Thursday, December 20, 2007


Nobody likes a smarty pants...

Regular readers of this blog, and those who know me well, may very well have formed the opinion that I'm not a person with a religious nature. This would be the correct impression. According to the much-maligned Myers-Brigs test I should have spiritual leanings and I could, at a pinch, refer to myself as an Epicurean, but realistically I'm just a plain old unbeliever; an atheist (although I think atheist correctly means godless rather than without belief).

Now atheism of late has become rather trendy in intellectual circles. People whom I respect have signs on their personal websites attesting to their lack of theism, and various intellectual (sometimes self-appointed) heavyweights have weighed in (heavily) with books and essays on the matter. There's even considerable noise being made about evangelical atheism. Despite my self-professed membership of the aforementioned group defined by a lack of something (a dubious way to define a group, as any taxonomist will tell you), I am not about to join the ranks of the evangelical. Let me share with you my reasons...

I am not all opposed to the notion that a person might like, on occasion, to have a good think about their own beliefs. I think it's more than likely that a reasonable person coming at some existing belief-sets with a moderate knowledge of science, sociology and world events could find them a little questionable. Such a person might come away from their good think with a rather less constrained belief system of their own; and good for them. I'm not about to rush about noisily encouraging other people to do likewise, and nor do I particularly care to know the outcome of such a burst of cogitation, one way or another.

Anyone whose tastes in life lie even a little outside the mainstream very rapidly learns that evangelism, be it of God, atheism, vegetarianism, or Macintoshes, is really tedious. There is nothing more boring that someone going on at length about something. The capacity to get really intensely attached to a notion that you simply must persuade others of seems to go hand in hand with being, well, boring. Evangelism is boring, and so, by extension, are evangelists. Jessica Alba in a gold string bikini talking about how great it was being a vegetarian would be boring (I have no idea if the luscious Jessica is vegetarian or not, I'm making a point). PZ Myers talking about developmental biology is fascinating and informative. PZ Myers taking a stick to religion is nigh-on painful, and I haven't read his blog in ages because it's so unattractive. The Selfish Gene is one of the better general books on evolution ever written (even if I don't entirely agree with the premise), but The God Delusion is a bit silly.

In fact the whole concept of evangelical atheism is, in my humble opinion, a bit silly. You'd really really like people to believe in, well, nothing, really... whatever you want, y'know, some sort of rationalism... it sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Surely the whole point of loosing your religion is to get rid of it, not replace it with some other arbitrary set of beliefs that you can proceed to get worked up about? And please nobody come in talking about scientific thought, that's a method, not a belief system. And quite possibly an oxymoron. And I know enough about it to argue that case until the cows come home, get milked, and go back out into the paddock. So there.

I'm aware that there a sadly unenlightened parts of the world where people have to deal with the agendas of self-appointed religious thinkers on a regular basis. That's unfortunate, of course, and a huge drain on resources that would be better spent elsewhere. I don't have to deal with the kind of concerted nonsense that scientists get in those backward countries, but do I teach in biology courses with a strong evolutionary slant. You can't actually teach general biology any other way and do a good job of it, by the way. I've never had a student take exception to that general slant, either because it's pretty obviously the unifying theme in at least one course I teach in (at least the way I teach it), or because they're keeping their real opinions quiet.

If that last point is the case, it's a wise move. I'm an evolutionary biologist with an interest in social history. If anyone does ever seriously try to bring up a creationist line of argument with me in my professional capacity, I've got at my disposal the metaphysical equivalent of a muscle-bound Austrian with a mini-gun and lots of ammunition; the resulting scene would not be pretty. I have no desire to create such a scene in general conversation though. It's not good dinner-table conversation, that's for sure. And it's not an argument I would particularly enjoy, even though I like arguing, for two reasons: firstly, like I said, I don't much care what other people choose to believe in, as long as they're prepared to do me the same courtesy; but mostly because as a wise man (actually it might have been Barbara Hambly) once said, you should never argue with a drunkard or a zealot. Neither of them know when they're beaten. And they're both boring.

And life is too short for all that.

Late to the party but let me salute you. I'm with you on the trendy "new atheism" and its evangelical aspect--I roll my eyes when I run into that.

I hear much more about religion from one of my atheist relatives than I hear from my Evangelical Christian friend. The difference, of course, is that the former wants to convince me that he's right, while the latter just wants to live and let live.

Not that I haven't dealt with my share of religious proselytizers and pressure. As a mildly religious person raising an atheist child, I'm trying hard to show my son that he can be open about his atheism and expect others to respect his stance. In very Christian Texas, this isn't always easy. By the same token, I expect him not to evangelize or generalize about religious people, tempting though it may be.

I would love to hear your anti-creationist line of argument, should you care to share it. I get uneasy when people try to blend Genesis with evolution, something I encountered as a student and a teacher. I think that approach misapplies a spiritual myth and muddies science. The weirdest thing I heard was "the Bible tells a story and science proves it." Yikes.
Morning, kcb, long time no redneck.

There are people who do the anti-creationist gig far better than me.

I'm most likely to encounter sadly misguided undergraduates from unenlightened backgrounds, and I know enough to give back fact for every half-truth or outright silliness they might have been told elsewhere. There's two aspects to it, of course. First is "here is the evidence", and there are a lot more evidence than most creationists realise. The other angle is the social one: I don't see any reason for the re-emergence of flat-earth creationism except as a means for people in religious authority to extend their own power. Darwin put the final nails in the lid of The Argument From Design as a serious philosophical premise over 100 years ago, and most proper religious thinkers (as opposed to self-serving bible-thumpers) don't have an issue with that (my better half's mother is a trained theologist, for instance, and she's interested rather than offended by what both I and her daughter spend our time on).

To me, the social aspect is the over-riding one in the current climate, and it's the reason any such debate is likely to turn unpleasant. Telling people "you've been told that by someone who wants to manipulate you, as yourself why they want to manipulate you" is not a great way to win friends, especially if that's someone they look up to or have been taught to respect.
That should be "ask yourself".
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