Another atheist, Keith Kloor, has noticed that Dawkins, along with Jerry Coyne, are fundamentalist atheists. Coyne, of course, does not like the label and tries to push back. Yet none of his arguments are convincing. Let’s have a look.
The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.
First of all, we’re not making an enemy of the whole world—only those religious people who cannot tolerate the merest criticism of their faith. I don’t think, for instance, that Karl Giberson, whom I go after repeatedly (and who goes after me in turn) is my “enemy.” We’re both civil enough to know that this is a debate about belief and reason, and we have respect for each other as people. Let us also remember that those who spearheaded the drives for civil rights and for women’s rights were once “making enemies of the whole world.” Presumably Kloor would have cautioned the early suffragettes to stifle themselves, as they were making enemies of almost everyone. Every moral advance in this world begins with a small minority of vocal people.
You’ll note that Coyne is trying to have it both ways here. With the first three sentences, he wants us to believe the Gnu atheists are not trying to make an enemy of religious people. But the second three sentences attempt to justify making enemies of the whole world. So which is it?
While Coyne may see himself and the New Atheists as engaging in a civil, respectful debate, that’s not how Higgs, Kloor, and the rest of the world see it. For example, when Dawkins speaks before a rally of atheists and encourages them to mock and ridicule religious people, when he himself mocks religious people as “faithheads,” and when he argues for years that it is better to sexually molest a child than to raise the child a Catholic, I think only a fundamentalist atheist could view this is civil and respectful.
Further, by saying that people like Dawkins and me are lumping together all religions as equally pernicious, Kloor reveals himself as abysmally ignorant. Neither of us, nor any of the New Atheists, have done that: we all recognize that there are degrees of perniciousness among the faiths. For example, I’ve often said that I have little beef with the Amish and Quakers compared with Muslims or conservative Catholics. I decry faith to the degree that its adherents try to impose their views on the rest of us. Now many of us do criticize the more “moderate” religions for enabling the extremist ones, or for trying to impose their own unsubstantiated views on the rest of us through the political process.
This is quite the distinction without a difference. A few paragraphs later, Coyne will insist, “Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion” and “What, exactly, is fundamentalist about noting the evils of faith?”
Coyne wants us to believe New Atheists are not fundamentalists because they don’t view all religions to be equally evil. In other words, some religions are evil, while others are really, really evil. And that’s supposed to be significant. The fact that the New Atheists see all religion and faith as “evil” is exactly the type of black and white thinking we come to expect from fundamentalists. It doesn’t matter if they think some evil is more evil than others. Religious fundamentalists make the same distinctions about other religions.
Look at it this way. Imagine you ran across a religious fundamentalist who spent great amounts of time trying to convince the world that science is evil. When you point out his anti-science fundamentalism, he denies it, claiming he never said all branches of science are equally evil. Would that convince anyone?
Further, few of us deny that religion provides consolation or a form of “meaning” for people. It does. It isn’t totally pernicious, and it does inspire charitable works. What I maintain—I can’t speak for Richard here, but believe he’d agree—is that those good acts would occur just as often in societies lacking religion (at least they seem to in atheistic Scandinavia), and, on balance, religion is a harmful thing.
Here Coyne is trying to posture as if the New Atheists are being thoughtful and analytic. “On balance” religion is evil. Yet the “on balance” approach is simply a form of confirmation bias, where a constant stream of cherry picking is employed to ensure the balance tips strongly in favor of the conclusion that religion is one of the world’s great evils. The writings of the New Atheists are nothing more than an attempt to prop up the “on balance” conclusion that they reached long ago. This is how fundamentalists argue.
Further, the “meaning” derived from faith is a false meaning, consoling as it may be. It is the consolation of the drunkard. What does it mean to spend your whole life working towards heaven, or avoiding hell, when there isn’t any? Wouldn’t it be better to work at making this life better?
As a fundamentalist, Coyne thinks the world should see as he does. He is convinced the meaning derived from faith is a false meaning, so it must be a false meaning for everyone else. He has The Truth. And while he compares faith to getting drunk (or high), has he ever come out against getting drunk or high? Not that I know of. So even if we were to accept his conclusions about the false meaning of faith, given that he never preaches against getting high or drunk, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with false meaning in life. He just doesn’t like one particular form of false meaning.
Coyne then quotes Kloor
This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters is not just bad manners, it is puritanical. That’s what scientist Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) is getting at with his recent sharp criticism of Dawkins.
Really? Kloor does not, of course, give any examples of the sneering and stridency, and that’s par for the course. But puritanical? It is the faithful, not the atheists, who denigrate earthly pleasures and take a ludicrously puritanical attitude toward sex.
Misdirection here. I don’t think Kloor is talking about sex here. Puritanical means practicing or affecting strict religious or moral behavior. Kloor applied this term to the sneering and strident approach by the religion haters. So, for example, when Coyne writes, “Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion,” he is being puritanical. It is such a strict view that religion is actually “evil” and those who oppose it are good. In fact, the view is so puritanical than atheists who do not agree are shunned and attacked as “faitheists” and “accomodationists.”
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper that the Guardian reports, Higgs said this:
“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”
This will no doubt incite the equivalent of hockey fights in the various atheist rinks of the blogosphere. Get your popcorn ready. That’s essentially what our big scientific debates amount to these days: Rip roaring entertainment and blood sport.
It’s not entertainment at all, Mr. Kloor. Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion. The stuff about “popcorn” and “hockey fights”—now that is sneering. So often those who decry us for stridency and rudeness are worse than we are in those respects.
I love this. Like a fundamentalist, Coyne has no sense of humor about himself and his cause and thinks everyone else should grasp how serious this all is. After all,
Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion.
How could anyone dare scoff at the Gnu’s fundamentalism?! This is as serious as it gets, people!
It is so ironic that in an essay designed to convince everyone the New Atheists are not fundamentalists, Coyne displays his fundamentalism with that one response. Clue to Coyne and the rest of the New Atheists – only fundamentalist atheists think religion is one of the world’s greatest evils.
Kloor also writes:
In one of his recent broadsides against religious faith, Jerry Coyne wrote:
“Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.“
I think that intolerance may also be considered an enemy of democracy. Fundamentalism, whatever its guise, is certainly the antithesis of science.
And Coyne replies:
Whoa, there’s that accusation of “fundamentalism” again! What, exactly, is fundamentalist about noting the evils of faith?
As for my statement being the antithesis of science, I don’t understand that argument at all. What I said about the incompatibility of religion and democracy is not antiscientific in any sense. (If you want antiscientific, look at the real fundamentalists, where the term is correctly used to denote those adhering to the literalism of Scripture.) There are good arguments to be made that the ideology and dogma of religion are truly inimical to democracy, which, ideally, should be based on free argument, open minds, and rationality. To see such an argument in extenso, read Eric MacDonald’s post from Choice in Dying: “The incompatibility of democracy and religion.“
Huh? His belief that religion is the enemy of democracy is “scientific” because “there are good arguments to be made?” Are you kidding me? Whether “good arguments” exist are a matter of subjective opinion. And science is not the same as making “good arguments.” Once again, Coyne uses some watered down definition of science to make his fundamentalism look sciencey.
Did you ever notice that as the New Atheist movement goes on, that religion seems to get more evil and more eevil and more eeevil? First, it’s an enemy of science. Then, it’s an enemy of science and reason. Then it’s an enemy of science and reason and democracy. Then it’s an enemy of science and reason and democracy and is worse than child abuse. Someday, it will be worse than rape and murder. And then it will become The Greatest Evil in the Entire Universe. Aliens might even come to destroy our planet because of our religion! It’s all part of that civil and respectful dialog, built on “free argument, open minds, and rationality.”
Coyne finally concludes as follows:
People like Kloor really irritate me in the same way that “moderate” believers irritate me. By sucking up to faith, and decrying those who question its tenets, they are, to paraphrase Sam Harris, “betraying faith and reason equally.” There’s nothing wrong with standing up prominently for what you believe, so long as you keep before you the goal of denigrating ideas and ideologies rather than people. Kloor has chosen to denigrate the people.
The reason Coyne is irritated by atheists like Kloor and quote/unquote moderate believers is because he is a fundamentalist. It’s no different than religious fundamentalists being irritated by the same moderate believers and “accomodationists.” Coyne doesn’t seem to understand Kloor and Higgs are not criticizing him for questioning any tenet of faith. They are distancing themselves from the Gnu atheists and their extremist, black and white views that insist religion is one of the greatest evils in the world and an enemy of reason and democracy. Such extremism does not sit well with thinking people.
So let me once again close by noting that New Atheists are the only people who deny New Atheism is a form of fundamentalism. The rest of the world sees them differently. How do the New Atheists explain this?