Monday, July 5, 2010

Going after God


We've been in Oxford for a few days, and Sunday we went to the Cowley Street Carnival, a local Oxfordshire festival with a parade of a few floats, prancing girls, and school bands. On the grounds of South Park was a crowd enjoying the usual carnival atmosphere: food booths of all sorts, band shells with dancing and music, and tables for various groups working one form of social advocacy or another.

One of these was the Humanist Society (pictured here). We chatted with the congenial people tending the booth. There we learned that, as in any other cause, there is a schism. The high profile Oxford 'gown' Atheists' organization, with the strident-atheist scientists likes of Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins is one side, and the 'town' equivalent--the Oxford Humanists--who are independent is the other. The people we talked to were very nice, friendly, and intelligent. But some of them were elderly and nearing their realization point, at which they are likely to find out whether they or religious believers are really right.

Ok, we're kidding about the schism. There was no sense of tension or competition between the groups, but why they were separate is not clear (and we didn't ask). But what seems an unfair competition is between these groups and the withering Church of England. England is loaded with beautiful, old, ivy-covered churches and their ancient adjacent graveyards. Wonderful to look at while on country walks, most of which can be counted on to go past a church. But attendance is very low, and rather heavily among the aged. So much for its one-time power and influence as is so familiar in Victorian novels.

Blasting away at religion, by glib scientists who are convinced of their particular ideology, seems dated and unfair under these conditions, which are very different from the US where at least religious believers are numerous and vigorous enough to defend themselves (if often using false reasoning when it comes to debating whether biblical truths include things about real world history--such as the age of the earth, Noah's ark, and so on.

There are so many strident atheist-science blogs that we try not to get involved in the food fights. Scientists can come to believe in not-believing, and science can effectively challenge the material claims of received truth. But scientists cannot use science as we know it today to refute the possibility of a God nor the personal experience claimed by many religious believers.

But it was interesting to see the presence of the Humanists in the Cowley Street carnival, a mild-mannered slice of British civility that went well with the kebabs, burgers, children's rides, and folk-dance and rock-music groups in the band shells.

We're off to Paris tomorrow and the EED society meetings, a source of many things to blog about, we are sure.

8 comments:

Zachary Voch said...

"Blasting away at religion, by glib scientists who are convinced of their particular ideology, seems dated and unfair under these conditions, which are very different from the US where at least religious believers are numerous and vigorous enough to defend themselves (if often using false reasoning when it comes to debating whether biblical truths include things about real world history--such as the age of the earth, Noah's ark, and so on."


Who were the glib scientists and what was the ideology?

Is criticism of religion in Britain really so dated after the Blair era? Do they lack creationists?

I think the differences between the humanist and new atheist factions are political (how should organization X be focused) or questions of emphasis, not essential.

occamseraser said...

"But scientists cannot use science as we know it today to refute the possibility of a God nor the personal experience claimed by many religious believers."

Wow, you are usually much more clear-headed in your logical inferences and musings. Sure, Dawkins, PZ's blog and WEIS, among others, get in the faces of IDers, YECs and other religionistas trying to insert their fairy tales into educational curricula, science policy and govt politics -- and rightly so IMO. Accommodation isn't an option on these fronts, sorry.

And who is trying to "refute" whom? You need to examine the often strident agenda of the New Atheists more carefully. When claims are made about the material and naturalistic world, I don't see it as impolite to ask for evidence and something resembling a train of logical thought. Revealed wisdom and "personal [religious]experience" as a way of knowing? No thanks.

Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that evangelical atheists can be just as dogmatic and righteous as fundamental Islamic militants, evangelical American Christians, or traditional Catholics. Where some folks see insurmountable differences, I see behavior that just underlines our common humanity. The fact that there are schisms among atheist sects comes as no surprise and looks an awful lot like the Protestants, for example.

I also find it enormously entertaining that both "sides" try to use science to support their position when science, of course, cannot provide evidence for any religion (whether that religion involves a deity or not).

Zachary Voch said...

Yes, new atheists are equivalent to Islamists or evangelicals or ultratraditionalists... They are fundamentally dogmatic and dogmatic fundamentalists who are marginal, extreme, and extremely marginal.

*sigh*

Ken Weiss said...

There is too much to say here in response, and I'm too tired to say it all or well, but I will try make a few coherent comments.

OE, I agree that there can be no accommodation, and that those you mention do the important job of pushing back against the evangelical right. I'm with them on the politics of this, but, as we've blogged about here before, scientists have no privileged knowledge about the existence or non-existence of a deity, and yet, in my opinion, too many of them conflate their visibility and their role as scientists with special knowledge. Not to mention that too many scientists don't really understand enough about evolution to be valuable pro-evolution voices. Who will teach the teachers? So, yes, politics takes over, but that's because this is a culture war, not a scientific -- or even theological -- debate.

Unfortunately the tenor of such divisions of view aren't much different today from any other heretic-faithful division, only the shoes are on both feet, as both sides become polarized and intolerant to any attempt to soften the debate.

None of this is a defense of theological views, and there isn't anything like that in science that we know of that can do that. Anyway, the debate is not rationale given its current political situation in the US at present.

We're now in Paris where we hope that the EvoDevo meeting that starts tomorrow will generate some interesting things to think about.

I agree with you, Zachary, that fundamentalism is fundamentalism. It's interesting that when communism was our 'enemy', we met it with the Great Society, and people actually talked about improving the lot of the poor and so on. Now, when fundamentalism is our 'enemy', we meet it with fundamentalism.

occamseraser said...

Science is a way of knowing guided by the accumulation of information distilled from data and hypothesis testing. Evolutionary biology, and human evolution in particular, is no different. Yes, it is a culture war, and I prefer sometimes rude passion and strident confrontation to either bemused shrugging of the shoulders or outright accommodation to the religionista agenda.

Science illiteracy in the USA is sad testimony to the abysmal failure of our education system and the intellectual laziness of the masses. There is also no need to surrender to personal insecurities about death and to embrace culture-bound mythology in old age. How old do I need to be to get a free pass on logic and reason?

occamseraser said...

Stolen from WEIT:
Proper debate...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSLkQnCurgs

Zachary Voch said...

I agree, Dr. Weiss, but with some qualifications:


"I'm with them on the politics of this, but, as we've blogged about here before, scientists have no privileged knowledge about the existence or non-existence of a deity, and yet, in my opinion, too many of them conflate their visibility and their role as scientists with special knowledge."


This is true, but it's also true that nobody can make such a claim. This is true for theologians as well, who can claim expertise on theology, i.e. other theologians, but do they really have epistemic authority concerning gods? I don't believe that any scientists, even Dawkins, claim special expertise on the existence of gods in general, only the forms of gods/religions that make predictive claims about the natural world. These can indeed be evaluated by scientific and/or historical means.


"Not to mention that too many scientists don't really understand enough about evolution to be valuable pro-evolution voices. Who will teach the teachers? So, yes, politics takes over, but that's because this is a culture war, not a scientific -- or even theological -- debate."


Well, that's sort of the issue. As far as I can tell, the New Atheist writers do not want scientific organizations to make claims about religion, either for or against. The issue is the usage of scientific or educational organizations to expound the political line of accommodation, and further, the very active and well-funded attempts integrating religion into academia.


"Now, when fundamentalism is our 'enemy', we meet it with fundamentalism."


I can't really let that pass, now can I? By fundamentalism, do you mean outspokenness? There's been a lot of confusion on this matter, so I'll end with a question:

Are explicit atheists answering religious fundamentalism out of a concern for dogma? If so, what is that dogma? Is that dogma really something equivalent to an assumption or "faith" claim?

Side note: With what did we really meet Communism? Yes, there was the Great Society, but there was also much talk of dominoes and spheres of influence, enforced through a massive imperialist program. Overthrow of democratic regimes, etc. There was also COINTELPRO and McCarthyism. Yes, there was plenty of rhetoric about helping the poor, but compared to our resources and capabilities, the follow through was minimal.

It's like saying that the US is a stalwart defender of international human rights because it criticizes Iran in State Department releases.