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Uncommon Descent Contest Question 8: Do the “new atheists” help or hurt the cause of Darwinism? Winner announcement

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Recently, we asked Uncommon Descent Contest Question 8: Do the “new atheists” help or hurt the cause of Darwinism?

The new atheists’ impact in general is often debated. What exactly have they contributed to atheism? Many traditional atheists or their sympathizers think not much.

Bryon R. McCane, Professor of Religion at Wofford College, asks,

Has something gone wrong with the new atheism? For awhile, it was really on a roll. Several best-selling books aggressively attacked religion, calling it a “delusion” (Richard Dawkins), and a “spell” (Daniel Dennett) that “poisons everything” (Christopher Hitchens). Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” warned that humankind must get rid of religion or die. New atheism looked like the wave of the future. But not anymore. “Religulous” got mixed reviews and disappeared quickly. Rebuttals to Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens have appeared, culminating with Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God. Sales of atheist books have fallen off the charts, literally. Months have gone by since one appeared on the best-seller list.

To me, the key problem was that they had a new level of hate, not a new idea. I wrote about that here.

Winner announcement: Jerry at 91. I especially enjoyed this observation:

There is an old maxim in marketing. Nothing kills a bad product faster than extensive advertising and good distribution. The faster people realize how bad a product is, the quicker it is rejected. The new atheist movement has accelerated the communication and distribution of their product but in the process open themselves up for intense scrutiny.

I must arrange for more prizes, as I would have liked to offer StephenB and Adel DiBagno a prize for their entertaining and useful discussion; however, I have only five copies of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009), hardcover, and if I burn through 60% of them in one contest, the publisher might not be very anxious to help me restock.

Jerry, I need a snail address for you, at oleary@sympatico.ca.

I am a bit behind, judging contests, due to unrelated uproars. But here are the entries that seemed, to me at least, to shed light:

From Rude:

Though Michael Ruse’s desire to get along is commendable, Ruse nevertheless brands ID as nonscience, i.e., he would exclude ID from any serious public consideration—which is no different than Dawkins.

Both are satisfied to let us all get along just as long as we accept the status quo.

Science proclaims our public knowledge whereas Religion is a private matter. Darwin is the foundation of public knowledge and ID is harmless as long as it remains a private superstition. Thus Ruse is right to worry inasmuch as the New Atheists are loud and raucous and not afraid to rile religious from their complacency and naïvete.

I see Michael Ruse and Francis Collins in the same light as my colleague George Lakoff, thus I think we should welcome the clarity that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne bring to the debate.

Which do we prefer? Those who would marginalize us and make us feel good about it or those who would marginalize us with no concern for our feelings? Maybe how you answer that depends on whether or not you accept the marginalization.

Now, maybe I liked this comment just because I am a Canadian. I dread fashionable Toronto moms parading their toddlers in adorable little tees proclaiming “I [heart] my human rights” to support the work of our utterly despicable Canadian “human rights” Commissions. Women who will never in their lives have an original idea yap happily in favour of suppression of ideas. A sure fire recipe for long term cultural failure.

At 10, Larry Tanner kindly writes to say,

I feel like I can speak to this one because I once had much more sympathy for the “new” atheist position.

In any case, the “new” atheists hurt the cause of Darwinism by reducing an important and very interesting set of issues into a matter of allegiance. They do not talk about science so mach as use their books and blogs to point a bullying finger at regular people like me and say: “What do you choose, your religion or our freedom?”

From what I can tell, their position doesn’t bring them much freedom. I remember Scott Atran trashing neuroscientist Sam Harris because – for perfectly good evidence-based reasons – Harris doubts the new atheist position that telepathy cannot exist. Once you are sunk deep in that cult, you must believe pretty much whatever it dictates, and evidence no longer matters. (Telepathy only suggests that quantum entanglement is a correct description of nature; it needn’t mean anything else.)

At 13, StephenB notes

In effect, modern Theistic Evolutionists want their God and their Darwin too; but they want a quiet God and a loud Darwin. To believers they say, “Hey, I am a Christian.” leaving the convenient impression they believe in a purposeful, mindful creator. To the academy they say, “Don’t worry, I am first and foremost a Darwinist, so I really believe in a purposeless, mindless process that has no need of a creator. I you don’t believe me, just watch how I slander and smear the ID people.”

Alas, yes.

At 26, Oramus comments,

Plenty of Christians understand that scientific explanations, as a practical matter, cannot include “and then a miracle happens,” even though they believe in miracles. Personally, I see arrogance and pride in the conviction of some Christians that they will “prove scientifically” that living things are intelligently designed — i.e., that they evidence the creation of information.

If living things are intelligently designed, then they are. That does not require a miracle, only intelligence. It removes one view – atheist materialism – from consideration, but that would be no more than a byproduct on the road to an accurate description.

It would, in my view, be an immense help if people in general could get clear that there is a difference between claiming that miracles are necessary to operate life on the planet in the usual way and saying that certain events in the relationship between God and humanity required a divine intervention, one that we humans would see as a miracle. It suits the new atheists to fudge the distinction, of course, but some traditional theists (not Oramus) make the problem worse by twisting themselves into intellectual pretzels to try to explain these events in a “natural” way.

Oramus also noted at 30,

The New Atheists will inevitable hurt the Darwinian evolutionary hypothesis. Their incessant vitriole will galvanize fence sitting scientists to make the move to ID research as well as encourage religious college students to take us science careers

I wish I could see what he is seeing. Unfortunately, what I see so often is Christians yay-hooing for Jesus, far from any critical engagement with these issues.

Somehow or other, the theme of a “talking donkey” entered the thread. On a moment’s reflection, I realized that the commenter was referring to an interesting passage in the Book of Numbers (21-34, NIV) in the Bible, as follows:

Balaam’s Donkey

21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again.

26 Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No,” he said.

31 Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

32 The angel of the LORD asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. [c] 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”

34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”

It seems clear that the donkey isn’t really talking, in the sense of telling Balaam anything he shouldn’t already know = she is obviously frightened of something in the path ahead, so he should be cautious. The angel is using the donkey to get a message across to Balaam, humiliating him because he is certainly more of an ass than she ever was.

Lpadron notes at 36,

Ruse’s view of them may have a personal slant to it as well. The NA’s get a lot of camera/newsprint time which may irk someone like Ruse who seems to be both a decent enough guy and somewhat better versed on the issues the NA’s harp about.

Yes, I think there is something in that. The new atheists got a great deal of public attention, vastly disproportionate to the strength of their numbers or the originality of their ideas. They were an event that the legacy mainstream media desperately needed. But one can’t make an event significant just because one needs it.

At 41, fbeckwith notes

The new atheists apparently believe that their view is true. But “true” is not a material property. It is a property of an idea. But an idea in relation to what? The universe? But ideas are not in the same relation to things as are things to each other. I can say that my pen is next to my computer. But I have no idea what a materialist means when he says that this idea (an immaterial entity) is a a true (an immaterial property) description of everything (the entire material universe). So, according to the materialist he has an idea (an immaterial entity) that claims that the only things that exist are material things. That means that the idea itself is false based on itself.

In fairness to the new atheists, many do not believe that their ideas are true. Steve Pinker proclaims, “Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth.” In other words, in a completely irrational world, he thinks that his irrationality is more powerful than Beckwith’s, in somewhat the same way as a big bear can shred a tree trunk higher than a small one. There you have it – Darwinism in all its glory.

At 44, StephenB notes,

No one can logically be certain of a scientific viewpoint, which is why Dembski himself has stated explicitly that “he could be wrong.” Do you know of any prominent Darwinst who has publically [or privately] acknowledged the possibility of error? ID science has never claimed absolute certitude; it is, by definition an “inference to the best explanation.” Darwinists, on the other hand, cling to certainly like a security blanket, persecuting dissenters, misrepresenting opponents’ viewpoints, and militating against reason itself.

Okay, StephenB, but remember, our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth, according to Darwinists like Steve Pinker. Once the Darwinist has wholeheartedly professed that faith, he need never be concerned again with error because the concept of intellectual error has ceased to exist. Persecuting dissenters is like the big bear killing the little one. (For context, go here and read my note on 41.)

Kairosfocus writes at 48

“The New Atheists, in the end, are thus a reactionary movement; one that angrily seeks to discredit challengers to an old, now slowly waning order, using ruthless, “take no prisoners,” agit-prop level rhetoric.”

That’s my sense too, based in part on the amount of obscenity that one encounters among Darwinists – not usual among adults.

At 55, Barb writes,

Fundamentalists should have learned by now that screaming “You’re going to burn in hell!” at other people does not draw them closer to God or Christ. Similarly, the new atheists should learn that screaming, “There is no God and you’re stupid if you believe in one!” does not draw anyone closer to their belief system, nor does it make anyone more strongly support Darwinism.

On both points, I quite agree. The new atheists greatly harmed their cause by allowing their audience to know that anyone who harbours doubts about their message is simply stupid. That’s actually worse, in some respects, than announcing that they will burn in hell. After all, none of us have literally been to hell or know who, if anyone, is actually burning there now. But a person who has a good education, a responsible job, and a fine reputation in the community is hardly going to be persuaded by the new atheists that he must be a fool if he doubts their doctrines. And those are precisely the people who tend to be our opinion leaders. No wonder the wheels fell off the new atheist cause.

At 62, Adel DiBagno says,

I say, any scientist who submits her work to peer review is painfully aware of the possibility of error. Having committed her manuscript to the mails, she can be confident of having her errors pointed out by her peers (and superiors).

If only that were true. Peer review, about which I have written, often enables mediocrities to undermine original thinkers. The mediocrity cannot initiate a new idea, but he usually knows what is “pukka sahib,” the “done thing,” or “what top people want to hear.” Indeed, when a discipline feels threatened, mediocrities can rise much higher than usual (cf Darwinism) because simple, unswerving loyalty is valued more than it otherwise would be. So people who have never done anything but front a party line and persecute dissenters can advance further than they would in a healthier system.

Here are all the comments again, below the post.

What exactly have they contributed to atheism?
Is there really such a thing as advances and contributions to, of all things, atheism? The atheist of 1904 sounds just like the atheist of today. For example, Robert Blatchford, circa 1904. Vladimir Krondan
Hey Jerry, congrats, and enjoy the book. It's a good one. BTW, Denyse, My sister and her husband really enjoyed the 'Expelled' video you sent. :) CannuckianYankee
"How did you get the right to send e-mail in the air? We aren’t allowed to here, so far as I know." Denyse, Several of the airlines are experimenting with wi fi on flights and some have it right now. For $10 my son got it the whole trip on a San Francisco to JFK flight a couple weeks ago. Since he works on the internet, he actually got paid for his flight time. My American Airlines flight today had a free coupon to all who wanted it. It was about as fast as a good dial up connection or a slow wi fi which it was. I did not try it on Youtube because I thought it would be too slow. Each page took about 30-45 seconds to load so I would load about 3-4 pages at a time from different web sites. I definitely want your signature as we are in this fight together and I might send the book to Steve Meyers to see if he will sign it. It will be prominently displayed in my living room on a book case I have there. Thank you for choosing me. jerry
Jerry, I'll sign it if you want, but I didn't have anything to do with it until five copies landed on my porch a while back. How did you get the right to send e-mail in the air? We aren't allowed to here, so far as I know. Though, I can't be sure, as I have practically given up air travel due to craziness at airports. (The worst episode was when my father, 85, concluded that some fellow who was searching me (55) was behaving inappropriately, and rushed forward to help me, creating an incident. You'll never be worse off if you have a father like that, but it markets bus travel better than plane travel.) O'Leary
Denyse, Will send you my address but only if you promise to sign if for me. Sending this from 35,000 feet as I return from Chicago. jerry

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