on being told by PZ to fuck off

PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a heartfelt exhortation to both of us to “fuck off” (his emphasis). The cause was a piece I did on the grauniad site about Ruse’s visit to a creation museum in which he experienced, for a moment, “a Kuhnian flash” that it might all be true. Never mind that this was a momentary feeling. It was unmistakable evidence of heresy, or commerce with the devil God which demanded anathematisation and commination, which it duly got.

What follows is a rather long-winded argument that there is no need for me to respond that PZ can go fuck himself. Portions may later appear on the belief site, but at least here I can operate a consistent policy of banning bores and fools so there is some hope of an enjoyable conversation.

If the government of some hick state were to decide to teach children that Sweden has the highest suicide rate of anywhere in the world or that America fought alongside Britain throughout the second world war (as Tony Blair suggested in his speech to congress) that would be amazingly stupid, but it would not be unconstitutional. If a democratic majority wanted their children taught these things, there would be nothing for the dissenting minority to do but emigrate. They couldn’t claim that the constitution prohibits the teaching of falsehood in schools.

Religion, and by implication evolution, are different. There is a clear constitutional prohibition against the teaching of religion in public schools. That is what has time and time again saved the teaching of evolution, or some watered-down version thereof, in the states with significant fundamentalist populations. Creationism and ID were not thrown out of schools because they were false (though they are) but because they are religious doctrines.

I don’t think this point is open to debate. It’s a simple matter of reading the judgements in the Dover and Arkansas trials.

But if you look at the problem from the new atheist angle, this seems a rather sinister quibble because to them the difference between religion and falsehood is entirely trivial. They see the world divided into truth, reason and science on the one side, and superstition, error and falsehood on the other. Coyne, in particular, is completely explicit about this:

The real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition1

Hence the attacks on believing scientists like Ken Miller. Their existence is obviously proof that a Darwinian can be a Christian, in the apparently trivial sense that there are distinguished Christian biologists. But if you were to ask Coyne, Dawkins, PZ, or the overwhelming majority of commentators on their site whether a Darwinian should be a Christian, the answer would be certainly not: an atheist Darwinian, or an atheist scientist in general, has more deeply and more sincerely embraced the scientific world view than any “faith-head” possibly could; no one who has truly internalised the scientific virtues could possibly be a religious believer.

I don’t want here to get into a discussion about whether this is true. Christianity at least does seem to require the acceptance of at least one miracle as the most important thing that ever happened in the universe and it’s certainly reasonable for a scientist to reject this. In any case, it’s all part of a much bigger myth, which does far more than science can to explain the world: that of the triumph of reason, truth, and so forth over ignorance, superstition and stupidity. Such myths are not dislodged by argument.

Already, I can hear the voices saying – not all in the tones of E. L. Wisty – “But where’s the evidence?” “How can a scientist believe in miracles?” and so on. But it is precisely at this point, which the new atheists consider their strongest and most unanswerable, that Ruse’s argument takes effect. Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.

In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna’s ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.

Politically, of course, it’s a very different matter. From an American point of view (and this whole argument only applies to American conditions) the last thirty or forty years, since Reagan or possibly even Carter, have seen a war conducted by right-wing Christians against everything decent and honourable in the country. And in that perspective, the complaint that the new atheists are too loud, too aggressive, too uppity, is worse than nonsense. To compromise with fundies is to compromise with Bush, with Limbaugh, with Oliver North, and it was accepting those evil bastards which got America into its present awful state.

To quote one commentator on Coyne’s site:

what did it get non-believers in return to be nice in that way? Nada. The theists became more arrogant and more vicious, not less. But we’re supposed to be nice to people who think atheists are immoral scum — who think they can say it with impunity, in any cultural medium? That has been the case for years now. … We’ve lost too much ground not to fight hard at this point. That GW Bush got elected (and why) was a wakeup call to stop being nice, stop being complacent. A huge portion of American society wants to turn back the clock to the Middle Ages (and that might be too progressive for them). They will not stop until they succeed. God’s work is never done, you know. Think about that. Really think about it.

I might think this is obnoxious and socially counter-productive but my opinion is irrelevant in two ways. I’m not an American, and anyway I know that the obnoxiousness is a great part of its political appeal. You need common enemies and a big mythical narrative to bind a social movement, as the new atheism wants to be, and you don’t get those by blethering on about kittens and cuddles

Nor could Ruse himself be accused of undervaluing the attractions of obnoxious and aggressive argument.

But that is not the point of his attacks on Coyne and anyone else who believes that science and religion are irreconcilable. Whether or not it is true or false to claim they are existentially opposed, and whether or not it is politically wise, the really important point is the legal effect, in the USA, if such an identification were ever made by the courts.

The American courts have rejected, quite rightly, the creationist claim that “secular humanism” constitutes a religion. Judge Selna, in the footnote I quoted earlier, does on to say:

The Ninth Circuit has found that “neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are “religions” for Establishment Clause purposes.” Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517, 521 (9th Cir. 1994).

But the American courts have never been asked to decide whether science is the negation of religion: in fact the defenders of evolution and of science teaching in schools have gone to great lengths to ensure that the question was not asked. The “accommodationists” whom Coyne so despises, have been brought out in all the court cases so far to say that that evolution and Christianity, science and religion, are perfectly compatible. If the courts were asked to decide not whether ID was a religious doctrine, but whether evolution was a necessarily atheist one, and if they decided that Jerry Coyne and PZ and Dawkins and all the rest are right, then science teaching would become unconstitutional in American public schools. PZ and Coyne and all their friends would, in short, have fucked themselves.

1 This is quoted approvingly in the God Delusion, and sourced to Playboy, which proves there is at least one scientist who reads it for the articles.

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51 Responses to on being told by PZ to fuck off

  1. Dan S. says:

    Andrew –

    I think you’re making a couple of assumptions which don’t hold. First, the model of religion implies that the paradigm case is a literal interpretation of genesis …

    I don’t think I’m making this assumption, but complicating matters is the fact that I still can’t figure out what part of my comment you’re referring to. My little alternate-universe counterfactual? (The one where Sedgwick’s esteemed as a Flood geologist and Darwin as a natural theologian who made such interesting use of biogeography . . . ) Actually, I think it’s an obvious, simple, and appropriate comparison (although I might be sadly deluded, I suppose). You’re talking about what you see as possible legal repercussions if it became widely believed that science compels atheism, I’m responding with a scenario in which it works out that science compels theism (and, as somebody from the actual country in question, and the same state as Dover of Kitzmiller fame, in the context of an ongoing war between science and literal interpretations of Genesis). Nevertheless, you have a point, so let’s state that alongside the evangelical atheists pushing our alterna-lawsuit (against teaching science on 1st Amendment grounds) are folks from other religious beliefs/traditions which don’t involve literal interpretations of Genesis. Ok. Do you think there’s much chance, given an reasonably objective court, that this argument would prevail?

    And back in our world, the same question. (If the court’s predisposed to favor creationism, well, does it really matter what new atheists say?) How do you see this going – on what basis would such a decision be made under, say, the Lemon test? Granted, that may be on the way out – but perhaps the most likely way that would happen would be through Scalia and others breaking off the 1st prong, the one that involves determining whether the primary purpose was secular or religious. (Assuming, again, principled application.) In that case, it wouldn’t even matter if there was clear evidence of radical atheists on the school board pushing science education primarily as a way to churn out more little atheists. (& If reading that doesn’t feel like you just stumbled into bizarro world, well . . . I mean, I hear things are a bit different in England, but you’re talking about the U.S.). They’d have to prove that a) the government’s action had the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and/or that the government’s action resuled in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. I’m not seeing it. Are you?

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