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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Here I am feeling like I'm bashing my head against a brick wall...

...because of this thread on the BCSE's page.

I can't believe the total lack of logic here. The kerfuffle arose when a former NCSE employee, Nick Matzke, decided to have a gratuitous shot at Richard Dawkins for "playing the Nazi card", whatever that means. Read all about it here. BCSE official Roger Stanyard decided to defend Matzke over on Dawkins' site, where it inevitably found its way, as well as at Why Evolution is True. Much of the defence was about the alleged need for such bodies as the NCSE and BCSE to take an accommodationist stance towards religion.

But that is not true. Such bodies exist to defend the teaching of well-established science. They do not need to argue for a philosophical position that science and religion are "compatible" (whatever exactly that means - it it simplistic and misleading to say such a thing without a helluva lot of qualifications, reservations, and explanations) or a theological position that some kind of non-literalist view of the Bible is theologically correct. The NCSE and BCSE needn't get into any of this. They should be defending secularism, the evidential basis of the science itself, and (where relevant) constitutional standards relating to freedom of religion.

They definitely should not be defending atheism, or New Atheism (whatever that is understood to mean), or anything of the kind. Nor have they been asked to do so by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or anyone else involved in the debate, despite numerous allegations to the contrary (see the threads I've linked to). Asking for neutrality on the theism/atheism issue and the accommodationism/anti-accommodationism issue is not the same as asking for support of atheism or anti-accommodationism.

On this, I know that Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and any other usual suspects, all agree with me. We are NOT asking for the BCSE or any other such body to support atheism or anything similar. This has been said many, many times.

PZ Myers puts it well and concisely. Secularism and atheism are not the same thing.

Honestly, I just don't understand what's so hard about this. What's so hard about asking for an organisation to be neutral about whether there is a God, what theological views may or may not be correct, and whether religion is or is not compatible with science? That's what's been asked for - and all that's been asked for - again and again, spelled out clearly on each occasion. Contrary to the pronouncements of Roger Stanyard on the first thread I linked to above, we are simply not asking the BCSE (or the NCSE or any other science organisation) to support the New Atheism.

Stanyard says: "Basically they want the NCSE and the BCSE to back 'New Atheism' ..."

No we don't. That's why I feel like I'm bashing my head against a brick wall. We have repeatedly said something totally different. We do not want those any organisations to do any such thing. We want them, rather, to adopt a stance of neutrality towards us. Specifically, we want them to stop attacking us and stop taking sides. When that reasonable request is met with a blatant misrepresentation of our position, I really have to wonder...

14 comments:

The Lorax said...

Sure, we've been saying different things than the NCSE (and BCSE) keep saying we're saying. However, it is clear that what they say we are saying is simple to rebut and ignore because it is so stupid. It also allows them to tell us to shut up. It's a juvenile debating strategy, but I don't see them changing it after all the emotional energy that has been spent.

I'm just glad the Matzke and Stanyard stopped sending money and other support to the Taliban. (See I can make shit up too to discount an opponent's positions.)

James Sweet said...

For a Darwin Day pamphlet the NCSE put out a couple years ago, they had a very short blurb that said, "People of all faiths and none have come to accept evolution." I think that's the perfect tone for them to strike -- it is not endorsing that position, it is merely stating the fact that many people feel there is no conflict. If only they could restrict it to that, I think that would be awesome!

In any case, though, yeah, this distortion of the criticisms is so frustrating. I think it's undesirable, but not completely terrible, for the N/BCSE to be taking an explicitly accomodationist position and promoting the theological correctness of non-literalism. It would probably be better if they didn't, but that strategy probably works fairly well too, so whatever... but distorting their critics? That's messed up.

If the response from folks like Stanyard was, "Our religious allies want us to take an explicit stand against literalism, and we think there is value in doing so," well, okay. We can agree to disagree. But when the response is "Stop telling us to do that thing you never told us to do!", well, that's infuriating.

Anonymous said...

It is possible that, like Jeffrey Bernard, Roger Stanyard is unwell.

I sincerely hope this is not the case.

Mark Jones said...

I've been following the thread and trying to be charitable toward the thought processes of the BCSE commentators.

It looks like they are simply confusing the phrase 'don't attack New Atheists' for 'please support New Atheists'. For some reason they don't acknowledge a middle ground, which is 'neither attack nor support New Atheists'. As usual there are two strands to this: the compatibility of science and religion, and the tone of any discussions.

Maybe they think that publicising the philosophical accommodation of science and religion, which they see as beneficial (in fact necessary) to their mission, is being neutral. They certainly give that impression, but they need to understand that that is one of the major beefs of gnus, and gnus are not obviously wrong that this isn't the correct approach. I think the BCSE members don't entertain this possibility.

On the tone, Roger's always been a little strange, like many accommodationists. He's keen to concentrate on the loony brigade (fair enough) but actually thinks (I think!) that attacking religious moderates, as the gnus do, is counter-productive.

Despite this he still sees fit to post this about uber-moderate Alister McGrath's recent article attacking New Atheists:

"Good grief, no wonder newspaper readership is plummeting. I can read drivel like this all over the Internet, free of charge, ad rectum, ad nauseum, ad infinitum."

'Ad rectum'? Nice and strident, so it's difficult to see how he's appealing to religious moderates there. But, perhaps there's no connection with the BCSE when he's writing that comment, and he's just being strident in his spare time.

Rieux said...

And on a forum thread on the BCSE's own site, a person calling him/herself "dannyno" attempts to suss out exactly what that organization (and the two officials of same posting there) understand neutrality to mean, in the context of Coyne et al.'s criticism.

"Dannyno" demonstrates superhuman patience and a continuing refusal to rise to argumentative bait, and the result is that Stanyard et al. tie themselves in unbelievable knots over and over again. The thread is quite a spectacle.

I salute you, "dannyno."

Jeremiah said...

I was reading about his whole affair and one statement by PZ Meyers got me thinking. The statement was:

There is no goal of turning the NCSE or the BCSE into an atheist organization; we think having an organization that is honestly neutral on the religious issue is extremely useful in advancing the cause of good science education for all.

Going to put on my militant atheist hat now. I understand where he (and others are coming from) and I agree, sort of. However, I tend to think that on a practical day-to-day level secularism and atheism do amount to the same thing. I mean if you are an atheist (as I am) and you are making decisions on ideologies or conducting experiments you are doing so without religious considerations and what secularism essentially asks people to do is exactly the same thing. To check their religion at the door, so in a very real sense I think "neutral to religion" amounts to the same thing as atheism. Calling for neutrality requires a continuum, a middle ground, but this isn't a continuum it is a binary choice. Maybe there is a nuance to the situation that I am missing though.

Now obviously nobody thinks that science organizations should get involved in stuff like say trying to get "In god we trust" removed from money or other activist type things like that. They should stick to science. On the other hand if someone comes out and says "This homeopathic herb will cure cancer!" we expect our science organizations to say "No, it's won't and here's why" and shouldn't we expect them to respond similarly to just as unfounded religious claims? I know it is kind of a pipe dream right now but I do hope for a world where science can speak out against crazy religious claims without feeling the need to beg off the question out of deference to religion.

And I guess what PZ's statement got me thinking about is when do we start presenting atheism, not as one opinion among many religious opinions, but as the actual fact of the matter in the same way that we support the laws of gravity or electricity? So I guess that is what triggered the thought, instead of saying "Stop accommodationism because we want you to be neutral" saying "Stop accommodating religion because religion is simply unfounded". Why argue for neutrality on religion if we wouldn't argue for 'neutrality' on something like germ theory.

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

So why do you keep bashing?

clodhopper said...

The brick wall is, alas, extremely thick.

David M said...

I just read all of that thread. (Well, I started skipping Cathy.)
It's the freakin twilight zone. Dan is right on the money, civil, and clear about points that require subtlety. psi and peter henderson in particular are unbelievably bad communicators, at least in forum terms. They are rude and even getting past that, completely miss substance. PH seems to think that any answer is a good answer, and so Dan's repetition is "trolling." This is quite simply staggering.

It's understandable, for various reasons, for some at the BCSE to be on the defensive, but that they don't seem to be able to get past that defensivness and comprehend some of the finer points makes it look like a real backyard job of an organisation.

Rieux said...

Now that I read Russell's post again, it's fairly clear that he knew all about "dannyno" already, rendering my earlier comment pretty much superfluous.

Sorry about that.

Russell Blackford said...

Not really - I hadn't penetrated all that deeply into the thread and besides it's probably grown since I wrote the post.

I'll say this, though: Stanyard seems to have lost the plot. He is being totally irrational on that thread. He refuses to understand what is being said by the people he is engaging, even though it's fairly simple. Really, he bought into this in a way he didn't have to, and brought the criticism on himself.

The criticism still seems fair to me, though I don't like the word "liar" - I think it's becoming more and more apparent that he isn't thinking straight and probably hasn't deliberately lied at any point. I always prefer the hypothesis of confabulation and confusion to that of deliberate lying wherever they are rival hypotheses.

In any event, he could at least attempt to calm down and get his head clear about what the criticism actually is, rather than asserting over and over that he's being asked to give the BCSE's support to the New Atheist cause. No one has asked him to do that - certainly not Richard or Jerry.

RoBe said...

Russell: "PZ Myers puts it well and concisely. Secularism and atheism are not the same thing.

Honestly, I just don't understand what's so hard about this. What's so hard about asking for an organisation to be neutral about whether there is a God, what theological views may or may not be correct, and whether religion is or is not compatible with science?"

Reply: Two reasons I'd say, (1) because it's easier to erect a strawman than engage your opponents position and (2) because this is what they actually believe secualrism is. Anything that isn't either their brand of theism or is not theistic, is out get them, to eradicate them.

That's why it's so important prominent thinkers like yourself, Coyne, Myers etc, get out there and shut this mentality down.

Ophelia Benson said...

The criticism still seems fair to me, though I don't like the word "liar" - I think it's becoming more and more apparent that he isn't thinking straight and probably hasn't deliberately lied at any point. I always prefer the hypothesis of confabulation and confusion to that of deliberate lying wherever they are rival hypotheses.

Ditto, but when (as in this case) one has said very clearly "I did not say that, I said the opposite," and says the opposite again for good measure, and knows he has seen the comment because he has replied to it...then "lie" begins to look like the only word that fits.

Mandrellian said...

The blindness of these hand-wringing atheists, not just to the meanings of simple words like "neutral" and "secular", but also to the actual words, spoken clearly & repeatedly, by the people they're attacking, in no small way resembles that of the creationist dogmatists that the NCSE and BCSE claim to be combatting.

I must echo Russell here: what exactly is so freaking hard to understand about this issue? These people are supposed to be educated & intelligent, yet they appear to lack basic reading comprehension skills and the minimal level of self-awareness required to realise that they're reacting to sentiments that have not been expressed.

Again, their willingness to repeatedly ignore simple explanations, their insistence on ascribing to their opponents points of view & attitudes they demonstrably do not hold and, dare I say it, their hysterical 'tone', bear stronger resemblance to the work of dime-a-dozen creationist stooges than to proponents of sound science education.