Wednesday, February 04, 2015

This is why prominent atheists should not critique religion

BioLogos has an an interview with Bill Nye on the occasion of the publication of his new book.  It is nearly as painful to read as his infamous debate with Ken Ham was painful to watch [1].  The level of ignorance and tone-deafness he displays with regards to religion in general and Christianity in particular is equivalent to YECs who stand on the street corner and ask if your grandpappy was a monkey.
BioLogos: While you say your book has little to do with religion, you write in the book that it’s unreasonable to see any sort of divine “plan” in nature (p. 78). Paired with strong endorsements from many prominent atheists and agnostics on the back cover, can you see how many Christians would feel your book has an anti-religious agenda? 
Nye: Put briefly, no; I don’t perceive an anti-religious agenda, especially with regard to Christians and Christianity. The issue being debated was creationism, the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old. As I understand it, this involves the Bible’s Old Testament exclusively. As I understand it, Jesus of Nazareth and his worldview did not come to be until the New Testament times.
Oh.  My.  God.  How can anyone not know that Christian theology holds that Jesus was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, that the Old and New Testaments form a seamless whole, that Jesus and Yahweh are the same deity?  There are all kinds of reasons one might be a Christian without being a YEC, but the idea that Christianity has nothing to do with the Old Testament is not one of them.

If you're going to critique something you should at least take the time to learn the basics of the thing you are critiquing.  This goes for scientists as well as everyone else.

[1] The reason the Nye-Ham debate was painful to watch was that Bill completely missed the most basic and fundamental point: Ken Ham, by his own admission, is not doing science.  Ken, again by his own admission multiple times during the debate, starts from the premise that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  Ham gave away the game in his opening statement:
"I assert that the word “science” has been hijacked by secularists in teaching evolution, to force the religion of naturalism on generations of kids."
No, it is not that the word has been hijacked.  The word "science" is completely irrelevant.  You could call it fnorbage instead of science, it wouldn't make a clingleblat of difference.  What matters is that if you choose to use evidence, experience and reason rather than divine revelation as the ultimate arbiters of truth, you get better results, at least by certain quality metrics that most people care about.  And the evidence is overwhelmingly against the theory that the earth is 6000 years old.  Whether you call that science or fnorbage or squibbs and crackers matters not at all.


Luke said...

Hear, hear, on everything but your footnote. But hey, Pope Dawkins tweets, "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism."

On the footnote, I think I'll quibble not about the hard sciences and their successes, but philosophy and the human sciences. For example, the mechanical philosophy was very big during the Enlightenment and it was assumed to be not just a model of how reality worked, but how it really worked. We now know this is terrifically false. René Magritte got it right: Ceci n'est pas une pipe. So, whatever is based on reductionism, atomism, and the mechanical philosophy is only a good model in some regimes, and yet it gets exported to places it doesn't belong. This has likely stunted the development of the human sciences; I can provide some citations if desired.

It is important to not export the success of the hard sciences to the human sciences, as if the human sciences have been as ridiculously successful. They haven't. It's not like they haven't figured anything out, but I've accrued a not-insignificant amount of evidence that there have been a lot of really bad ideas in the human sciences which have screwed them over for decades. (e.g. this 3-page book preface) And so, there is a danger of equivocation if you say that "Science has done all these awesome things for us!"

This actually matters, because I argue religion tends to target matters the human sciences study, much more than matters the hard sciences study. Therefore, if one is going to compare success, one should be very careful to ask: "Success at doing what, precisely?" and one should compare apples to apples, instead of hard to soft. As an example, one can ask whether original sin has any light it can shed on child sexual abuse, which Alistair McFadyen argues for in Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (extensive review). Or one can look at forgiveness—surely an important aspect of humans getting along with other humans—with Forgiveness and Truth being an example.

I hope I haven't said anything particularly revolutionary, here. I think it's quite obvious that we understand protons and electrons much better than humans and all their craziness. Instead, I suspect that the pseudoscience : science ratio is much better than the pseudoreligion : religion ratio, where I'm using the 'pseudo' prefix in the same spirit: is the person really trying to match theory to reality in a way that prohibits arbitrary fiddling with auxiliary hypotheses, that prevents the sinking to 'conspiracy theory' status? Whether or not divine revelation is used in one's theory seems rather immaterial, unless one starts restricting to certain types of divine revelation which are problematic. As I keep saying, "Sharp knives are sharp."

Publius said...

Yeah, Lawrence M. Krause would be a better debater than Nye. On the theist side, there are also better people. Television mono-on-mono debates aren't very good anyhow. What is needed is a Harvard-style debate with each positions "dream team."

Luke said...

While I do find Krauss funny, there is Massimo Pigliucci's Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, which I could understand given what I'd seen of Krauss.

A Harvard-style debate would be awesome. I wonder if the Veritas Forum folks have ever done this?

Ron said...

> there have been a lot of really bad ideas in the human sciences which have screwed them over for decades

As opposed to religion, which always gets things right the first time?

You should read this.

Luke said...

> > there have been a lot of really bad ideas in the human sciences which have screwed them over for decades
> As opposed to religion, which always gets things right the first time?

That's not a fair comparison, although it is perhaps hyperbole. What is the statement when one removes any extant hyperbole? I will point you to stuff like Joshua A. Berman's Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, as an exemplar of something very important to the foundation of the West.

> You should read this.

Very interesting, and not all that surprising. I've heard stories about religious people surveyed today being pretty stupid in the relationship realm. There was even a particular study bearing on this that I now forget, but which I'll ask my pastor to remind me of tomorrow AM. One potential error is to assume that religion has always appeared as it does today, in the sense that when one looks through the ages, the closer to 'secular' one is, the better one's treatment is.

This also stuck out at me:

>> “Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious' parents in our study,” Bengston told me.

The "many"/"some" mix renders the meaningfulness of this statement ambiguous. For example, is the following true:

>>' “Many religious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘nonreligious' parents in our study,” Bengston told me.


Another criticism I have is of empathy as the foundation. Does it work? Does it work for everyone, or does it screw over the outcasts of society? (Hopefully we can exclude psychopaths and sociopaths for this conversation.) One way to view Jesus' time is that empathy did work for some people. But others got screwed over. Furthermore, the bad status of 'sinners' was rationalized so that they were at fault. Kind of like how many view criminals in the US. They deserve their fate! For me to believe that empathy can be the foundation, I want to see it make progress, in a falsifiable manner. Until then, I will see it as one possible model of many.

Oh, I can add something else which comes from the last Dialogos meaning. Empathy requires actively emulating the other person. And yet, an atheist at that meeting (I'm bad with names) argued that loving others as you want to be loved is bad, because they might not be like you. Now, I carefully explained that I meant to include the possibility of difference, such that I have to imagine the world from the other person's perspective, before I love them in the way they want to be loved. But empathy has the same problem! So unless people learn to empathize with those very different from them, it will fail. Unless everyone should be created or recreated in your own, personal image. :-p

Luke said...

> You should read this.

Uh oh:

>> One telling fact from the criminology field: Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. This echoes what the criminology field has documented for more than a century — the unaffiliated and the nonreligious engage in far fewer crimes.

Sigh. The article is written as if the causal factor is removal of religion. I know of no study which shows this. Instead, I am willing to wager that the true casual factor is socioeconomic status. I bet that causes both: (i) reduction in religious belief; (ii) reduction in incarceration rates.