December 20, 2007

Nobody likes a smarty pants…

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:55 pm by Chris

Regular readers of this blog, and those who know me well, may very
well have formed the opinion that I’m not a person with a religious
nature. This would be the correct impression. According to the
much-maligned Myers-Brigs test I should have spiritual leanings and I
could, at a pinch, refer to myself as an Epicurean, but realistically
I’m just a plain old unbeliever; an atheist (although I think atheist
correctly means godless rather than without belief).

Now atheism of late has become rather trendy in intellectual
circles. People whom I respect have signs on their personal websites
attesting to their lack of theism, and various intellectual (sometimes
self-appointed) heavyweights have weighed in (heavily) with books and
essays on the matter. There’s even considerable noise being made about
evangelical atheism. Despite my self-professed membership of the
aforementioned group defined by a lack of something (a dubious way to
define a group, as any taxonomist will tell you), I am not about to
join the ranks of the evangelical. Let me share with you my reasons…

I am not all opposed to the notion that a person might like, on
occasion, to have a good think about their own beliefs. I think it’s
more than likely that a reasonable person coming at some existing
belief-sets with a moderate knowledge of science, sociology and world
events could find them a little questionable. Such a person might come
away from their good think with a rather less constrained belief
system of their own; and good for them. I’m not about to rush about
noisily encouraging other people to do likewise, and nor do I
particularly care to know the outcome of such a burst of cogitation,
one way or another.

Anyone whose tastes in life lie even a little outside the mainstream very
rapidly learns that evangelism, be it of God, atheism, vegetarianism,
or Macintoshes, is really tedious. There is nothing more boring that
someone going on at length about something. The capacity to get really
intensely attached to a notion that you simply must persuade others
of seems to go hand in hand with being, well, boring. Evangelism is
boring, and so, by extension, are evangelists. Jessica Alba in a gold
string bikini talking about how great it was being a vegetarian would
be boring (I have no idea if the luscious Jessica is vegetarian or
not, I’m making a point). PZ Myers talking about developmental
biology is fascinating and informative. PZ Myers taking a stick to
religion is nigh-on painful, and I haven’t read his blog in ages
because it’s so unattractive. The Selfish Gene is one of the better general
books on evolution ever written (even if I don’t entirely agree with
the premise), but The God Delusion is a bit silly.

In fact the whole concept of evangelical atheism is, in my humble
opinion, a bit silly. You’d really really like people to believe in,
well, nothing, really… whatever you want, y’know, some sort of
rationalism… it sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Surely the whole
point of loosing your religion is to get rid of it, not replace it
with some other arbitrary set of beliefs that you can proceed to get
worked up about? And please nobody come in talking about scientific
thought, that’s a method, not a belief system. And quite possibly an
oxymoron. And I know enough about it to argue that case until the cows
come home, get milked, and go back out into the paddock. So there.

I’m aware that there a sadly unenlightened parts of the world where
people have to deal with the agendas of self-appointed religious
thinkers on a regular basis. That’s unfortunate, of course, and a huge
drain on resources that would be better spent elsewhere. I don’t have
to deal with the kind of concerted nonsense that scientists get in
those backward countries, but do I teach in biology courses
with a strong evolutionary slant. You can’t actually teach general
biology any other way and do a good job of it, by the way. I’ve never
had a student take exception to that general slant, either because
it’s pretty obviously the unifying theme in at least one course I
teach in (at least the way I teach it), or because they’re keeping
their real opinions quiet.

If that last point is the case, it’s a wise move. I’m an evolutionary
biologist with an interest in social history. If anyone does ever
seriously try to bring up a creationist line of argument with me in my
professional capacity, I’ve got at my disposal the metaphysical
equivalent of a muscle-bound Austrian with a mini-gun and lots of
ammunition; the resulting scene would not be pretty. I have no desire
to create such a scene in general conversation though. It’s not good
dinner-table conversation, that’s for sure. And it’s not an argument I
would particularly enjoy, even though I like arguing, for two reasons:
firstly, like I said, I don’t much care what other people choose to
believe in, as long as they’re prepared to do me the same courtesy;
but mostly because as a wise man (actually it might have been Barbara
Hambly) once said, you should never argue with a drunkard or a
zealot. Neither of them know when they’re beaten. And they’re both

And life is too short for all that.



  1. Casey said,

    Late to the party but let me salute you. I’m with you on the trendy “new atheism” and its evangelical aspect–I roll my eyes when I run into that.I hear much more about religion from one of my atheist relatives than I hear from my Evangelical Christian friend. The difference, of course, is that the former wants to convince me that he’s right, while the latter just wants to live and let live. Not that I haven’t dealt with my share of religious proselytizers and pressure. As a mildly religious person raising an atheist child, I’m trying hard to show my son that he can be open about his atheism and expect others to respect his stance. In very Christian Texas, this isn’t always easy. By the same token, I expect him not to evangelize or generalize about religious people, tempting though it may be.I would love to hear your anti-creationist line of argument, should you care to share it. I get uneasy when people try to blend Genesis with evolution, something I encountered as a student and a teacher. I think that approach misapplies a spiritual myth and muddies science. The weirdest thing I heard was “the Bible tells a story and science proves it.” Yikes.

  2. Chris said,

    Morning, kcb, long time no redneck.There are people who do the anti-creationist gig far better than me. I’m most likely to encounter sadly misguided undergraduates from unenlightened backgrounds, and I know enough to give back fact for every half-truth or outright silliness they might have been told elsewhere. There’s two aspects to it, of course. First is “here is the evidence”, and there are a lot more evidence than most creationists realise. The other angle is the social one: I don’t see any reason for the re-emergence of flat-earth creationism except as a means for people in religious authority to extend their own power. Darwin put the final nails in the lid of The Argument From Design as a serious philosophical premise over 100 years ago, and most proper religious thinkers (as opposed to self-serving bible-thumpers) don’t have an issue with that (my better half’s mother is a trained theologist, for instance, and she’s interested rather than offended by what both I and her daughter spend our time on). To me, the social aspect is the over-riding one in the current climate, and it’s the reason any such debate is likely to turn unpleasant. Telling people “you’ve been told that by someone who wants to manipulate you, as yourself why they want to manipulate you” is not a great way to win friends, especially if that’s someone they look up to or have been taught to respect.

  3. Chris said,

    That should be “ask yourself”.

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