Journal Entry

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Gervais, "Science", and "Religion"

This tweet by Ricky Gervais showed up in my Facebook friendslist a bunch:

Dear Religion,

This week I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school.

Yours, Science

This moved me to a nice rant, which follows in two versions. Short version for the Tl;dr Brigade:

Dear Polemic,

This week I was actually investigating phenomena while you were spinning false dichotomies.

Love, Reason.

Longer version after the cut...

Gervais's tweet is a nice example of the maxim, "you always win if you get to pick the teams."

I'm actually less annoyed at his tweet on behalf of Religion -- which is a big boy and can take care of itself, and certainly should not be shielded from any inquiry about what its sketchier adherents are up to -- than on behalf of Science, which does not deserve for an instant to be co-opted into a poorly thought out false-dichotomy polemical soundbite on the anticlerical side. It's one of a long line of recent tweets and facebook posts that make me bristle at how science is being misused -- to club imagined or caricatured foes with -- in a way that distorts its character and meaning.

Positing Religion and Science as hypostatized opposites is a perennial theme of Annoying Triumphalist New Atheism, and what bothers me about it is how profoundly anti-empirical it is. Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc., are not innocently misinformed about the historical relationship between science and religion -- they are not even willfully misinformed; rather, they are operating out of a kind of medieval-scholastic worldview where truth is arrived at by logical deduction from a priori principles. They know full well what Science is, and what Religion is, and that they are by definition inimical, so they are actively scornful of, you know, empirical historical data and stuff (which would tend to show that religion and science have historically been allies, and that religious antagonism to science is a very recent and historical anomalous phenomenon, generally limited to a pretty narrow band of religious territory; and, indeed, that religion is mostly not what they think it is).

Readers, if you are wondering whether you are a Triumphalist New Atheist, or just an atheist, here's how to tell.

Think about religion for a moment, and then be totally honest about your emotional reaction.

If you feel perplexity at something foreign and weird that you can't really relate to, nervousness that oppression may be directed against you by powerful zealots1, curiosity how someone could hold apparently nonparsimonious conceptions about reality... none of this makes you a Triumphalist New Atheist2.

If you feel fascination and intrigue at religion as an empirical object of investigation, and want more data about how it works, not just to defeat it in a dragon-killing way but rather in the same open-minded fashion you would investigate quasars, algae, Ming dynasty poetry, or the Basque language, then you are almost certainly not a Triumphalist New Atheist.

But if what you feel is a gleeful recognition that you have an Enemy, that a valorous battle awaits to which you are called, and the sweet relief from postmodern anxiety3 of having found, in this way, an ordering principle for your universe... then you may be afflicted with the same malady as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.

Here's the treatment: renew your commitment to empiricism. Investigate whether the statements you are making are actually true. Resist the temptation to cut factual corners because the ends justify the means, because having an Enemy provides you with reason enough for excess. Deny yourself the luxury of caricaturing your enemies and their views -- not for their sake, but because what it does a disservice to what you actually stand for. Concern yourself a little bit more about understanding and a little bit less about winning the argument.

1. Atheists are targeted by vicious oppression in a majority of places in the world (something sometimes easy to forget here in Europe). They are fighting a liberation struggle. Being angry about oppression directed against atheists, and unwilling to shut up about it, does not make you a Triumphalist New Atheist. Quite the contrary. I am angry about oppression directed against atheists; and I am committed to being a good ally to atheists, so call me vigorously on it if I screw up (starting with this post). But imagining that a vigorous defense of the rights of atheists is principally a matter of publicizing the Evils of Religion is the same sort of error as believing that you can end prejudice about Jews by, AIPAC-style, coming up with a bunch of bad things to say about Arabs. Attention Dawkins et al-- liberation struggle: yer doin it rong.

2 Here is a good example of usefully making fun of religion and expressing perplexity, hilarity, and outrage at it without -- mostly -- being a Triumphalist New Atheist. One caveat -- I think he lets Jews off too easy, and I think "In fact, you're not allowed in. All this awesome shit is mine" is sometimes actually a really problematic attitude; by the same token, I don't entirely understand the venom directed at proselytizing religions by believers in an untramelled marketplace of free ideas. How is it, exactly, that the Mormons ringing your doorbell are getting a free pass from your critical examination of religion?

3 The difference between Triumphalist New Atheists and just, you know, atheists, came into focus for me when I realized the extent to which the attitude of Dawkins, Harris, et al is actually, on a fundamental level, not only a reaction to fundamentalist Christianity, but a reaction to postmodernism. It is true that atheism is not a belief; rather, it is a logical consequence of an axiomatic commitment to rational empiricism being the only worthwhile epistemology. And that is awesome. I'm a fan. I look forward eagerly to what creations you come up with out of that metaphysic; much of my favorite thought, art, and ethics arises from it. But here's the thing -- a non-totalizing atheist, one who isn't afraid of Hume, Gödel, Kuhn, and Derrida, will say "and that's the metaphysic and epistemology I've decided to go with" ("Freeeow!"). Triumphalist New Atheism is characterized by the urgent insistence that it's the only possible epistemology and metaphysic (most often couched in rhetorical emotional appeals to common sense). And it's usually -- and, I think, not coincidentally -- accompanied by a certain paucity of imagination with regard to science -- a Weinbergian insistence that science currently, here in 2012, stands poised at the verge of the final understanding of everything, that no Copernican-scale revolutions await us in centuries to come4. Both these commitments -- to naive realism in philosophy, and to science as a body of finished work rather than a process -- partake of the same unease about uncertainty, and both tend to sharply differentiate between Triumphalist New Atheists and other scientifically-minded atheists.

4. Um, just in case this is not obvious: I don't mean by this, at all, that at some future time science is going to happen to stumble upon evidence that God created dinosaurs like a potter fashions clay and that the world is 6000 years old. Because, news flash: it won't. What I do mean is that there may come a time when our scientific models of today seem just as quaint as Bronze Age ones do now; that just as we look at a metaphysic in which an angry, jealous king orders the world by punishment and reward, after fashioning it with his hands, as archaic products of a particular socio-technological moment -- kings, shepherds, potters -- so may people in a couple of thousand years look at our notions of universally obtaining intelligible physical laws, constants and symmetries, emergent processes and predictive causalities -- or whatever else -- and be struck by how quaintly that was all about written language, markets and hierarchies as forms of social organization, short single-bodied life spans, computers, and so on.

Posted by benrosen at October 17, 2012 03:26 PM | Up to blog

God, I love your vocabulary.

My answer is a bit more simplistic: Don't equate science and religion with scientists and religious-minded people. Neither science nor religion negate each other; they aren't opposites, though certain zealots seem to think they are.

Posted by: Suzanne at October 17, 2012 06:38 PM

Thank you, Suzanne -- that was much shorter and pretty much the same thing I wanted to say. :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 17, 2012 07:02 PM

It's kind of funny. I'm young and still find myself choked with inchoate rage at the transition I've had away from being religious and yet I still don't identify as atheist at least in part because I don't like those guys* and don't want to be one of them.

I'm still stuck at the point where I hate organized religion and find almost every religious leader morally repugnant and corrupt but recognize that it's not automatically bad for a given individual to be religious.

Kind of an annoying place to be, really, but I don't really want to join any kind of greater atheist community to ask for advice or other perspectives precisely because of these people and not wanting to make the mistake of going to a wrong group, like one of those that actively embraced misogyny during that whole Skepchick fiasco or that think that pouncing on and abusing those who are weaker or still working out their beliefs is a good thing or helps establish their position in the pack.

*I have had way too many arguments with them when they've claimed that all scientists ever who did anything to contribute to our scientific understanding of the world/"Progress" were secret atheists or else they weren't really scientists. My understanding was that most of the people who worked on the groundwork for what came to be the scientific method were deists when they came the closest to being atheists. So, yes, thank you Suznne.

Posted by: Fortun Veritas at October 26, 2012 06:11 PM

Fortun, if you want to really mess with the heads of your opponents in the last paragraph, innocently ask them about Isaac Newton -- whether he ever experienced persecution at the hands of the religious, how he dealt with the religious worldview and whether his thinking about it influenced his science? And then blink prettily while listening to them expound.

Newton was, of course, a religious fanatic who spent the last 10 years of his life focussing not on physics, but on decoding the prophecies he believed were encoded in the Bible. To the extent he was "persecuted by the religious" it was because the establishment, mainline Anglicans running the show were uncomfortable with his crazy-ass Biblical literalism. And there's an interesting argument to be made that this fruitcake side of Newton (he was also an avid alchemist, at a time when that was no longer at all confused with mainstream science -- it was regarded as hokum by Newton's mentors and colleagues) actually contributed to his major discoveries and formalization of science itself. He was willing to believe daring ideas like "action at a distance" which the other scientists of the day regarded as mystical nonsense, until he was able to prove it with math. I mean, how *exactly* does the Sun act on the Earth? By magic? IIRC Hooke ( and others really wanted some more reasonable, less bizarre mechanism where particles would act on each other, all physically adjacent, all the way across the solar system. (There are other crucial moments of It Takes A Fruitcake Weirdo in science, eg Mendeleev, which is one big problem with Movement Atheism's reification of Science as the commonsensical, NSF-funded middle and everything else as scornable wackjobbery).

I wish you luck with your transition and I also want to say there are lots of awesome open-minded atheists out there; you will find your people.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 27, 2012 03:05 PM
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