When did Darwin become an integral part of Western culture? I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and, at least in my own recollection, I do not remember ever having heard of Darwin. Of course, I studied biology in high school, and even took Biology 101 at university, but still I do not remember Darwin. Indeed, I found biology so crushingly boring, because it seemed to be just a matter of discrete facts about living things — fascinating, yet unrelated. There was no unifying principle, as I recall it now. Perhaps I was not paying attention, but I do not now remember that Darwin impinged on my consciousness as a towering figure. He did not register at all on my radar screen. I did not read the Origin until I was nearly sixty, and nothing has been the same since. Why was this not required of me before? Besides being a classic of science, it is a classic of English literature, but in my course on 19th century literature, Darwin was never mentioned. I read Carlyle and Wordsworth, Thomas Arnold and Coleridge, George Elliot and Newman, but not Darwin.
Albert Mohler, the nemesis of Biologos, was recently a guest columnist for the Christian Post, and yesterday published a piece entitled “The New Atheism and the Dogma of Darwinism.” It’s a pretty light-weight piece of yellow journalism, but he does get one thing right. Darwinism is undoubtedly the beginning of the end for religion. That’s why he keeps worrying it like a terrier. And that’s perhaps why, in my religious school, Darwin (so far as I can recall) was never even mentioned. Of course, like any school-boy growing up in the glories of the Himalayas, who would rather have been out hiking in the mountains of my childhood, perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. However, given the importance of Darwin for biology, it shouldn’t have been possible for me not to have heard, even if I had not been paying close attention. It is a tribute to the centrality of Darwin to biology that not even the Albert Mohlers of this world can ignore Darwin’s centrality and importance any more.
But then, of course, he misses the point. And that’s why one simply has to disagree with Aikin and Talisse over at 3 Quarks Daily. They have a post with a lot of falderal about how we need to respect believers, and that if the New Atheism means disrespect of religious believers, then they are not New Athiests in that sense:
… the distinction between being wrong and being stupid is essential to our cognitive lives. We affirm in Reasonable Atheism that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong. Yet having false beliefs does not make one stupid; it simply makes one wrong.
And, of course, who can argue with this? I can, and I will. There is an important difference between believers. There are believers like Albert Mohler, who might know better if he tried, and there are believers like the people who hang on Albert Mohler’s words of a Sunday morning. We have to respect many of the latter, because they trust Albert Mohler, and they are being misled by him. But Albert Mohler does not deserve our respect. He’s not just wrong, he’s culpably wrong, even if he is not stupid. And he needs to be held to account.
There is a fundamental dishonesty built into religion. It comes out clearly in John Shook’s book, The God Debates, that I am reading just now. John Shook thinks that it is incumbent upon atheists to join in the God debates, to learn as much as we can about religion and its argumentation so that we can join in the debates at a reasonably high level of sophistication. This I am willing to do, because it amuses me, but when you come upon things like the following, one has to admit that the argument is about air (and I apologise beforehand for quoting at such length):
There are two basic ways to design nonexistence proofs. The “dialectical nonexistence proof’ argues that two or more characteristics of a specific god are logically incompatible. A definition of something having logically incompatible characteristics can only be the definition of a necessarily nonexistent entity. Successful dialectical nonexistence proofs can show that specific kinds of gods cannot exist. For example, many Christians believe both that god is perfect and that god can suffer along with us. Maybe these two characteristics are contradictory. Figuring out how a perfect being can suffer requires conceptual refinements to god to avoid the negative verdict of a dialectical nonexistence proof. And even if these refinements go badly and one characteristic of god must go, theology can revise its conception of god. Avoiding dialectical nonexistence proofs is, from a flexible theology’s point of view, just another way for humanity to learn more about god.
This is not a caricature. This is the way theologians actually go to work. For example, Chapter 4 (“Divine Agency, Remodeled”) of Marilyn McCord Adams’ book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, is devoted to precisely this process of redefining God in such a way as to accommodate both God’s goodness and the manifest evils of the world. It is simply preposterous to suggest that this is an appropriate procedure for learning anything about anything. It’s a bit like making the crime fit the punishment, rather than the other way about.
So it is not surprising to find that Albert Mohler does not ask the question: Is the theory of evolution true? For it simply cannot be. He already knows the truth, and the truth that he knows is contradicted by the facts. So… what? The facts must be wrong! But he doesn’t recognise that this is what he is doing. He thinks, for example, that Dawkins’ reference to Holocaust denial in The Greatest Show on Earth is really a kind of moral disapproval:
As Richard Dawkins has recently argued, they believe that disbelief in evolution should be considered as intellectually disrespectable and reprehensible as denial of the Holocaust.
Of course, it is a kind of moral disapproval, for denying plain facts when they are staring you in the face is dishonest, and perhaps Dawkins did take a risk that his analogy would be misunderstood, since the Holocaust has become entangled with the guilty conscience of Christianity over its long history of antisemitism. But if Mohler had read carefully he would have seen that Dawkins’ use of the Holocaust is about acknowledging the plain facts of history, not about the moral faults of racism and antisemitism.
Of course, Mohler can’t see that, because he has other fish to fry, and he stares right through the facts to the “dogma” that he thinks lies behind the identification of those facts. And he does this, not because he can’t reason, or because he’s stupid, but because he’s …, well, what? Here’s where the hesitations begin, and people like Aikin and Talisse begin talking about respect. But what is there to respect in Mohler’s quite asinine attack on evolution? Certainly, it’s based on his religious beliefs, but why should we respect either him or his beliefs if he is, like the Holocaust denier, simply unwilling to accept what is true? Being wrong might not make Mohler stupid, but it does say something about his integrity — or lack thereof. If reasonable atheism, in Aikin and Talisse’s terms, means that we have to respect this man as a believer, then reasonable atheism is an ass.
The New Atheism says that there is no excuse for this nonsense. There is no excuse for intelligent people, who might know the truth, bandying about with falsehoods just to protect a favoured belief. Mohler is not only wrong, he is deliberately wrong. He may not be stupid, but he is dishonest. And this deserves no respect. Not only does it deserve our contempt, it deserves to be witheringly criticised. It is both dishonest and dangerous. Mohler might inform himself of the truth, but he refuses to do so for ideological reasons. But he also conveys his anti-intellectual values to those who consider him a religious authority.
In addition, Mohler goes even further. He tells us that
[Sam] Harris has argued that belief in God is such a danger to human civilization that religious liberty should be denied in order that science might reign supreme as the intellectual foundation of human society.
Of course, this is simply false. Sam Harris says no such thing. He does believe — and this is a defining feature of the New Atheism, in my view — that religion is dangerous. And he holds, appropriately, that religion does not deserve a place, as religion, in the public square. The religious beliefs of some should not govern what others may or may not do. The Roman Catholic Church is known to oppose abortion in any form. It believes that the conceptus/blastocyst/embryo/foetus has as just as much right to live as an adult human being who has a life with hopes, fears, plans, projects, self-regard and understanding, and all the other things that characterise adult human beings. This, with considerable justice, strikes others as ridiculous. To choose between a woman and the foetus growing inside her is a simple choice. The woman is more important than the foetus. If the church disagrees, it has a right to try to convince women of the wrongness of choosing abortion. It has no right to impose this choice on anyone. The same goes, in my judgement, for those at the end of life, or those suffering from degenerative conditions or disabilities that make life intolerable for them. They should be able to choose, when life is going disastrously wrong, that they want to bring their lives to an end.
Religions have consequences for other people, often completely unacceptable ones, and for this reason they do not deserve our respect. In fact, since they are so often dangerous, religions deserve our opposition. That does not mean that we should disrespect religious believers, so long as their religion is not such as to imply consequences for others that others have a right to reject. But as soon as religious believers break through this barrier into the public world, and begin to make claims that impose burdens on others who do not share the beliefs of believers, then believers deserve nothing but contempt.
When the pope rails against what he thinks of as modern relativism, then he deserves our contempt. When he seeks to impose burdens on people who do not share his particular outlook on the world, filtered as it is through his church’s lust for power, then we need to call him up short and tell him that he is entitled to his views, but he has no right to expect others to share his beliefs or his prejudices, and it is wrong of him to try to influence the public life of nations by the use of his quasi-state power. In fact, that is a good reason for denying the Vatican its pretended statehood.
But then came Darwin…. And Darwin changed everything. It is not true, as Mohler suggests, that before Darwin there was no coherent atheist position. It is true that David Hume was stumped when it came to the question of apparent design in the life world. But he was also ready to say — and with every show of reason — that the design seemed very faulty:
Look round this universe What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. but inspect a litle more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children. [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Kemp Smith edition, Bobbs-Merrill, 211 (Part X)]
This could easily have been written after Darwin, but it was written many years before. Darwin explained why the world was as cruel as, in Hume’s observation, it seemed to be. And if Hume didn’t provide the basis for being a fulfilled atheist, then Darwin certainly did. And it is simply a shallow refusal to look and see that allows Mohler to spend so much time in wanton irrelevancies. This man is not to be respected. He is both wrong and foolish.
Jerry Coyne addresses Aikin and Talisse’s post from a completely different angle over at Why Evolution is True. It’s really worth reading. We were doing this independently of each other, but more and more we seem to be on the same wave length. I am pleased to find myself in such exalted company.