The past week has seen two cases of atheists flexing their ideological muscles in science journals. The first, in Current Biology, is a news report that is effectively a propaganda piece for Richard Dawkins.
"Britain's champion atheist, Richard Dawkins, is spearheading a campaign to challenge the dominance of religion in everyday life and in politics, insisting that the atheists deserve to be heard too. Atheists in the US "have been downtrodden for a very long time. So I think some sort of political organisation is what they need," he says. Religion is noticeable in US schools, places of work and public institutions in a way that would seem inappropriate in countries like the UK."
There are many aspects of this piece that make it unfit to be published in a science journal, not the least of which is the presumption that Dawkins' crusade will be welcomed by scientists. I will comment on just one other point: atheists are not a downtrodden group. Since the Enlightenment, it has been customary to distinguish sharply between "facts" and "values", with science grabbing the domain of facts, leaving the values to individuals: our very personal and private views. As a result, the intelligentsia has developed (in the US and the UK) within a framework of tacit atheism. Consequently, atheists feel perfectly at home within the intellectual milieu of these countries, and it is Christians who are hounded if they say anything in public forums that implies accountability to God or ethical/moral principles that relate to humanity as a whole (rather than expressing a personal conviction). The fact/value split (also known as the faith/knowledge dichotomy) is not just Enlightenment epistemology, it has become a major strategy for demarcating science and maintaining power - see Johnson's 1995 review (below).
The other case of atheist flag-waving is in a book review in today's Nature. Adam Rutherford, who is podcast producer for Nature, contributes an over-enthusiastic review of the PBS/NOVA documentary: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. This is yet another telling of the story of the "Intelligent Design" trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. Rutherford's battle cry on 18 June 2007 was "I call upon atheists everywhere to stand up and be counted." He wanted his readers to know he is a humanist and a Darwinian. This is a reviewer who needs to be very careful not to allow his ideology to spoil his judgment. Unfortunately, he fails badly. The review is full of smears and innuendo. Here is a sampling: ID is a "pseudo-intellectual fundamentalist fig-leaf"; "one feels almost sorry for the intelligent-design team, they're so inept"; "its champions take comments from scientists out of context and even lied under oath"; the trial "marked the official neutering of this unpleasant, sneaky movement". He wants sensible people to "use science and reason to combat fundamentalism." Unfortunately, his review uses neither science nor reason to counter the influence of Intelligent Design and it is very regrettable that the editors of Nature have allowed this example of ideological invective to be printed.
Since the documentary is soon to be released, it would be advisable for viewers to check out an ID website www.intelligentdesign.org that is designed to be a portal for people to learn about ID as well as responses to the Judgment Day documentary. A short Youtube video gives the gist of how the program is perceived.
Call to atheists
Current Biology, Vol 17, R899-R900, 06 November 2007
Summary: Britain's most plangent critic of religion has set up a new campaign to support atheists, particularly in the US. Nigel Williams reports.
Dover trial documentary screens
Nature, 450, 170 (8 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/450170a
EXHIBIT REVIEWED-Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, produced by NOVA & Vulcan Productions for PBS, broadcast on 13 November on PBS
Johnson, P.E. The Soul of the American University, First Things (March 1995).
Excerpt: The crucial issue in the universities [. . .] is the faith/knowledge dichotomy. From a scientific point of view, "knowledge" is inherently empirical, coming from sense experience and scientific investigation. This is the legacy of positivism, a philosophy that achieved its culminating triumph in the Darwinian theory of evolution. In modern universities professors take for granted that the universe began with something like particles in mindless motion governed by impersonal laws, and that everything that has appeared since is the product of a purely naturalistic process of physical, chemical, and biological evolution. "Everything that has appeared since" includes things like human religious and ethical beliefs, which are themselves presumed to be products of things like brain chemistry and natural selection. The worldview of scientific naturalism preserves a place for religious beliefs: a place, that is, among the things to be explained by scientific methodology. [. . .] All efforts to assert Christianity in the university ended in futility because of the inability or unwillingness of the Christians to challenge naturalism's monopoly over the production of knowledge.
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