Sunday, 19 November 2006

atheism and assholes

A few weeks ago, my listlessness started to creep me out. I've been listless for a lot longer than a couple of weeks--more like a couple of years, actually. At the same time, I've only been listless about certain things--mostly the debate over evolution and intelligent design. It's not that I stopped having opinions or stopped caring, it's that I stopped doing anything about it. In my undergraduate days, I played Huxley to the Wilberforces I encountered. As time passed I recognized that my arguments proved little, were not new, and moreover convinced no one. Similarly for the rejoinders. Soundly beaten, this horse trudged on, and I became rather disgusted with the whole affair. Soon after, we all graduated, began new activities in new places with new people, and I found that the debate would have to proceed from the beginning--another endless rehearsal of unconvincing arguments. I put on a superior air and made myself aloof to the debate, deeming it unworthy of my attention. Atheism stank of dogmatism and evangelism, and anyone who participated in the debate was wasting time.

And so I have remained for a few years, only occasionally roused to comment usually to objectively clarify, in passing, some point made by someone else. I'm not sure I stated my own position once in those years, as I was at the time afflicted by the creeping relativism that comes from moving to Canada and wanting very much not to be the hated American. I was brutally critical of simplistic argumentation, but I was at the same time dismissive of the battle itself. This must have been especially frustrating to a close friend of mine who was working for the atheist group Center For Inquiry. He is now as disillusioned an atheist as I am, but earlier on my refusal to engage in the debate must have just seemed rude--and it was. Apologia finit.

About a month ago, I read Battle of the New Atheism, which has Sam Harris saying (page 4), "at some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God." I don't think Harris is right about that, but I began to wonder who had framed the debate I was ignoring. Perhaps I had become disillusioned with the debate because it had been framed by the architects of intelligent design.

This point was driven home by Natalie Angier (thanks Cosmic Variance!), who points out the hypocrisy of scientists who
want to augment... the number of people who believe in evolution without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America's religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned.
My initial reaction was that this is a false analogy--denying a law of nature (evolution) is a much more serious offense than making an exception to one (virgin birth). For a compatibilist, that's what makes a miracle. But Angier goes on,
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . ."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam."
The difference is not just the number of people involved in each activity (probably as many people read their horoscope each day as say Grace at supper), it's the number of people we offend by calling their practice a "ludicrous scam." Everyone knows horoscopes are a ludicrous scam--those who read them do so for a laugh, for inspiration, or as a kind of decision outsourcing, like the flip of a coin. On the other hand, everyone knows that religion is deadly serious, and being flip is not funny.

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