps even better than the non-religious public schools.

    That does not mean I have to agree with everything my Roman Catholic friends say about science and religion and it does not mean I have to refrain from voicing my differences.

    When I look at American schools I don't see any obvious examples of good science education that has been promoted and sustained by theists. Perhaps that's just because I'm unfamiliar with the system. Do you have an example in mind?

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  11. The two most obvious examples are PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. There are other minor players in seen around the comments in the blogsphere.

    I tried to word myself carefully. I know that PZ and Dawkins are both able to recognize that there are theists who have done good science and who have contributed in the fight against creationist distortion of science.

    However, I think it is a fair comment that both PZ and Dawkins and actively arguing for their perception that any theist is deep down opposed to science and can't really be legitimate as advocates for science. PZ and Dawkins are both arguing that any theist is fundamentally in conflict with science, and is ultimately going to be a liability in the fight for science.

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  12. I missed a question from Larry... you asked for an example of good science education that has been promoted and sustained by theists.

    That would be Ken Miller, and his textbook with Joe Levine in biology, that is widely used in schools in the USA. Theodosius Dobzhansky also stands as a theist who has promoted good education, with his essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, that was written for The American Biology Teacher in March 1973 (35:125-129).

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  13. Duas Quartunciae says,

    As a label for myself, I like "tolerant atheist".

    That's how I would describe myself as well. Looks like we're on the same side.

    I tolerate Christians and Creationists in exactly the same way I tolerate Republicans and Conservatives. They have every right to their opinion but that doesn't mean I can't vocally disagree with them and challenge their ideas.

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  14. Duas Quartunciae says,

    I missed a question from Larry... you asked for an example of good science education that has been promoted and sustained by theists.

    That would be Ken Miller, and his textbook with Joe Levine in biology, that is widely used in schools in the USA.


    My fault for not being clear. I'm aware of many individuals who are both excellent science educators and very religious. What I was looking for is American examples of an entire education system that teaches good science and is supported by theists.

    I've been told that science education isn't in very good shape in the USA.

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  15. Right... I misunderstood. I have no good idea about the state of education in the USA. I see some indications that it is in serious trouble and that the influence of religion in particular is corrosive, sometimes actually making teachers reluctant to take up important and scientificially uncontrovertial matters. I hope this gets exaggerated by the effects of media giving special prominence to newsworthy cases; I fear it is not exaggerated.

    I am happy to be on the same side as you regarding tolerant atheism. I agree with your perspective that this is consistent with being vocal in criticism of superstition and religion in all its forms.

    A good indicator of what I mean by tolerance is whether someone is able to drop that particular topic from time to time where it becomes a red herring to other things we might be vocal about.

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  16. One issue that I think tend to get ignored is that many of the the "accommodationists" to which Larry refers (Ed Brayton springs to mind here) are also active in other liberal causes such as gay rights. What that seem to be unable to grasp is that the very religious groups they celebrate as being allies in keeping creationism out of US classrooms are some of the most vocal in promoting bigotry against homosexuals.

    Another issue I see as dividing Larry, Richard, PZ and others from the likes of Brayton is that Larry et al seem to want to change minds. In a recent discussion it became very clear that Brayton et al have no such desire. I cannot help but think to them this is all a game, which may explain why court cases are so important to them. It provides a measure that they are "winning". The point I made to Brayton, and he was unable to grasp, is that winning court cases is NOT going to win the war. Court cases may need to be fought but they are simply a defensive measure, the stop the creationists making progress but does nothing to change minds. They also tend to concentrate exclusivly on the threats in the US to the teaching of biology. In that fight they well find allies in amongst the relgious but what about in other areas of science ? Is the Catholic church for example as supportive of some theories in cosmology. I seriously doubt it.

    A third issue is one of what difference does having relgious support make ? If the debate is a scientific one then a person's relgious views are simply not relavent. If it is a theological one then the creationists will, and do, claim that those christians who support evolution are not really christians.

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  17. Ah snip - Dawkins agrees with Coyne, and so do PZ Myers, me, and many others. The real battle is between rationalism and superstition and that's why we have to point out the superstitious beliefs of Theistic Evolutionists just like we point out the superstitious beliefs of Intelligent Design Creationists.

    Thank You! The problem is how to talk to them. The point I keep trying to make is you have to speak in their language in their forums. When you debunk them on your blog all you do is reach your audience. We all have to study their writing and reach them through similar patterns. I am trying but it's verrry hard. I love your blog by the way lots of interesting and challenging stuff.

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  18. You've got it exactly right, Matt. The court cases are essential, but they're only stop-gaps that allow us to cling to what we've got, they do nothing to advance the public understanding of science. It's like we're in trench warfare here -- somebody needs to invent the tank so we can break the stalemate.

    Now my position is fairly clear: the answer lies in breaking the grip of religion on the public mind. I could understand people who might say that's too much to hope for and offer some alternative tactics, but so far mostly what I get is insistence that we must continue exactly as we have been -- take them to trial for violating the first amendment! Win the trial! Wait for the next opportunity to take them to trial, and repeat forever!

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  19. Duas,

    I don't see anyone advocating that theists should not be trusted to support science or science education. You watered down your remarks a little but I suspect that neither PZ nor Dawkins would agree with your characterisation of themselves.

    What I see is 'tolerant' atheists complaining that criticism of theistic evolutionists will dissuade the theists from advocating for good science education. They have never presented evidence for this hypothesis, not even anecdotal.

    The other complaint is that old evolution = atheism. Sure, the creationists make use of this. Yes, they try to silence atheists with the 'making the case for us' comments.

    The fact is that everyone, creationist, theist or TE supporter alike, already knows that a scientific explanation for life removes one of the major reasons for belief in a creator god. So who then, would we be trying to fool?

    It all seems to end with reasons why other people's faith must never be questioned. It's simply not done. Rude. Breach of etiquette. Don't know their place. Uppity.

    On the contrary, I see some hope that the new visible and vocal atheists may be the beginning of a dramatic and useful change, for everyone in society.

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  20. I agree with Matt's comment on much and especially on the striking flexibility of many non-accomodationists. These people can often see the difference in questions and groups, and seldom get so infuriated as some of the more rigid accomodationists such as Brayton or Chatham. Maybe it is a question about maturity.


    Duas:
    "I suspect most of the hardline atheists would be happy with that term (let me know if you are not)."

    I think "hardline" should be reserved for groups that are promoting aggressive agendas. What you are describing also covers atheists that either discuss religious claims such as TE's, or are refusing religious special claims. There is nothing hardline about these groups.

    "The other term would be "fundamentalist atheist". I think it is accurate"

    A "fundamentalist" would be a person who believes he is absolutely correct and refuses any reasons to change. For example Dawkins seems to do neither, he claims improbability of gods, not impossibility, and AFAIK he specifies what would change his mind. I think you will find very few fundamentalist atheists if you are using the term properly.

    So, the groups defined by your terms differ in scope. I must say that for someone who likes labeling you suck at it. :-)

    Descriptive terms for the larger group you discuss would be "vocal atheists" or, if you like alliteration, "ardent atheists".

    "That's what I think people usually mean by "theistic evolutionist"."

    With respect, I think you may have a blind spot here.

    We have elsewhere discussed why some of those, who believes they don't distort science in fact does so; Miller, Collins, et cetera. In effect, it isn't enough that people claim on theological philosophical grounds that they are not distorting science.

    It is what they claim on behalf of science that makes them distorting it (or not, as the case may be). The distinction is easy to see.

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  21. A "fundamentalist" would be a person who believes he is absolutely correct and refuses any reasons to change. For example Dawkins seems to do neither, he claims improbability of gods, not impossibility, and AFAIK he specifies what would change his mind. I think you will find very few fundamentalist atheists if you are using the term properly.

    Not sure I agree with that definition. Fundamentalism "goes back to the fundamentals". I think most fundamentalist christians would change their minds if Zeus suddenly appeared and demanded a sacrifice.

    I would define a fundamentalist atheist as someone who is a strict rationalist and philosophical naturalist, and who does not entertain any metaphysical ideas at all, even if they are non-theistic. Maybe I'm wrong, but I would put Dawkins, Larry, and PZ in that category, as well as many other atheists.

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  22. "Not sure I agree with that definition. Fundamentalism "goes back to the fundamentals"."

    I agree that this is the original definition of fundamentalism. It is also the name for a specific american religious movemnet ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalism ). So there is some leeway here.

    But I don't think using the narrow definitions are viable one anymore.

    "The term is now used much more widely, both to refer to fundamentalists of other faiths, particularly Islam, and to refer to anyone who believes that unvarying principles must apply to all people or every situation. In addition, it is often used as an emotive, pejorative term." (ibid).

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  23. "the more rigid accomodationists such as Brayton or Chatham"

    Frak! I just realized I mixed up Chris from Mixing Memory and Chris Chatham from Developing Intelligence here. The later is a sharp mind with a kick ass blog, the former is, well...

    Sorry about that!

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