Posts Tagged Richard Dawkins

“Friendly” Atheist wonders why people don’t trust Richard Dawkins

A blogger named Hemant Mehta writes a column at which he calls “Friendly Atheist.” On June 18, 2015 he wrote about a scientific article published in the journal Public Understanding of Science by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University, and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University. The original article is:

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment (2015)

The blog at Friendly Atheist is titled “New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers” (June 18, 2015)

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

The atheist blogger does not like the scientific results of the study, which find that Christian scientist Francis Collins is more effective at persuading people that religion and science are compatible, than New Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins is at persuading people that religion and science must be in opposition to each other. But what caught my attention here is how this blogger attributes the difference to “social prejudice” against atheists. The self-proclaimed “Friendly” Atheist is taking a page from Ken Ham’s playbook at Answers in Genesis. Young-earth creationists routinely claim to be persecuted for their views, and here is “Friendly” Atheist claiming the same thing:

The one thing this suggests for me is that scientists who are known for being atheists will have a hard time moving the public with them because of social prejudice.

The word “prejudice” means pre-judgment. No, “Friendly” Atheist is wrong. It is a case of simple judgment. When the general public sees Professor PZ Myers pulling an offensive stunt like The Great Desecration of a communion wafer, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that New Atheists are very dislikable people. If some of the public, religious or not, encounter his foul-mouthed ranting on Pharyngula, the judgment is confirmed. Word gets around. Very few voters want a Mayor or Senator like PZ Myers in public office.

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Just about every presentation of young-earth creationism I have seen features a few inflammatory quotations by Richard Dawkins, sure to provoke outrage among the Christian fundamentalists. YEC activists are savvy enough to know that Dawkins moves their target audience away from science. Richard Dawkins is the best friend that young-earth creationism has ever had.

And it’s not just the prominent New Atheists who are ill-mannered and uncouth. The “Friendly” Atheist was unable to comment on the historical Adam without including the f-word in his post:

“There Was No Historical Adam” (June 2011)

I love how some Christians are debating things that secular science figured out a long fucking time ago.

The social problems of the New Atheists are entirely of their own making. Now of course we know that the First Amendment protects free speech. Hemant Mehta is free to fill up his “Friendly” Atheist blog with insults, cuss words, profanity, and foul language. Then he can claim “social prejudice” against the New Atheists and their causes. But nobody else will be surprised if the general public (outside of his blog followers) doesn’t buy it.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that most atheists (lower case a) will inevitably be stereotyped by the uncivilized behavior of the few prominent New Atheists. None of my friends have to use the f-word when discussing a theological matter. It’s up to the mainstream atheists to distance themselves from the ill-mannered activists.

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment

The research and publication by Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund is far more interesting than the “Friendly” Atheist would have you believe. They used Francis Collins as the archetype of the religious scientist and Richard Dawkins as the archetype of the atheist scientist. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and one of the New Atheist activists.

For the relationship between faith and science, the researchers considered three philosophical models:

  • Conflict: Faith and science must be in opposition to each other.
  • Independence: Faith addresses questions of morality, while science discovers how the natural world works.
  • Collaboration: Faith and science influence and guide each other toward better results.

Scheitle and Ecklund note that “While this conflict narrative receives a great deal of attention, a relatively small proportion of the US public states that they personally see religion and science as in conflict (Baker, 2012).” Young-earth creationists and New Atheists most commonly hold the Conflict model.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is well-known for advocating the independence model with his “non-overlapping magisteria.” Theistic evolutionists hold the Collaboration model (such as Francis Collins, Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and Karl Giberson).

So here is what Scheitle and Ecklund did. They analyzed the Religious Understandings of Science (RUS) study. Respondents to the study were asked if they had ever heard of a scientist named Dr. Richard Dawkins, or Dr. Francis Collins. If not, then some respondents were given a short description of that scientist, including their position as Conflict or Collaboration between faith and science. Others were given no description (and presumably were left forever wondering why the survey would ask about that scientist). Finally the survey respondents were asked to state their preferred position; and if Conflict, which side they personally were on. Table 2 shows the results for Richard Dawkins [Scheitle and Ecklund 2015].

Table 2: Richard Dawkins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.6 14.7 -0.9
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 10.7 12.4 +1.7
Independence Gould 35.8 34.4 -1.4
Collaboration Theistic science 38.0 38.6 +0.6

The researchers say that these small changes are not statistically significant, and since I’m not a statistician I’ll take their word for it. Nevertheless, Dawkins seems to increase his New Atheist position by a small number (+1.7%), at the expense of the Gould Independence position (-1.4).

Table 3: Francis Collins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.4 10.3 -5.1
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 12.5 11.2 -1.3
Independence Gould 36.8 28.7 -8.1
Collaboration Theistic science 35.3 49.8 +14.5

Francis Collins makes the numbers change. The researchers state that the changes in Table 3 are statistically significant. Collins reduces the New Atheists by a small amount (-1.3%). But the big message here is that Francis Collins takes significant portions of Young-Earth Creationists (-5.1%) and Gould Independence advocates (-8.1%), and converts them to his own Collaboration model (+14.5%). And all by just a short description of his professional status and religious views. That’s remarkable!

Why is Francis Collins more convincing than Richard Dawkins?

Why does Francis Collins have more convincing power than Richard Dawkins in the RUS survey? Scheitle and Ecklund suggest:

  1. Familiarity. Although Richard Dawkins may be unknown, his Conflict position is familiar from media coverage of religion and science. Readers are neither surprised nor swayed by the Dawkins description. It follows that the New Atheists can manage to convince about 12.4% of the population that their Conflict position is correct, but that’s about all they will get.

    Francis Collins, on the other hand, presents a surprise to many survey respondents. Table 1 of the original paper notes that 21.4% of the respondents had heard of Dawkins, while only 4.3% had heard of Collins. It follows that theistic scientists can convince 49.8% of the population that their Collaborative position is correct, if we can just get the word out.

  2. Perceived credibility. Scheitle and Ecklund state, “research has shown that the US public is generally distrustful of atheists and view them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious, and minority groups (Edgell et al., 2006; Gervais et al., 2011).” This is the point that “Friendly” Atheist Hemant Mehta calls “social prejudice” in order to deflect the blame elsewhere. Yet episodes like PZ Myers and The Great Desecration at his blog Pharyngula show that this distrust is well-deserved. We never know what offensive stunt the New Atheists are going to pull next.
  3. Tone and Openness. The researchers suggest that Francis Collins’ message is more appealing to the public. Richard Dawkins’ message, and the combative way he expresses it, does not appeal to anyone not already in his camp.

I will suggest another reason: 4. The Conflict model of Dawkins, Myers, and Jerry Coyne is just plain wrong. The very existence of Francis Collins, a world-class scientist and evangelical Christian, disproves their thesis of inevitable conflict. And if he were not enough, the thousands of scientific papers published annually by religious scientists provide sufficient evidence that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science.

The “Friendly” Atheist blog of June 18, 2015 is another example of atheists vehemently rejecting science when they don’t like the results (see Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 6). In this respect the New Atheists are much like their opposite counterpart, the Young-Earth Creationists. Science does not mix well with ideology, no matter what extreme position is the source of that ideology.

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Movie Review of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”

Last night I went to see Ben Stein’s film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” at my local hexadecaplex. For $9.75 I got to see a terrible movie, and you got this review. I recently served as a guest speaker for an adult Sunday School class entitled, “The Harmony of Faith and Science” at a local Christian church, so this topic is fresh in my mind. I brought a clipboard with me and did my best to take notes in the dark: 5 pages of notes, and 3 more afterwards out in the cinema lobby.

The “Expelled” movie starts right off with an amateurish cinematic device: displaying old black-and-white newsreels of bad historical events while the narrator intones something you’re supposed be scared of. The opening sequence features the construction of the Berlin Wall. Throughout the movie we see clips of tanks, guns, Nazi soldiers, fistfights, a condescending school teacher, even Eddie Haskell beating up The Beaver! – flashing up on the screen whenever Ben Stein talks about Something Bad. When the film makes claims of repression and academic unfairness, you can bet that another old newsreel with scratchy sound is coming. My audience even laughed at a guillotine coming down on an empty block, it was so ridiculous! These clips are a childish device for trying to convince people. I don’t know why anyone over the age of 10 would fall for them.

Anyone expecting a Christian movie here will be disappointed. By my count Jesus is only mentioned in a background song, and the word “Christ” is spoken once. The Bible is mentioned a couple of times, but the Book is never opened. God is mentioned a fair number of times, but mostly in the general sense. The movie contains no in-depth discussion of God’s revelation in the Bible or in the person of Jesus Christ.

The movie reviews at Wikipedia and Scientific American are scholarly reviews, with proper citations and clear reasoning. They leave you with the unfortunate impression that “Expelled” is in the same class of scholarship. But make no mistake – “Expelled” is a really bad movie! Even those bad reviews make the movie sound more sophisticated than it really is. Think of Ben Stein blundering his way through a series of interviews and you’ll have a better idea of what “Expelled” is about.

The movie makes some astoundingly wrong claims. David Berlinski states, “We don’t even know what a species is!” Huh? What has he been reading? A speciesis “often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are often used, such as based on similarity of DNA or morphology.” It is true that species distinctions are sometimes fuzzy, but this fuzziness is evidence for evolution. Berlinski is citing evidence for evolution in the very act of denying that there is any.

I was amused to see how the filmmakers used bad lighting and unusual camera angles to make Richard Dawkins look like a vampire. Dawkins The Vampire appears throughout the movie, the very embodiment of all that is evil in modern science. He even gets his own theme music; my fellow movie-goers were very polite not to holler out “Don’t go in there!” Dawkins The Vampire is extremely useful to Ben Stein for creating Outrage, and this is the same use that creationists have for him.

“Expelled” attempts to make the usual creationist connection between “Darwinism” and atheism. This is bunk. Looking for theology in Origin of Species is a bit like looking for fishing techniques in the Gospels; you can find valid information, but it’s obvious that the main message is something else. Nevertheless, here is how Charles Darwin closed his Sixth Edition:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

The “Creator” is Darwin’s reference to God in the Victorian language of his time. Darwin may be a Deist or an agnostic, but the theological view expressed here is certainly not atheism.

If anyone cares what Adolf Hitler said, here is a quotation from Mein Kampf regarding God:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord (Adolf Hitler, 1943, in Mein Kampf. Translated by R. Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Volume 1: A Reckoning, last sentence of Chapter 2: Years of Study and Suffering in Vienna).

If this blog were a Ben Stein “documentary” we would zoom in on the words “Almighty Creator”, like he does with a quotation by Thomas Jefferson. However . . .

I need to review an important concept for everyone’s benefit: The Christian Church does not formulate doctrine based on the views of Adolf Hitler. The Church does not derive its position on biological evolution by examining the views of Adolf Hitler. The Church does not take a stance on homosexuality based on what Adolf Hitler did. The Church does not learn about the Creator based on what Adolf Hitler wrote, either in a positive or a negative sense. I hope that’s clear now. And by the way, checking against Mein Kampf is not part of the scientific peer-review process either.

My Anglican church uses the Bible to determine doctrine, and the Bible alone. Anglican Article Six states: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” So what does the Bible say? Here are some verses from Genesis 1:

11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

The Bible describes the earth as God’s agent of creation – the earth brings forth life at God’s command. This picture is in accordance with a theistic view of evolution, or BioLogos if you prefer the terminology of Francis CollinsKenneth Miller also holds this view. Genesis 2 emphasizes that life is ultimately made from dirt, which is also in accordance with biological evolution.

Ben Stein raises the possibility that Christianity and evolution are compatible, citing the positions of the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations, then quickly discards the notion based on quotations by Dawkins The Vampire and a reporter (with glasses; I didn’t catch his name). I don’t know why any Christian would expect theological truth to come out of Richard Dawkins’ mouth. But Stein gets the brief quotes he wants and then quickly moves onward, but not so quickly that he can’t mention the term “liberal Christians”. Later Count Dawkula reads through a list of insulting terms for the God of the Old Testament.

I simply can’t believe the claims of academic unfairness in “Expelled” without further investigation. The movie quickly and firmly establishes its non-trustworthiness through the use of those interspersed newsreel clips. If Ben Stein will do that, he’ll do anything. Here in Boulder we are familiar with the recent case of Ward Churchill, and we know that there is often a large discrepancy between why a person says he was fired and what his employer says. I’m not going to sit there in a movie theater and say, “Gosh this is a “documentary”! Everything must be true!” I recommend reading the Wikipedia article for more information.

During many interviews it’s obvious that the film editors have selected certain short film segments from a larger interview to make that person look bad or stupid. If the subject rubs his nose during the interview you’re sure to see that clip. Ben Stein acts needlessly stupid and looks bored during most interviews. Is this some kind of clever interviewing technique? A particularly stupid comment from Stein is, “I thought science was determined by the evidence, not by the courts!” Kitzmiller vs. Dover did not decide a scientific question; it decided that Intelligent Design could not be taught in the public schools.

There were two people in the film for whom I have great respect: Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne. McGrath is the author of an excellent book about the King James Bible that you should read. He delivers a convincing and well-deserved criticism of Dawkins The Vampire. The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne is a Physicist and an Anglican priest. Elsewhere Polkinghorne has stated: “As all sensible people know, scientific Evolution is completely compatible with Christianity: so is Gravity, Relativity (and the rest of Physics, Chemistry and Biology for that matter).” Stein claims that nobody he interviewed believes that evolution and faith are compatible, but that’s obviously not true.

The tour of the Nazi medical facility at Hadamar was sobering. Ben Stein exploits this event by prompting the tour guide to connect it with Darwinism. The only substantial connection between Darwin and Hitler was to interview Richard Weikart and talk about his book From Darwin to Hitler. But anti-Semitism existed for centuries before Darwin! Even Ben Stein concedes that “Darwinism does not automatically equate to Nazism, but was used to justify it.” And Hitler was a psychopath who would twist any “hodgepodge of ideas” to suit his purposes.

Eugenie Scott comes across pretty well, despite the best efforts of Stein and the film editors. They do manage to show that she has a messy desk. There is very little of substance in this movie.

I was surprised to see Michael Behe, the Apostle of Intelligent Design, neither featured nor even mentioned in the “Expelled” movie. Perhaps he was not invited to appear in the film, or he wisely decided not to have anything to do with this farce.

I expected that the “Expelled” movie would make me angry. Instead, I was chuckling as I left the theater. I was chuckling at how pathetic the movie was! “Expelled” might become a cult film someday: “How Not To Make A Documentary”, or “How To Make A Totally Unconvincing Movie While Looking Like A Buffoon”. “Expelled” is just a terrible movie!

At the very end Ben Stein confronts Dawkins The Vampire one final time. It’s hard for me to believe that Count Dawkula, as smart is he is supposed to be, did not see that he was being set up to be the villain. But that’s exactly what happens. Count Dawkula also fell for the oldest interviewer trick in the book: Stein remains silent, and the evil Count thinks he has to fill in the awkward silence with something. So Count Dawkula rambles into speculation about how if there were intelligent designers who designed this planet, they must also have evolved. But it’s mostly incoherent. Score one for Ben Stein.

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