On Gervais, "Science", and "Religion"
This tweet by Ricky Gervais showed up in my Facebook friendslist a bunch:
This moved me to a nice rant, which follows in two versions. Short version for the Tl;dr Brigade:
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.
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