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Atheists at Ten Paces

There’s been some interesting developments going on in the atheist/skeptic/rationalist community over the past year, with it all coming to a bit of a head last week. Science blogger Matt Nisbet posted a controversial story noting his concern over the high-profile involvement of mega-popular science blogger (Pharyngula) P.Z. Myers, and the iconic Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), in the debate over the upcoming Intelligent-Design/Creationist movie Expelled:

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

…As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education.

Nisbet’s article sent the Scienceblogs community into overdrive, and provoked this response from Myers:

I’m not exactly feeling pleasantly conducive to continuing the latest sanctimonious whine-fests from some of the people who share a server with me. I have been avoiding the various framing flare-ups around here, despite the fact that everyone of them seems to drag my name into the mix.

We appreciate your concern, it is noted and stupid.

Reading the comments beneath Myers entry, from his fan base, things get even more prickly. I do find it odd though, that we have this reaction now, when other more high-profile atheist/skeptics have been saying similar things over the past year. Most notably, Michael Shermer, who wrote a Scientific American column late last year titled “Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens“.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I do have to say that I think Shermer is right on this one. I can’t see Myers approach having any effect except to alienate people outside his fan base, and Dawkins – though he has some great ideas, and can explain them in great prose – similarly polarises the audience when he descends into intellectual snobbery and scientific bigotry.

Editor
  1. Dawkins
    I think most of the God Delusion is sound. However, it largely avoids mysticism and altered states of consciousness. My belief is that these phenomena are the basis for all religious beliefs (pre-scientific theories).

    Dawkins says he would like to have a mystical experience and he tried the so-called God-helmet, but to no avail.

    I’ll stick to being an agnostic gnostic.

  2. Dawkings The Dancing Bear
    I agree with Nisbet. Dawkins, et al, are basically out of their depth. They appear to lack the social, political and philosophical skills to actually be adequate spokepersons for their chosen area of advocacy. In particular, they do not seem to understand the difference between a epistemological and ontological claim. Becoming an expert in one area of knowledge, in this case biological science, does not make one infallible, or, for that matter, an expert in all areas of knowledge. This should be obvious to any person who gives it any thought, and, yet, Dawkins appears to believe that his knowledge of science also gives him a license to make claims about ultimate reality, in this case, the existence or non-existence of “God”. In the end, Dawkins also believes in invisible, unprovable entities, in particular, the notion of “cause and effect” which, since Berkeley and Hume has been shown to be a belief which cannot be proven on rational grounds. It’s a handy belief, but not a rational one. For some reason though, the Dawkins’ of the world are blind to their own irrationalities and very keen on others. In the end, the desire to have your adversaries admit that you’re right (rather than merely powerful) is a kind of psychological sickness, well diagnosed by Wilhelm Reich and Eric Fromm. Dawkins gets airtime not because he’s right, but because artificial and irrelevant disputes are the life-blood of the vacuous media/propaganda system that sells access to nervous systems to corporations. He’s become a dancing bear, trotted out for the outrage (and entertainment) of the masses. He’s scientific fundamentalism’s answer to Paris Hilton.

  3. Atheism?
    I have a hard time seeing Dawkins, Myers, and the rest of their ilk as atheists. This could be a misconception of mine, but I don’t see them expressing a belief in atheism so much as a disbelief in religion.

    I’m an atheist, yet I don’t dismiss religious beliefs. As creatures living in a subjective reality, unable to experience the world directly, we should treat objective measures as nothing more than tools.

    In Dawkins’ world, reality is limited to what can be measured by those tools, it is not the whole of what is experienced. I’m not sure what to call that, but it is a belief system, and it is more than atheism.

    1. Excellent point
      Hi Haufoldos,
      You make a valid point there. Are we talking about atheism v religion, or reductionism v holism? Can either be anything but belief?

      Reality, like time, is relative to the observer

      Anthony North

      1. Reductionism v Holism
        Anthony, you make a good point. Both “holism” and “reductionism” are particular philosophical positions with regard to the scientific enterprise. And yes, both indicate a disposition to interpret evidence in a particular way as well as modes of argumentation and investigation. They are both dependent upon a whole network of beliefs that cannot be questioned from inside that particular network of beliefs. I would argue that no one is really an atheist. My basis for saying this is that “atheism” is a subspecies of beliefs that depend upon the notion that one should not believe what one cannot *prove* using some universally acceptable standard of proof (and good luck getting *that*). Dawkins et al seem to operate on the unspoken assumption that “science” (as they understand it) is the only universally acceptable method for determining what is proven. Like many “true believers” they appear to be shocked and outraged to find that there are those that do not share their assumption. Rather than attempt to initiate a conversation beginning with the recognition of this difference of perspective, Dawkins et al ignore it and proceed to browbeat anyone who does not share their enthusiasm for their particular beliefs. In this way, they participate in precisely the kind of activities which, when the same emerges from religious believers, they decry as exhibiting bad faith or “fundamentalist”.

    2. Dawkins & Atheism
      I also think you make a good point. What calls itself “atheism” now is largely a belief that emerged along with the development of scientific theories of the nature of events in the world and is, so far as I can tell, dependent upon the reputation that the enterprise of materialistic scientific explanations has built for itself to gain any traction or credibility. This is a convenient argumentative technique, however it is intellectually fraudulent. In the end, the claim that (1) materialist science *works* is not a defense of the belief that (2) there are no important causal entities outside of those determined to exist by science (as it exists at a particular time). For Dawkins, et al to argue the way they do appears to depend upon a tacit linkage between (1) and (2), but there’s no particular set of arguments that I’ve seen presented that allows you to deduce (2) from (1) and I seriously doubt you’ll ever see any that hold up to philosophical scrutiny. So, in my book, Dawkins et al are either philosophically naive about their arguments or are attempting to sell snake oil to the unsuspecting. I think it’s the former as I see no need to ascribe to malice what can just as easily be explained by stupidity or ignorance.

      1. Atheists/Sceptics
        This has all got me thinking, and I’ll no doubt write an essay on it. In all areas, I see two fundamental stances. Indeed, I think this may – I repeat, may – explain my exchanges with Earthling. It is about polarities:

        Reductionism v Holism

        Individuality v Community

        Materialism v Spirituality

        These all equal:

        Specific v Generalisation

        Yes, there are variations on the polarities, but do we still have two different forms of knowledge?

        Reality, like time, is relative to the observer

        Anthony North

        1. two
          There is something to these obsevations, I am sure.

          But as you mention these various polar opposites, your generalization of “Specific v Generalization” notwithstanding:

          Probably there is more than one dimension.

          Perhaps we small humans cannot understand things in more than one dimension at a time. But that does not mean that the world can be explained as plus-minus, left-right, up-down, all unrelated.

          —-
          if everything is under control, you are not going fast enough (Mario Andretti)

          1. What???
            Could this be true? Is a computer scientists ADMITTING that the world cannot be reduced to a binary function??

            I think I’m fainting here 😉

            —–
            It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
            It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

            Red Pill Junkie

          2. for crying out loud
            Look man, we computer scientists know the difference between what we understand, and we do not understand.

            The economists, the political people, the religious people all say that they have found the TRUTH.

            The computer scientists admit that we cannot find it.

            —-
            if everything is under control, you are not going fast enough (Mario Andretti)

          3. Very well
            That’s why I would rather invite a computer scientist to my house any day of the week, instead of a stock broker, a bishop or a congressman 🙂

            He! That’s sound like the beginning of a joke: “A bishop, a Wall Street stock broker, a Congressman and an MIT engineer walk into a bar…”

            —–
            It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
            It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

            Red Pill Junkie

          4. Worrying
            This is worrying. The whole idea of my patternology is to offer generalisations to guide those who do ‘specific’. But at the base of the idea is that patternology cannot offer truth, simply possibilities.
            Now you’re saying this is like a computer scientist!

            I’m fanatical about moderation

            Anthony North

          5. Then I guess it’s not too late, Anthony…
            to change sides and become a man of the clergy? 😉

            —–
            It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
            It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

            Red Pill Junkie

          6. cycles?
            Cycles again, perhaps?

            —-
            if everything is under control, you are not going fast enough (Mario Andretti)

          7. Then again …
            Then again, think Matrix 🙂

            Hail! the new techno-religion!!!

            How’s that for cycles? And clergy?

            I’m fanatical about moderation

            Anthony North

          8. Earthling, With Respect!
            All economists, my self included, do not think that they have found the TRUTH! Furthermore, we know that we can’t find the TRUTH; because, the TRUTH is relative to the situation! So, there are not eternal TRUTHS in economics!

            But, if you pay one of us enough, we’ll say that we have found the TRUTH!:) Money, Benefits, and Things are, after all, the Gods of Economics, and Economists love their Gods!

            What do you think?

            cnnek

            {You Can Teach People How To Think Or What To Think; But, You Can’t Do Both! It Is Better To Teach People How To Think!!!}

          9. I agree with Earthling
            I, for one, don’t see spirituality as being the polarity of materialism.

            I rather see it as being the same mechanism using a different subset of ideas that oppose, not in a polarity, but that oppose in a contest of supremacy.

            But I do see both as being a polarized view in itself of right and wrong, of black and white, of true or false, and I see both as being in opposition, but this time as a polarity, with reality.

            Psychology is polarized, regardless of what flag it likes to wave. Reality is not. And this polarization creates a forcefield in consciousness that isolates it from reality. And the tool to maintain this polarity is truth, regardless of the thought system that is being championed.

            Polarity creates a forcefield that isolates the individual and that makes him part of the system bubble.

            That is why we cannot understand beyond this polarity, so long as we give value to what it supports.

            Why in hell are some people so adamant in their crusade to change how others think? How seriously do they take themselves? They are caught in their concept and they fight for their concept. But they are ignorant of the origin of the concept, even if they were totally cognitive of the historical facts that followed its implementation.

          10. Why?
            Hi Richard,
            Why do some people want to change how people think? Because that’s how the history of the world works. The people who have a monopoly on the knowledge consensus rule the world.
            When a new paradigm – a new society, even – is in the offing, it is those with the ‘knowledge’ of the new paradigm who are in the ascendant.

            I’m fanatical about moderation

            Anthony North

          11. Of course Anthony
            Would you not agree though that without people, there would be no history? Is not history simply the recording of people’s actions?

            I find it dangerous to put the problem outside of people. History itself cannot be changed. Can man change himself?

      2. Cheers
        [quote=H Annen]I also think you make a good point. What calls itself “atheism” now is largely a belief that emerged along with the development of scientific theories of the nature of events in the world and is, so far as I can tell, dependent upon the reputation that the enterprise of materialistic scientific explanations has built for itself to gain any traction or credibility. [/quote]

        Thanks for your posts in this thread, I’m sure many here welcome your input – which has been insightful and thought-provoking.

        Kind regards,
        Greg
        ——————————————-
        You monkeys only think you’re running things

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