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I finally got around to watching the videos at the heart of the academic kerfuffle between John Haught (noted theologian) and Jerry Coyne (noted biologist and atheist activist). On the one hand, I agree with Haught that in many ways this was not a fruitful academic debate. And I think that Coyne shouldn't have called Haught a coward for not wanting to release the video: that kind of ad hominem attack rarely does anyone any good.

On the other hand, the fault for the academic failure of this debate, it seems to me, is entirely John Haught's. The reason dialog failed here is because the two sides failed to come to terms at the outset: as Haught rightly noted, when he and Coyne use the same words (like "science" and "faith") they frequently meant very different things.

But the whole point of Coyne's presentation was to explain why theology's use of such words is not substantive and not grounded in reality. He did a pretty good job, I thought, although he might have worked harder at demonstrating that he understood Haught's take before demolishing his theology's conceptual framework.

By contrast, Haught's job was to explain why theology's take on the concepts is sound -- as sound as science -- and he completely failed. What he offered was a concept of "explanatory pluralism" (which seems to me to be borrowed from Aristotle): physics and chemistry might explain why water boils, for instance, but another equally legitimate explanation is that a person wants a cup of tea. He accuses atheists of "scientism" and "explanatory monism" when they insist that the only legitimate explanation is the physical one (physics and chemistry) and not the agent-centered one (a person wants some tea).

But the truth is that whole fields of science are devoted to understanding the behavior of agents, and no atheist denies that sometimes people want tea. On this scale, Haught's accusation of explanatory monism is a baldfaced lie.

What Haught wants us to do, in truth, is to accept the argument from design, dressed up as explanatory pluralism. He argues that we should legitimize faith in god on the grounds that just as boiling water has many causes, including agents who want tea, that the universe itself can be explained in many ways, including the will of an agent, i.e. god. This is no different from William Paley's watchmaker argument -- the one discredited by Darwin's theory -- except that Haught explains away the lack of direct evidence for god by saying that such evidence belongs to a realm of experience that people must be transformed in order to receive, and we're just not there yet. (Not most of us, anyway.)

And he wants to define evolution as a process leading towards the the day when people will be transformed to grasp the divine nature of things. This, of course, is an abuse of the scientific concept of evolution by natural selection, and there's no reason Jerry Coyne or any educated person should agree to it.

In this kerfuffle, if one wants to take offense at anything, it should be to take offense at a scholar and an entire discipline -- theology -- that demands respect and collegiality in exchange for lying, distorting, and bullshitting. If Coyne's brusqueness offends more than this, then one has misplaced one's priorities in my opinion.

The whole reason we accept that "people want tea" can be can explanation for boiling water is precisely that we can see people boiling water to make tea when they've expressed a desire for tea. We have evidence. But when god is offered as an explanation for existence itself, or for orderliness in the universe, or for a moral sense, evidence-minded people reject the claim precisely because there is no evidence for the claim.

Haught's entire presentation is an exercise in double-think designed to turn absence of evidence into evidence, and designed to transform a long-discredited argument from design into an argument from pluralism, which is to say, an argument from the appearance (but not fact) of open-mindedness.

If Haught really cared about pluralism, in my opinion, he'd have taken the trouble to establish the legitimacy of Christian theology (as opposed to the Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or any of a thousand others) before offering it as a proxy for all of religious experience in this debate. But he didn't because his kind of theology is a bankrupt discipline: it's about finding and selling any reason you can find to justify what you already believe, not about finding the truth whether you like it or not.
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Someone's wrong on the Internet!

tl;dr: Rebecca Watson, a leader in the skeptical/atheist movement mentioned that being propositioned by a guy who's a complete stranger while alone in an elevator at 4 a.m. is creepy and unwelcome behavior, and she suggested that avoiding such behavior is a first step that men can take towards making sure women feel welcome and safe in the predominantly male skeptical/atheist movement, a goal that most men in the movement claim to want to accomplish. Subsequently many people—mostly but not only men—read implications into her complaint that simply aren't there and went apeshit all over the atheist blogosphere. Watson replied to those complaints in turn, and now she's under attack for her reply to the replies.

Good summaries are available from Amanda Marcotte, PZ MyersJen McCreight, and Phil Plait.

EDIT: And here's a new post from Rebecca Watson. It makes me sad, but I'm afraid I agree with her. I want to argue for moderation, but I've met enough clueless guys in atheist circles to think she's right to put her foot down.

What I think I'm seeing in many comments to these posts, and in many replies to Watson herself, is a sustained failure of the imagination. So here's my small attempt to make it plain. 

The problem of rape

I'm a guy of average height and average build. If I were getting on an elevator at four in the morning, exhausted after a very long day, and a complete stranger followed me in (especially if this stranger was bigger than me in the way that most men are bigger than most women; especially if I'd seen this guy hanging around my group of acquaintances, but he's never actually spoken to me until now; especially if I had voiced my need and intent to go to sleep), and if he bluntly invited me back to his room, I'd be scared.

Maybe not as legitimately scared as a woman might be, for whom the odds of being assaulted or raped in a situation like this are vastly higher, but I'd still be scared. I'd be dealing with a complete unknown where the only thing I know for sure is that the guy in question is thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. He might just be socially inept, but then there are many guys who like to use intimidation when they ask for/demand sex, and he might be one of those. The fact that he's waited for this moment to get me alone argues strongly in favor of the latter. This is a situation that has no redeeming features in it whatsoever. No excuse exists for this man except that his stupidity might be an innocent stupidity. But frankly that's asking a lot, even of human stupidity.

And guys, if you can't imagine yourself as the woman in this scenario, then imagine it's your daughter, your wife, your sister, or your mother. Your girlfriend, or maybe just your best friend. Remember that compared to men, women get harassed, assaulted, and raped a lot. Way too much. Make an effort to understand—it's not that hard to do.

The problem of respect

But let's take fear of rape off the table, just for the sake of argument. Maybe the guy just wasn't that scary. Nevertheless, he'd been hanging around the group and would have heard Watson announce that she was tired and needed to get some sleep. In spite of this he followed her into the elevator, ignored what she had just said, and propositioned her.

He claimed to be interested in the things she had been speaking about, but ignored what she'd just said for the sake of propositioning her.

This, I think, is the heart of the unwanted sexual objectification that Watson is talking about. The problem is not that the guy found her attractive, and it's not that he made a move; it's that he completely dismissed her context and her interests so that he could try to get into her pants. The clearly stated desires of the person in whom he claimed to take interest had gone in one ear and out the other without lingering in the regions between.

Even if all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a conversation, he's trying to get it by ignoring the woman's stated wishes.

That makes the elevator guy kind of a creep.

Now, what Rebecca Watson said in response to this incident is not that men are bad, or that men should never flirt with or hit on women; what she said was that this particular behavior creeped her out, and that atheist/skeptic men who want women to feel welcome in the atheist/skeptic movement shouldn't do it. That's all.

To me this observation is utterly unremarkable. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments accumulating on atheist and skeptical blogs defending fragile male egos from ludicrous caricatures of Watson's point as a result of her observation. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments treating a criticism of one narrow kind of behavior as an attack on all male sexuality. What's more remarkable are the thousands of second-order comments attacking Watson again for pointing out the problems with the first kind of comment.

(Except it's not remarkable at all, because this is what feminists have been putting up with for more than a hundred years.)

Every atheist and skeptical activist I've met claims that part of their motivation is to support and improve universal human rights by demolishing the kinds of religious and superstitious myths that prop up discrimination and hatred. I think that's admirable; it's a point of view I share.

But if we enlightened modern secular western guys can't take the concerns of the women in our midst seriously, how can we claim to be working for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, say, or in deepest, darkest Utah?

So I think we need to add some myths to the list of false beliefs that we should challenge. Here are two to start with.

  • Men do not have a right to expect women to cheerfully treat with respect any and every sexual advance, just as long as it falls short of physical violence.
  • Men do not have a right to expect women to be silent, to protect them from their stupidity for the sake of whatever organization or movement they might happen to be a part of.

Until we men figure these things out, we can't really claim to be good humanists, and probably not even decent human beings.

(I think that a lot of men have figured this out, actually, but I suspect that many of them would rather nod in agreement than wade into a flame-fest on a comment thread. Even I don't want to do that, which is why I'm posting my thoughts here.)

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Christianity or Islam from

This is the thing that always gets me about religious apologetics. The speaker -- especially Christians in my experience, but I've seen it from Muslims and Buddhists as well, and I have no reason to think anybody else is any different -- takes the plausibility of their own mystical, mythical, supernatural tradition for granted. As though the question of whether a divinity exists rests just on the plausibility of the stories in the Bible or Koran, or on the historicity of a particular prophet or guru.
So if atheism really turns you off, I'd ask you to do a thought experiment. Ponder the people who believed in Thor and Odin and Frejya, or in Apollo, Demeter, and Athena...don't worry so much about the gods, think about the people who prayed and sacrificed to these gods for the sake of a safe childbirth, for the hope that their sons would return from the war, for the hope that rain would feed the crops, for the strength and courage and wisdom needed to carry out their domestic and public duties. Imagine that you're one of them and that you take your devotion to those gods just as seriously as you might now entertain the reality of Yahweh, Christ, or Allah. (Imagine further that your choice of god doesn't depend on which religion happens to field the biggest army.)
How can you be fair to those people? What does it mean to treat their inner lives with as much respect as you expect for your own? Are you capable of distinguishing the preferences that stem from habit, culture, and upbringing from actual evidence for your beliefs and theirs?
It's worth thinking about.

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Normally I'm "rah rah rah" for atheism, but today I think I'll post links to a pair of thoughtful essays that look critically at the state of atheist culture.

First is "You Don't Have to Be a Skeptic to be an Atheist" by Amy at the blog Skepchick.  Amy reports on her experience at the recent Atheist Alliance International convention, where she's surprised by the number of people so committed to railing against religion that they're unaware of a broader skeptical movement.

Second is "Culture and Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism", by Terry Eagleton.  This is an essay that feels a bit quaint in its willingness to indulge in sweeping generalizations about the nature of civilization and culture.  I think Eagleton makes a mistake in equating what he calls liberal humanism with something that would better be called technocratic utopianism, and I think he's also mistaken in thinking that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are the standard-bearers for that utopianism -- they both strike me as people resigned to an understanding that human nature is far too intrinsically shifty to be the object of mass scientific reformation.  (They just don't think this is an excuse for excusing superstition.)

I'm going to want to think about the second essay some more.  I can feel myself reacting defensively to it, and that would be contrary to the spirit of skepticism, after all.

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The Wall Street Journal commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to write short essays to answer the question, "Where does evolution leave God?"

Ooo, watch him blather! )


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June 2012



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