Failed Damage Control

As we might expect, the New Atheists did not like Frans de Waal’s article in Salon.com.  Very shortly after it appeared, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Anthony Grayling furiously ran to their keyboards to engage in damage control by attacking him.

Consider how Jerry Coyne tried to spin things.  Being the militant atheist, he naturally chooses a title with violent metaphorsFrans de Waal tries to give atheists a good hiding in Salon; Anthony Grayling takes him down.

He writes:

That worried me, and, sure enough, the worries were valid.  In that book, which has just appeared, de Waal devotes a substantial section to bashing “militant” atheists and sticking up for religion.  That’s bizarre, for he’s an atheist himself, and his work has begun demolishing one of the last redoubts of religion: God-given morality.

He is clearly experiencing cognitive dissonance, as a highly respected atheist scientist is supposed to see the same Truth as he does. Something’s wrong! So his brain needs to come up with some type of “explanation” as part of its defense mechanism:

My theory for his behavior, which differs from Anthony Grayling’s (see below), is that de Waal, realizing that his conclusions aren’t congenial to the faithful, must take some swipes at atheists to maintain credibility with the public.

Yet his “theory” is just a not so hidden personal attack.  Essentially, Coyne is accusing de Waal of being insincere because he seeks some type of public accolades.  Yet there is not a shred of evidence to support this accusation.  It’s the same old conspiracy “theory” that is used to wave away mainstream scientific organizations, like the AAAS and NAS.  This convoluted “theory” is not needed, as a much less insulting and more parsimonious explanation is available – de Waal is sincere in that he is an atheist who is turned off by dogmatic posturing from both sides.

Coyne continues:

It is in fact a straight excerpt from his new book. You really have to read the essay (and it’s longish) to see how far off the rails he’s gone, for it’s a disjointed ramble punctuated by gratuitous swipes at atheists and sporadic osculations of the rump of faith.

I see three criticisms.  1. It’s a disjointed ramble.  2. He dares to criticize militant atheists. 3. We can translate the weird phrase – “and sporadic osculations of the rump of faith” – to mean he is being too nice to religion.

In other words, de Waal has gone off the rails because his words aren’t pretty enough and because he is not a Gnu. That’s how he “goes off the rails.”  Y’see, as an atheist, he is supposed to praise and defend the Gnus and bash religion.  Who is convinced by such vacuous criticisms?

Coyne then quotes de Waal:

“In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”

And replies:

de Waal also suffers from the misconception that most atheists are militant because they retain the zeal they once had when they were religious. Unfortunately, most of the militant atheists I know were not once zealous religionists. I certainly was not, and I don’t think any of the “Four Horsemen” were, either.

Whoa!  What the….?  It sure looks to me like some Freudian slip here, people.  For Coyne is accepting the existence of militant atheists – “most of the militant atheists I know were not once zealous religionists.”  How can he know any militant atheists when he told us previously no such thing exists?  Remember  last week’s truth? “The only “militant” atheists I know are ones who try to promote their views with undue hostility or even violence—i.e., almost nobody.

Most of the militant atheists I know.  The only “militant” atheists I know.  Round and round he goes.

What’s more, he includes himself and Dawkins and Harris among the “militant atheists” this time around.  Getting dizzy?

He continues:

He then uses Christopher Hitchens as an example of someone who “craved dogma, yet had trouble deciding on its contents,” arguing that Hitchens (who was never really religious) went from Trotskyism to Greek Orthodox faith, to “American neo-Conservatism”, and then to dogmatic atheism.

Coyne does not challenge this description of one of his idols.  I guess he can’t.

de Waal recounts the atheism/religion debate at Puebla, Mexico, between Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris on one side, and Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbit Shmuley Boteach on the other. (I was at that meeting, but had to leave before the debate.) de Waal argues that such debates change nobody’s mind.  He forgets that there are onlookers on YouTube and elsewhere, who do change their minds (or form a previously inchoate opinion) because of such debates.

The Lurker Appeal?   Is he serious?  Those of us who have been on the net long enough can smile at this claim.  Oh yes, there is an army of unconvinced lurkers out there hanging on the every word of the loud-mouthed debate participants, waiting for the debate to show them the way.  There has to be. The Lurker Appeal is usually invoked when hardcore advocates try to convince themselves they are doing oh so important work.  Why use your time doing something like science when there are lurker minds out there in need of changing.

But hold on.  Coyne, the scientist, has empirical evidence:

Just read Richard Dawkins’s “Converts’ Corner” to see the effect of strident atheism: hundreds have left their faith.

Let’s overlook a movement that denies its religious nature, but brags about its evangelism.  Instead, think like a scientist.  Question the claim.

So “hundreds have left their faith” because of the Gnu militancy, right?

First, Dawkins has told us he has sold millions of books.  Hundreds.  Millions.  Hmmm. Hundreds?  Millions?  Quick, get the calculator.  That’s 0.01%.  Wow.

Second, the 0.01% number is likely to be vastly over-inflated for two reasons.

  1. There is no way to verify the legitimacy of internet conversion stories sent by people like “Jim.”  I’d say that a huge fraction of those stories come from internet atheists and sockpuppets who make up conversion stories to Serve the Cause or just to see their writings posted on their hero’s web page.
  2. As for the remaining legitimate conversions,  “strident atheism” as the causal factor probably applies to only a fraction of them.  I certainly don’t have the time/desire to look at each one, but the second one immediately caught my eye:

We are all programmed to believe that human beings and everything else has been created by a supreme entity which apart from looking after our destiny, also rewards or punishes us. However, I never got an answer to my query about who created this supreme entity. Most persons thought that I was hurting their faith by even asking something like this. My own confusion however just melted away when I read “The Greatest show on earth” and “The GOD delusion” by Richard Dawkins -the famous biologist and an admirer of Charles Darwin.

Though I have been a student of Biology and Genetics, it never occurred to me that Darwin’s theory of evolution together with knowledge gained from the field of molecular genetics can easily explain how humans and myriad other forms of life evolved and prospered. Genes are passed from one generation to the next in 64 coded triplets in digital form. These genes (chemically called DNA) have the power to replicate in a cellular environment. Magically, they also ensure that the fittest ones survive so that the subsequent generation improves. This transformation is however so slow that someone observing them in his lifetime does not notice this forward march. This is how we humans evolved from less sophisticated creatures –in fact from that first DNA template which got created some 3 billion years ago- the biological evidence is so overwhelming that I was convinced that this idea of GOD being our creator is just a myth.

Richard Dawkins books enabled me to look at both utility as well as futility of life objectively. I thus find it absurd to associate my misfortune or happiness to a pre written destiny or a divine command. Even more absurd are the theories propounded by religion about there being an after-life or the existence of a soul that takes birth again in another body. It amazes me how otherwise rational and intelligent people accept such ridiculous propositions in the name of faith. I consider this new found realisation as the enlightenment that I was looking for & feel great at having come out of my delusion. Any idea or a book that presupposes the presence of an ALMIGHTY is surely unscientific and a HOAX against which we must guard ourselves.

I see no clear-cut conversion story. I see something that just as easily could be a fan letter.  And if there is any “conversion” there, it didn’t have anything to do with “strident atheism.”  Think of this in scientific terms – the 0.01% – the “hundreds” could very well be populated by “hundreds” of false positives.  So how many fan letters and “evolution made me an atheist” letters get scored as conversions due to militant atheism?  A socio-political movement wouldn’t try to exaggerate, now would it?

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