I’m going to begin with where I entered this conflict—and make no mistake, it’s a real battle—with my experience in science education and specifically with the teaching of evolution. Biology has been a lifelong passion for me, and when I first began teaching back in the 1980s, it was a shock to discover students who had nothing but contempt for the great unifying principle of my discipline, who were happily wallowing in self-inflicted ignorance and who outright denied plain and simple facts about science. And when I discovered that there were ministers who came onto our campus and lied to our students, who presented half-truths and weird fantasies as substitutes for evidence, I was outraged. We “new atheists” have a reputation for being militant, but make no mistake: we didn’t start this war. If you want to place blame, put it on the religious zealots who have been poisoning the minds of the young for a long, long time.
There is another theme in this conflict: new atheists are so dang angry. Damned right we are. The real question is why everyone else isn’t. If you aren’t angry about what’s being done to undermine education in this country, you haven’t been paying attention!
But we also respond rationally. My early incredulity about the nonsense being promoted by creationists was followed by a lot of fact-finding. You can do it, too—look up the history of creationism, and you’ll find that we’ve been fighting this same battle for at least half a century, dealing with the same inane arguments over and over again. Where once Duane Gish was the creationist dinosaur roaming the earth, he was replaced by Kent Hovind, who has in his turn been superseded by Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, and Eric Hovind. Nothing has changed but the names. We have had a succession of court cases: Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, McLean v. Arkansas in 1982, Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, Kitzmiller v. Dover in 2005—are they coming to an end? Did any of these trials diminish the influence of creationists? One flare-up will be squelched, and next year there will be another. Similarly, we see a succession of politicians come and go, and nothing changes. Ronald Reagan becomes Rick Santorum becomes George W. Bush becomes another dreary chain of Republican know-nothings at every election cycle. The year 2010 saw Christine O’Donnell running for the Senate, and I’ve still got a local fundamentalist pastor coming on to my campus every week to instruct my students with the video fables of Brother Kent Hovind.
We have been treading water for fifty years. In one sense, that’s a very good thing: better to stay afloat in one place than to sink, and I am deeply appreciative of organizations like the National Council for Science Education that have kept us bobbing at the surface all this time (please don’t ever stop). But isn’t it also about time we learned a new stroke and actually made some progress toward the shore? Shouldn’t we move beyond just reacting to every assault on science education by Idiot America and honestly look at the root causes of this chronic malignancy—and do something about it?
The sea in which our country is drowning is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities, tired dogma tirelessly pushed by fervent but frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry: I don’t feel like drowning there either.
There is an answer. The only long-term solution is the sanity of secularism. The lesser struggles—to keep silly stickers off our textbooks or to keep pseudoscientific intelligent design out of our classrooms—are important, but they are also endless chores. At some point we just have to stop pandering to the ideological noise that spawns these unending tasks and cut right to the source: religion.
That’s where the new atheists get their confrontational reputation. We’re fed up with fighting off the symptoms. We need to address the disease. And if you’re one of those people trying to defend superstition and quivering in fear at the idea of taking on a majority that believes in foolishness, urging us to continue slapping bandages on the blight of faith, well then, you’re part of the problem—and we’ll probably do something utterly dreadful, like be rude to you or write some cutting, sarcastic essay to mock your position. That is our métier, after all.
There is another motive for our confrontational ways, and it has to do with values. We talk a lot about values in this country, so I kind of hate to use the word—it’s been tainted by the religious Right, which howls about “Christian values” every time the subject of civil rights for gays or equal rights for women or universal health care or improving the plight of the poor come up—true Christian values are agin those things, after all. But the new atheists have values, too, and premier among them is truth. And that makes us uncivil and rude, because we challenge the truth of religion.
Religion provides solace to millions, we are told: it makes them happy, and it’s mostly harmless. “But is it true?” we ask, as if it matters.
The religious are the majority, we hear over and over again, and we need to be pragmatic and diplomatic in dealing with them. “But is what they believe true?” we ask. Then we follow up with: “What do we gain by compromising on reality?”
Religion isn’t the problem, they claim—it’s only the extremists and zealots and weirdos. The majority of believers are moderates and even share some values with us. “But is a moderate superstition true?” we repeat, following up with, “How can a myth be made more true if its proponents are simply calmer in stating it?”
I mean, it’s nice that most Christians aren’t out chanting “God hates fags” and are a little embarrassed when some yokel whines that he didn’t come from no monkey, but they still go out and quietly vote against gay and lesbian rights, and they still sit at home while their school boards set fire to good science.
It’s all about the truth. And all the evidence is crystal clear: the Earth is far older than six thousand years. Evolution is a real process built on raw chance driven by the brutal engines of selection. And there is no sign of a loving, personal god, just billions of years of pitiless winnowing without any direction other than short-term survival and reproduction. It’s not pretty, it’s not consoling, it doesn’t sanctify virginity or tell you that God really loves your foreskin, but it’s got one soaring virtue that trumps all the others: it’s true.
You won’t understand what the new atheists are up to until you understand that core value. I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases; do you think I care? I did not become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers. I have been told that I must think promoting atheism is more important than promoting good science education. Tell me how closing my eyes to claims of an imaginary deity using quantum indeterminacy to shape human evolution helps students better understand reality. I’ve been told to hush; there are good Christians who support science, and a vocal atheism will scare them away. I have to ask: why do you question my support for science education and then pander to people who you admit will put their superstitions above science if someone says a harsh word about Jesus?
I have to follow the advice of Tom Paine: “A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” And I will insist that a principle worth holding is worth fighting for. We must confront untruths. Letting them lie unquestioned is simply a way to allow them to fester and grow.
I have to quote something I recently read by Ed Yong, the science journalist who blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science. He asks: “Should science journalists take sides?” While his question is specifically addressed to journalists, it applies equally well to scientists, humanists, or just plain citizens. The answer is yes—journalists should take sides, and I’m going to generalize and suggest that we should all take sides. Here’s what Yong wrote: “A veteran science journalist recently wrote: ‘Reporters are messengers—their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.’ That’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively ‘taking a side,’ then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.”
Too many of the godless believe in something even more: to avoid rocking the boat, to refrain from challenging dogma, to deftly avoid the issue when someone raises some religious folly. If you think you’re helping the cause with your cautious silence, then a brick wall is a public intellectual.
Yong also writes (it could have been written by a new atheist): “As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a ‘debate.’
“It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analyzing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting. It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.
“In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars.’ It shouldn’t be ‘journalists.’”
Earlier in the conference, we heard Paul Kurtz speak, and while I have great respect for his contributions to this secular movement, he did mischaracterize atheists, and I have to call him on it. One of the most common canards applied to us, and especially to the new atheists, is that we’re negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Jerry Coyne, and Victor Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors writing about reason and evidence and science; in their works you find front and center an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely antireligious, and you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been reading our books or articles for comprehension.
What may have confused some people, though, is that we also believe you can’t love the truth without detesting lies. We believe that an honest way of dealing with those lies is to confront them openly, head-on, and unapologetically. While some might rationalize accommodating unjustifiable distortions of the truth as a strategic option, there are a number of us who consider that principle to be one on which we will not compromise.