Monday, December 04, 2006

Of Dawkins, Name-Calling And Repression of Science

Both James Joyner and Kevin Drum are talking today about an op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff in today's NYT that, in part, has a go at pro-evolution scientist Richard Dawkins.

I don't have the money to pay up for Times Select, but I found that conservative blogger Ann Althouse had the relevant bit:
[There is] an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive led in part by [Richard] Dawkins — the Oxford scientist who is author of the new best seller “The God Delusion.” It’s a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are proselytizing for....

[T]he tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is ... contemptuous and even ... a bit fundamentalist.

“These writers share a few things with the zealous religionists they oppose, such as a high degree of dogmatism and an aggressive rhetorical style,” says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Indeed, one could speak of a secular fundamentalism that resembles religious fundamentalism. This may be one of those cases where opposites converge.”...

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let’s hope that the Atheist Left doesn’t revive them. We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.
Now, I’ve actually met Dawkins, since my old Philosophy Prof. was a friend of his from their student days, and I’m going to have to stand up to defend him - with a caveat.

Dawkins is one of three really-scarily-clever people I’ve known in my life. The other two being my old Prof. and the SF writer Charlie Stross. His debate technique, which I have witnessed, is entirely that of British university philosphy - very bold, very demanding, and if you cannot argue on the terms of the debate logically then you will be blasted where you stand. If your opponent’s argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on, you don’t offer him one. It’s a rigorous atmosphere that takes no prisoners rather than a bombastic one. (You can see effects of this training in UK parliamentary debate or, indeed, in the hard-edged thought behind the comedy of the Monty Python team.)

Dawkins always loses out when he is reported by the media, I feel. Most of the journalists reporting his words seem to hone in on the most lurid expressions they can, isolating them, rather than the logic of rigorous thought that leads to that seeming “bombast” Controversy sells, but a huge amount is lost in translation.
And here’s the caveat - it has been 20 years since I last saw Dawkins in action. Maybe in that time fame and fortune have not been kind to his ego. Its a disease more than one bright light has succumbed to. I cannot say otherwise for sure.

But let us not lose sight of the realisation that attacking Dawkins for his abrasive manner is, essentially, a strawman which substitutes a far easier target instead of attacking his arguments on evolution vs. creationism.

Meanwhile, the creationists are up to stuff like this, giving a lie to any notion that they have given up the culture war:
Famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is giving no quarter to powerful evangelical church leaders who are pressing Kenya's national museum to relegate to a back room its world-famous collection of hominid fossils showing the evolution of humans' early ancestors.

Leakey called the churches' plans "the most outrageous comments I have ever heard."

He told The Daily Telegraph (London): "The National Museums of Kenya should be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory of the origins of mankind. The collection it holds is one of Kenya's very few global claims to fame and it must be forthright in defending its right to be at the forefront of this branch of science." Leakey was for years director of the museum and of Kenya's entire museum system.

..."The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact," said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, head of the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries.

"Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory," the bishop said.

Bishop Adoyo said all the country's churches would unite to force the museum to change its focus when it reopens after eighteen months of renovations in June 2007. "We will write to them, we will call them, we will make sure our people know about this, and we will see what we can do to make our voice known," he said.
Demanding that a museum hide away scientific material so as to avoid upsetting true believers is far, far more worthy of condemnation than any amount of calling people bad names. The extremists of the Christian Right don't really want Dawkins to be polite - they just want him to shut up.

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